Orthodox America

  On the Orthodox Church Services

    The assumption on the part of so many Orthodox that church services cannot be conducted without a priest is a misconception which has added greatly to our spiritual poverty. In fact, in some of the more remote villages of old Russia and Greece, and even in many of the smaller monasteries where there was no attendant hieromonk (a. monk ordained to the priesthood) or priest, it was not uncommon for the faithful themselves to conduct the services, all of which they could do with: the exception of the .Divine Liturgy which is in any case outside the daily cycle, as we have already explained.

    The shortage of priests today should encourage a greater interest on the part of laymen and women to familiarize themselves with the ordering of the various services. Even if one does have access to the daily cycle of services, a basic knowledge of how they are structured gives an added dimension to one's understanding of the services and provides a key to the rich treasury of dogmatic instruction which they contain.

    Admittedly, one who first approaches this subject may feel he has entered a complex maze: each service seems to require a multiple number of books with frequent shifts from one to another, no service is exactly the same from day to day, and there appear to be countless exceptions to the general pattern. But with a little perseverance and without aspiring to become an expert on the subject, one can sufficiently master the basic outline of the services as to be able to conduct them smoothly and prayerfully. Fortunately, a book called -the Typicon provides rubric s which set forth the variables for most services. This is published annually and for the past two years has been made available in English by the St. John of Kronstadt Press in Liberty, TN. The Typicon is a chart, as it were, which gives instructions for steering one through the fine points of the services. But before One can even make use of this invaluable aid, one must learn how properly to read the chart and the various handbooks to which the chart refers. With this knowledge one can have hopes of smooth sailing ahead.

     Given the lack of comprehensive religious instruction in so many parishes today, we offer here a very basic explanation of the structuring of the services, beginning with a description of the books which are used.


The Church Service Books

     Foremost among these in importance are, as one would rightly expect, the Sacred Scriptures which contain the divinely inspired word of God. While these are available in a single volume--the Bible, those parts most commonly used in the services are published, for the sake of convenience, as separate volumes: the Gospel, the

Book of Epistles and the Psalter.

       The Gospel. is comprised of the first four books of the New Testament written by the Evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. These books, each of which is also called a gospel (meaning "good news"), contain the narrative of the earthly life of our Lord Jesus Christ, from His Incarnation as the God-man to His Ascension into Heaven. Those editions of the Gospel especially designed to be read during the services are divided not only into the usual chapters and verses, but also into sections or lessons; a table at the back of the volume indicates the lesson(s) appointed to be read on any given day of the year. There are, for example, 11 Gospel lessons read on consecutive weeks during the Sunday Matins; each section relates a particular event in which Christ revealed Himself after His Resurrection.

     The Book of Epistles, similarly divided into lessons, contains the remaining books of the New Testament with the exceptional the book of Revelation--the Apocalypse, written by St. John the Evangelist and Theologian. Because it is full of divine mysteries and is very difficult to properly interpret, the Apocalypse is not read during the church services, even though it is recognized as being the inspired word of God.

     The Psalter contains the psalms of holy Prophet-king David in which he opens his soul to God, spilling out feelings of joy and grief, of praise, repentance, love, gratitude, contrition, appeals for mercy, and an awareness of God's almighty power and His enduring mercy. Because it helps bring the soul into a right relationship towards God, the Psalter is used more than any other book during the course of the services. Each of the 20 sections into which it is divided for church use is called a "kathisma," from the Greek word "to sit," as the faithful are supposed to sit while the Psalter is read. In the course of the cycle of services, the entire Psalter is read each week.

Other books used during the services were composed by the Fathers and Teachers of the Church, using as their foundation the Holy Scripture and Holy Tradition. Just as the Church calendar is organized on the basis of two dating systems--one fixed and the other moveable, so too, the services are arranged according to a combination of fixed and variable elements. The fixed or unchanging parts of the daily cycle are found in the Horologion (Tchasoslov or "Book of Hours"). Using this as the basic framework, other hymns and prayers are woven in from books containing the changing parts. Those most commonly used are the following:

     The Octoechos is a book of hymns divided, as its name implies, into eight families of melodies or "tones." Each week is governed by on e of these eight tones which follow consecutively through most of the year, always beginning anew with Tone 1 on the second Sunday of Pascha. The arrangement of this repeated eight-week cycle of ecclesiastical chant is the work of St. John of Damascus, the famous 8th-century composer of the Byzantine Church. The text of the Octoechos is also ascribed to him, although parts of it were written by St. Metrophanes bishop of Smyrna, St. Joseph the hymnographer, and others over the centuries.

     The monthly Menaion, in 12 volumes corresponding to the 12 months, contains prayers and hymns in honor of the saints commemorated through the year and of the feasts of the Lord and the Theotokos which fall on fixed calendar dates. Of course, not every saint has had a service composed in his/her honor, and still fewer have as yet been translated. In these cases the General Menaion is used. This single volume contains the hymnography common to the various categories of saints: prophets, apostles, martyrs, monastics, etc. The Festal Menaion contains the services for the major unmoveable feasts of the Lord and of the Mother of God, selected from the monthly Menaion.

    If the different Menaea can be said to correspond to the fixed calendar, the Lenten Triodion and the Ferial Triodion or Pentecostarion relate to the moveable calendar. The Lenten Triodion contains the special parts of the services during Great Lent and Passion Week; it includes the Sunday services of the preparatory weeks beginning with the Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee. From Pascha through the Sunday of All Saints (the first Sunday after Pentecost) the Pentecostarion is used.

    The Irmologion contains the initial hymns or "irmoi" from each of the nine odes of the various canons chanted in Matins, as those are not always printed out in full in the other service books.

    A number of other books are specifically for the clergy. The Book of Offices (Sluzhebnik) contains parts recited by the priest and deacon within the order of Vespers, Matins and Divine Liturgy. An Episcopal Service Book(Tchinovnik) contains additionally those parts peculiar to a pontifical service, and also the order for consecrating an antimension and the services for ordaining readers. deacons and priests, which are performed by a bishop. The Book of Needs (Trebnik) is devoted to special occasion services; the blessing of water, the order of burial, prayers at the birth of a child and at the naming of a child, prayers upon beginning the school year, or setting out on a journey, etc. It also includes the services of the various sacraments excepting the Mystery of the Holy Eucharist which is the central part of the Divine Liturgy and is found in the Horologion.


Sources: The Law of God; and A Manual of the Orthodox Church’s Divine Services compiled by Archpriest D. Sokolof.

Switch to: 

Subscribe (and order back issues) to Orthodox America
Order Books from Orthodox America

If you note problems with this site, please contact the Webmaster
© 1998-2006 by Nikodemos Orthodox Publication Society