Liturgical Traditions: Questions Asked by Catechumens about Orthodox Worship (Part I)

What is the proper way to use church rules and liturgical traditions? First of all, by recognizing that the Christian Faith is not a religion of rules and regulations and that rules can never give life. The rules are not ends in themselves; they are aids to bring us closer to our Lord Jesus Christ, who alone can give us life. Our focus should never be on the rules alone; it must always be on our relationship with the Lord. Our keeping of the rules must be subordinated to this final goal of serving and loving Him.
Fr. Lawrence R. Farley | 24 September 2008




Prepared for St. Herman of Alaska Mission, Surrey, B.C


On many bottles containing medicine, it is customary to affix a Warning Label, telling the person how and when to take the medicine inside. This is done because if we take the medicine improperly, at the wrong time or in the incorrect amount, it can do us harm and not good and, in fact, can even be lethal.


It is the same with rules and traditions in the Church. Like earthly medicine, church rules are good and can promote health, but only if used properly. Though good in themselves, they can make us spiritually sick if improperly used, and can even be lethal.


What is the proper way to use church rules and liturgical traditions? First of all, by recognizing that the Christian Faith is not a religion of rules and regulations and that rules can never give life. The rules are not ends in themselves; they are aids to bring us closer to our Lord Jesus Christ, who alone can give us life. Our focus should never be on the rules alone; it must always be on our relationship with the Lord. Our keeping of the rules must be subordinated to this final goal of serving and loving Him.


Secondly, we should not think that the rules are immutable and absolute or that they should never be broken under any circumstances. We should indeed always strive to keep the rules and local customs, because that is the way of humility. To think of oneself as more spiritual than one’s brethren and thus exempt from the rules which govern them, is prideful, and this sort of spiritual pride is found only in the way of death. So we should strive to conform to the usages of the fellow family-members in the Body of Christ. Nevertheless, keeping the rules is not the goal; loving God and one’s neighbour is the goal. The rules are only there to help us accomplish this and this sometimes means that we must break the “letter” of the rule in order to keep its true “spirit”. This was clearly seen by the spiritual Masters we call “the Desert Fathers”. Though they kept the fast quite rigorously, they would break it without hesitation in order to keep the greater demands of charity, eating meat with an unexpected visitor, for instance, even though it was a day on which meat was not ordinarily to be eaten.


Finally, we should never under any circumstances judge our brother if he does not keep the rules as we do. To do this makes us Pharisees, not true Christians and dishonours our Lord. “For this reason,” says St. Paul, quoting the Prophet Isaiah, “the Name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you” (Romans 2:24). All of our rules, customs and usages are to promote devotion to God and love for one another. If we fail in this, we fail in all. “The purpose of the commandment,” writes St. Paul, “is love from a pure heart” (1 Tim.1:5). The following traditions, rules and customs are given to us by the Church for no other purpose but to achieve this end. If we keep them properly, in this way, they will not prove harmful but good, to our ultimate benefit and to the greater glory of God.


1) “How should one dress for Church? Should women wear a veil?”


Standards of appropriate dress for Church differ from place to place, reflecting, to some degree, country of origin and age of the parishioners. Certainly all dress should be modest and clean.


A modern view is that standards of dress does not matter at all—that because “God looks upon the inner heart of man” (which He does), therefore the outer vesture has no significance. The problem with this view is that the outer is always a reflection of inner. This is why one dresses “up” for important occasions (such as job interviews and dates). How much more then, should one take care to dress appropriately to commune with the King of Heaven!


In fact, how one dresses is a part of one’s inner and spiritual preparation to come to worship—a continuation of the process that begins with attending Saturday Vigil and saying preparation prayers the evening before. The priest’s liturgical dress is a part of his inner preparation to celebrate the Mysteries (thus he prays certain prayers as he puts on each piece of clothing) and in the same way, our dressing should be a part of our preparation. Thus it was in the ancient church: indeed, it was commented by the Emperor Julian that the Christians always put on their best clothes to worship God!


Regarding the womanly use of the veil, once again, practices differ from place to place. Prior to the middle of this 20th century, the feminine head-covering was universal, as a sign of submission to God and of proper domestic order. (It still is the majority practice in Orthodoxy outside North America.)


Now however it is not universally required. (It would seem that the Roman Catholics after Vatican 2 received permission to abandon the veil and the Orthodox and Protestants followed suit as well!)


St. Paul, of course, reflecting the cultural practice of his day, mandated its use (in 1 Corinthians 11). In that time, an unveiled woman was making a statement about her rejection of her husband’s authority and so the Apostle required all Christian women to be veiled. In our culture, feminine head-coverings no longer have this significance and so many pious women attend worship without a veil. This (at St. Herman’s parish) is completely acceptable.


There is, however, another option. Many other women (at St. Herman’s and in other mission parishes) see the veil as a way of rejoicing in their femininity. They wear the veil, not because it is required, but because they want to. For them, it is a sign that they, as women, are different from the men; and that this difference is good. In this way, the use of the veil is a part of the emerging Orthodox Christian counter-culture, an alternative to the unisex secularism of the dominant culture surrounding us.


The decision to wear a veil or not is a personal one, to be made only by the women themselves. One should make one’s decision and rejoice in it, always being careful not to judge one’s sisters who make a different choice.


2) “What do I do when I first enter the church temple?”


First of all, one should take care not to be late for the service. Rushing into the temple after the service has begun shows a lack of respect for the Lord. We would take care not to be late for an audience with an earthly King—or even for work or school. How much more should we not be late for our weekly meeting with our heavenly King! In fact, not only should we not be late, we should take care to be early! This will give us the required time to “center” ourselves, to find the inner peace and preparation we need to bring ourselves into the presence God.


As soon as we enter the church temple, we make the Sign of the Cross, acknowledging the holiness of the place set apart for the worship of Christ. (Some will also make a low bow from the waist.) As we enter this holy place, we are reminded that this is not the time to chat or to greet our fellows; rather, we should immediately focus our hearts on the Lord. (We may greet our neighbours by a silent nod and a smile.)


Proceeding to the icon-stand in the middle of the church, we come to the icon of the church’s patron saint there and kiss the icon. In this way, we greet our heavenly patron (or honour the Lord or His Mother whose Feast it is, if the icon on the stand is a festal icon). The way to venerate any icon is like this: we twice make the Sign of the Cross and bow from waist, then make the Sign of the Cross again and venerate the icon by kissing it. (If it is an icon of the Lord, we kiss His feet; if of the Theotokos, we kiss the Lord’s feet and then her hand; if of a saint, we kiss his hand or the Gospel he holds.) We then make the Sign of the Cross and bow from the waist the third time.


After venerating the icon in the middle, we may proceed to the iconstas (icon-screen) at the front. Once again, we venerate the icons on the iconstas (using the same ritual gestures as before). After greeting the heavenly Church in this manner, we may greet the earthly Church, our fellow-worshippers, by bowing to the assembled faithful.


Next, it is customary to light a candle. We go to the candle-stand, select as many candles as we wish (they are available for a small charge to cover the cost), pray silently to the Lord and then plant the candle before the icon there. The burning candle symbolizes our prayer, which continues to ascend to the throne of God and gives light to the darkened world.


Finally, we take our place in the nave (the main part of the church) and stand in prayerful readiness, waiting for the service to start. In this way, we will have gathered our attention and prepared our hearts to worship the King.

We normally stand throughout the service for worship and prayer. If fatigued (the legs of the convert are usually the last part of the body to become Orthodox!) one may sit. But certainly one should stand for the opening exclamation “Blessed is the Kingdom…”, for the Little Entrance, the Trisagion, the Gospel, the Cherubic Hymn (when we “lay aside all earthly cares”) and the Creed, the Anaphora (after the Deacon says “Let us stand aright!”) and whenever the priest censes or blesses us.


3) “May I take a new name when I am baptized or chrismated?”


Yes! It is an old and pious custom to take the name of Saint when one is thus received into the Church and this is something that can be done if desired. Normally, one would then be called by that name at all other times as well—and not just when in church. (Sometimes this is not advisable, such as when one is in a “mixed” marriage to a non-Orthodox partner. In that case, one would be called by one’s new “Saint’s” name while in Church, and by the older “secular” name at other times.)


When one chooses a patron saint in this way (in close consultation with the priest, who actually bestows the desired name), one then has a special relationship with that Saint. The Saint’s feast-day is kept as one’s own “Namesday”, in much the same way as birthdays are celebrated in non-Orthodox cultures.


(For example, if one’s Orthodox name was “Lawrence” and one’s patron saint “St. Lawrence of Rome”, one’s Namesday would be the feast-day of St. Lawrence on August 10.)


The new name is actually bestowed by the Church during the Service of Baptism or Chrismation. During that Service, one will stand with the two Sponsors chosen for that purpose. The Sponsors will both be mature Orthodox Christians, who form the link between the newly-received and the church community. (It is customary to have both a man and a woman as sponsors.) The Sponsors’ responsibility is to pray for their new “godchild”, to keep in touch on the Namesday and to be available to provide on-going Christian encouragement and support. They also usually provide a gift of the baptismal cross given in the Service.


4) “How and when should I make the Sign of the Cross?”


In answering this question, it must be first understood that, because the Christian life is not governed by a legalistic spirit, it is not a sin or mistake to “make the Sign of the Cross at the ‘wrong’ time”. If one makes the Sign of the Cross in love and faith, to honour the Lord, it can never be wrong!


One may bless oneself by making the Sign of the Cross any time. Indeed, the faithful often use the Sign of the Cross throughout the day, such as when beginning a journey or commencing any good work. It is used to bless one’s food at meal-time, and to ask God’s blessing upon loved ones at bed-time. It is piously used upon hearing of any disaster, as we ask for God’s mercy on those in need.


It is, of course, also used at certain times in the liturgical services of the Church. In this matter, different jurisdictions have somewhat different customs: the Greeks and Antiochians, for example, make the Sign of the Cross when the priest censes them, while the Russians do not, but simply bow. These are local customs, not Gospel precepts or dogmas.


What follows, therefore, is one way of honouring Christ in the services by making the Sign of His Cross.


The Sign of the Cross is made, in the Eastern Church, in the following way: one joins one’s thumb to the first and second fingertips, folding the fourth and little finger down upon the palm of the hand. One then touches one’s forehead, breast, right and then left shoulder, saying “In the Name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.”


As for when the Sign is made in the Church’s services, a great variety of practice may be observed. Often people will make the Sign whenever a particular petition or prayer moves them—old men, for example, may bless themselves with the Sign whenever the petition for “a Christian ending to our life, painless, blameless and peaceful” is chanted. But as well as this kind of personal choice of moments to use the Sign, other moments are customary and wide-spread.


The Sign of the Cross is to be made:

-whenever one enters or leaves the Church Temple;

-whenever one crosses the Temple, passing before the Royal Doors;

-at each singing of “Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia, glory to You,

O God!” at the conclusion of sets of psalms;

-at every ascription of praise to the Trinity at the conclusion of prayers, (such as, “… and to You we ascribe glory, to the Father, and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit…”)

-at Vespers and Matins, when we sing in the Evening Prayer and in the Great Doxology “Blessed are You, O Lord, teach me Your statutes”;

-at the Trisagion Prayer, (each time we sing “Holy God, holy Mighty, holy Immortal…”);

-at the reference to each of the Persons of the Godhead in the Creed (i.e. at “I believe in one God, the Father Almighty”, at “in one Lord, Jesus Christ” and at “in the Holy Spirit”);

It is also customary to bless oneself with the Sign of the Cross before and after holy acts, such as kissing icons or other holy objects.

In this, as in all things, it is of great importance to do all to the honour of Jesus Christ and steadfastly refuse to judge one’s neighbour should he choose a different way of honouring the Lord. The Sign of the Cross is given to us from apostolic times as a great blessing—we should not let it become an occasion of contentious legalism but rather use it in love and rejoice in the Lord’s love for us. For it was this love which led Him to the Cross, to die for us and claim all of us for His own.

5) “When does the priest use incense in the Liturgy and what do I do when he censes me?”


The use of incense goes back to the early church, a universal practice that the Church borrowed from secular civic functions—as the secular Imperial court honoured the King and his ministers by burning incense before them, so the Church honoured God, the King of Heaven and His heavenly Court of the Saints, by also offering incense.


Thus today, the priest begins the Divine Liturgy by offering incense. Adding incense to the censer, he prays “We offer You incense, O Christ our God, for an odour of spiritual fragrance. Receive it upon Your heavenly altar and send down upon us in return the grace of Your all-holy Spirit.” He then censes the Altar Table, then the Table of Oblation (in the corner, where the Gifts of Bread and Wine are prepared for the service), and then the rest of the altar area. He then censes the icons on the iconostas.


Then he censes the people, the living icons of Christ. In response, the people do not cross themselves, but rise (if they are sitting) and bow slightly in thanksgiving for the incense. (This is our Slavic tradition; the Greeks and Antiochians make the Sign of the Cross here.) The priest then goes throughout the church temple, censing the icons on the walls. (The people do not cross themselves or bow as he passes, since he is not now censing them, but rather the icons. (In temples where the absence of all pews allows this, the people move a bit into the center of the church to let the priest pass by along the edge of the interior.) The priest concludes the opening offering of incense by censing once again the Royal Doors and the icons of the Saviour and the Theotokos, returning finally to the altar.


During the Liturgy, the priest again censes the people, first of all as a preparation for reading the Gospel and a second time later on, at the Cherubic Hymn, as a preparation for their reception of the Holy Gifts. (As before, the people respond by rising and bowing slightly as the priest censes them.)

This response of the people is part of the on-going inter-action and liturgical dialogue between the priest and his flock. This response binds them all together as they offer the one Sacrifice of praise in the Holy Eucharist.


6) “How often should I receive Holy Communion and how should I prepare myself?”


A baptized and chrismated Orthodox Christian should receive Holy Communion every time he attends the Divine Liturgy. This is what the Church, in her Liturgy, orders him to do. For the Deacon (or Priest), immediately after the Communion of the clergy, comes forth with the Chalice and says to all the faithful, “In the fear of God and with faith and love, draw near!” In saying this, he is expressing the Church’s liturgical and Traditional expectation and demand that all the attending faithful will draw near and receive Holy Communion. (This presupposes, of course, that one is not under any excommunicating penance and that one has prepared oneself in the proper way.)


This is how one should prepare oneself to receive this precious Gift. On the previous evening, if possible, one should attend the service of Great Vespers or Vigil. If one cannot attend this service, one should spend the time as quietly and prayerfully as possible—certainly going to a party is not the way to prepare!


From midnight, the adult communicant should eat or drink nothing. (Sometimes one may have an “economy” or dispensation to drink a little water if one has a special reason—such as singing in the Choir.) Also, the married Orthodox couple are expected to fast conjugally and not come together the night before receiving Holy Communion. (Obviously this presupposes that both the spouses are Orthodox and are of one mind in this delicate matter.)


Also, one should say the appointed pre-Communion Preparation prayers, according to one’s own rule. These prayers are available in any Orthodox Prayerbook. One need not say all the prayers there. The priest can help determine how many and which ones to say. The number of prayers is less important than the spirit in which they are said. They should, like all prayers, be said slowly and intently, concentrating on the meaning and offering them to the Lord.


Finally, one should come in humility, penitence and peace. We come in humility, knowing we are not and never can be worthy of the Gift of Holy Communion. Rather, the Lord feeds us with His Divine Body and Blood precisely because we are not worthy and in order to make us worthy. We come in penitence, sorrowing for our sins and trusting in His invincible mercy and compassion for us. We come in peace, having forgiven everyone who has sinned against us, hurt us or vexed us. For if we do not forgive them, we can have no forgiveness ourselves and will eat and drink, not salvation, but rather condemnation.


We can then approach the Divine Chalice fully prepared to receive the Holy Mysteries. Standing in line with our brothers and sisters, we fold our hands over our breast (left arm over right), praying with peace and joy in our heart, and so receive our Lord. (We do not make the Sign of the Cross either before or after immediately receiving Holy Communion, as the Divine Gifts are Themselves the true Blessing and need not be “supplemented” by any additional blessing ourselves with the Sign of the Cross.) After receiving the Body and Blood of the Lord, those holding the Communion cloth should wipe the lips of the communicant; if they do not, one should do it oneself.


Regarding the sacrament of Confession: it is not necessary (at St. Herman’s) to come to confession before the priest each week before receiving Holy Communion. Rather, one should come to confess according to one’s need and rule (usually every 6 weeks or so). The practice of Confession is indeed part of one’s ongoing spiritual discipline, but it is not tied to each reception of Holy Communion. (In places where the faithful receive Communion only a few times a year, it is indeed the rule to precede this infrequent Communion with Confession.)


All of the above presupposes the normal adult communicant. Young children do not fast; nor do the very old and infirm; nor do pregnant women; nor do the sick. (If in doubt about whether or not to fast, consult the priest.)


7) “How do I receive the Antidoran at the end of the Liturgy?”


The Antidoran (or Evlogia, as it is called in some churches) is the Blessed Bread that the priest distributes at the end of the Service, when one comes to venerate the Cross and receive his blessing.


For every Divine Liturgy, 5 small loaves (called “prosphora” or “offerings”) are offered at a short service before the Liturgy, called the “proskomedia” (or “preparation”). One of these loaves is used for the “Lamb” which will be sanctified for the Holy Communion. Particles are removed from the remaining 4 prosphoras, as saints and faithful are commemorated by the priest during the Proskomedia. It is the remaining Bread from this service that is received after the Divine Liturgy as “Antidoran”.(The term “antidoran” means “instead of the (Eucharistic) Gifts”, since in situations where the faithful do not receive Holy Communion, this functioned as a substitute.) This (non-Eucharistic) blessed bread is received by the Orthodox communicants immediately after Communion (along with a sip of unconsecrated wine). It serves as a “cover” for the Eucharistic Gifts, to “wash Them down”. At St. Herman’s, Antidoran is also received again at the conclusion of the Liturgy, when all go up to venerate the Cross held by the priest and to receive his blessing. It is received by all those present (even the non-Orthodox) as a token of the love and bounty of God and as a sign of fellowship in Christ.


The proper way to receive this gift from the priest is as follows: the one receiving Antidoran puts his right hand over his left, the cupped palms held face up. The Antidoran is placed reverently in the hand (it is a pious custom sometimes followed for the one receiving to bend down and kiss the priest’s hand as he places the antidoran in the hand). One then eats the bread from one’s hand. Receiving the Antidoran in this way assures that it does not fall on the floor by accident.


8) “When am I supposed to fast?”


The Church prescribes an absolute fast (no eating or drinking at all) from midnight onwards, for those who plan to receive Holy Communion at the Liturgy the next morning.


As well, there are certain periods in the Church Year when there is a fast of abstinence from certain foods, basically of meat (which includes chicken), fish and dairy (which includes milk, eggs and cheese). These fasts are observed from midnight to midnight (that it, a Wednesday fast, for example, would begin at Wednesday midnight and end at Thursday midnight).


We abstain from meat, fish and dairy on most Wednesdays and Fridays of the year.


We also abstain during the four fasting seasons: during Great Lent (a fast of 40-plus days preceding Pascha), the Apostles’ Fast (of variable length, leading up to the Feast of the Apostles Peter and Paul on June 29), the Dormition Fast (during the first two weeks of August, leading up to the Feast of the Dormition on August 15) and the Nativity Fast (the 40 days preceding Christmas and beginning November 15). During these fasting seasons, the married faithful are urged to fast conjugally as well (assuming, of course, that both partners are committed Orthodox Christians).


As well, there are certain other fast days when a strictly Lenten diet is observed, such as the Elevation of the Holy Cross on September 14, the Theophany eve (January 5), the Beheading of St. John the Baptizer (August 29).


Further, we do not eat or drink at all until after sundown on Great and Holy Friday.


That’s a lot of fasting! But it is mitigated somewhat. During certain days in the Apostles’ Fast and the Nativity Fast, fish is allowed. Also, even in Great Lent, fish is allowed at Annunciation (March 25) and on Palm Sunday. And all fasting is suspended from Christmas to Theophany eve, for the week following the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee (before Great Lent), for the entire Paschal season (i.e. from Pascha to Ascension) and for the week following Pentecost.


These are the basic rules and they are set as the goal to be attained. Obviously, certain persons are exempt from the full rigour of the rule: children and the very old or infirm, pregnant women and nursing mothers as well as those with a medical condition which would preclude the full fasting discipline. When in doubt, one should consult the priest.


Also, it should be noted that these rules presuppose an Orthodox Christian environment. Persons who live in other environments—for example, one who lives with a non-Orthodox spouse, or who lives at home where the rest of the family is not Orthodox—would be wise not to force their own fasting discipline on others. The spiritual benefit of fasting comes from it being personally and freely chosen, and so the non-Orthodox members of the family who are forced to fast would derive no real benefit. Indeed, they may come to resent the Orthodox member—and the Orthodox Faith! Sensitivity and spiritual discernment are necessary in determining how much to fast in this environment.


In a truly Orthodox environment such as the parish Church, it is of course otherwise. There we may strive for fidelity to the rule. All persons are urged to bring food to the after-Liturgy Coffee Hour and we are reminded to bring food in conformity with the fasting calendar (for example, no meat on a fast day).


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