Besides the Eucharist and the major Sacraments, the Orthodox Church has a number of Special Services and Blessings which are associated with the needs, events, and tasks of human life. In celebrating these various Services and Blessings, the Church is constantly bearing witness to the presence and action of God in our lives. Our God is one who loves us, cares for us, and is near to us. The liturgical Services and Blessings also serve to remind us that all of life is important, and that the many events and gifts of life can be directed toward God and receive their fulfillment in Him.
The Special Services are often referred to as Non-sacramental Services in the sense that they are events of community worship which are not usually counted among the major Sacraments. However, they clearly have a sacramental quality in the sense that they reveal the presence of the Holy Trinity. Many of these Services, such as the Funeral, the Blessing of Water, and the Entrance into Monastic Life, just to name a few, are very significant to the life of the Church. The various Blessings are brief ceremonies which are occasional and do not necessarily involve directly the entire parish community.
The Church blesses individuals, events such as trips, and objects such as icons, churches, flowers, fields, animals, and food. In so doing, the Church is not only expressing our thanksgiving, but also affirming that no gift, event, or human responsibility is secular or detached from God. For the Orthodox Christian, all good things have God as their origin and goal. Nothing is outside of God’s love and concern.
THE CHURCHING OF INFANTS ~ Forty days after our celebration of Christ’s birth at Christmas, we celebrate the Feast of the Presentation of Christ to the Temple on February 2nd. The events celebrated on this day are recorded in Luke 2:22-38. It is this event in the life of the Lord Jesus that also forms the basis for the service of the 40-day blessing of new mothers and their children.
This event in the life of Christ has its roots in the Old Testament and in the fulfillment of the commandments of the Law given to ancient Israel. The infant Jesus, “the Word made flesh” (John 1:14), is carried in the arms of the righteous prophet Symeon: He who gave the Law in the Old Testament now comes as a small child to the Temple in Jerusalem in order to fulfill that Law in the New Testament.
In ancient Israel, God commanded that the first-born son (“who opens the womb”) be “dedicated to the Lord” in remembrance of the Lord’s sparing of the lives of the first-born sons of the Israelites during the 10th and last plague that killed all the first-born sons in Egypt, “from the pharaoh’s son, who was heir to the throne, to the son of the prisoner in the dungeon” (Exodus 12:29). So, because the first-born son of each Israelite household was spared on the night of that first Passover, the first-born son of subsequent generations was to be consecrated to God’s service in a special way, in gratitude for His mercy. This command of God in the Old Testament is brought to fulfillment in a new way in the bringing of the Christ child to the Temple by the Theotokos and the Righteous Joseph and is still celebrated in the life of the Church today, thousands of years later.
We Orthodox Christians, in order to fully participate in the process of conforming our lives and the lives of our children to the pattern of the life of Christ Jesus – “in whom there is neither Greek nor Jew, slave nor free, male and female” (Galatians 3:28) – bring not only our first born sons but all of our children to the Temple of the Church in order to dedicate and consecrate them to God and to offer prayers of thanksgiving to Him for the new life He has given. New mothers are also prayed over, thanking God for having preserved them from the dangers of childbirth, and asking for the forgiveness of their sins in preparation for receiving the sacrament of the Body and Blood of the Savior in the Eucharist. By this ancient service the Church affirms and blesses motherhood and family life and formally introduces the newborn child to the mystical life of the Church.
To schedule a Churching Service 40 days after the birth of a child, please contact the Saint Barbara Church Office.
THE FUNERAL SERVICE ~ The death of a Christian not only affects the family, but also the entire Church, for we are all part of the Body of Christ. The Orthodox Funeral Service, which expresses this fact, is not to be seen primarily as an opportunity to extol, in a sentimental way, the virtues of an individual. Rather, the various prayers and hymns emphasize the harsh reality of death, as well as the victorious Resurrection of Christ through which the power of death is conquered. The Funeral Service comforts those who mourn; it is also the means through which the Church prays for one of its members who has died in the faith of Christ. Orthodoxy views the end of physical existence only as the termination of one stage of life. God’s love is stronger than death, and the Resurrection of Christ bears witness to this power.
The Orthodox Funeral consists of three Services. First, there is a Vigil Service after death, which is usually conducted at the time of the wake. This service is called the Trisagion Service. The Church prays to Christ “to give rest with the Saints to the soul of Your servant where there is neither pain, grief, nor sighing but life everlasting.” While the Church prays for the soul of the deceased, great respect is paid to the body. Orthodoxy believes the body of the Christian is sacred since it was the Temple of the Holy Spirit.
The body will share also in the final restoration of all creation. The Funeral Service is continued at the Church, where the body is brought on the day of burial. After the Funeral Service, the congregation offers its farewell to the deceased. The Trisagion Service is repeated at the graveside.
A note about cremation: Because the Orthodox Faith affirms the fundamental goodness of creation, it understands the body to be an integral part of the human person and the temple of the Holy Spirit, and expects the resurrection of the dead. The Church considers cremation to be the deliberate desecration and destruction of what God has made and ordained for us. The Church instead insists that the body be buried so that the natural physical process of decomposition may take place. The Church does not grant funerals to persons who have chosen to be cremated.
MEMORIAL SERVICE ~ Death alters but does not destroy the bond of love and faith which exists among all the members of the Church. Orthodoxy believes that through our prayers, those “who have fallen asleep in the faith and the hope of the Resurrection” continue to have opportunity to grow closer to God. Therefore, the Church prays constantly for her members who have died in Christ. We place our trust in the love of God and the power of mutual love and forgiveness. We pray that God will forgive the sins of the faithful departed, and that He will receive them into the company of Saints in the heavenly Kingdom.
The Orthodox Church remembers the departed in the prayers of every Divine Liturgy. Besides this, there is a Memorial Service in which the Church also remembers the dead. According to tradition, the Memorial Service is offered on the third, ninth, and fortieth day after a death, as well as on the yearly anniversary of the death. In addition to these times, the Memorial Service is always offered for all the departed faithful on four “Saturday of the Souls.” These are: the two Saturdays preceding Great Lent; the first Saturday of Great Lent; and, the Saturday before Pentecost.
When the Memorial Service is offered, it is customary for the family of the deceased to bring a dish of boiled wheat to the Church. The boiled wheat is placed on a table in the center of the nave during the Service. The wheat, known as kollyva, is a symbol of the Resurrection. When speaking of the Resurrection, our Lord said: “Unless the grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone, but if it dies it bears much fruit.” (John 12:24)
To schedule a Memorial Service please contact the Saint Barbara Church Office.
THE GREAT BLESSING OF WATER ~ Epiphany, one of the oldest and most important Feast days of the Orthodox Church, commemorates the manifestation of the Holy Trinity which took place at the Baptism of Christ in the Jordan River. Recognizing rich meaning in this event, Orthodoxy believes that when Christ was baptized, it not only marked the beginning of His public ministry and revealed the Trinity, but also signified that all of creation is destined to share in the glory of redemption in Christ.
While Christ entered into the Jordan to be baptized, two things were happening: He was identifying Himself with the people He had come to save; and, He was identifying Himself with the whole of Creation which was represented by water. Through His baptism, the Lord revealed the value of the created world and He redirected it toward its Creator. Creation is good and it belongs to God.
The Great Blessing of Water is held on the Feast of Epiphany following the Divine Liturgy. The Blessing not only remembers the event of Our Lord’s baptism and the revelation of the Holy Trinity but also expresses Orthodoxy’s belief that creation is sanctified through Christ. The Blessing affirms that humanity and the created world, of which we are a part, were created to be filled with the sanctifying presence of God.
After the solemn blessing, the Holy Water is distributed to the faithful and is used to bless homes during the Epiphany season. When the faithful drink the “Epiphany Water,” we are reminded of our own baptism. When the Church blesses an individual, or object, or event with the water, we are affirming that those baptized, their surroundings, and their responsibilities are sanctified through Christ and brought into the Kingdom of the Father through the Spirit.
In addition to the Great Blessing of Water, there is a Lesser Blessing of Water service which can take place at anytime. Usually, it is celebrated when a home is blessed, on the first day of the month, the beginning of the school year, and the beginning of new responsibilities.
HOUSE AND BUSINESS BLESSINGS ~ In conjunction with the celebration of Theophany (Epiphany) on January 6, and the service of the Great Blessing of the Water, it is traditional for the Priest in Orthodox parishes to travel to the homes and businesses of parishioners and bring the blessing of the Jordan into our daily lives. We do this each year by having the priest bless our homes and businesses with the Holy Water from the service of Theophany, offering prayers for our health, our family and the Lord’s abundant blessings in the coming year.
To schedule a house or business blessing, contact the Church Office. The service takes only a few minutes, but the blessings are there all year! When the priest visits, please have ready: 1) a list of the names of your family members, 2) a small bowl of water, and 3) an icon. He will begin the service in the dining room or in the area of your home where you keep your icons, then he will ask you to guide him around the house.
THE BLESSING OF BREAD (ARTOKLASIA) ~ The Blessing of Five Loaves of Bread is a brief service of thanksgiving through which we express our gratitude for all the blessings of life. Oil, wine, wheat, and the loaves of bread which are used in the service, are viewed as the most basic elements necessary for life. The Blessing reminds us of the miracle of the multiplication of the bread and fish by which Christ fed the multitude. This Blessing is usually offered during Vespers or after the Divine Liturgy on Feast Days and other special occasions. After the Service, the bread is cut and distributed to the congregation.
AKATHYST HYMN ~ The Orthodox Church worships God alone. Yet, she does offer veneration to individuals who have been important human instruments of God in the history of salvation. Among those so venerated is Mary, the Mother of God, the Theotokos. The Orthodox Church greatly honors Mary because she was chosen to give birth to the Son of God. As one of the hymns declares:
“By singing praise to your maternity, we exalt you as a spiritual temple, Theotokos. For the One Who dwelt within your womb, the Lord who holds all things in his hands, sanctified you, glorified you, and taught all to sing to you …”
The most beautiful and poetic service of the Orthodox Church in honor of Mary, the Theotokos, is the Akathist Hymn. The word akathist means without sitting. The congregation stands throughout the Service out of respect for Mary and her unique role in our salvation in Christ. The Akathist Hymn is chanted in four parts during the first four Fridays of Great Lent. On the fifth Friday, the entire Service is chanted.
THE SERVICE OF SUPPLICATION (PARAKLISIS) ~ The Supplication Service is one offered especially at times of sickness, temptation, or discouragement. The various prayers ask the Lord for guidance, personal strength, and healing. Many of the hymns and prayers are directed toward Mary, the Theotokos, and they ask for her assistance. Orthodoxy affirms that each of us, with Mary, the Saints, and the faithful departed is united in a bond of faith and love in Christ. Therefore, just as in this life we can turn to each other for prayer, the Church believes that we can also turn to Mary – the human being closest to God – and ask her to pray to God for us. This belief is expressed in the hymn which says:
“A protection of Christians unshamable, intercessor to our Holy Maker, unwavering, reject not the prayerful cries of those who are in sin. Instead, come to us, for you are good; your loving help bring to us, who are crying in faith to you: hasten to intercede, and speed now to supplicate, as a protection for all time, Theotokos, for those who honor you.”
There are two forms of the Service of Supplication: the Greater and the Lesser. It is the Lesser Service of Supplication which is briefer and the one most frequently offered. Both forms of the Service are offered during the first fourteen days of August which precede the Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos celebrated on August 15th.
By Rev. Thomas Fitzgerald with additions by Fr. Steven Tsichlis