"Twenty Questions" (more or less) Often Asked About our Church and Worship at All Saints of North America
- revised, February 2024
I’m not Orthodox. Would I be welcomed as a visitor?
Absolutely! We welcome anyone seeking a closer relationship with God the Holy Trinity and looking for the Church established on the Day of Pentecost, which has continued to hold the Faith and Teaching of the Holy Apostles which they learned from the Lord Jesus himself. All our services are in English, and we are a growing parish consisting of many converts, young and old, from different church and religious backgrounds.
Following our Sunday service, we share a light lunch in our parish hall. We invite you to stay as our guest. Father Nikolay is always happy to meet you and answer any questions you may have, and no question is foolish. If you need to leave, we understand, but hope you will visit us again soon.
Just what is the Orthodox Church?
The Orthodox Church is the second largest Christian church worldwide, and although there are about 6 million Orthodox in the United States, few Americans know much about us. It has been said that the Orthodox Church is, unfortunately, the best kept secret in America.
As the early Church spread throughout the Roman Empire, five cities became known as Patriarchal Sees: Rome, in the Western part of the Empire, Constantinople, Jerusalem, Antioch, and Alexandria, all in the East. The bishops of these cities were united in the Faith and were in full Eucharistic communion with one another. When theological issues arose, these bishops would come together in Councils to determine what the Holy Spirit would teach them, following the early Apostolic Council held in Jerusalem (Acts 15).
Unfortunately, the Bishop of Rome began to see himself as superior to all other bishops and even the Councils. During the 11th century, this and other theological issues between Rome and the Eastern Patriarchs came to a head and Rome separated herself from the four eastern Patriarchal Sees.
These four Patriarchs and their Churches continued holding to the Faith received from the Apostles and became known as the Orthodox Church, which remains the Church of the Councils, guided by the Holy Spirit, with Jesus Christ the head of the Church, not a Pope nor a Patriarch of Constantinople. As the Church spread into Russia, Moscow became a Patriarchal See. The Orthodox Church in America (OCA) began as a missionary outreach of the Russian Orthodox Church, but we are now a self-governing, fully canonical, American Church in communion with the Orthodox Patriarchal Sees.
The Orthodox Church is also the Church of Martyrs. Under Islamic rule after the fall of Constantinople, and under the Communist rule, more Orthodox bishops, priests, monks, and laity were killed than during the early persecutions of the early Christians under the Roman emperors.
When Orthodox immigrants came to America, their Churches often were identified by their homeland, so Orthodox Churches are often known by the language and/or culture, for example, Greek, Russian, and Antiochian Churches. But there are many smaller ones in this country: Georgian, Bulgarian, Serbian, Romanian, and Albanian Churches.
As an American who has witnessed churches break away from a denomination over theological or ethical issues to start a new denomination, one might think that the same must apply to the various Orthodox Churches. But this is not the case for us Orthodox. We are not different denominations but are in fact one Church in Faith and liturgical practice, the bishops of these various Churches being in communion with one another. Our differences are based on language and cultural heritage, not theological differences.
What makes Orthodoxy different from Roman Catholics and Protestants?
It is our belief that the Orthodox Church has neither added to, nor subtracted from, the teachings of the Apostles, much of which was handed down through their words (2 Thess 2:15). St. Vincent of Lérins (+ 445) summarized this by saying, “What is believed everywhere, at all times, and by all [Orthodox Christians].”
We keep the original Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, baptism by triple immersion for infants and adults, and leavened bread (the Greek word, artos, “leavened bread” is used in the Gospels) and wine (not grape juice) in the Eucharist, during which the Holy Spirit changes them into the true Body and Blood of Christ.
The Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed came from two Councils: The Council of Nicea (321), and the Council of Constantinople (381). The paragraph regarding the Holy Spirit reads, the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father”—period—following Jesus’ own words, (John 15:26). The Roman church later made a unilateral revision of the Creed by the addition of “and the Son,” filioque. This addition, from our perspective, changes the nature of the Godhead. Rome has added other doctrines such as Papal Infallibility, Purgatory, and the Immaculate Conception of Mary. In subtracting from the Faith, they generally baptize by pouring, and have drastically reduced fasting days.
Protestants reject certain books of the Old Testament (known to them as the Apocrypha), although these books have always been a part of the Old Testament used by the Church. They generally reject sacraments, or reduce these to just baptism and communion, which are generally understood as symbolic. Most do not practice baptism by immersion, praying for the dead, and fasting. Those using the Nicene creed accept the addition of filioque to the Creed, and some Protestants have added false teachings such as total depravity of human beings after the fall, a limited atonement, the rapture, prosperity theology, and Christian nationalism.
We are the Church which fasts (Matt 6:16, 9:15b; 1 Cor 7:5). We fast from meat and dairy on all Wednesdays and Fridays of the year, following the teaching of the 1st century Christian writing, Didache:
“Do not fast with those of the hypocrites, for they fast on Mondays and Thursdays, but you, fast on Wednesdays and Fridays.”
In addition to this weekly fast, we have two 40-day fasts: Great Lent and the Nativity Fast, as well as other shorter fasting periods during the year. These are all things Inquirers and Catechumens learn in greater detail.
How many services do you have, and which should I come to?
If this is your first visit to an Orthodox Church, you might consider Vespers on Saturday Evening at 6 p.m., which lasts around 45 minutes. This service consists of the choir singing psalms (Ps 104 in English translations, verses from Ps 1-3, and Ps 130, for example), several litanies (prayers), Phos hilaron, a hymn which St. Basil the Great (300’s) called an “ancient hymn,” and the Song of Simeon (Luke 2:29-32). Vespers begins our Sunday celebration, praising Jesus’ resurrection and telling in chant the story of the Saint(s) commemorated on Sunday. Following Vespers, our priest is available for our members to make their confession, but feel free to leave once Vespers ends.
Sunday morning begins with The Hours, during which the priest and deacon liturgically prepare the bread and wine which will become the Body and Blood of Christ, while a reader chants a selection of psalms and prayers. This service begins around 9:10 a.m.
The Divine Liturgy (the Eucharist/Holy Communion) begins immediately following the Hours, around 9:30 a.m. and lasts about 2 1/2 hours. We celebrate only one Divine Liturgy per Sunday, so we do not have several service times from which to choose. We are one family gathered to be with the Lord and each other. All our services are chanted, and incense is used, what might be called “high church” among Roman, Anglican, and Lutheran confessions.
Our usual liturgy is that of St. John Chrysostom, Bishop of Constantinople in the late 300’s. During Lent, the longer and earlier Liturgy of St. Basil the Great is used. These Liturgies are based on the 2nd century liturgies of St. James of Jerusalem and St. Mark. The Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom as we now have it dates to around the 6th century (about a thousand years before the Protestant Reformed liturgies and the Roman Tridentine Mass!) and except for translating it into various languages, it has remained unchanged to this day.
Is childcare provided?
Parents are responsible for the care of their children, but we are used to children in our midst (cf. Matthew 14:21, 19:13-14). The sound of young children is quite common during our services, but we are reminded of the children who greeted our Lord at his entry into Jerusalem. If your child becomes fussy, please feel free to step outside into the entrance hall (narthex) with your child. And if you need to use our restroom facilities found in the narthex, please feel free to do so. You won’t be interrupting us.
Is there a dress code?
While we do not have a specific dress code, we do expect you to dress modestly and respectfully, as we believe we are in God’s presence. We ask that you not wear clothes that may distract others.
You may notice that a number of women cover their heads with a scarf. This is a tradition of the Orthodox Church based on 1 Corinthians 11:13. However, it is not required for women to cover their head. Men should remove any cap or hat.
You call your priest “father,” but didn’t Jesus tell us not to call anyone “father?”
Yes, and no. While Jesus does say not to call anyone on earth father (Matt 23:9), if Jesus meant this as an absolute rule, he himself contradicted it, because he taught “the one loving father or mother more than me is not worthy of me” (Matt 10:37), and in his parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31), the rich man cries out, “Father Abraham!” and begs Abraham, “father, send Lazarus to my father’s house….”. The Church has understood this prohibition to be an example of exaggeration for emphasis which Jesus sometimes used, such as “a camel going through the eye of a needle.”
The title, father, was used by the early church for their leaders. St. Paul called the Corinthians “my beloved children,” and reminded them, “I became your father through the Gospel” (1 Cor 4:14-15). It is in this context that we call our clergy father; not that they take the place of God, but because they are called to father us in the gospel, caring for us spiritually as a father cares for his children, and to have fatherly authority over us.
What should I expect when I come into your church building?
Aidan Hart, in his article, Lighting in the Orthodox Church, says, “On entering Orthodox churches we are made aware through the many icons that first and foremost we are in the presence of Christ and His saints and angels. It is a personal space. The Church is ultimately a community of persons and not a building... [the building] should give a sense to incomers that this is a special place, a sacred place, not separate from but nevertheless distinct from the world outside.”
Because our worship is something “distinct from the world outside,” we do not use guitars or drums or keyboards or other instruments. Everything in the Liturgy is chanted a cappella, which has been the norm for Christian worship from the earliest days. Our hymns are not contemporary “praise music,” but rather verses from the Psalms or other parts of Scripture.
Orthodox worship is therefore different than a lot of Western church services. We feel at home in church, so there is freedom of movement during the service. Our members arrive anytime from the beginning of the Hours through the early part of the Divine Liturgy. You will see us walking around the church, venerating icons, lighting candles, and praying.
The kissing of the icons is a sign of respect and honor given to the person portrayed on the icon, much like family members might kiss one another when greeting them. As Bishop Kallistos (Timothy) Ware explains,
“When an Orthodox kisses an icon or prostrates himself before it, he is not guilty of idolatry. The icon is not an idol but a symbol; the veneration shown to images is directed, not towards stone, wood, and paint, but towards the person depicted.... Orthodox do not worship them but reverence or venerate them.” (Italics in original. Venerate comes from a Greek word meaning “to kiss”).
Our worship consists of an unhurried series of prayers with a lot of repetitions, in case you were distracted the first-time these prayers were said. We say, Lord, have mercy, countless times, not because we think God is angry, demanding satisfaction for our sins, so we plead for clemency, but because the request for mercy in the Bible is a medical term, asking for healing (see Matt 9.27; 17:15; Mk 10:47-48; Lk 17:12-13).
We use our body in our worship of God (Romans 12:1). You will also see many of us crossing ourselves and bowing during the prayers and at other times throughout our services. Making the sign of the Cross is a very ancient practice of Christians, and St. Athanasius the Great of Alexandria (300’s) commends it usage.
I don’t see a lot of pews. Is there somewhere I can sit?
At All Saints we follow the ancient tradition of the Church of standing during the service, so wear comfortable shoes! Standing was the prayer posture of the Jews, and in the West, the custom was only the royal family could stand in the presence of the king (see Ps. 44 :9); his subject people usually knelt before him. As baptized Christians, we are members of the royal priesthood of Christ (1 Peter 2:9), we have been “raised up together with Christ” (Eph. 2:6), so we have been made worthy to stand before Christ, our King, and our God! For the sermon, however, most of us will sit on the floor.
As a visitor, please feel free to find a pew and sit. That is perfectly acceptable.
All this sounds confusing! Is there something I can use to follow the service?
Yes, we have Service Books for our Divine Liturgy in the entrance hall (narthex) of the church. A greeter or a parishioner will help you find one of these. If you get lost during the Liturgy, please feel free to ask our members where we are. We will be glad to help you find the right page again.
However, we would encourage you to simply observe, to “come and see” and simply listen and not be too concerned about following it in a book, especially if you visit during Great Lent (40 days before Orthodox Easter), because the Liturgy of St. Basil is used which is not found in our blue books.
What’s that smell?
Incense! This is what Biblical worship smells like! Moses was told to build an altar of incense in the Tabernacle (Ex 30:1-7); the prophet Malachi declared, “in every place incense shall be offered to my name” (Mal 1:11); the father of John the Baptist met the Archangel Gabriel while he was burning incense (Lk. 1:9-11); the Magi brought frankincense to the little child Jesus (Matt 2:11); and an angel in heaven was given “much incense” to offer with the prayers of the saints (Rev 8:3).
Censing is used to show honor to something, so the Altar, the Gospel Book, the icons, and the clergy and the people are all censed. In Genesis 1:26, we are told that God made all people in his image (icon) and after his likeness. We may not be very God-like after the Fall, but we believe that everyone, believer, and unbeliever, the just one, and the unjust one (cf. Matt 5:45) is still in the image of God and therefore worthy of respect and honor, so everyone is censed!
What’s with the pictures on that wall up front?
The wall is called an iconostasis, or “icon stand.” The iconostasis is the most distinctive feature of any Orthodox church. The icons are of Jesus seated in glory, the Virgin Mary holding the young Jesus, St. John the Baptist and other Saints. Above the large icons there are smaller icons showing the major events in our Lord’s life.
Icons are the Word of God pictured, whereas the Bible is the Word of God printed. While we have icons in our church, we do not have statues. Moses was instructed to adorn the Tabernacle with images of the Cherubim on the curtains (Ex 26:1), but he was also commanded not to make any “graven image” (Ex 20:4) which means “a carved stone,” or a statue.
Why do you close a curtain?
From the earliest Tabernacle in the wilderness to the last Temple in Jerusalem, God commanded that a curtain separate the Holy of Holies (the Sanctuary) from the rest of the building (Ex 26:33b). This was done because God, in his holiness, is too great for us mortals to encounter directly. Some may say the curtain was done away with at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion when it was torn in two, but we understand that to be a sign showing that God no longer dwelt in the Temple in Jerusalem, but now makes his temple in his people (1 Cor 3:16). Following the command of God in Exodus, we keep a curtain out of reverence for the Holiness of the Sanctuary where God is physically present in the Body and Blood of Christ, the new Mercy Seat. Now, however, the curtain no longer stays closed continually, but is opened to show God’s presence coming forth to us.
Why does the priest turn his back to us during the service?
The practice of the earliest Christians was to face east when praying to God. The Church fathers, Tertullian, and Clement of Alexandria (both lived in the 150’s), for example, teach that we should pray facing east, as John of Damascus (9th century) wrote:
It is not without reason or by chance that we worship towards the East... Since God is spiritual light, and Christ is called in the Scriptures ‘Sun of Righteousness’ and ‘Dayspring,’ the East is the direction that must be assigned to His worship.... the Lord Himself said, ‘As the lightning comes out of the East and shines even to the West, so also shall the coming of the Son of Man be.’ So, then, in expectation of His coming we worship towards the East. But this tradition of the apostles is unwritten. For much that has been handed down to us by [Apostolic] tradition is unwritten.
The words from the Spiritual sound very Orthodox: “...when I fall on my knees with my face to the rising sun,” with its refrain, “...O Lord, have mercy on me.”
Simply put, when the priest prays to God he faces east, leading us as one with us, who are also facing east. When he turns to face us, he speaks words from God to us, for example, “Peace be with all,” when blessing us, and when giving the sermon. The practice of having the priest face the people during the Eucharistic prayer is a 20th century deviation found primarily among western confessions.
Why do you swing the chandelier?
Aidan Hart in his article calls our Liturgy, “the liturgy of dancing light.” The Orthodox Church has a theology of light, because “God is light” (1 John 1:5). But this Light of God is not static, but living, dynamic. We light candles before the icons, because the saints show forth the light of Christ, and the candles sometimes flicker, “dancing.” The chandeliers have icons, for we are “partakers of the inheritance of the saints in the light” (Col.1:12). The large chandelier encircles us like the stars of the sky, reminding us of Psalm 148, “Praise the Lord, sun and moon, praise him all you stars and the light.”
The tradition of swinging the chandelier symbolizes several events in the life of Christ: the Magi are guided by the light of a traveling (“dancing”) star. At the Crucifixion, “the earth quaked” (Matt. 27:51b), so the swinging represents the earthquake. On Pentecost, a “rushing of a mighty wind” swept through the room where the Apostles were gathered, and the Holy Spirit “appeared to them as if tongues of fire” (Acts 2:2-3), so the swinging of the chandelier represents the Holy Spirit, the mighty wind, blowing through the Church. Because the chandelier is swung during the singing of “Let us who mystically represent the Cherubim...” it also represents the angelic choir present among us, as heaven and earth are joined together.
What’s that word you’re calling Mary?
We call the Virgin Mary the Theotokos, which means “God-bearer” or “Mother of God.” This title was given to her by the Council of Ephesus (431) to combat Nestorius who taught that Mary gave birth simply to a human being in whom at a later time the Logos came to indwell. By affirming Mary to be the Mother of God, we confess that Jesus is not only fully human, but also fully God, who took his flesh and blood (his DNA) from her.
It is our teaching that Mary is “the Virgin” prophesied by the prophet Isaiah (7:14), that she was born from elderly, pious parents (an “immaculate conception” was not necessary), that she was raised in the temple from an early age, and following puberty she was visited by the Archangel Gabriel, and with her “Let it be” became pregnant without human seed with God the Word, that Joseph, an older widower with children, married her but never had marital relations with her, that she died a natural death and was taken up bodily into heaven following her burial. In our Churches, Mary is never seen by herself alone as is often the case in Roman churches, but she always has Jesus with her, and if you look closely, you will see she is pointing to her Son.
May I receive Communion?
No, but please do not be offended that you cannot receive, because we treat the Holy Mystery with great reverence. We believe the bread and wine are in fact the Body and Blood of Christ (although we do not try to define how) which is given to those who rightly believe (that is, being in communion with an Orthodox bishop) and have prepared themselves to receive them by praying the preparatory prayers for Communion, fasting from midnight the night before with no morning coffee (!), and having made a recent confession to God before our priest; so not all of us receive Holy Communion every Sunday.
Children are the only exception to this. In the Orthodox Church, a baby is baptized, “confirmed,” and given Holy Communion at the same time. Because the child is being nurtured by Orthodox parents, we take seriously the words of Jesus, “Let the little children come to me and do not forbid them, for of such is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 19:14). Infants in arms and little children receive Holy Communion, something not usually practiced in western confessions.
You might notice that a basket of bread and a carafe of wine are brought out on a side table. These are not the Eucharistic Gifts, but blessed bread, which was not offered during the eucharist. As a visitor, if our members bring you a piece of blessed bread, perhaps dipped in wine, please feel free to accept it as a sign of our love for you (Rom 12:10).
Would you say I’m going to hell because I’m not Orthodox?
Fr. Nikolay explains this question in greater detail in his Inquirers Class because this question requires a long answer, but here is a brief answer:
We do not condemn anyone to hell, because only God knows what is in the heart of each person, so we leave the future state of the departed in his hands when Christ comes again “to render to everyone according to his works” (Anaphora of St. Basil).
Jesus teaches us to “love God with all our heart, soul, and mind, and our neighbor as ourselves” (Lk 10:25-28). Love is not only a feeling, but also an action. He also asks, “Why do you see the speck that is in someone else’s eye but do not consider the beam that is in your own eye? ...First, remove the beam out of your own eye...” (Matt 7:3-5). We understand this to mean that we must first of all pay attention to our own sins and not the sins of others. In the words of St. Paul, the Lord came “to save sinners, of whom I am the first” (1 Timothy 1:15). In the words of Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick in his book, Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy, “...damnation is not equal to being non-Orthodox...”.
Secondly, our understanding of heaven and hell is different from most western understanding which finds its roots in Dante, with hell being a physical place. Our understanding is based on the fact that God is everywhere, and as Hebrews 12:29 says, “Our God is a consuming fire.” This fire is one that either brings light and joy to one who has loved God and desires to be in his presence, or a fire which brings pain to one who never loved God and has no desire to be in God’s presence. Psalm 28:7 says, “The voice of the Lord is dividing a flame of fire.” St Basil explains this, “The fire prepared for the torment of the devil and his angels, is divided by the voice of the Lord, so that after this there might be two powers in it: one that burns, and another that illumines: the tormenting and punishing power of that fire is reserved for those worthy of torment; while the illumining and enlightening power is intended for the shining of those who rejoice. Therefore the voice of the Lord Who divides and separate the flame of fire is for this: that the dark part might be a fire of torment and the unburning part a light of enjoyment.” Nothing can be more painful than to be in the presence of someone you don’t want to be around!
When you hear “hell” in our services, understand that it is an old English word translating what the Hebrews called Sheol and the Greeks, hades, that is, the realm of the dead.
Thirdly, salvation is also different from most western understanding. For us, salvation is not a legal transaction, God judging someone innocent, or guilty with a penalty to be paid, nor do we believe that Jesus “paid a penalty or debt” to the Father, but rather “gave himself as a ransom to death, in which we were held captive, sold under sin.” (Anaphora of St Basil).
Sin is a sickness, like an eye infection from the “beam” of the ego we all have from the Fall, which requires healing, so we do not view the Church as a court room, but as a hospital, providing everything needed to bring healing to our souls and bodies, Jesus being our great Physician, “who became subject to corruption, that he might free our souls from death and corruption, and heal them, and might restore them to health, when they were diseased with ungodliness and wicked lusts” and gave us “the medicine of immortality,” the Eucharist. (St. Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, disciple of St. John the Theologian and Evangelist, martyred in the early 100’s).
Like the Good Samaritan (Lk 10:28-36), Jesus sees how the demons (the robbers in the parable) have wounded us, and he pours olive oil (anointing) and wine (Eucharist) on our wounds and bandages them with salve (confession)—notice that “salve,” a healing ointment, is the root word of salvation! The suffix -ation describes an action, or process, so salvation literally means, the action/process of applying salve. Like any ailment, healing takes time, so salvation is a healing process which lasts our earthly lifetime. It is our teaching that the fullness of salvation [i.e., healing] is in the Orthodox Church.
Now, if one is sick, one can choose to either seek medical help, or just hope for the best. If one sees a doctor or enters a hospital, the chances of healing are greatly improved, provided one follows “doctor’s orders.” If one chooses to remain outside the hospital, not receiving treatment, or comes to the hospital (i.e., becomes an Orthodox Christian), yet disobeys the commandments of our great Physician, that one, in all likelihood, will remain diseased and in suffering, unwilling to repent and humble oneself.
What we can say with certainty is that the Orthodox Church offers you the fulness of the truth about God, the way of life (cf. Acts 9:2, 22:4), the fullness and assurance of the Mysteries (Sacraments), and the right worship of God. As Bishop Kallistos Ware writes in his book, The Orthodox Church,
we “Orthodox...make what may seem at first a surprising claim: [we]
regard [our] Church as the Church which guards and teaches the true
belief about God and which glorifies Him with right worship....”
How do I join this Church should I decide to do so?
We don’t rush anyone to join. In fact, many people visit us for a long time before they make that very important decision. However, should you feel that God is leading you to become an Orthodox Christian, speak to Fr. Nikolay.
We follow the practice of the early Church: one first becomes an Inquirer, then after several months becomes a catechumen, and is expected to attend the services and be instructed for another several months in the Faith (you will hear the deacon exclaim “Depart, Catechumens” in the liturgy). When Fr. Nikolay believes you are ready, you will normally be Baptized, then for sure be Chrismated with oil, and receive Holy Communion, at which point you become a full member of the Orthodox Church.
In conclusion, we are delighted you wish to visit. Please understand that many of the answers above only skim the surface of the water. Orthodoxy is a deep ocean of Christian theology and spirituality which can only be understood by our hearts, and not just our minds, by swimming in this ocean for a lifetime. We pray that you experience a taste of this by your visit and will be inspired to visit us many times, continuing to “come and see” the fullness of the Christian Faith the Orthodox Church offers in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
On our website you will find a document 12 Things I Wish I’d Known, written several years ago by an Orthodox priest’s wife, which supplements these “20 Questions.” This was written from the Antiochian Orthodox perspective primarily to Episcopalians, so there are minor differences from our Russian tradition at All Saints of North America.
- Revised, February 2024.