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BEHAVIOR IN CHURCH by Rev. David Abramtsov

Introduction by Fr. Andrew Harrison

This article was taken from The Orthodox Companion by the late Fr. David Abramtsov who was the Rector of my family parish of St. Michael's in Philadephia when I was a child. The article has been revised and the biblical quotes have been checked with the New King James Bible. References made to Canon law were revised for clarity.

A word about Canon Law: The book of Canon law is not a book of doctrine but rather a collection of rules concerning issues that the church faced down through the centuries. They were made at the Apostolic councils held in Jerusalem from 34AD to 58AD, at the Seven Ecumenical councils held from 325AD to 788AD and at local councils. They have been changed, revised and some even abandoned. Canon Law has been called the rudder of the Church and just like a rudder on a ship they guide it through stormy seas. The collection of canons quoted in this document reflect problems of behavior in the church which are still valid today. As long as they still guide the church and protect her doctrines they are valid.

BEHAVIOR IN CHURCH

In the Holy Temple we must behave with piety and reverence, for the Lord is here invisibly present with us. "The Lord is near to those who have a broken heart" (Ps. 34:18). In church we must think not of earthly things, but of the Heavenly - "Lift up your hearts!" And the Psalmist David teaches us to: "Give unto the Lord the glory due to His name (Ps. 28:2). God requires us to show respect to holy places and things. When He appeared to Moses in the burning bush, and Moses approached somewhat near, He said to him: "Do not come near; put off your shoes from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground" (Ex. 3:5). Enter into the House of God as if you were entering into Heaven, and leave behind all earthly cares: "Holiness adorns Your House, O Lord" (Ps. 93:5).

We should also show respect for all religious services. It is an offence to God to behave in church laughing, whispering, staring about, lolling, etc. When we are conversing with any one, we give him our whole attention and do not think of other people. When we attend the Liturgy we are in the presence of God, so much more we should fix our thoughts on Him, and for time forget everything else. The Liturgy is the highest and holiest act of worship we can perform and, if we perform it carelessly, we will be without benefit to ourselves. We ought to be very devout at the Liturgy; that is, we ought to banish from our minds all that may cause distraction, and endeavor to unite our supplications to those of the Priest. St. Ambrose says of people who behave badly in church that they come with small sins and go away with great ones. Insults offered to God in His House are more offensive to Him than those offered elsewhere. We ourselves resent most of all rudeness in our own house. We can see how abhorrent to God is inappropriate behavior in church by the way Our Lord treated those that bought and sold in the Temple. He drove them out, saying "My House shall be called the house of prayer, but you have made it a den of thieves" (Matt. 21:13).

The House of God ought to be given the greatest of respect: "Reverence My sanctuary" (Lev. 26:2). Our Savior charged, "Make not the house of My Father's house of trade" (John 2:16). Even on the church grounds one must always remember that God's House is close by. We must watch our outward behavior, our language, for even the ground around a church is consecrated. It does not speak well for persons who curse and use filthy language about the church. We must also behave with decorum at a cemetery for it too is consecrated to God. The Church Fathers admonish that, "Those, who heedlessly turn sacred places into that which is ordinary and behave without discretion around them, and act the same in them, we decree to put them away from them" (VI. Ecumenical. Council #97). We must conduct ourselves honorably in church auditoriums or halls which are located in the basement of some churches. Here too we must avoid vulgar and noisy transactions so as not to commit blasphemy and sacrilege on church property. As to the character of affairs which maybe conducted in such halls it is best to consult the Pastor.

Laymen have no right to enter the Holy Sanctuary without necessity. If there is some real need, one must enter with fear and reverence. If anyone must pass behind the Holy Altar, let him sign himself with the cross and bow his head, for he is passing by the most sacred place in the temple. The 49th Canon of the Sixth Ecumenical Council restricted all Layman including women from entering the Holy Sanctuary. Servers who assist the Priest in the Sanctuary are bound to act with all fear and reverence, remembering that here is the Throne of the Lord. One would not allow himself to chatter and laugh, or even sit down in the presence of an earthly monarch; with how much greater awe and reverence ought we to behave in the presence of Him Who is above all kings and rulers; the Son of the most high God. Servers, therefore, must not speak loudly or carry on freely in the Sanctuary. They should not without necessity walk about, look out the side (Deacon's) doors, etc. They must always be careful not to step too closely to the Holy Doors or the Holy Altar. A layman may not pass between the Altar and Iconostasis.

It is forbidden for any layman to touch the Holy Altar or any sacred vessel. The same respect is due holy things as to holy places. When David was bringing the Ark back to Jerusalem, an Israelite named Oza ventured to lay hold of it. God struck him and he died (2 Kings 6:7). King Uzziah was punished with leprosy because he entered the sanctuary and wanted to burn incense (2 Chron. 26:21).

No one except a Bishop, Priest or Deacon is allowed to enter the Holy Doors, for through them in the Holy Gifts, the King of Glory, Christ Himself enters. Even the sacred ministers who are consecrated to God's service may enter the Holy Doors only during services and when they are vested in their sacerdotal vestments.

It is forbidden for Readers, and all who sing or serve the church to bow to the worshippers in church (Carthage: Canon: #23) those who take the offering in church, and then bow to the people should realize that it is to God that people have made their offerings. The offerings and alms should be collected in the Liturgy while the Litany after the Great Entrance is said. It is here that the Priest prays that our "gifts and spiritual sacrifices" be accepted by the Almighty.

ENTERING THE HOUSE OF GOD

Having entered into the Temple of the Lord, we sign ourselves three times with the cross and make three Metanias (Bows with right hand to the floor) saying at each the Prayer of the Publican: "O God, be merciful to me a sinner!" (Luke 18:13). This prayer is a reminder to us that our behavior in church should resemble that of the Publican. We must flee the haughty and proud attitude assumed by the Pharisee. We ought also to say the Lord's Prayer when we have entered church. By these actions we show our humility before the Lord, our Creator, and that we have come to seek forgiveness for our sins and to do God's Will. The ninth Apostolic Canon condemns those who arrive late and those who leave early as "a cause for confusion to the Church"

After entering the Holy Temple we salute and revere the Icons which are lying on the Analogions (Icon stands) by kissing them. It is an ancient custom to place a lighted candle on the candelabra before the Icons as a token of the warmth and sincerity of our prayer and the purity of our faith. Click Here for information on Why We Light Candles. The lighting of a candle when we enter church is also an offering to God. In ancient times people brought food and alms to church to be distributed among the poor, and offered wine and wheat and oil for the service of the Temple. Today this has been replaced with our monetary offering and the offering of candles. This candle offering also shows that we came into the temple to pray as constantly and brightly as the candles burns before the Icon; it signifies that we wish to be enlightened rather than be in spiritual darkness. Candles are kept burning on the Altar and in front of the Icons, not only during evening services, but during day services as well. They signify that the Lord gives us the light of truth, and that our souls burn with the love of God and are penetrated with feelings of joy and devotion. In accordance with this conception, the lighting of the church is increased during the solemn services of Holydays and decreased during penitential services. The Blessed Jerome remarks that "through out all the churches of the East, when the Gospel is about to be read, tapers are lighted though it be broad daylight, not to scatter the darkness, but as a sign of joy; that under the symbol of bodily light, that Light may be shown forth of which we read in the Psalter, `Thy word, O Lord, is a lantern unto my feet, and a light unto my paths.'" From time to time, devout Christians will not fail to make an offering for the candles to be used in the service of the Altar. It will be a consoling thought for them, when engaged in their daily round of duties, to think that perhaps at that moment the candles for which they have generously defrayed the cost, are burning before the Eucharistic Christ. Pious custom has also established the practice of having candles burned on the Altar for personal intentions, to honor Christ reposing thereon, and to plead for special graces and blessings.

PROPER STANCE AT PRAYER

The most proper stance of worship for Orthodox Christians is standing. Our Lord said: "When you shall stand to pray, if you have anything against anyone forgive him…" (Mark 11.25). The First Ecumenical Council (A.D. 325) in its twentieth canon - prayers on Sunday and during the Paschal season are offered God while standing. Standing at prayer is the expression of our reverence towards the Living God in imitation of the Angels who surround Him in Heaven with pious fear. We stand to honor a great man or a triumphant victor in some contest; so do we stand to honor God. So also on Feast Days do we express the significance and solemnity of the Holyday by the very position of our bodies. The custom of standing at prayer is testified to by the Apostolic Constitutions, the Christian writers and Fathers of the early centuries, including Justin and Tertullian of the second century, and the canons of the Ecumenical Councils (First - Canon: #20; Eighth - Canon: #90). Until recently only the aged and infirm were allowed to sit at certain parts of the services.

In America, however, the custom has developed of sitting during Divine Service. Taking into consideration that this custom has already become deeply rooted in some localities, the Church has allowed its faithful to sit at various parts of the Liturgy.

  1. We stand at the blessing which begins the Liturgy: "Blessed is the Kingdom ..." We may sit for the Great Litany which follows, but stand at the Priest's exclamation at the conclusion of the Litany, and remain standing until after the reading of the Gospel. It is customary in some parishes to sit during the reading of the Epistle.
  2. At the Litany after the Gospel : "Let us say with all our soul …" we sit until the Cherubimic Hymn, unless the Litany for the Dead is said, for which we stand.
  3. At the Litany after the Cheiubimic Hymn: "Let us complete our prayer unto the Lord," we sit until the exclamation at its conclusion at which time we stand and remain standing until the Litany before the "Our Father:"
  4. At the Litany before the "Our Father": "Having commemorated all the Saints …" we sit. We stand for the Lord's Prayer and remain standing until the end of the Liturgy.
  5. We sit for the sermon and announcements.

We do not sit at the following parts of the Liturgy:

  1. When the Priest censes.
  2. When the Gospel is read.
  3. At the Great Entrance.
  4. When the Creed is sung and until the end of "We praise You."
  5. From the exclamation: "With fear of God, and faith and love, draw near," to the very end of the Liturgy.
  6. When the Priest blesses us.

In spite of the fact that kneeling is prohibited in church on Sundays, it is customary in some parishes to do so at the Consecration, when the Choir sings "We praise You, we bless You ..." It is during this hymn that the Priest invokes the Holy Spirit to descend upon the Holy Gifts. This is the most important part of the Liturgy and many are moved to kneel at this moment to express their humility before Almighty God who deigns to perform this Mystery for our salvation. It is customary in many parishes to kneel before receiving Holy Communion during the prayer: "I believe, O Lord, and I confess…"

It is the tradition of the Church that we do not kneel or make Prostrations on certain days of the year:

  1. On all Sundays of the year.
  2. From Pascha through Pentecost.
  3. From Christmas though Theophany.
  4. On the solemn Holydays of Our Lord except the Elevation of the Cross when the Holy Cross is venerated.
  5. During the day in which Holy Communion was received.

Kneeling is a sign of penance and sorrow. We ought not to be sorrowful on days commemorating the events which worked our salvation. By His Birth and glorious Resurrection Jesus Christ deified us, made us His true sons, or, as the Apostle Paul says: "So through God you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son then an heir" (Gal. 4:7). Peter the Patriarch of Alexandria said: "We spend the Resurrection Day (Sunday) as a day of joy; for the sake of Him who arose on that day."

At the Liturgy on weekdays, Prostrations (Kneeling with the head to the floor) are directed after "We praise Thee...", after "It is truly meet...", at the "Our Father," at the invitation to Communion when the Chalice is brought forth with the words "With fear of God...", and when it is last shown with the words, "Always, now and ever..."

There are many prayerful gestures used at prayer, but for the most part, Orthodox Christians stand at prayer with their hands placed upon their breast, the right palm crossed over the left. This signifies that our prayer is inward, coming from the heart, that we are endeavoring to worship God in spirit and in truth. Holding our hands thus also signifies that we are fettered and bound by our sins and helpless without God's help. We pray with our eyes cast down after the example of the humble Publican (Luke 18:13). The rubrics for Matins of the first day of the Great Fast, have these directions for us to heed: "We ought to listen to what is spoken by the Psalm-reader, having our hands bent to our breast, our heads bowed and casting our eyes down, looking with the eyes of our heart toward the East and in this manner pray for our sins, being mindful of death, and the coming sufferings, and life everlasting."

WHEN TO MAKE THE SIGN OF THE CROSS

It is the pious custom of devout people to trace upon themselves the Sign of the Cross at all the important parts of the Liturgy and even at every exclamation and petition of the celebrants. There are, however, specific moments when one ought to make the Sign of the Cross:

  1. At the beginning and end of prayers and services.
  2. Upon entering church and leaving it.
  3. At the mention of the All-holy Trinity.
  4. At the words: "Come let us worship and fall down …
  5. When the Priest comes forth with the Holy Gifts.
  6. When the Priest blesses us with the Holy Gospel, the Chalice, the Cross, or an Icon.
  7. At any prayerful invocation of God.

There are certain times in the services when worshippers ought only to bow their heads without the Sign of the Cross:

  1. When the Priest exclaims: "Peace be to all!"
  2. At the exclamation, "Bow your heads unto the Lord!"
  3. When the Priest blesses the Faithful with his hand.
  4. When the celebrant censes the people with the Censer.
  5. When the celebrant bows towards the people during services.
  6. When the Holy Gospel is read.
  7. During the Great Entrance.

In Paschal Week, when the Priest censes the people with the Triple-candlestick and Holy Cross in his hand, and says: "Christ is Risen!" the people in church make the Sign of the Cross and respond: "Truly He is Risen!"

Just as we tip our hats and bless ourselves whenever we pass by an Orthodox church, so do we pause for a moment, sign ourselves with the Cross and bow towards the Holy Altar whenever we must pass in front of the Holy Doors of the Iconostasis -- before us is the most sacred place in the church, the Throne of God.

When venerating the Holy Cross, or an Icon, or Relics or the Holy Gospel, we first make two Metanias (Bows with right hand to the floor) and kiss the sacred object; we then make a third Metania and quietly step aside. When venerating the Holy Epitaphion (Winding-sheet) on Good Friday, we do the same, except that instead of Metanias, we make Prostrations (kneeling with head to the floor). In kissing Icons, it is proper to kiss the feet of Our Lord, the hand of the Theotokos and other Saints. When only the head is depicted, we kiss the hair. Of a Crucifix always kiss the feet, or the lower cross bar of the Cross. To avoid the soiling of Icons and other sacred objects such as the Communion Spoon, girls ought to remove lipstick or gloss, or blot it well, before coming to church.

Click Here for information on Why and How We Make the Sign of the Cross.