ON SUNDAYS AND HOLY-DAYS we ought to spend a part of the day in church assisting at the Liturgy and other services. It would be well for us, moreover, to follow the example of those first Christians, who “continued daily with one accord in the Temple” (Acts 2:46), and attend weekday services as well. To hear the Liturgy on week-days, if possible, is a highly commendable practice, for it may be the means of acquiring the greatest graces. However, every Orthodox Catholic [catholic does not refer to Roman Catholic] is bound to hear the whole of one Liturgy every Sunday and on great Feasts. Those may be excused from this rule of the Church who through sickness cannot go, or who live at too great a distance to go in bad weather.
A king once observed that on a stormy winter morning the church was almost empty, whereas in the evening, though the snow was falling heavily, the theatre was crowded. “Alas,” he exclaimed, “people are ready enough to make sacrifices for pleasure, but for God they will make none.” Those, again, are excused from attendance at Liturgy who have works of mercy to perform, such as nursing the sick, taking care of young children, etc. It is a law of the Church that those who absent themselves from worship three consecutive Sundays without serious reason are to be excommunicated (Council of Trullo, Canon 80). The first positive church legislation on this subject is the decree of the Council of Elvira in the year 306: “If anyone remains three Sundays in a city without going to church, he shall be deprived of communion for a time” (Can. 21). [of course, in our own day, many do not receive Holy Communion regularly, so such a grievous state of being denied Holy Communion is utterly lost on them. Editor’s note].
We must understand with our whole being that we do not go to church because we are compelled, but to satisfy the spiritual need of our soul, and because of our fervent love for God. We do because we love to worship God in His Holy House: “O Lord, I have loved the beauty of Thy House, and the place where Thy glory dwelleth” (Ps.25:8). We go to church because of the comfort and joy we receive from praying there: “I will go in to the Altar of God: to God who giveth joy to my youth” (Ps. 42:4). We attend Liturgy because we know how potent is the prayer of an assembled multitude; for where two or three are gathered together in Christ’s Name, there is He in the midst of them (Matt. 18:20). We go to worship God together with the whole Family of God, together with all the member of Christ’s Body. We go to receive God’s grace, to be enlightened, to be cleansed and elevated. [We go to assemble as the Church Herself, to offer to God ourselves, and to receive His Holy Body and Blood in return and be united with Him in a union beyond blessed].
Since the house of God—the church—is the house of prayer (Matt. 21:13), it is the place especially set apart for prayer. Petitions offered in a church have greater force because the place is consecrated, and we can also pray with more devotion because our surroundings are an aid to recollection, and we can put aside our daily cares. Our prayer in church is called common or public prayer and many are its advantages. It promotes brotherhood and moral equality; it tends to stir up stagnant souls through fellowship with actively devout persons; it gathers together the Faithful to hear the Word of God expounded by expert interpreters; and it broadens our horizon as can no other type of prayer.
When preparing to go to church, especially to the Divine Liturgy, we must first make peace with those who have anything against us. We must ask the pardon of all whom we have harmed or angered. If it be impractical or impossible to see such people personally we must do so in spirit. Jesus Christ Himself told us: “If you are offering your gift at the Altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the Altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Matt. 5:23-24; Mark 11:25).
People who attend Liturgy and go through the motions of prayer while at the same time harbour bad feelings in their hearts towards others are simply hypocrites and liars. With their lips they pray, “Our Father, Thy will be done; forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors,” while their debtors have not been forgiven! Some appear very devout in church, they cross themselves, but all the while their thoughts are of revenge and full of hatred. God is truth itself (John 3:33) and must be worshipped in truth (John 4:24). Our Lord says: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No man cometh to the Father, but by me” (John 14:6). By the lips of the Prophet Hosiah (6:6) the Lord said: “I desire mercy and not sacrifice.” …
Besides preparing ourselves inwardly, spiritually, when we go to be in the Lord’s presence we must be prepared exteriorly as well. Our bodies should be cleansed, our hair combed, our shoes polished. Our dress should be neat and clean, and we should put on better things than those we wear daily—we are going to the Lord! We do not want to be asked: “How did you get in here without a wedding garment?” (Matt.22:12). However we must not come to Liturgy dressed to excess and strive to be in the height of the fashion. St. John Chrysostom spoke severely to women who came to Liturgy to attract attention and show off their fine clothes…It is an ancient custom of the Church that men pray with their heads uncovered while women pray with their heads veiled, that is, wear hats (1 Cor. 11:4-6). In general, we must remember that he who stands well in God’s sight has no need of choice and costly apparel. Good and holy people have generally dressed in a simple, quiet manner.
It is an ancient custom of the Church to attend Divine Liturgy without having eaten. Even today this custom is widely practiced. This is a fast for the Lord, a liturgical fast. The Apostles “prayed with fasting” (Acts 14:22). Mere fasting is not in itself pleasing to God (Luke 18:12), but when performed in obedience to Christ’s Church, it means self-denial and the following of Christ (Matt. 4:2; Luke 9:23), it brings the body into subjection (1 Cor. 9:27; Gal. 5:24), and prepares the soul for the grace of the Holy Spirit (Acts 13:2-3). St. Ambrose called fasting “the death of sin, the root of grace, and the foundation of chastity.” Children and the infirm are not expected to keep this fast. The Ninth Apostolic Canon forbids us to arrive late at Divine Service or to leave before the end (The Dismissal). Persons who do so, according to this canon, are “a cause of confusion to the Church.”
Moreover one must be present inside the church; it is sinful to sit or stand outside, unless the church should be so overcrowded that it is impossible to get inside. How wicked is the practice of those who stand outside the church smoking during the Holy Liturgy or leave the church when
the Priest is to give the sermon— what disrespect this is to Christ! St. John the Almsgiver, Patriarch of Alexandria in the seventh century, put a stop to the bad habit his flock had contracted of remaining outside during the Liturgy. One Sunday, instead of vesting for the Liturgy, he went out and sat with the people outside the church, to their great astonishment. “Where the sheep are, there the shepherd must be,” he observed. “While you stay here, I shall do the same; if you go in, I will go too.” After this rebuke no one was to be seen outside the church during the Liturgy.
At the first Liturgy, the Last Supper, before Our Lord and His Apostles went out to mount Olivet, they sang a hymn (Matt. 26:30). At every celebration of the Divine Liturgy since that day, vocal music has been an integral part of the holy sacrifice. The Church underlines with gratitude the labors of the singers and prays for them at every Liturgy. How important it is for them to come to church on time, in order that they may respond to the Priest’s first petitions, that “all things may be done properly and in order” (1 Cor. 14:40).…
(excerpts from The Orthodox Companion, by Rev. David F. Abramtsov)