Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov

The Law of God: Foundations of the Orthodox Faith. Lesson 4.

Posted in The Law of God: Foundations of the Orthodox Faith by Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov on 2 October 2010

English-language supplement for the Law of God classes for adults at the Holy New Martyrs of Russia Church in Mulino, OR

Lesson 4


Beginning with the next lesson, we will examine the structure of the Divine Liturgy.  We will not, however, concentrate on all of the actions of the clergy, the way a seminary student would learn how to serve when he is ordained a deacon or a priest.  Rather, we will focus our attention on the meaning of the various parts of the Liturgy, that is to say, the fundamentals of our faith contained in the Liturgy, and on the way that the faithful participate in the service.

In this lesson, we will briefly discuss how one must prepare for participation in the Divine Liturgy.  We will come up, as it were, to the very door of the temple, without entering in until next Sunday.

“Prepare the way of the Lord, make His paths straight” (Mark 1:3)

Every good deed begins with preparation, and so does the Liturgy.  The daily cycle of services in the Orthodox Church does not begin with the Liturgy—it culminates with it; it finds its highest point in the Holy Eucharist.  In this course, however, we will not study the services that precede the Liturgy—a topic which we hope to cover next year.  This year, we will fast-forward directly to the service of prothesis,[1] also known by another Greek word—proskomedia, or “an offering.”  But first, let us discuss what is necessary to begin the Divine Liturgy.

The most necessary part of the Liturgy is the people’s readiness to enter into communion with God.  This includes both the clergy and the lay people.  As we discussed in previous lessons, the Liturgy is “common work,” thus, the Eucharist is not offered by the priest alone or by the choir, but by the community of the faithful.  Similarly, the salvific Gifts of our Lord are not offered to the priest, or the deacon, or only to very young children, but to the Church, to all those who are in the Body of Christ.  In the Early Church, all Christians communed at every Eucharist: “Then [the Eucharist] is distributed to everyone, and everyone participates in [the bread and wine], over which thanks has been given.”[2] But the early Christians’ faith was reflected in their holy lives.  All of us, modern Christians, are also called to holiness in our lives and to frequent communion, but many do not find the strength to persevere as did the early Christians, and so most do not commune at every service.[3] A good rule seems to be to partake of the Holy Communion once during each one of the four major fasts and on every major feast of the Church, including one’s own Name’s Day and the patronal feast of one’s parish.  This, however, does not mean that those who do not plan to commune do not participate in the Liturgy, are mere spectators, and need not prepare themselves for the service.  On the contrary—every Orthodox Christian must participate in the service to the degree that he or she is able and ready.

The Church offers us several tools which help us prepare our whole person for the divine service—our body, mind, soul, and spirit.  Those who are preparing for communion should observe a bodily fast.  The length of this fast can vary, but in general, Friday of almost every week of the year must be observed as a day of fasting, a limited fast can be observed on Saturday, and no food or drink should be taken from midnight until after communion.  This last rule also applies to those who are not preparing for communion—if able, they should observe the liturgical fast of the Church from midnight until after they partake of the antidoron.[4] Married couples should also abstain from spousal relations.

To those who are preparing for communion, the Church offers a collection of very beautiful and meaningful prayers which can be found in most Prayer Books.  These prayers help us lift our spirits to God and purify our souls.  The exact prayer rule before communion may vary depending on the recommendations of an experienced spiritual father.  Those who are not preparing for communion must still fulfill their daily prayer rule and may choose to read at least a few of the prayers before communion to remind themselves of the Treasure which is offered to us by Christ.

In the Russian Church, an important and necessary part of preparing for communion is confession.  One must go to confession every time before partaking of Holy Communion, with few individual exceptions.

Finally, all should attend the evening and morning services which lead to the Divine Liturgy: the vigil, or vespers and matins, and the hours.  Other services may also be served in some places, and some may be omitted.  But whatever services are offered are for our benefit and the faithful should try to attend; especially those preparing for communion should make every effort.  And when making the effort to come to the house of our God, let us not forget about one thing that may seem trivial, but is nonetheless worth mentioning: proper attire.

“I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my soul shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness…” (Isa. 61:10)

Quite often we hear misunderstandings about the reasons why the Church has rules about our garments: “What difference does it make to God what I wear?”  Indeed, there is no difference to God what we wear, because He looks at our hearts, not our clothes.  But to us it really matters what we have on and how we are dressed.  When getting ready for a ball, for example, a lady puts on a beautiful gown, and it would be strange indeed to attend an official reception dressed in a swim suit.  But when going to a barn to do chores, we do not don a tuxedo.  So, it is not surprising that some clothes are fitting to wear to church and others are not.

In the Russian Church, it is customary that men wear trousers and a long-sleeved shirt (sweater, jacket, etc.).  It is unacceptable to come to church in shorts, exercise pants, or a t-shirt.  Jeans, especially with fashionable holes, can be worn to a party, but it is best not to wear them to God’s temple.

Women should wear a skirt and blouse or a dress, and cover their heads.  The outfit should have long sleeves and no décolleté.  In general, displays of sexiness are out of place in church; God’s temple is a place for prayer, not for attracting everyone’s attention.  The center of attention in church should be God, not our person.

Of course, this does not mean that we cannot wear anything beautiful.  Quite the opposite: in church everything should be beautiful—architecture, art, vestments.  And our garments need to be clean, neat, and beautiful.  But we must try to develop our taste, and learn to distinguish between what is beautiful and what is flashy.

Avoid having large writing on your clothes, especially if you cannot read it and do not know what it means.  Various images are also unacceptable; we come to church in order to pray and to be inspired by the images of saints, but not at all in order to advertise our favorite cartoon or rock band.  Finally, in church, you should not advertise the companies that produced your clothing.  If you wish to be a walking billboard for American Eagle, Hollister, or any other company, you should do this outside of church.

What to do if the weather is too hot?—Follow the rules of Church etiquette.  Take a look at the clergy: even in the heat, they are dressed in a cassock (with long sleeves), a sticharion (also with long sleeves), and a priest also puts on a phelonion.  Just imagine if the clergy began to serve on hot days in tank-tops, shorts and sleeveless vestments; that would be unthinkable.  In the same way, the laymen also should not complain about the weather, but humbly keep the rules of Church etiquette.  In some parishes, however, short sleeves have become acceptable, so one must seek guidance from his or her parish rector.

“…and the house was filled with the fragrance…” (John 12:3)

Should you wear perfume or eau de Cologne?  If the smell is good, then yes, but not in church.  Remember that some people are allergic to perfumes and can suffer an allergic reaction or asthma attack because of your choice of a smelly substance.  If for some good reason you absolutely have to use something smelly, try to use as little of it as possible.

Makeup is also out of place in church.  To dirty an icon or cross with lipstick is disrespectful, not only toward the sacred object, but also toward the people who will venerate it after you, as well as toward those who will then have to clean up the smears of lipstick.

Bishops and Priests

The last requirement in preparing for the service of the Divine Liturgy that we will discuss in this lesson is the presence of an officiating priest or bishop.  Not every instance of partaking of bread and wine is the sacrament of the Eucharist.  The sacrament of the Body cannot exist outside of the Church, which is the Body of Christ.  In other words, if someone simply decides to eat bread and drink wine, it will be just that—bread eating and wine drinking.  Only a properly ordained priest who is under a properly ordained bishop can officiate the sacrament of the Eucharist.  This proper ordination is part of what is known as apostolic succession.

Apostolic succession is the means by which the temporal continuity of the true Church is preserved.  A necessary element of this succession is the successors of the Apostles—people who preserve the faith of the Apostles, their teaching, and who officiate the sacraments of the Church.  It is commonly said today that Orthodox bishops are the successors of the Apostles, and that is true—each Orthodox bishop can trace his ordination through almost two millennia to one of the Apostles of Christ.[5] Bishops are also charged with preserving the faith of the Apostles and teaching it to the Church.  The Fathers of the Early Church, however, saw bishops as representing Christ Himself to their respective Churches, and they saw priests as succeeding the Apostles in their ministry.  Saint Ignatius of Antioch (ca. 35-107), for example, wrote that “the bishop presiding after the likeness of God and the presbyters after the likeness of the council of the Apostles.”[6] Likewise, Saint Irenaeus of Lyons († ca. 202) wrote: “…we refer them [the heretics—S.S.] to that tradition which originates from the Apostles and is preserved by the successions of presbyters in Churches.”[7], [8] A modern-day liturgical echo of the view of priests as the successors to the Apostles can be seen in that the priests sit down within the altar when the epistles of the Apostles are being read in the course of the Liturgy.

Thus, it is necessary for a priest or bishop to officiate any sacrament of the Church, including the Eucharist.  The only exception is baptism.  In emergency situations, when the life of the person who wishes to be baptized is in danger and no priest or bishop is nearby, any Orthodox Christian—man or woman—can and should perform the baptism.  But this is a topic for a different time.

Now we have prepared ourselves for the celebration of the Divine Liturgy and are ready to enter into the holy temple of the Lord.  Next week, we will proceed into the narthex, or the entryway, and continue our discussion of the service of prothesis which was briefly mentioned at the beginning of this lesson, and of the ways that the faithful participate in it.

Question for discussion:

  1. Who celebrates the Divine Liturgy?
  2. Should people who do not plan to partake of Holy Communion prepare for the Liturgy nonetheless?
  3. What is the role of a priest or bishop in the celebration of the Eucharist?


<<Previous LessonNext Lesson>>



[1] From Greek Προθησις—“a setting forth”

[2] Justin Martyr (103-165). First Apology, ch. 67

[3] Such has been the practice in the Russian Church.  There are varying practices in other Orthodox jurisdictions.

[4] From Greek anti- and doron—“instead of the gifts”: pieces of the liturgical bread that those who did not partake of communion—the Gifts—receive after the end of the Divine Liturgy.

[5] This fact in itself, while fascinating, is not as important as the apostolic succession of each local Orthodox Church.  Lutheran pastors, for example, as long as they can trace their ordination to Martin Luther, and through him to the Catholic Church, can also trace it all the way back to one of the Apostles, perhaps Peter himself.  But without the succession of the true faith, the laying-on of hands can become a mere historical curiosity.

[6] Epistle to the Magnesians 6:1

[7] Against Heresies 3:2:2

[8] Although, it must be noted that some early Christian authors used the words “priest” (“presbyteros”) and “bishop” (“episcopos”) interchangeably.


Comments Off on The Law of God: Foundations of the Orthodox Faith. Lesson 4.