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The Church: First Steps

On the need to come to church

Our Lord Jesus Christ, Who came down to earth for our salvation, has founded His Church, in which He invisibly remains to this day, providing us with all that we need for eternal life, and where “the heavenly host invisibly serves,” as it is said in one of the hymns. “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matt. 18:20), – said the Lord to His disciples and to all of us who believe in Him. Therefore, those who rarely come to church lose a great deal. Even greater is the sin of those parents who do not concern themselves with their children’s attendance of church. Remember the Saviour’s words: “Suffer little children and forbid them not to come to Me, for of such is the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matt. 19:14).

“Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4), – the Lord tells us. Spiritual nourishment is just as essential for man’s soul as physical food for the nourishment of his bodily energy. And where will a Christian hear the word of God except in church, where the Lord Himself invisibly teaches those who have gathered in His name? Whose teaching is preached in church? The teaching of the Saviour Himself, Who is true Wisdom, true Life, the true Way, the true Light that enlightens every person coming into this world.

The church is heaven on earth; the services held therein are the work of angels. The Church teaches us that when Christians come to church, they receive a special blessing which brings success to all their good undertakings. “When you hear the ringing of church bells, calling everyone to prayer, and your conscience says to you: let us go to God’s house, put all your affairs aside and hurry to church, – advises us Bishop Theophanus the Recluse. – Know that your guardian angel calls you to enter under the roof of God’s house; it is he, the heavenly denizen, who reminds you of heaven on earth, where you can sanctify your soul with the grace of Christ, gladden your heart with heavenly comfort, and – who knows? – perhaps he calls you there in order to protect you from temptation to which you would succumb were you to remain at home, or to shield you from some great danger by keeping you in church…”

What does a Christian learn in church? Spiritual wisdom which has been brought to earth by the Son of God – Jesus Christ. Here he also learns about Christ’s life on earth, acquaints himself with the lives and teachings of the saints, participates in church prayer. And the collective prayer of all the faithful is a great force!

The prayer of a saint can do many things – there are numerous examples of this in history, but even greater results are achieved by the earnest prayer of those who have gathered in the Lord’s house. When the apostles awaited the coming of the Holy Spirit in accordance with Christ’s promise, they stayed together with the Mother of God in unanimous prayer. As we gather together in church, we expect the grace of the Holy Spirit to descend upon us, too. And so it does… save when we ourselves put up barriers.

For example, an insufficient opening up of the heart prevents the faithful from becoming united in general prayer. In our times this often happens because the faithful do not conduct themselves in church as required by the holiness and the majesty of the place.

How is the church set up and how must one conduct oneself therein?

How the church is set up

In its external appearance a church is quite different from other buildings. Quite often the church is built in the form of a cross, because with His Cross the Lord delivered us from Satan’s power. Sometimes the church is built like a ship, symbolizing the fact that the Church is similar to a ship or to Noah’s Ark, bringing us across the sea of life to the safe harbor of the Heavenly Kingdom. Sometimes it is shaped in the form of a circle – symbol of eternity – or an eight-pointed star, which symbolizes the Church being a guiding light for us in this world.

The top of the church building is usually a dome which represents the heavens. The dome is crowned with a cross that symbolizes the glory of the Head of the Church, our Lord Jesus Christ. Sometimes there are not one but several domes: two domes symbolize the two natures (divine and human) of Jesus Christ, three domes – the three Persons of the Holy Trinity, five domes – Jesus Christ and the four Evangelists, seven domes – the seven sacraments or the seven Ecumenical Councils, nine domes – the nine hierarchies of angels, etc.

Over the church entrance or sometimes next to it there is a belfry, i.e. a tower in which bells are hung. These bells are rung to summon the faithful to prayer or to announce the most important moments of the service.

The interior of an Orthodox church is divided into three parts: the altar, the body of the church, and the narthex. The altar symbolizes the Heavenly Kingdom. The faithful stand in the body of the church. In the narthex, in the early times of Christianity, stood the catechumens, i.e. those who were preparing to be baptized. Nowadays the narthex is sometimes used as a place to send those who have sinned heavily. Also in the narthex one can buy candles, submit names for commemoration, etc.

Christian churches are built with the altar facing the east – from whence the sun rises, because the Lord Jesus Christ, Whose divine light has shone upon us, is called “the Sun of Righteousness,” Who has come to us from “the orient on high.”

Every church is dedicated to and bears the name of a certain saint or a certain sacred event. The most important part of the church is the altar. The word itself means “an elevated sacrificial table,” and the altar is usually set upon an elevation. Here the clergy perform the services and here we find the most sacred object in the church – the altar table, on which the Lord Himself is mystically present and on which the sacrament of the transubstantiation of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ takes place. The altar table is a special sacred table dressed in two vestments: an undercover of white linen and an upper cloth of rich and brilliant material. Various sacred objects stand on the altar table and only clergymen are allowed to touch it.

The space behind the altar table at the east wall of the altar is called the high place. To the left of the altar table, at the north wall of the altar stands another small table, also dressed in rich vestments. This is the table of oblation, on which the Holy Gifts for communion are prepared.

The altar is separated from the body of the church by a special screen hung with icons and called the iconostasis. The iconostasis has three doors. The largest ones, in the middle, are called the royal doors, because the King of Glory, the Lord Jesus Christ, passes through them invisibly in the chalice with the Holy Gifts. No one is allowed to pass through these doors except the clergymen. Through the side doors – called the north and south doors – pass the altar boys.

To the right of the royal doors an icon of the Saviour is always placed, while to the left – an icon of the Mother of God, further on – icons of highly venerated saints, and on the north and south doors – icons of the Archangels Michael and Gabriel. To the right of the Saviour, at the end of the row one usually finds the church icon, on which is depicted the feast or the saint in whose honor the church has been consecrated. Other icons are usually hung on the walls of the church or placed upon an analogion – a special stand with an inclined top.

There is an elevated platform in front of the iconostasis; the part of it which is immediately in front of the royal doors is called the ambo. Here the deacon stands to read the litanies and the Gospel, and here the priest gives his sermon. The faithful also receive holy communion on the ambo. On either side of the ambo there are choirs for the readers and singers. Near the choirs stand the church banners, i.e. icons mounted upon staffs, which are brought out during processions around the church.

In the church there is also a special candle table called the requiem-stand, upon which or behind which stands a large Crucifix. This table is used for the serving of panikhidas. Behind each analogion there are also candle stands upon which the faithful place their candles. Aside from candlelight, at certain solemn moments of the service the church is illuminated with electrical lights in the special chandeliers that hang from the ceiling.

Behavior in church

Enter the holy church with great spiritual joy. Remember that the Saviour Himself has promised to comfort you in your sorrow: “Come unto me all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28). Always enter with humility and meekness, in order to leave the church justified, as did the humble publican of the Gospel.

When you enter the church and see the holy icons, imagine that the Lord Himself and all the saints are looking upon you; at that moment especially attune yourself to piety and the fear of God.

Upon entering the church, cross yourself thrice and bow down, then stand in your place and listen attentively to the church singing and the prayers being read in church. It is well if you have a customary place to stand in church. Proceed to it quietly and modestly, and as you pass in front of the royal doors, stop and cross yourself. If you do not have your own place yet, do not be concerned, but find a free spot and stand there quietly.

Always come to church early, in order to have time to place your candles, order your commemoration, and venerate the icons before the service begins. If you happen to come late, be careful not to disrupt the prayer of others. If you come into the church during the reading of the six psalms, or the Gospel, or during and after the Cherubim song, stand at the entrance until these most important moments of the service are over.

Look upon church candles with great piety: they are the symbol of our flaming prayer to the Lord, His Most-holy Mother, and all the saints. Do not walk around the church during services, even to place your candles. The icons must also be venerated only before the service starts or at set times – for example, during the anointing with oil at the all-night vigil. Some moments of the service require special concentration: the reading of the Gospel, the Magnificat (song of the Holy Virgin), and the Great Doxology during the all-night vigil, and the entire liturgy, particularly beginning with the Cherubim song.

Greet your acquaintances in church with a silent bow, and do not shake hands or talk, even with close friends. Do not gaze around you with curiosity, but stand and pray with sincerity, paying attention to the order and the content of the services.

In Orthodox churches it is customary to stand during services. Sitting is allowed only during the reading of the kathismas (selected psalms) and the parables (readings from the Old and New Testaments at the all-night vigil of great feasts). At all other times it is permissible to sit only case of illness or infirmity, according to the principle expressed by St. Philaret of Moscow: “It is better to sit and think of God than to stand and think of one’s feet.” Pray in church as a participant in the services and not as one who is present only, so that all the church prayers and singing issue as though from your own heart; follow the service attentively, in order to pray for whatever the entire Church is praying.

If you come to church with children, pay close attention to them and make sure that they behave modestly, do not make noise, do not scream, do not run around the church, but train them to pray. Never allow a child to eat or drink in church, except when the priest gives out blessed bread. If a small child starts crying, take him out of church immediately, so that his cries do not disrupt the service and do not bother those around him.

Do not be judgmental of the involuntary mistakes of those around you; it is better to look at your own shortcomings and ask God to forgive them. It may happen that during the services someone starts bothering other parishioners and prevents them from concentrating on prayer. Do not become irritated, do not scold them, but try not to pay attention, or move away.

Do not leave the church until the end of the service unless absolutely necessary, for that is a sin in the eyes of God. If you should do so, repent of the sin during confession.

Women should come to church dressed modestly, wearing a dress or a skirt, with their head covered and preferably without any makeup. In any case, it is totally impermissible to take communion or kiss sacred objects with painted lips.

Many churches have developed their own customs, which are not always correct. However, there is no need to become upset while listening to old women’s scolding. Humbly accept their reproaches without trying to “enlighten” them. That is the clergy’s responsibility.

Most important of all is mutual love among the parishioners, common prayer, and understanding the services. If we enter the church with piety and if, while standing in church, we imagine ourselves in heaven, then the Lord will fulfill our wishes.

The divine church services

Church services are the main reason for the existence of our churches. The Orthodox Church holds evening, morning, and day services in church on a daily basis. In turn, each of these groups consists of three types of offices, joined together into a daily cycle of divine services:

  • Evening – ninth hour, vespers, compline.
  • Morning – midnight office, matins, first hour.
  • Day – third hour, sixth hour, the Divine liturgy.

Thus the entire daily cycle consists of nine offices. Much of the Orthodox service is borrowed from Old Testament services. For example, a new day is reckoned to begin not at midnight, but at 6:00 in the evening. Therefore, the first service of the daily cycle is the vespers.

In the vespers the Church commemorates the major events of the Old Testament: the creation of the world by God, the fall of Adam and Eve, the laws of Moses, and the service of the prophets. Christians give thanks to the Lord for the day that has passed.

After the vespers it is customary to serve the compline. These are general prayers before going to sleep, during which the Church commemorates the descent of Christ into hell and the liberation of the righteous ones from Satan’s power.

At midnight it is customary to serve the third office of the daily cycle – the midnight office. This service was established to remind Christians of the second coming of the Saviour and of the Last Judgment.

Just before sunrise the matins is served – one of the lengthier services. It is dedicated to the events of the Saviour’s life on earth and contains many prayers, both of repentance and of thanksgiving.

Afterwards the first hour is read. This is the name of the brief office in which the Orthodox Church commemorates Jesus Christ’s trial by the high priest Caiaphus.

The third hour (corresponding to 9:00 in the morning) is read in remembrance of the events of the Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended upon the apostles, and in Pilate’s praetorium, where the Saviour was sentenced to death.

The sixth hour (corresponding to noon) is the time of the Lord’s crucifixion, while the ninth hour (corresponding to 3:00 in the afternoon) is the time of His death on the cross. The above offices commemorate these events.

The main service of the Orthodox Church, the central part of the daily cycle, is the Divine liturgy. In contrast to the other services, the liturgy provides the opportunity not only to commemorate God and the Saviour’s life on earth, but to actually become united with Him in the sacrament of communion, which had been established by the Lord Himself during the Mystic Supper. The liturgy is served between the sixth and the ninth hours, before midday.

Modern church practice has brought some changes into the established order. Thus, in parish churches the compline is served only during the Great Lent, while the midnight office is served only once a year, at the beginning of the Paschal service. The ninth hour is rarely read. The remaining six services are combined into two groups of three services each.

In the evening, the vespers, the matins, and the first hour are served consecutively. On the eve of Sundays and feast days these offices are combined into a single service called the All-night vigil. In ancient times Christians usually prayed until sunrise, i.e. kept the vigil throughout the entire night. Currently the all-night vigil services last 2-3 hours in parish churches and 3-5 hours in monasteries.

In the morning, the third hours, the sixth hour, and the Divine liturgy are served consecutively. On the rare days when the liturgy is not served (for example, on Great Friday), a brief office called the typical psalms is held. This office consists of several psalms and chants from the liturgy and, in a sense, “typifies” it. However, the office of the typical psalms does not have the status of a full service.

Besides the daily church services there are also special services performed in accordance with the Christians’ needs. These are, for example: baptism, holy unction, matrimony, burial service, molebens, panikhidas, etc. Divine services are usually held in church and performed only by clergymen, while the faithful take part in them through prayer and singing.

The sign of the cross

To make the sign of the cross, we fold the fingers of our right hand in the following manner: the first three fingers (thumb, second, and middle fingers) we press together evenly, while the other two (ring and little fingers) we bend towards the palm of our hand. The first three fingers pressed together signify our faith in God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit as the Trinity, one-in-essence and indivisible, while the two fingers bent towards the palm signify that in His incarnation God the Son became man while remaining God, i.e. these fingers represent His two natures – Divine and human.

We must make the sign of the cross unhurriedly, placing our fingers on the forehead, the stomach, the right shoulder, and the left shoulder. And then we make a bow, but only after we have lowered our right hand, in order not to break up the cross that we have just placed upon ourselves.

In regard to those who sign themselves with the whole hand, or bow before finishing the sign of the cross, or wave their hand in the air or against their chest as though chasing away flies, St. John Chrysostome said the following: “Such a frenzied waving is a great joy to demons.” On the contrary, a sign of the cross that is made correctly and unhurriedly, with faith and piety, terrifies the demons, calms sinful passions, and attracts the grace of God.

The priest’s blessing

Clergymen (i.e. people who through the sacrament of ordination have received the grace of the Holy Spirit to serve in the Church of Christ) – bishops and priests – make the sign of the cross over us. Such a sign is called a blessing.

When a priest or bishop blesses us with his hand, he folds his fingers in such a manner as to make up the letters IC XC, i.e. Jesus Christ. This means that it is our Lord Jesus Christ Himself Who blesses us through the priest. Therefore, we must receive the blessing of a priest with great reverence.

In church, when the priest blesses the people with a cross or with the Gospel, or an icon, or the chalice, everyone crosses himself and bows down to the waist, but when the priest blesses with candles, or with his hand, or censes the people, or says the general words “Peace be unto all,” then one must bow down to the waist without crossing oneself.

In order to receive a personal blessing from a priest or bishop, one must fold one’s hands in the form of a cross: the right hand over the left hand with palms up, saying the words: “Bless me, Father (or Vladika).” Having received the blessing, we kiss the hand which has blessed as, as though kissing the invisible hand of the Saviour Himself. As St. John Chrysostome says: “It is not man who blesses, but God through man’s hand and tongue.” This is clear even from the priest’s words: “God bless!” You should ask for God’s blessing not only in important matters or dangerous enterprises, but in all your daily affairs: upon your food, that it may bring you health; upon your honest work, that it may be fruitful; upon your travels, that they may be safe; upon your children, that they may grow up in faith and piety; upon all your goods, that they may multiply for the benefit of your entire family.

Without God’s blessing not a single affair can go well. It is for this reason that our pious ancestors began all their endeavors with prayer and with the blessing of a priest.


The primary prayer for the health of the living and for the repose of the deceased is done by the Church during the Divine liturgy. In view of this, before the beginning of the liturgy one must submit special commemorative lists with the names of the living and deceased (only the names of baptized Orthodox Christians can be submitted). During the proskomedia, the priest will take small particles out of the prosphora in commemoration of the living and the dead; these particles will be placed in the holy chalice and at the end of the liturgy will be steeped in the Blood of Christ as a symbol of Christ’s cleansing of human sins. It should be remembered that commemoration during the Divine liturgy is the greatest gift we can give to those who are dear to us.

At the top of the commemorative list is written “For the living” or “For the deceased,” under which we should clearly and legibly write the names we wish to submit, making sure to place clergymen and monastics first and not forgetting to indicate their priestly rank.

All names should be written out fully (for example, Michael, Alexander, and not Mike, Alex, etc.) When submitting the commemorative lists, parishioners usually accompany them with a donation to the church or monastery.

Many people append various pieces of information concerning the age, profession, or condition of their relatives: for example, infant, serviceman, imprisoned, suffering, etc. The church frowns upon this practice. The only thing the priest needs to know is the name which the Orthodox Christian had received at his baptism, and also the priestly or monastic rank, whenever such may apply. There is no need to indicate in these commemorative lists people’s last names, patronymics, social ranks and titles, or degree of kinship. There is also no need to precede names with such descriptions as “sorrowing,” “needy,” “straying,” etc. Only in the case of the newly-departed are their names preceded with the word “newly-reposed” while they are commemorated for the first 40 days after their death.

Besides general services, the Orthodox Church also has private services which include the moleben (prayers for the living) and the panikhida (prayers for the dead). In accordance with his own wish the parishioner may request a moleben to the Saviour (for example, a moleben of thanksgiving, or for travelers, or for the sick), to the Mother of God (or Her various icons), or to venerated saints.

The Lord mercifully allows us to receive His help in all our needs through the intercession of the Holy Theotokos and the saints. Thus, for example, prayers before the icon of the Mother of God “The Unquenchable Chalice,” or to the holy martyr Boniface, or to the righteous St. John of Kronstadt help deliver us from alcoholism; St. Nicholas the Wonderworker is the patron saint of travelers, aids in marrying off daughters and, in general, is quick to respond to various pleas for help; the holy warrior-saints Theodore Stratilates, John the warrior, Prince Alexander Nevsky, and also St. John the Baptist are the patrons of Orthodox soldiers; in illness we appeal to the heavenly physicians Great-martyr Panteleimon and the holy unmercenaries Kosmas and Damian; the names of many icons of the Mother of God (for example, “Joy of All Who Sorrow,” “Surety of Sinners,” “Softener of the Hard-hearted,” “The Merciful One,” “Seeker-out of the Lost,” “Assuage my Sorrows”) speak of the fact that She is our earnest Intercessor before God in our various needs.

The panikhida is served before the memorial table – a special table with the Crucifixion and candleholders, where the faithful can place candles in memory of their departed relatives. Monasteries and churches also accept commemorative lists for living and dead Orthodox Christians for a period of 40 days, half-a-year, or a year. In that case the monks or the priest pray for our relatives at every service during the indicated period of time.

While being aware that the best thing which we can do for our nearest and dearest (especially those who have departed) is to submit a list with their names to be commemorated during the liturgy, we must also unfailingly remember them in our own daily prayers and do charitable deeds in their memory.

The prosphora, antidoron, and artos

The prosphora has its roots in antiquity. Its prototype were the loaves of offering in Moses’s tabernacle. In the beginning of Christianity the faithful themselves brought with them bread, wine, oil, wax for candles – everything that was needed for the service. This offering (“prosphoron” in Greek) or donation was accepted by the deacons; the names of the donors were then included in a special list which was read out loud, together with prayers, during the sanctification of the gifts. Christians also made offerings in remembrance of departed family members and relatives, and the names of the deceased were also commemorated with prayer. From these voluntary offerings a portion of the bread and wine was reserved for transformation into the Body and Blood of Christ, candles were made from the wax, and the remainder of the gifts were handed out among the faithful. Later only the bread which was used for the liturgy became known as the prosphora. In time, special prosphoras began to be made for the church in place of regular bread, and donations of money were accepted for them.

The prosphora consists of two parts, which are made from dough separately, and then joined together. The upper part is stamped with a seal depicting an equally four-sided cross with the letter IC and XC (Jesus Christ) over the bar of the cross, and HI KA (victory in Greek) under the bar. The prosphora, which is prepared from the grains of innumerable stalks, symbolizes both human nature, which is made up of many elements of physical nature, and humanity in general, which is made up of a great multitude of people. Moreover, the lower part of the prosphora represents the earthly component in man and humanity, while the upper part with the seal represents the spiritual component in man and humanity, upon which is stamped the image of God, and wherein the Spirit of God is mystically present. The presence of God and the spiritual component permeate man’s entire nature, which is reflected in the preparation of the prosphoras by the addition of holy water and yeast to the water. The holy water signifies the grace of God, while the yeast signifies the life-giving force of the Holy Spirit, which gives life to all creation. This accords with the Lord’s words about spiritual life leading man to the Heavenly Kingdom, which He compares to leaven placed in flour, by means of which the entire dough rises.

The division of the prosphora into two parts visibly represents the invisible division of man’s nature into body (flour and water) and soul (yeast and holy water), which remain in an indissoluble yet unmingled unity; for this reason the upper and the lower parts of the prosphora are prepared separately and then joined together to become a whole. The seal on the upper part of the prosphora signifies the stamp of God’s image, which permeates man’s entire being and represents the spiritual component in him. Such an arrangement of the prosphora corresponds to man’s condition before the fall, and also to the human nature of the Lord Jesus Christ, Who by His incarnation restored man’s original nature which had been corrupted by sin.

The prosphora may be obtained at the candle table after the liturgy, having ordered it before the beginning of the service by submitting lists of commemoration of the living and the deceased. The names written in these lists are read in the altar, and for each name a particle of the prosphora is taken out, and such a prosphora is then called a “commemorated prosphora.”

At the end of the liturgy the faithful receive the antidoron – small portions of the special prosphora from which the Holy Lamb had been taken out. The Greek word “antidoron” comes from the words “anti” – in place of – and “di oron” – the gift, which means something given in place of the gift.

“The antidoron,” – says St. Simeon of Thessalonika, – “is the holy bread which had been given in offering and whose middle part had been taken out and used for the Eucharist; this bread, having been touched by the spear and by the divine words of prayer, is given in place of the Holy Mysteries to those who had not taken communion.”

The antidoron must be received with reverence, kissing the hand of the priest who is giving out this gift. In accordance with Church rules, the antidoron must be eaten only in the church, with great reverence and on an empty stomach, because this bread is holy, it is bread coming from the table of oblation and part of the offering made to the Lord’s altar, from which it receives heavenly blessing.

The word artos (“sourdough” in Greek) signifies a holy bread for all the members of the Church, in other words – a universal prosphora. The artos is blessed on Pascha and lies in front of the royal doors for the entire Bright Week, and at the end of the paschal celebration is given out to the faithful.

The use of the artos dates back to early Christianity. On the fortieth day after His Resurrection, the Lord Jesus Christ ascended into heaven. Christ’s disciples and followers found comfort in a prayerful remembrance of the Lord – they remembered His every word, every step, and every action. Gathering together for common prayer, they commemorated the Mystic Supper and partook of the holy Body and Blood of Christ. When gathering for an ordinary meal, they always left a place at the head of the table for the invisibly present Christ, and placed a loaf of bread there. Following the apostles’ example, the first pastors of the Church made a rule to place bread in the church during the feast of Christ’s Resurrection as a tangible symbol of how the Lord, having suffered for us, had become the true bread of life for us.

The artos is blessed by means of a special prayer, sprinkled with holy water, and censed at the end of the liturgy on the first day of Pascha. The blessed artos is then placed before the icon of the Saviour on the raised area in front of the iconostasis, where it lies throughout the entire Bright Week. On Bright Saturday (or, wherever there is no service on that day, on the Sunday of Thomas), at the end of the liturgy the priest says a special prayer during which the artos is divided up and then given to the faithful as they come up to kiss the cross. The faithful keep these portions of the artos, which they have received in church, as a spiritual remedy for illnesses.

Holy water

Throughout our entire life we have with us an extraordinarily sacred object – holy water (“agiasma” in Greek, i.e. “sacred object’).

Holy water is the image of the grace of God: it cleanses the faithful of spiritual impurities, sanctifies and strengthens them for the task of salvation in God.

We first come into contact with it during our baptism, when we receive the sacrament by being thrice immersed in a font filled with holy water. In the sacrament of baptism, holy water washes away a person’s spiritual impurities, renews him, and makes him reborn into a new life in Christ.

The holy water necessarily accompanies the blessing of churches and all the objects used for church services, also the blessing of homes, buildings, and diverse objects of daily life. We are sprinkled with holy water during church processions and at the end of molebens.

On the day of Epiphany, every Orthodox Christian carries home with him a vessel with holy water, carefully preserves it as a most sacred object, partakes of this water with prayer in times of illness.

“Blessed water, – wrote St. Dimitri of Kherson, – has the power to sanctify the souls and bodies of all who use it.” Taken with faith and prayer, it heals our bodily ills. St. Seraphim of Sarov always gave pilgrims a cup of holy Epiphany water to drink after confession. St. Ambrose of Optina sent a bottle of holy water to a mortally ill person – and the fatal illness disappeared to the great amazement of attending physicians. Elder Seraphim of Vyritsa always said that there is no greater and more powerful medicine than holy water and blessed oil.

The blessing of the water which takes place on the feast of Epiphany is called great because it is permeated by the special solemnity of remembrance of the Baptism of our Lord, in which the Church sees not only a mystic cleansing of sins, but also the actual sanctification of the very essence of water through the immersion of the incarnate God into it.

The great blessing of the water is performed twice – on the very day of Epiphany and also on the eve of the feast. Some people mistakenly believe that the water blessed on these days is somehow different. But in reality, the same rite for the blessing of water is used on both the eve and the day of Epiphany. St. John Chrysostome often said that holy Epiphany water remains unspoiled for many, many years and is always fresh, pure, and pleasant to the taste, as though it were drawn just this minute from a natural spring. Such is the miracle of God’s grace which can be seen by all!

According to Church belief, the “agiasma” is not simply water with spiritual significance, but a new essence, a spiritual-physical essence, an interrelation of heaven and earth, of spiritual grace and material substance. For this reason the great agiasma is regarded by Church canons as second after Holy Communion: in cases where a member of the Church who has sinned heavily receives the penance of being excluded from communion, the following canonical proviso is made: “He may only drink the agiasma.” Epiphany water is an extremely sacred object which should be found in the home of each Orthodox Christian and carefully cherished.

Aside from Epiphany water, Orthodox Christians often drink water that has been blessed at molebens (the lesser blessing of the water) throughout the year. A lesser blessing of the water is necessarily performed by the Church on the day of the Procession of the Life-giving Cross (1/14 August) and on the day of mid-Pentecost, when the deeply-mystical words of the Lord, said by Him to the Samaritan woman, are remembered: “Whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life” (John 4:14).

It is customary to take holy Epiphany water on an empty stomach together with a piece of prosphora, after morning prayers and with great piety. “Whoever partakes of a prosphora and holy water, – said the holy hermit George of Zadonsk, – is guarded against the approach of the evil spirit, his soul and body are sanctified, his thoughts are enlightened towards pleasing God, and such a person is inclined towards fasting, prayer, and all manner of virtue.”

Prayer for the partaking of the prosphora and holy water

O my Lord God, may Thy holy gift and Thy holy water be unto the enlightenment of my mind, the fortification of my spiritual and physical powers, the health of my soul and body, the subjugation of my passions and frailties, by Thy infinite mercy and by the prayers of Thy Holy Mother and all Thy saints. Amen.

The church candle

The church candle is a symbol of our spiritual union with the holy Church. The candles which the faithful buy in the church, in order to place them on candlestands near icons, have several spiritual meanings: since the candle is purchased, it is a sign of a person’s voluntary gift to God and His temple; it is also an expression of his readiness to obey God (the softness of the wax), of his ardent prayer to God (the burning of the candle), and of his desire for spiritual renewal. The candle is also a testimony to faith and to man’s inclusion in Divine light. The candle expresses the warmth and the burning love of man for God, the Mother of God, the angel, or the saint before whose images the faithful place their candles.

The lighting of candles in church is part of the service and is an offering to God; for this reason one must not disrupt the service by belated purchases of candles and walking around the church to place candles when the service is already in progress. If you wish to place a candle – you must come at the beginning of the service.

The lighting of candles
The lighting of candles

The purchase of candles is a small offering to God and His church, a voluntary offering. Therefore, it is highly desirable to buy candles in the church where one has come to pray (and not bring them from elsewhere). There are no set rules concerning where and how many candles to place. However, it has become customary to first place a candle before a feast icon or the church icon, them place candles to the Mother of God and to venerated saints, also to one’s patron saint, and then for commemoration of the living and the deceased. Candles for the commemoration of the dead are placed on a special table before the Crucifix, while mentally saying: “Remember, O Lord, Thy departed servant (name) and forgive him his trespasses, both voluntary and involuntary, and grant him Thy Heavenly Kingdom.”

While praying for health or other needs, one usually places candles to the Saviour, the Mother of God, and also those saints to whom the Lord has granted the special grace of healing or helping with various needs. When placing a candle before a saint of your choice, mentally say: “O Saint (name), pray to God for me, a sinner (or the name of the person for whom you are praying).” Then cross yourself and venerate the icon of that saint.

It is important to remember: for our prayers to be successful, we must pray to the saints with faith in the power of their intercession before God, and with words coming straight from the heart. The saints always hear us and pray to God for us.

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