Worshiping God with Our Whole Bodies
In the Orthodox Christian tradition we engage our entire beings – body, mind, and spirit – as a part of our worship. Orthodox worship is chanted. Incense is offered up. Orthodox worship engages all the senses.
Candles. Candles on the altar and in front of icons were originally used solely for illumination, but they also represent the offering of prayer. For this reason, individuals and families can light their own candles and place them before the iconostasis to symbolize their prayers for friends and family.
Icons. In the Orthodox Church icons adorn our worship spaces (and our home prayer corners). Icons are venerated as windows that open to the spiritual world. They may depict saints, Jesus Christ, or scenes from the Scriptures.
You may see Orthodox Christians crossing themselves, performing reverences, and kissing icons. These actions are sometimes misinterpreted by outsiders as idolatrous worship. However, Orthodox Christians do not worship the icons by these actions, but rather worship God; the Holy Spirit makes Christ present in the body of Christ, the Church. The images of the saints depict how the Church is not a building, but the body of Christ, and each individual, transformed by holiness, is a member of that body.
Incense. Lord, I cry out to You; Make haste to me! Give ear to my voice when I cry out to You. Let my prayer be set before You as incense, the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice.
(Psalm 140/141:1-2, NKJV)
We offer up incense during our worship as a sweet smelling gift to God and as a sign of our prayers rising up toward God. This practice follows a tradition that the Early Church received from the Jewish Temple practices of the daily incense offerings. In the New Testament, the book of Revelation describes the prayers of the saints as rising up before God accompanied with incense from the hand of an angel (Revelation 8:3-4).
You will see a deacon or the priest use a censer that releases a cloud of incense as part of the reverencing of the altar, the icons, and every person in Church, both members and visitors. When the priest approaches you during the service with the censer in hand, he may bow to you and swing the censer toward you as part of a blessing. The traditional response is to bow in response to the priest. You can also cross yourself, invoking a further blessing upon yourself.
Orthodox Christians often also use incense at home as a part of their daily prayer practice.
Bells (and other sounds). The censer is lined with bells that ring each time it is used. Also many Orthodox Christian parishes with their own buildings will have bells which are rung at the beginning and various points throughout the services.
In our parish during the prayer of the Anaphora you will also hear the priest tap the brass, cross-shaped “asterisk,” which covers the Eucharistic bread, against the Diskos, or offering plate, that holds the bread, as he sings of the angels in heaven: “singing the triumphant hymn, shouting, proclaiming, and saying: ‘Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Sabaoth (Hosts)…'” These taps are audible representations of the voices of the angels.
Singing. Most everything in our services is either chanted or sung, including the readings from the Bible. You may want to focus on a printed text; it is better and more effective to listen and watch in an Orthodox service. As you open up to the chanting and singing within the visual context of the movements, sights, sounds, and smells of the service, you will perceive a more intuitive and all-embracing way of experiencing worship.
Bowing. Sometimes after we cross ourselves, we may also bow, swinging our right hand toward the floor. You may notice people performing bowing before icons or during various prayers or hymns. We may also bow before one another to ask one another for forgiveness. Bowing is part of the act of “veneration,” an act of worship of God. Respect is paid to His image, the images of His saints, our immediate neighbors and fellow humans as the “image of God,” or as part of a very important invocation of the Trinity in prayer or song.
Prostrations. We sometimes kneel and touch their heads to the floor. These prostrations are a sign of awe in worship, usually on days which do not commemorate the resurrection (as on Sunday and during the days following Pascha/Easter). You will see worshipers performing penitential prostrations during the Great Lent and Holy Week. This is an act which symbolizes the spiritual need to show humility as well as the spiritual need to be raised from every “fall.”
Prostrations are commonly discouraged on Sundays outside of the Paschal (Easter) season and especially during the Paschal season when the church enjoys a time of joyful celebration.