Prepared for St. Herman of Alaska Mission, Surrey, B.C.
By Fr. Lawrence R.Farley
9) “What about Confession?”
One should make an examination of conscience every day, before going to bed, confessing one’s sins to God and receiving His forgiveness. This is our normal daily practice. But as well, if the conscience is especially burdened by some weighty sin and one cannot find peace (or wants the counsel and spiritual advice of the priest about the struggle with sin), one can go to sacramental Confession immediately as well. Though we should have a discipline of regularly going to Confession (every 6 weeks or so, or perhaps during the four fasting seasons of the Church Year), one need not wait until the next regularly “scheduled” Confession, but may go as often as one feels the need.
The best time for Confession is in connection with Great Vespers or Vigil before the Liturgy. (At St. Herman’s, it is most convenient for all if one comes early to Vigil and confesses before the service.) But one may come to Confession at any time. (It is considering poor “etiquette” to come on Sunday morning just before Divine Liturgy, as the priest is usually busy then and will not have the necessary time to confess properly.)
The way to prepare for Confession is as follows: take some time to be alone with the Lord and thoroughly search the heart. Books are available with questions to ask oneself to aid this process of introspection. Some people jot down their sins on a piece of paper and bring this with them to consult during Confession itself; others confess from memory. The method is not important. What is important is the thoroughness and honesty of the search and truly repenting of one’s sins. Note: the feelings attached to this introspection are of no value in themselves. The aim is not to feel bad. The aim is to bring one’s life before the Lord, expressing sorrow and regret and resolving to strive again for holiness.
In coming to Confession, the penitent approaches the priest and faces the icon (at St. Herman’s, we face the large icon of the Cross, kneeling, as it were, at the foot of the Cross of Christ.) The priest places his stole over the head of the penitent, covering him with the mercy of God. He places his arm around the penitent’s shoulder, as in solidarity with a fellow-sinner and prays for God to accept the offered penitence. Then it is time to share with the priest one’s secret sins, uncovered during the prior time of introspection. (Whatever is said to the priest is revealed to no one—and is usually soon forgotten by the priest himself!)
The priest may then offer words of advice. As a therapeutic aid in the on-going struggle against sin, he may impose a penance—usually prostrations—though this is quite rare in Orthodoxy. After this, the priest lays hands on the head of the penitent and prays for God’s forgiveness. The peace of God is poured upon the heart. He stands aright, forgiven and joyful. He kisses the Gospel and Cross before him (if they are kept there), and then the hand of the priest. They exchange the kiss of peace and the penitent departs, a free man in Christ.
10) “What is the proper way to ask for the priest’s blessing?”
In the Slavic tradition, one may ask a blessing from a priest or bishop, though not from a deacon, seminarian or simple monk or one in the so-called “Minor Orders” of Sub-deacon or Reader. (The Greek tradition is more flexible and asks blessings from monks and even seminarians as well.)
One way to ask a blessing is to approach the priest (or bishop), bow from the waist, touching the ground with the right hand, and then cup the hands together, the right hand over the left, saying to the priest “Father, bless!” (or “Master, bless!”, if to a bishop). (One does not then make the Sign of the Cross, for the priest will do this as the blessing.) The priest giving the blessing says a word, invoking the blessing of God (usually “Blessed is our God, always, now and ever and unto ages of ages!”) and makes the Sign of the Cross over the person. He then puts his hand in the offered right hand of the person asking the blessing, who then kisses his hand. The Kiss of Peace is then exchanged on each cheek. (Russians traditionally exchange a triple kiss, Greeks and Antiochians, a double kiss.)
It is in this way that the pious greet their priest when meeting him and take their final leave after a visit.
It is especially good to teach children to ask for a blessing, as a way of involving them in the life of the Church and getting them to know the priest as their friend.
11) “What about making prostrations?”
By “prostration”, we mean here falling to one’s knees and touching the head to the ground and then rising up again. This has been a sign of humility before God and men from time immemorial. Jacob prostrated himself before Esau seven times to show his humility (Gen. 33:3) and this has always been the classic Middle-eastern way of acknowledging another’s greatness or to show sorrow for one’s sin. Small wonder it remains in the worship of the Eastern Orthodox Church!
The believer may make a prostration any time to show submission to God and to express sorrow for sin. However, there are times in the Church Year when joy is the dominant key-note and liturgical expression of sorrow is out of place. Thus the Church, in her canons, forbids making prostrations at Pascha and throughout the Paschal season (i.e. until Ascension). Also, because each Sunday is a “little Pascha”, we are not normally to prostrate on Sundays either. (We may, however, make a deep bow from the waist—such as we do at the “epiclesis” or invocation of the Holy Spirit upon the Bread and Wine in the Liturgy.)
There are, however, certain times in our services where prostrations are especially appropriate and are, in fact, required.
On weekday Liturgies, after the “epiclesis” (mentioned above), because the Holy Spirit comes down on us and upon the Gifts of Bread and Wine to transform them into the Body and Blood of Christ, we make a prostration, acknowledging thereby the Presence of the Lord in the Eucharist.
During services of the Cross, (such as the September 14 Feast of the Elevation, the Third Sunday in Lent and on August 1), the Cross, decorated with flowers, is brought into the midst of the church. After it is placed in the center, we sing the hymn “Before Your Cross, we bow down in worship” and make a triple prostration as we kiss the precious Cross.
At the conclusion of “Forgiveness Sunday Vespers”, at the Ceremony of Mutual Forgiveness, we kiss the Cross displayed in the church and then prostrate to each other, beginning with the priest. We prostrate to each of our neighbours in turn and ask forgiveness, saying “Forgive me, brother! (or sister) and then exchange the Kiss of Peace. In this way, we begin Great Lent by humbling ourselves and making peace with all men.
In Great Lent (when not a Sunday), we make prostrations during the Prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian. This is a beautiful prayer, ascribed to one of the Church’s great poets. We pray as follows:
“O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of laziness, despair, lust of power and idle talk!” (We then make a prostration). “But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience and love to Your servant!” (second prostration) “Yes, O Lord and King! Grant me to see my own sins and not to judge my brother!” (third prostration). We then says twelve times “O God, cleanse me a sinner!” and bow from the waist. Finally, we recite the entire prayer all the way through a second time, with a final prostration at the end.
This Prayer of St. Ephraim is also used twice in the Lenten “Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts”, but it is used there without the twelve-fold “O God, cleanse me a sinner!” and without the final and second repetition.
Also in the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts, we prostrate ourselves when the priest elevates the candle and chants “Wisdom! Let us attend! The Light of Christ illumines all!” We do so again throughout the Great Entrance. At the Great Entrance in the “normal” Divine Liturgy, (while we sing the hymn “Let us who mystically represent the Cherubim”), we of course do not prostrate ourselves, for what is entering our midst is mere Bread and Wine, to be offered at the altar. But at the Presanctified Liturgy, (while we sing the hymn “Now the Powers of heaven with us do serve”), what is brought in is the Presanctified and true Body and Blood of Christ, sanctified on the previous Sunday and reserved until then. That is why we prostrate ourselves as it enters our midst, for It is the true Christ in our midst.
12) “Why are different colours used in church?”
The present scheme of liturgical colours which enrich our services is relatively recent. The old “Typicon”, (the book which gives directions about how the services are to be done), does not mention all the colours used nowadays. Rather, it speaks only of “bright” colours for Pascha and other such joyful times and of “dark” colours, for more sombre times, such as Great Lent.
Nonetheless, it has become customary to use certain colours at certain times. The actual scheme for which colours to use when varies from place to place. But the following is commonly seen.
Gold is the main liturgical colour for most Sundays. It speaks to us of the preciousness of God’s Kingdom.
White is often used for Pascha and for Christmas. It speaks of the purity and joy of Christ. (For this reason, it is also the colour used for funerals, since Christian funerals are occasions for joy, not sorrow, as the Christian, upon dying, goes to the blissful happiness of the Kingdom.)
Blue is used for feasts of the Mother of God. Blue is the colour of the heavens and we believe that the boundless God, dwelling in the womb of Mary, “made her womb more spacious than the heavens”. Therefore we use blue to remind us of Mary and the Incarnation.
Purple (or perhaps black) is used for Great Lent and Holy Week, since it is a sombre colour that speaks of our sorrow for sin.
Green is used for Pentecost (when the church temple is also decorated with greenery). This is because Pentecost is the feast of our life in the Spirit and green symbolizes life and growth.
Red is used for feasts of martyrs and saints, since it is the colour of the blood of martyrdom and of the fire of the Spirit.
Not all churches use all these colours. This is a matter which differs from place to place, according to desire (and availability of funds!) It is not a “capital-T” tradition. But, since we human beings use colours to enrich and beautify the things we love, it is only natural to use them as well in the worship of God. It is one more way to offer the best we have to the Lord.
13) “How do I say prayers at home?”
One should say one’s personal set Rule of Prayer morning and evening. (The priest can help determine a proper and appropriate Rule.) Ideally, they should be said at the same time every day and before the family Icon Corner.
The family Icon Corner can be in any part of the house in which we live, but it is usually found in the living room, facing (if possible) East. (Indeed, according to unwritten Apostolic tradition, all prayers should be said facing East.)
The Icon Corner may be simple or elaborate, according to taste and personal means. It may have many icons or few, arranged in whatever way suits the size and arrangement of the room. It may be in an actual corner or on a flat wall surface. It usually has at least one lamp burning before it, either a candle in a stand or from a hanging lamp. Very often, the Prayerbook, devotional books, incense-burner and supply of Holy Water are stored there, close at hand. One may burn incense in a little incense burner at the beginning of one’s prayer time, if so desired. (One pious custom is to take the portable incense burner—they come equipped with handles—throughout the house, censing the entire dwelling, while singing Tropars or other hymns of the Church.)
In saying one’s personal daily Rule of Prayer, one should always take time to “center down” and be at peace before beginning, blessing oneself with the Sign of the Cross. Prayers are to be said slowly and aloud, attending to their meaning and offering them up reverently. Sometimes, we may make bows or prostrations along with our prayers (especially in Great Lent). After the appointed prayers from the Prayerbook, one should pray as well in one’s own words, conversing with the Lord. The Scriptures also should be read, perhaps the Epistle and Gospel for the day (from the church calendar), or a psalm. One concludes the time of prayer by again making the Sign of the Cross.
As well as one’s private twice-a-day Rule, the Orthodox family will also have corporate family prayers, similar to the above format. It is good to include children in this, though one may wish to adapt the length of the family prayers with the children in mind. In these family prayers especially it is good to sing Tropars and other hymns, so that there is a link between what is sung in Church and the life of the home.
14) “May I bring things to church to be blessed?”
Yes! It is the custom of the Church to bless all things, since the Church is the transfigured cosmos, mystically present even now in this age. Thus the Church blesses rivers, lakes, water (at Theophany). It blesses incense before using it in the services and Church vestments before they are worn. For, according to the prayer the Church prays (as it blesses the Loaves, Wheat, Wine and Oil at the Litya service at Vigil), “You bless and sanctify all things, O Christ our God!” Thus it is quite acceptable and desirable to bring things to church to be blessed by the priest.
The normal time for this would be in connection with the Divine Liturgy, when the Church blesses and sanctifies Bread and Wine and offers the whole cosmos back to God. What is offered should be given to the priest before the service, so that he may place it on the altar. It is usually blessed at the conclusion of the service and then returned to its owner.
What is usually brought to be blessed? Icons for the home “icon corner” are brought (the Greek custom is to leave them on the altar for a number of days; the Slavic custom is to bless them with prayer immediately that day). Some bring their Prayerbooks and prayer-ropes or the small cross worn on the breast. Some bring the Scriptures to be blessed. In theory, anything may be offered to God for reverent use, but it is customary to bring only those things which have a “religious” function. (School text-books and secular jewellery are not usually brought!)
Also, it is customary to bring certain things on certain Feast days. Candles are brought on the February 2 Feast of the Meeting; grapes and fruit on the August 6 Feast of Transfiguration; and flowers on the August 15 Feast of the Dormition.
Further, it is usual to ask the priest come to bless one’s home sometime during the Theophany season beginning January 6. This is a wonderful brief service that should not be omitted. The priest may only be there for a short visit, but the blessing lingers throughout the rest of the year! (At St. Herman’s, the faithful are urged to call the priest to schedule their visit.)
Other things may also be blessed by the priest. Newly-acquired cars are sometimes blessed—as well as bee-hives and cattle! (A remnant of a more rural past.)
These rites of blessing are not a form of “magic”. Rather, they are acts of faith and dedication to the Lord. They are one more way we offer ourselves and all the varied parts of our lives to Him, to be used for His glory.
15) “When should I call the priest to come and visit?”
One may call the priest anytime and as often as one wishes, since the parish priest is one’s spiritual father, confessor and friend, the shepherd who must answer for the souls of his flock on the Last Day (Hebrews 13:17). You should therefore get to know each other very well!
But as well, there are other special times when it is customary to ask the priest to come and pray for you. The priest is usually called after the birth of a child, to invoke God’s blessing as soon as the child is born. He also comes on the 8th day after the birth when the child receives his (or her) name. (Note: after the birth of a child, the new mother enjoys a 40-day “retreat” at home, when she may “opt out” of the hustle and bustle of life and enjoy a time of relaxation and bonding with her new-born child. Her liturgical return to church and to Holy Communion after this is marked by special prayers of blessing.)
The priest is to be called when one moves into a new house, to ask God’s blessing on the dwelling and the new life lived there. (As well, it is customary for the priest to visit each house in the parish every year in the weeks following the Feast of Theophany on January 6.)
The priest is also to be called when one is ill, to anoint and pray for healing.
As well, a special prayer-service (called a “Molieben” or “supplication”) may be offered on other special occasions such as before travelling, or the beginning of a school year, or the New Year, or at special anniversaries.
16) “What about other occasions, like weddings and funerals?”
The Orthodox way is to offer all of one’s life to Christ our God and this includes of course such joyful times as weddings and such sorrowful times as funerals.
Weddings are performed for the Orthodox faithful as the way to sanctify and bless the future married life of the couple, making their union an image and reflection of the union between Christ and His Church and their marriage a manifestation of the Kingdom of God. (Which is why the Marriage Service begins with the exclamation “Blessed is the Kingdom…” rather than the usual “Blessed is our God…”) It presupposes an Orthodox couple and that their life will be lived together within their parish church. For this reason, the priest may not marry people who are not Orthodox—though “by economy”, he may bless a “mixed marriage”, where only one of the partners is an Orthodox Christian, (as long as the non-Orthodox partner is at least a baptized Christian). A marriage between an Orthodox and a non-Christian is not possible in the Orthodox Church. Also, if one of the partners has been divorced or widowed, the blessing of the Bishop for the proposed marriage must be sought and obtained well in advance.
There are certain times when marriages may not be performed: times of fasting and penitence, when we are thinking of our sins and so the joy of marriage is clearly out of place, such as (for example), Saturday evenings, the four fasting seasons of the Church Year, and the Feasts of the Beheading of St. John the Baptizer on August 29 and the Elevation of the Holy Cross on September 14. Marriages also may not be performed during times of special festal joy, when our hearts are focused exclusively on the Lord: times such as the Twelve Great Feasts and their eves, the Christmas season of December 25 to January, Bright Week, following Pascha. That is a lot of exclusions! To be safe and sure, one should consult the priest before setting the actual date!
As for the Wedding itself, one should be aware that Orthodox weddings are not like on T.V.! There is no procession of the bride down the central aisle, no father “giving her away”, no exchange of vows, no multitude of Best Man, Maid of Honour, Ushers, etc., etc. etc. Rather, there are only two sponsors—one for the Groom, and one for the Bride, and both must be adult communicant Orthodox Christians. Rings are exchanged (without vows) at the betrothal and crowns are placed on the bride and groom in the Marriage Service proper. (The Russian tradition is to use golden crowns provided by the Church; the Greek custom is for the bride and groom to provide their own floral crowns, which they then keep as mementos of their wedding. These can be made by any florist.) Since Marriage is a sacrament of the Church, “joint-celebration” in the wedding itself, (involving the liturgical involvement of non-Orthodox), is not possible. Also, any personalization of the Service, (such as Uncle Angus playing the bag-pipes, Aunt Flora singing “The Rose” or the six-year old niece being “Flower Girl”) is out of place—as it is at any Orthodox service. With but a little creativity, however, a place can be found for such things at the Reception following.
There are also certain customs surrounding the more sorrowful rites of dying and the subsequent funeral. When it seems that a loved one is about to die, the priest should be called to say the final prayers and to give the dying his last Holy Communion.
After the death as occurred, it is customary to serve a memorial service (or “Panikhida”) for his repose on the eve of the day of funeral. On the day of the funeral itself, the departed is brought into the Church for the Funeral Service (assuming the departed was an Orthodox; otherwise, it would be more appropriate to have the service at the Funeral Home.)
There are certain characteristics of Orthodox Funerals which may not be encountered elsewhere and one should be prepared for this. The departed lies in an open casket throughout the Service, usually holding an icon in the hand. The faithful may come at the conclusion of the Service to give him (or her) the Last Kiss of final farewell. It is assumed that cremation, (since it is generally forbidden to Orthodox, out of respect for the sanctity of human flesh), will not follow the funeral, but that the dead will be reverently buried. Once again, since it is one of the Rites of the Church, no ecumenical liturgical joint- celebration in the Service itself is possible.
After the death of a loved one, it is customary to remember them in prayer—not only in one’s regular prayers and in the Divine Liturgy, but also by having special Memorial Services for them as desired. This Service (the “Panikhida”) is especially to be served on the 3rd, 9th, and 40th day after their death and every year on the anniversary, but it can also be held mostly any other time as well. Saturday is the most appropriate day of the week for the Memorial Service, since it is the day when the Saviour Himself rested in the tomb. It is a pious custom to bring to this Service a dish of boiled wheat (sweetened with a topping of sugar in the form of a Cross), called “kolyva”, which is shared afterwards as part of a memorial meal.
There are also certain days when Memorials are particularly fitting—days such as the Saturdays of Great Lent (so-called “Soul Saturdays”). The priest will have the complete list of these days, as well as times when a Panikhida may not be served (such as the Christmas season and Holy Week and Bright Week).
The funeral rites of the Church are full of comfort and assurance. The Orthodox Church has never believed in Purgatory, as the medieval Roman Catholic church. Rather, in its prayers for the faithful departed, the Orthodox Church commends her children into the hands of a loving Saviour, “where sickness and sorrow are no more, neither sighing, but life everlasting” (Kontakion for the Departed).
A Final Apostolic Directive:
“Whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offence to Jews or to Greeks or to the Church of God, just as I try to please all men in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved.” 1 Corinthians 10:31-33