Corporate worship in the Orthodox Church is full of orderly movement; our services are liturgical, and have a natural progression of movements to them. Liturgical worship is led by the Clergy, who are given specific guidelines (rubrics) about how and when to do what. From the exhaustive list of detailed rubrics contained in the clergy service books, it is clear that movement plays a central role in our corporate praise and supplications before God. As important as the rubrics and physical movements are, we must keep in mind that they exist in order to help facilitate the most important movement in church—the movements that we do not see—the activity of the Holy Spirit working among us and our mystical ascent from earth to Heaven. Nearly every movement of the Clergy has a purpose and meaning. Some movements are practical, and some are based on theological truths. Not every clergyman does things exactly the same way, but expresses his own personality while maintaining the integrity of the rubrics and guidelines.
The movements of the laity during church services are also prescribed and directed by our holy Tradition. There is a similar sense of rubrics for the laity, helping them to worship God and praise Him in a proper and orderly way, as the holy Apostle Paul directs: “all things should be done decently and in order.” (1 Cor.14:40) Some examples of proper movement occur when we enter into the Narthex from the church parking lot. We cross ourselves, making a bow of reverence or metanoia. We light a candle and venerate the icons, freely moving around the Narthex in an orderly manner with purpose. Once we enter the Nave of the church, we again make the sign of the cross. If it is at the beginning of a service or a bit before the service begins, we may also go up to the front and venerate the icon set up on the stand. This helps us realize what feast or festal season we are in on that day or time of year. There may also be other special icons on the walls of the Nave that have special significance for us. These too, we may go and venerate, making a prostration or bow before we kiss the icon. All of these movements, again, are conducted with a sensitivity to others and with a sense of piety, order and purposefulness. These external acts help prepare our hearts for divine worship, and at the same time, they manifest the understanding within our hearts of where we are and what we are doing: participating in heavenly worship!
During worship services, there are also a variety of prescribed movements. We stand, we bow, we sit and we kneel. There are appointed times to come forward and venerate the Gospel Book, the Blessing Cross or to receive Holy Communion and Antidoron. There are even special times during the year where the entire congregation is invited to participate in processions, such as Holy Friday and Holy Saturday nights and the Sunday of Orthodoxy. Processions have long been a ceremonious part of worship, symbolizing God’s victory and triumph over sin, evil and death. During Great Lent, the services take on a more penitential character, helping us to focus even more intensely on repentance. At these services, we are invited to make full prostrations at appointed times, incorporating our bodies along with our hearts and minds in worship and repentance.
We can also cross ourselves, or bow our heads or close our eyes whenever we wish, but our movements, whatever they are, should not be a distraction to our neighbors or to the Clergy. For instance, we should restrict our movement in and out of the church to only what is absolutely necessary. A crying baby or young child is an acceptable reason to leave the church. But with so many families with young children, parents need to understand the needs of their families and think strategically about where to stand in church and how best to use the Young Family Room and other areas of the church facilities to help their children while also being sensitive to others. Another example is the custom in some Orthodox traditions to touch the vestments of the Clergy while they are making the Great Entrance with the Holy Gifts. It should be emphasized that this is not something that is expected of us, and should only be done with reverence and with practical consideration—we should not be stepping over others so that we can reach the priest. We should also be careful not to get in the way of the Clergy as they walk. It should be remembered that what is being carried in the Great Entrance are the prepared bread and wine, which have not yet been sanctified as the Body and Blood of Christ. It is therefore not appropriate to kneel during the Great Entrance. In fact, it has been the most common tradition throughout the Church, that we not kneel at all during the Divine Liturgy on Sundays (Sunday is a day of Resurrection), not even during the Epiclesis—the calling down of the Holy Spirit to consecrate the Holy Gifts—but we should bow our heads or bend at the waist in reverence.
There are times during the services, and especially during the Divine Liturgy, that we should be still and stand with attentiveness so that we can focus on the events that are taking place. These are also times when we should not enter the Nave from either the Narthex or the hallway door. These times include the Epistle and Gospel Readings, the Sermon, the Creed, the Epiclesis, the lifting of the Holy Gifts (“Your own of Your own”), and the fracturing of the Sanctified Lamb (“The Holy Gifts are for the Holy”). We should also remain standing whenever the Holy Eucharist is present in the Nave of the church. From the time of Holy Communion until the end of the Liturgy, it is best to remain standing, so that we can show proper reverence for the Holy Gifts, and show our thanksgiving to God for making us worthy to be present at another Divine Liturgy. This is not an acceptable time to leave the church. Only those who have a specific ministry that calls them out of the church should leave after Communion.
Of course, the focus of our worship is not on fulfilling all of these rules with absolute strictness, but on the joining of our body and soul with God. It is out of Her wisdom and experience that the Church offers us guidelines regarding our behavior and piety during the services, and because having order in the Church allows us to pray with minimal distraction and self-awareness. We should not be using what has been presented here in order to make sure that our neighbor is “doing it right,” but as a reminder to ourselves of what is appropriate in church.
One of the blessings that our particular Parish has is that our corporate worship space is teeming with children. As we strive to grow closer to God through worship, we need to realize that our Children might not be able to fully participate or cooperate with our ideals. We definitely do not want our children to come away from the services having learned that they are naughty or somehow unworthy or unwanted in Church! We need to slowly teach them about what is appropriate, and what is inappropriate, to the degree that they are able to understand. We must allow for a little extra movement in order to recognize that our children belong in Church. For instance, if we know that our child will have difficulty being quiet during the entire sermon, it would be advantageous to take them out of the Church immediately after the Gospel reading, so that we do not distract others during the sermon. The important thing to remember regarding our beautiful young children is that they are a blessing. They are baptized, chrismated and full members of the Church. It is all our sacred responsibility to teach them and help them grow in their ability to pray and worship God. Therefore, sensitivity is needed both on the part of the parents with young children and for those who do not have young children. The saying is true: it takes a whole village to raise a child.
As is always the case in parenting, we will need to use our own discernment regarding what is best for our children, and how to appropriately apply firmness with love during the Divine services. One thing is certain: we will not be able to properly teach our children how to be engaged in our worship services if we do not understand and practice liturgical worship ourselves. Hopefully, this brief article has served to help us adults to better understand movement and its purpose in the divine services of our Orthodox Church.
~ Fr. Vasili Hillhouse