Orthodox Customs

In the United States, the faithful have the rare privilege to see a variety of Orthodox rites and customs, in both Eastern and Western Rite churches. Most customs are shared in some form by both Eastern and Western Orthodox. All of us make the sign of the cross, light candles, need to come to church on time, keep lipstick off the images (icons or statues), and the like. However, like the liturgical rites themselves, some church etiquette, as Fr. Barr nicely puts it, naturally differs.

The Processional

In the Western Rite liturgy, the priest and acolytes start at the back of the church and process down the center aisle up to the altar. The acolyte who carries the cross, who is called the crucifer, leads this procession. Following the cross in order are the torch bearers, the thurifer (the acolyte with the thurible, or censer), attending clergy, the celebrant, and the bishop (if present). In some parishes the choir also processes in. It is customary to show veneration to the cross by bowing slightly as it passes you by. Respect for the celebrant and clergy is shown the same way, by a modest bow when the clergy pass.

Use Your Head

The Western Orthodox custom is to bow the head slightly whenever our Lord’s name is mentioned. This helps attentiveness, (since you have to listen for the name of Jesus), and is a bodily reminder of respect to God.

Speaking of heads, in some Western Orthodox parishes the women keep the old-fashioned custom of covering their heads, by wearing hats or lace. On Good Friday, you may notice black lace.


To genuflect (kneel down briefly and then arise) is the Western Orthodox way of venerating the sacrament or the altar. To take your place in church, walk quietly down the center aisle, and then genuflect before moving to the left or right into the pew. The same is done when leaving the pew, either to go up to communion or to leave after the service is over.

The clergy and faithful also genuflect or bow when passing by the vessel in which the blessed sacrament is reserved.

Another time to genuflect is at these words of the creed: Who for us men and for our salvation, came down from heaven, And was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man. Etiquette at the Altar Since a Western Rite parish has no iconostasis, everything the celebrant, attending clergy, and acolytes do is plainly visible. Thus, any talking or unnecessary movement must be avoided. The atmosphere is solemn, with slow, dignified movements.

How to Receive Communion

To receive the sacrament, all Orthodox must be properly prepared. However, the method of giving and receiving communion differs between East and West.

At Eastern Rite parishes, the priest stands with the chalice, and the people approach one by one. In Western Rite parishes, the people are stationery, and the priest moves from person to person. Churches often have a rail around the altar, where the people kneel down and say their final pre-communion prayers. Some people may continue to kneel while receiving the sacrament.

The leavened bread—baked into a thin round wafer—is given first, followed by the wine. To receive the bread, form your hands into a cup, one on top of the other, and hold them out for the priest to place the wafer in. This manner of receiving communion was described by St. Cyril of Jerusalem in his 4th century work On the Eucharistic Rite: Make thy left hand as if a throne for thy right, which is on the eve of receiving the King. And having hollowed thy palm, receive the Body of Christ… Other ancient sources prescribe this same method. For example, Canon CI from the Quinisext Council (692) states that …if anyone wishes to be a participator of the immaculate Body in the time of the Synaxis, and to offer himself for the communion, let him draw near, arranging his hands in the form of a cross… St. John of Damascus in De Fide Orthodoxa urges us to …draw near to it with an ardent desire, and with our hands held in the form of the cross, let us receive the body of the Crucified One.

Alternatively, you may open your mouth and the priest will place the wafer inside.

To receive the wine, lightly grasp the chalice in the priest’s hands and guide it to take a sip. You may notice that after each communicant the priest or deacon cleans the lip of the chalice with a white linen cloth.

How to Participate Without Receiving Communion

Communion is regarded as the ultimate expression of unity between those who share the faith, discipline and order of the Orthodox Church. Accordingly, it is given only to Orthodox Christians. Other persons attending the service, such as inquirers, visitors, catechumens, or family members who are not Orthodox, may come forward at the time of communion to receive a blessing. Orthodox may also do this when, for whatever reason, they are not taking the sacrament.

To receive a blessing, come up to the altar at the proper time, along with everyone else. Fold your arms across the chest in X-fashion. In the Western tradition, this indicates that you are not receiving the sacrament. When the priest reaches you, he will give you a blessing, making the sign of the cross on your head. After you receive the blessing, return to your seat.

It goes without saying that one should pay absolutely no attention to who is receiving the sacrament and who is abstaining.

Non-Orthodox may also receive the eulogiae or pain benit. This is bread which has been blessed, but not consecrated (Eastern Rite parishioners may recognize a similarity to the Antidorondistributed at Byzantine services). Dating back at least to the 6th century, the custom of giving out blessed bread to non-communicants was prevalent in England, France and Germany. The English Sarum liturgy, an inspiration for the Orthodox liturgy of St. Tikhon, contains a specific prayer to bless the eulogiae. Western rite parishes use this prayer today. The blessed bread custom survived in some locations into the 20th century, but had largely died out until its restoration to the West through our Archdiocese’s Western Orthodox parishes. It is a kind and helpful custom for today, since persons who do not share our understanding of communion might otherwise feel uncomfortable at not being able to receive the sacrament.

Let Us Bow the Knee

You see a lot of kneeling in our Western Rite parishes. In the Western tradition, kneeling is a more humble pose than standing. For example, the faithful are directed to make the General Confession devoutly kneeling (the General Confession is said in every liturgy; it is a supplement to individual confession to a priest). Many people kneel throughout the Canon of the Mass (prayers leading up to the consecration). One also kneels down to receive the dismissal blessing at the close of the liturgy.

The Sign of the Cross: How Big?

Making the sign of the cross is a remembrance of the Lord’s death and resurrection, and is a custom which all Orthodox share. How and when the sign of cross is made differs. One familiar difference is the direction Western Orthodox make the sign up-down-left-right whereas Eastern Orthodox make it up-down-right-left. Another difference is the size or style of the gesture.

Many Eastern Orthodox have been taught to make a pronounced, elaborate bow when crossing themselves. In contrast, many Western Orthodox cross themselves in a more subtle fashion; the gesture is restrained, with only a modest bow or nod.

What should we make of this difference? An Eastern Rite parishioner visiting a Western Orthodox church might be surprised and wonder if his Western Rite brethren are reluctant or uncomfortable about making the sign of the cross. A Western Rite parishioner might wonder why his Eastern brethren were drawing attention to themselves by such an elaborate gesture. This is an example of when (as Fr. Barr’s article said) talking about church etiquette inform[s] our communities how we can best understand each other and work together to worship the all-holy Trinity.

For many Western Orthodox, and particularly those who come from an English background, it would be unthinkable to make the sign of the cross in the broad style that comes naturally to others. To these Western faithful, it would feel show-offy to use a big, bold gesture. For them, the subtle gesture is consistent with humility—like not drawing attention to how much one fasts.

Conversely, for those trained in the Eastern style, it might feel stingy and unsatisfying to use the subtle Western method. Taught differently, for them the big gesture implies boldness in confessing the cross of Christ.

As in many things, each method of making the sign of the cross is fully adequate to God, differing only in externals. This is also a good lesson: What at first seems puzzling or problematic is simple and worthy once it is understood.

The Sign of the Cross: When?

Western Orthodox typically cross themselves just before receiving communion. This is done just before the priest reaches you, so there is no danger of upsetting the chalice.

The faithful also make the sign of the cross when the priest or bishop blesses the congregation. The celebrant does this at the end of every liturgy. In addition, when a bishop visits, he repeatedly blesses the people by making the sign of the cross over them as he recesses out with the rest of the altar party. As he passes, the people receive his blessing by genuflecting and making the sign of the cross.

Instead of making the sign of the cross each time the Trinity is mentioned, the Western Orthodox custom is to make a small, reverential bow.

East Meets West

There is a lot of talk of diversity these days; much of it nonsense. However, true diversity is the ultimate reality, since it is the life of the Holy Trinity. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost are One God, yet three Persons. Each Person is equally God, yet not identical to the others.

The spectrum of liturgical practices and spiritual customs embraced by our Archdiocese is another example of true diversity. Each rite is equally orthodox, yet not identical to the other. Non-liturgical customs and styles of parishes also differ, yet we are all of one family.

The Eastern Orthodox are justly revered for their vigilance in preserving the Orthodox Faith, and its Eastern expression, throughout the centuries. The duty of Western Orthodox is to emulate this vigilance, faithfully preserving and restoring to the Orthodox Church the good and holy Western heritage which is rightfully hers.

Through the wisdom of Patriarch Tikhon (the patron saint of Western Orthodoxy), the Holy Synod of Moscow, Archbishop Bashir, Archbishop Saliba, the Patriarch of Antioch, and our Holy Synod, we in America are privileged to see the fullness of God and the catholicity of the Church expressed in our different liturgies and customs. We are privileged to be able to glorify God in a way that is authentic and legitimate not only to our shared faith—that’s a given—but also to our varying cultural backgrounds and approaches. God grant that all of us, Eastern and Western, may realize how fortunate we are.

A shorter version of this article was originally published in The Word magazine. Written as a follow-up to a prior Word article by Fr. David Barr on customs and practices in Orthodox churches, this article highlights some customs of the Western Orthodox parishes in the Antiochian Archdiocese. Many thanks to Holy Cross Parish for the text of this article.