Orthodox Christian Worship, Churches and Icons

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During an Orthodox service, a lectionary, or book of sacred passages, is carried through the church by a priest who raises it and utters the Greek word "sophia" — wisdom — and then deposits it on the alter, its permanent place. When performing services, the Russian Orthodox Patriarch wears a glittering golden robe and is surrounded by icons. Important services are broadcasts on national television.

Describing the scene in an Orthodox church Robert Paul Jordan wrote in National Geographic, "Smoke from flickering tapers suffused an aura of sadness. Worn old women wearing babushkas crowded the narthex and nave; scattering of elderly men and young people stood among them. Somewhere a baby cried. Voices rose and fell, chanting as the priest offered Communion. Crossing themselves, the somber communicants turned and slowly departed, arms folded over chests."

Home life and church life often overlap. Services are often held in the homes of parishioners and personal matters of individuals and families ate often mentioned before congregations. Special service are often held in a church or home too mark happy and unhappy events such as helping someone overcome an illness or celebrate a new job. Fruits, animals and plants are blessed by a priest who directs the grace of the Holy Spirit towards them.

Many Orthodox Christian churches have Divine Liturgy thought at 8:00am, 9:00am and 10:00am and 7:00pm on Sunday. Most also ahve services at 5:00pm or 6:00pm daily. Some of these include chants to the Virgin or saints.

See separate article on the RUSSIAN ORTHODOX CHURCH.

Websites and Resources Orthodox Church in America oca.org/saints/lives ; Online Orthodox Catechism published by the Russian Orthodox Church orthodoxeurope.org ; Internet Sourcebook sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; BBC on Orthodox Christian bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity ; Christian Answers christiananswers.net ; Christian Classics Ethereal Library www.ccel.org ; Sacred Texts website sacred-texts.com ; Early Christian Art oneonta.edu/farberas ; Early Christian Images jesuswalk.com/christian-symbols ; Early Christian and Byzantine Images belmont.edu

Orthodox Christianity

The Orthodox church is the modern name of the Byzantine church. It came into existence after a long series of theological, political and cultural disputes with the Roman Catholic Church of Rome. It is regarded as the form of Christianity most closely linked to the original Christian doctrines, which is why the term Orthodox is used to describe it. Catholicism and Protestantism are regard as more closely related to each other than the Orthodox church.

In the West “Orthodoxy” means “correct doctrine.” In Slavic languages the word "Pravoslavie", is used to describe the church. It means “right praise” and links teaching and worship and implies that only those who pray and practice a religious life have access to the religion.

Music manuscript kept at Arkadi monastery in Crete

According to the BBC: “The Orthodox Church is one of the three main Christian groups (the others being Roman Catholic and Protestant). Around 200 million people follow the Orthodox tradition. It is made up of a number of self-governing Churches which are either 'autocephalous' (meaning having their own head) or 'autonomous' (meaning self-governing). The Orthodox Churches are united in faith and by a common approach to theology, tradition, and worship. They draw on elements of Greek, Middle-Eastern, Russian and Slav culture. [Source: BBC, June 11, 2008 |::|]

“Each Church has its own geographical (rather than a national) title that usually reflects the cultural traditions of its believers. The word 'Orthodox' takes its meaning from the Greek words orthos ('right') and doxa ('belief'). Hence the word Orthodox means correct belief or right thinking. The Orthodox tradition developed from the Christianity of the Eastern Roman Empire and was shaped by the pressures, politics and peoples of that geographical area. Since the Eastern capital of the Roman Empire was Byzantium, this style of Christianity is sometimes called 'Byzantine Christianity'.” |::|

Book: "Orthodox Church" by T. Ware (1963)

Different Orthodox Churches

There are 17 independent Eastern Orthodox churches. The main denominations are the Greek, Russian, Coptic, Ukrainian, Ethiopian and American. The Russian Orthodox Church is the largest. There is also churches in Romania, Cyprus, Serbia, Croatia. and the former Yugoslavia, Albania, Bulgaria, Georgia and Slovakia.

According to the BBC: “Not all Orthodox Churches are 'Eastern Orthodox'. The 'Oriental Orthodox Churches' have theological differences with the Eastern Orthodox and form a separate group, while a few Orthodox Churches are not 'in communion' with the others. Not all Churches in the Eastern tradition are Orthodox — Eastern Churches that are not included in the Orthodox group include the Eastern Catholic Churches. The nominal head of the Eastern Orthodox Churches is the Patriarch of Constantinople. However, he is only first among equals and has no real authority over Churches other than his own. [Source: BBC, June 11, 2008 |::|]

There are 15 'autocephalous Churches', listed in order of precedence. Churches 1-9 are led by Patriarchs, while the others are led by Archbishops or Metropolitans: 1) Church of Constantinople (ancient); 2) Church of Alexandria (ancient); 3) Church of Antioch (ancient); 4) Church of Jerusalem (ancient); 5) Church of Russia (established in 1589); 6) Church of Serbia (1219); 7) Church of Romania (1925); 8) Church of Bulgaria (927); 9) Church of Georgia (466); 10) Church of Cyprus (434); 11) Church of Greece (1850); 12) Church of Poland (1924); 13) Church of Albania (1937); 14) Church of Czech and Slovak lands (1951); and 15) The Orthodox Church in America (1970) |::|

“The Orthodox communion also includes a number of 'autonomous Churches': 1) Church of Sinai; 2) Church of Finland; 3) Church of Estonia; 4) Church of Japan; 5) Church of China; 6) Church of Ukraine; 7) Archdiocese of Ohrid. indicates a Church whose autonomy is recognised by only some of the other Churches |::|

Orthodox Christian Rituals

The Orthodox religion is very traditional. The atmosphere inside the churches is very formal and solemn. Orthodox Christianity has been described as more ritualistic than spiritual. Orthodox Christianity features elaborate rituals, usually in the vernacular, though extremely traditional. Rituals often involve candles, holy water and icons. Orthodox worshipers light candles, cross themselves, kneel, kiss the floor, polish stuff, and fill bottles with holy water.

Icons— sacred images often illuminated by candles—adorn the churches as well as the homes of most Orthodox faithful. Worshipers light candles for saints in front of icon images of them and pray to them. Prayers and blessings led by family elders on important occasions, religious processions and fasting are major expressions of religious devotion.

Orthodox Christians are big on kissing: they kiss icons, the kiss priests, they kiss the floor. They cross themselves right to left. Catholics and Episcopalians do it left to right. The Traditional Orthodox fast in which people were supposed to eat little or nothing at all often turned into a time of feasting.

Anathema is the most extreme sanction that the Orthodox Church can take against a member of the Church for wrong doing. An anathema is a complete separation, an expulsion, from the Church. The Orthodox Church distinguishes between excommunication, that is "separation from the communion of the Church", and other penances and anathema. Under excommunication a person remains a member of the Church even though his or her participation in its mystical life, particularly communion, is restricted until the repentance of the one under excommunication. Whereas those under anathema are considered to be completely separated from the Church until repentance. The two principal causes for which a person may be anathematized are heresy and schism. Anathematization is used by the Church only as a last resort, and must always be preceded by pastoral attempts to reason with the offender to bring about his restoration to the faith. [Source: orthodoxwiki.org]

Veneration of Icons. See Below.

Orthodox Fasting and Prayer

According to the BBC: “At the centre of worship and belief is the Eucharist surrounded by the Divine Offices or the Cycle of Prayer. These prayers are sung particularly at Sunset and Dawn and at certain other times during the day and night.Personal prayer plays an important part in the life of an Orthodox Christian. For many Orthodox Christians an important form of prayer is the Jesus Prayer. This is a sentence which is repeated many times; for example: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner." The aim of this repetition is to enable the person to concentrate solely on God. [Source: BBC, June 11, 2008 |::|]

“Fasting and prayer play an important part of the Orthodox Christian life. Orthodox believe that fasting can be the 'foundation of all good'. The discipline of training the body can enable a believer to concentrate the mind totally on preparation for prayer and things spiritual. There are four main fasting periods: 1) The Great Fast or the period of Lent; 2) The Fast of the Apostles: Eight days after Pentecost until 28th June. The ends with the Feast of Saint Peter and Saint Paul.; 3) The Dormition Fast which begins on 1st August and ends on the 14th August; 4) The Christmas Fast from 15 November to 24th December. Also all Wednesdays and Fridays are expected to be days of fasting. |::|

“Even though today the call to fast is not always strictly followed, nevertheless many devout Orthodox Christians do undergo a time of genuine hardship and it has been said that: |Timothy Ware said: Orthodox Christians in the twentieth century - laity as well as monks - fast with a severity for which there is no parallel in western Christendom... [Source: Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church] |::|

Vespers (prayers on Saturday night)

Orthodox Christian Churches

In Orthodox Christianity, a church is defined as a community of the redeemed that is brought together for the purpose of Holy Eucharist. Each member is regarded as an equal and is expected to help other members.

According to church law any new independent church has to be approved by the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople (Istanbul). In 1996, this patriarch recognized the right of the Orthodox church of Estonia to break away from the Russian Orthodox church.

Orthodox Christian churches have no seats. Members generally stand during services. The churches are full of icons and, often, burning candles and sensors with burning incense. People often gather around the icons to pray. Some prostate themselves and kiss the ground.

Churches are generally open to everyone and visitors are generally welcome to enter even during services. Sacred literatures, personal icons and candles are sold at the entrance to the churches. The are often old women about sweeping and cleaning. There is no music, only chanting.

Orthodox Christian Church Architecture

Unlike Western churches which are designed with high spires that aim worshipers towards the realm of God, Orthodox churches are designed to bring the Holy Spirit to the earth. Many Orthodox churches are dominated by domes and cupolas.

Russian Orthodox church

Western churches are structured so that the attention of the congregation is focuses towards the pulpit or the altar. By contrast, Orthodox church have a solid screen called an iconostasis that divides the sanctuary from the rest of the building and conceals the Communion Table from the worshipers. The priest usually remains behind the screen and appears only during a procession before the congregation

The east end of the Orthodox Christian church is off limits to all but the priest. During a services the priest comes and goes through the Holy or Royal door at the middle of the iconostasis. On the ceiling hang small silver, gold or wax votive offering, sometimes of arms, hands, torso, ears—representing afflicted body parts that people want to be healed—and even boats and trucks.

Many Orthodox church are painted blue, red or green. They are often richly adorned with frescoes, sometime on their outer walls.

Iconstasis, See Below


Icons are images of religious figures or scenes. Deeply revered by members of the Eastern Orthodox Church, especially in Russia, they are regarded as dematerialized ideal forms and the very act of painting them is regarded as a form of worship. Most icons are small pictures painted on a panel of wood from 12 centimeters to 30 centimeters in height but they can also be large paintings, sculptures, mosaics, frescoes, bas reliefs, and other art forms made from marble, ivory, chalcedony, cloisonne enamel, silver, gold and terra cotta.

Icons (also spelled ikons) are worshiped privately at home and publically in churches. They have traditionally been displayed with candles burning in front of them. This practice has meant that many old icons are covered in soot and damaged by heat. Icons are treated with great reverence because they are regarded as material forms of spirituality and symbolize the resurrection of the body o bring about harmony between the material and spiritual worlds. Icons were originally painted by monks as a spiritual exercise. The Byzantines decreed that only Christ, the Virgin Mary, the angels, saints and episodes from the Bible could be painted, and these were supposed to be copies of prescribed images.

Our Lady of Vladimir icon

According to the BBC: “Icons are of great importance to Orthodox Christians. These beautiful and elaborate paintings are described as "windows into the kingdom of God". They are used in worship both in the decoration of the church and for private homes. The icon is seen as both a form of prayer and a means to prayer. The composer Sir John Tavener, one of Britain's most famous followers of Orthodox Christianity, calls icons "the most sacred, the most transcendent art that exists". [Source: BBC, June 11, 2008 |::|]

“The icon is venerated and often candles and oil lamps are burnt before them. The worshipper kisses the icon, making the sign of the Cross and may kneel or prostrate before it. An icon is usually an elaborate, two dimensional painting. They often have a gold leaf background and are usually on wood. They depict Christ, his mother Mary, scenes from the Bible or the lives of the Saints. The iconographer prepares for the painting of an icon with prayer and fasting. By worshipping at the Icon the Orthodox Christian enters into a sacred place with God. |::|

“In most Orthodox churches the Altar, or sanctuary, is separated from the main body of the church by a solid screen (known as the iconostasis), pierced by three doors, the one in the centre being known as the Holy door. The screen is decorated with icons, of which the principal ones are those on either side of the Holy Door of Christ and the Mother of God. These are normally flanked by icons of St John the Baptist and of the Saint, or Feast, to which the church is dedicated. In Russian churches the iconostasis normally forms a solid wall decorated with four or five rows of icons according to an elaborate traditional arrangement. |::|

Book: "The Icon" by Kurt Weitzman (Knopf)

Icon Images

Icons depict Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, the saints and scenes from the Old and New testaments. Traditional Christ images include the Pantokratier (All-Tuler) and the Mandilion (an image of Christ's face said to have been imprinted on a handkerchief of St. Veronica. Other themes include: Feasts, Meditations, the Mother God.

Believers in the divinity of icons claim that Christ himself allowed St. Peter to paint his image and images of Christ and the Virgin Mary were miraculously placed on the earth by God himself.

St George and the Dragon from Novgorod school

Icons were usually flattened figures, suspended on a gold background. The religious scholar Nicolas Zernov wrote: “Men and women depicted on ikons represent those Christians who gave up their selfish and self-centered existence and entered into the wider and inspiring world of loving followings, with their Creator and their fellow-men. Such an achievement required struggle, self-discipline and sacrifices. The saints therefore represented on ikons are ascetics, whose movements are restrained and whose bodies bear the signs of voluntary privations, but their robes are shiny and their faces are turned towards the new world of joy and freedom. The triumph is expressed in their eyes, and the contrast between their bodies and the intense aliveness of their eyes, and the contrast between the immobility of their bodies and the their reconciliation with their Creator ad the perfect control over after which they have achieved.”

Purpose and Veneration of Icons

Icons are believed by many to have healing powers and the ability to bring luck, wishes and even miracles. But, Zernov wrote: “The aim of the ikon is to help the worshiper to realize his dependence on the spiritual world and assist him in his efforts too attain harmony between his body and soul,”

To express their veneration of icons, Orthodox Christian faithful buy a candle, cross themselves in the Orthodox style, light the candle and place it in front of the icon and kiss the icon. Placing a candle in front of an icon represents the warm affection for the Saints and the interdependence of the work of the Saints and the dead with those of living human beings.

"To the Orthodox," Princeton University professor Kurt Weitzmann said, "an icon is more than an object of reverence. It stimulates the worshiper to apprehend the spiritual value portrayed—and it performs a definite function in the liturgy of the church. At the beginning of a service, the priest and the deacon bow before and pass smoking censers in front of the icons of Christ, of the Virgin, St. John the Baptist, the saint of the church and the saint of the day."♪


Icons are placed in different parts of the churches. The most important ones have traditionally been found on the iconostasis, a large screen that divides the sanctuary (altar area) on the eastern end of the church from the body of the church and conceals the altar from the congregation. The screen represents the line between the heaven and earth.

Main icons on the iconstasis honor Christ, the Virgin Mary, St. John the Baptist and the saint of the church. Above the main icons are smaller icons, arranged like a calendar to depict the saints and their feasts during the ecclesiastical year. Orthodox worshipers often walk up to icons and kiss them.

The iconostasis is generally comprised of up to six tiers of icons. The largest is the central row, which depicts Christ enthroned as a judge with the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist interceding for humanity on either side. Apostles, archangels and saints of Eastern Church may also appear here.

Below the central row are one or two rows of smaller cions: the bottom is for saints associated the locality of he church. Above this is the festival row showing the annual festivals of the church. There is also a prophet row, with Old Testament prophets. Sometimes there is a patriarch row, with Old Testament patriarchs.

top part of a iconostasis at a museum in Sanok, Poland

The iconstasis has three doors leading into the sanctuary. The central one is called the Royal Door. It is decorated with pictures of the Annunciation and of the four Evangelists. Only the person representing the Redeemer can enter this door for it represents the opening of the door to the divine world for mankind by removing sin. Through this door the Redeemer brings the Bible and the Holy Gifts of the Eucharist.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Sourcebook sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); King James Version of the Bible, gutenberg.org; New International Version (NIV) of The Bible, biblegateway.com; Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL) ccel.org , Frontline, PBS, Wikipedia, BBC, National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Encyclopedia.com, Reuters, Associated Press, Business Insider, AFP, Library of Congress, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

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