Things we do in Church - entering and exiting Church
HOW TO ENTER CHURCH
Following on from our previous items (introductory for some and reminders for others of us) on what we do in our worship and why we do it, a few brief thoughts on our arrival in Churchâ¦
On entering the Church it is customary among Oriental Orthodox Christians to remove shoes (see November 2008 newsletter). In some Churches you have to wade through a sea of shoes at the entrance, some Churches have shoes racks on the way in â and in others it may be sensible and more practical to put them under your chair. We also do well on entering the Church to sign ourselves in with the sign of the cross. When you enter the Church, this is âa transition from street to altar. You are put in transit as you enter and you respond with all the gestures of somebody undergoing a profound change. You sign in by marking yourself with a cross. You make a Christian mark, establishing your identity and your right to move freely across the threshold of Godâs houseâ¦â (David Martin, Personal Indentity and a Changed Church)
Then our Lord can be greeted and His blessing sought by praying before the altar veil or curtain, then prostrating or bowing and kissing the bottom corner of the altar veil or curtain. If a bishop is present we turn and bow before him and kiss his hand-cross and the back of his hand. This is also to greet Christ since the bishop is an icon of Christ. If no bishop is present we can kiss the hand-cross and hand of a priest (the priest being the icon of the bishop). This of course assumes that we have arrived before the service starts. If we are late and the curtain open and the service underway then it may not be practicable to venerate the altar curtain. If the bishop is present and seated outside the altar then it is still okay to bow before him and kiss his cross and hand. Of course some who arrive late may prefer simply to sign themselves in with the sign of the cross and to stand and offer a silent prayer.
Having venerated the altar curtain and the bishop, if present, we can then venerate the icons on the icon screen â the icon of our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ, the icon of the Mother of God and such other icons as may be on the screen or on the walls of the Church. The saints are members of our family â it is good to greet them, it is good to show them respect and reverence and to seek their blessing and prayers. We can light a candle before the icon of our Lord or the icon of the Feast and before such other icons as have a place for candles. The custom within the Coptic Orthodox patriarchate is to touch the icon with the tips of the fingers and then to bring the hand to the mouth and touch the lips with the finger tips. The Byzantine Orthodox custom is to kiss the icon directly with the lips. It is also good to greet oneâs fellow worshippers, though a little restraint is perhaps worth observing here and remembering that old maxim about it being good to talk to God before the service and to our fellow worshippers after the worship. I am not suggesting that we ignore others before hand â a handshake, an exchange of peace, a kiss, a quiet hello perhaps may all be considered acceptableâ¦ but I have known occasions when the conversation grew so loud that I found it well nigh impossible to concentrate on my prayers of preparation.
I remember over a decade ago joining the monks for worship in the early hours of the morning in the monastery of the Holy Virgin (Al Muharraq). As each monk arrived in the Church he would go to the front, stand in prayer a moment, bow down and kiss the altar curtain, then turn and kiss the bishopâs hand-cross and hand â then he went around the Church greeting everyone there. He would greet a fellow monk, then an icon on the wall of a saint who had departed this life perhaps a century before, then another monk, then another monk, then the icon of a saint from the first century, then another monkâ¦ And it dawned on me that it made no difference whether it was a flesh and blood monastic companion or the icon of one who had departed however recently or long ago; this was one family, this was the communion of the saints â and not just as an expression, declared as words in the Creed but as a living reality before my very eyes.
HOW TO LEAVE CHURCH
Following on from my brief thoughts on our arrival or entrance in Churchâ¦ a brief word about how we exit the Church. We should exit the Church walking backwards and crossing ourselves. Some people will kiss the icon of our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ and then exit backwards whereas others simply exit without the kiss. We walk backwards out of the Church for the same reason the deacon walks backward in processions before the Gospel Book for example â because we are before the King, even the King of Kings and Lord of lords. If people walk backwards before an earthly king or emperor rather than to turn their backs on him how much more should we show such respect to âthe blessed and only Potentate, the King of kings, and Lord of lords.â (1Timothy 6:15). So there you have it; you exit the Church backwards and with the sign of the cross.