Or Some Things You Should Know When In Church...by Father David Barr
In the Eastern Church, there are many customs and traditions that are important parts of our worship. Some are cultural; some are pious customs. Some are essential; some are not. From time-to-time, we need to address some of these various etiquette issues to inform our communities how we can best understand each other and work together to worship the all-holy Trinity.
When should you definitely stand? Always during the Gospel reading, the Little and Great Entrances, the Anaphora, the distribution of Holy Communion, whenever the priest gives a blessing, and the Dismissal. In many parishes, the Divine Liturgy books in the pew have suggested times when sitting is acceptable. Follow those instructions (it's probably safer than to follow what the people are doing in the first couple of rows). When in doubt, stand. It is never wrong to stand in church.
Lighting Candles: Lighting candles is an important part of worship. We light them as we pray, making an offering to accompany our prayers. Typically light candles when coming into the church - and that is usually the best time to light them, unless you’ve arrived after Liturgy has begun. There are times when candles should not be lit. It is not proper to light candles during the Epistle or Gospel readings, during the Little or Great Entrances, the sermon, and most of the times when the faithful are standing. If you find yourself arriving to church after the Liturgy has begun, it’s best to wait until after the Final Blessing to light a candle.
Entering the Church (Late): The time to arrive at church is before the Liturgy begins, but for some unknown reason, it has become the custom - or rather the bad habit - for some to come to church late. If you arrive after the Divine Liturgy begins, try to enter the church quietly - and observe what is happening. If the Epistle or Gospel is being read or the Little or Great Entrance is taking place, wait until it is finished to quickly find a seat. If Father is giving the sermon, stay in the back until he has concluded. Try not to interrupt the Liturgy with your entrance. By the way, the best way to avoid this problem is to arrive on time - then you don't have to wonder if it's okay to come in or not.
Crossing those Legs? Crossed legs are too casual – and too relaxed ---for church. Just think about it, when you get settled in your favorite chair at home, you lean back, cross your legs, and then your mind may wander. Remember that sitting in church is a concession. It is not the normative way of prayer. You surely don't want to get too relaxed and let your mind wander off. In fact, when you do sit in church, you should sit attentively - and not too comfortably. When sitting in church, keep your feet on the floor, ready to stand at attention (which is what "Let us be attentive” means). Cross yourself with your fingers and hand, but don't cross your legs!
Walking In and Out: Use the restroom before coming to church. You shouldn't need to get a drink of water during the Liturgy (especially if you are receiving Holy Communion!). This is true for older children as well. Parents with young children should try to sit in the back whenever possible for just this reason.
Leaving Before Dismissal: Leaving church before the Dismissal - besides being rude - deprives us of a blessing. Worship has a beginning ("Blessed is the Kingdom…") and an end ("Let us depart in peace…"). To leave immediately after Communion is to treat church like a fast food restaurant where we come and go as we please. We live in a fast-paced world where we seem to be hurrying from place to place. But in God's presence, we need to make every attempt to fight this pressure to move on to the next thing on the day's agenda. We deprive ourselves of blessings by not being still and participating in God's holiness. Eat and run at Fast Food - but stay in church and thank God for his precious gifts.
Blot Your Lipstick or Don’t Wear Any! Have you ever looked at an icon in just the right light and seen the lip prints all over it? It's unsanitary, isn't it? Lipstick may look fine on lips, but it looks horrible on icons, crosses, the Communion spoon and the priest's or bishop's hand. Icons have been ruined by lipstick; and even though the cross can usually be cleaned after everyone venerates it, it just isn't considerate to others to impose your lipstick on them. What is the answer? If you insist on wearing lipstick to church, blot your lips well before venerating an icon, taking Communion, or kissing the cross or bishop's ring. Even better, wait until after church to put it on. After all, God is not impressed with how attractive you look externally - your makeup or clothing - but how attractive you are internally, your adornment with good works and piety.
Venerating Icons: When you enter the church, it is traditional to venerate the icons. Usually there are icons at the entrance to the church and many churches have icon stands in the front as well. When venerating (kissing) an icon, pay attention to where you kiss. It is not proper to kiss an icon in the face. You wouldn't go up and kiss the Lord or His mother on the lips, would you? You would kiss their hand, and only of they invited you would you even dare to kiss them on the cheek. Pay attention to what you are doing. When you approach an icon to venerate it, kiss the gospel, scroll, or hand cross in the hand of the person in the icon, or kiss the hand or foot of the person depicted. As you venerate an icon, show proper respect to the person depicted in the icon - the same respect you would show the person by venerating him or her in an appropriate place. And remember, blot off your lipstick before kissing.
Talking during Church: Isn't it great to come to church and see friends and family members? But wait until coffee hour to say "Hello" to them. It just isn't appropriate to greet people and have a conversation with them once inside the church. Besides being disrespectful of God, it is rude towards other people in church who are trying to pray/worship. Talk to God while in church through your prayers, hymns, and thanksgiving, and to your friends in the hall afterwards.
Sunday Dress: Do you remember a time when people put on their "Sunday best" to go to church? In fact, dress clothes were often referred to as “Sunday clothes”. In some parts of the country, this is not common today. In fact, all too often, dress in church has become too casual. In all areas of our lives, we should offer Christ our best. And the same is true of our dress. We should offer Christ our 'Sunday best", not our everyday or common wear. And we should dress modestly, not in a flashy way that would bring attention to ourselves. Our dress should always be becoming of a Christian - especially at church.
Here are some specific guidelines:
Women and girls: Dresses should be modest in length and not tight fitting. Legs and arms should be modestly covered. No dresses with only straps at the shoulders, no short skirts (mini-skirts), and no tight fitting dresses or skirts. Dresses should have backs and not be cut low in the front. If women wear pants to church, they should be dress pants (not jeans, leggings, etc.). Shorts of any type are never appropriate for church. Head coverings, such as veils, scarves and hats are encouraged. (Model yourself after the Blessed Virgin Mary.)
Men and boys: Men and boys should also dress modestly. While coat and tie are not mandatory, shirts should have collars and be buttoned to the collar (the actual collar button may be left undone, but two or three buttons undone is inappropriate). Slacks should be cleaned and pressed. Jeans (of any color) are usually too casual for church, especially ones with patches or holes. Again, shorts are not appropriate church wear. If you're going somewhere after church where you need to dress casually, bring a change of clothing with you and change after coffee hour. Shoes or sandals should be clean and tied. Athletic shoes are not suitable. Remember, use your best judgment and good taste when dressing for church. After all, you don't go to be seen by everyone else - you go to meet and worship God. (Model yourself after St. Joseph.)
Pew Blocking: Never heard of pew blocking? It's that practice of sitting right next to the aisle so that no one else can get by to sit in the middle of the pew. Everyone has seen it. In fact, the best pew blockers come early so they can get their coveted aisle seats and then be sure that no one can get past them. Remember, pew blocking isn't hospitable - nor is it an efficient method of seating. So don't be selfish. Move on over towards the middle.
To Cross: Anyone who has looked around on a Sunday morning will notice that different people cross themselves at different times (and sometimes in different ways). To a certain extent, when to cross oneself is according to personal piety and not an issue of dogma. But there are times when it is specifically proper to cross yourself, and times when you should not.
Here is a brief list of when to cross and when not to cross:
To Cross - When you hear one of the variations of the phrase, "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit"; at the beginning and end of the liturgical service or your private prayers; entering or exiting the church, or when passing in front of the Holy Altar; before venerating an icon, the cross, or Gospel book.
Snacks for Children: You can always tell where young children have been sitting in the church. The tell-tale signs are graham cracker crumbs, Cheerios, and animal crackers. Parents often bring snacks and a cup of fruit juice along for children during church. And for young children (0-2 years old), this is acceptable as a stop-gap measure for a fussy child. But by the time children are 3-4 years old, they should be able to make it through Liturgy without eating or drinking anything. For those small children who get snacks, please don't feed them while in the line for Holy Communion (this applies to holy bread as well). They need to come to Communion without food in their mouths. And one last note: be considerate of your fellow parishioners. Clean up after your little ones!! The floor and pew shouldn't be covered with remnants of food or drink! In addition, chewing gum in church is never acceptable.
A Final Thought: Always remember that you are in church to worship God, the Holy Trinity. The priest says, "With the fear of God and faith and love, draw near." Let this be the way you approach all of worship. If you do, you will probably have good church etiquette.
Why Do We Light Candles?
One of the first noticeable things when entering an Eastern rite Church are the many candles. We see people making an offering, taking the candle, lighting it, saying a prayer and placing the candle in the sand. So what is this all about? Christ said, “I am the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12) Jesus Christ IS that light. He is the light that shines for us in the midst this world of darkness. And anyone who follows Him needs not fear that darkness because we know that Christ will always shine for us, leading us in the Way to the Father. Each time we light a candle, we are called to remember that it is our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ who is the True Light and that He and only He will grant us True Life. Every candle that we light should be a time of prayer in which we reflect upon the salvation that the Lord has worked for us and also a time of recommitment, where we renew our Baptismal vow that we, as children of God, are called to “Let our light so shine before men, that they may see [our] good works and give glory to [our] Father who is in Heaven.” (Matt. 5:16). In lighting our candles, the first thing we should do is make an offering for this candle. Everything that we have is from God and the first step is to give back to Him for all of His many blessings. The next step is to venerate the icons around the candles and lift our prayers to God. Next, we light the candle, remembering all of our loved ones who are sick or who have passed into the next life, or who we just want to pray for, and beseech God to have mercy on their souls. But the candle has yet another profound meaning. The burning candle represents the entire life of the faithful, from birth to death. It stands for the inner flame of love for and devotion to God. A Catholic should burn like a candle before God, and his whole being should gradually be consumed by this divine flame thus marking the end of his earthly life. Blessed Simeon of Thessalonica (15th century), commentator on the Liturgy, states that pure wax symbolizes the purity and chastity of those who offer it. It is offered as a sign of our having repented of stubbornness and self-will. The softness and pliability of wax speaks of our readiness to obey God. The burning of the candle represents man becoming a new creature through the fire of God's love. Moreover, the candle is a witness to faith, of man's belonging to the Divine light. It expresses the flame of our love for the Lord, for the Mother of God, for the angels, or for the saints. One must not light a candle with a cold heart, merely as a formality. The external action must be supplemented by prayer, if only the simplest one, using one's own words. A lighted candle is present at many church services. Lastly, as we light the candle, we quietly say “Lord have mercy,” repenting for our own sinfulness while at the same time “re-igniting” our own flame and recommitting our whole life to God. Thus we begin again to live as light, helping others see the Way in a world of darkness. The burning wax candle is pleasing to God, but He prizes the burning of the heart even more. Our spiritual life, our participation in church services, is not limited to the candle. The candle will not free us from sin, will not unite us with God, and will not give us the power to wage the unseen warfare. The candle is filled with symbolic meaning, but we are saved not by symbols, but by the full reality, Divine grace.