Worship on the Trip

Worship on the Trip

Below you will find:

    Information concerning your worship
    Information about Eastern churches
    Thoughts about theology and worship
    A section on icons
    Information about the churches in Jerusalem

Concerning worship

Leaders of church-related groups need to consider in advance, the place of worship in the life of the group. Most important of all, plan to worship with the local Christians. They will welcome you and, despite what has been conveyed to some Christian travelers, there are no restrictions and you do not have to make “reservations” in advance to attend regularly scheduled services. The Christian Information Center at Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem has lists of churches and the times of Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant services for Jerusalem and major centers around the country.

Plan to attend Sunday morning services and stay afterward for hospitality and discussion. Check out the weekday services as well. Late afternoon vespers on a weekday in one of the Orthodox Churches is especially recommended. Some Sunday morning Protestant or Anglican services are in both Arabic and English (including the hymns).  You ought to attend a service in Arabic if at all possible. A phone call to the priest or minister, in advance, is recommended and he will sometimes include readings in English or an English text for you to follow.

A non-Orthodox may not take communion in an Orthodox service. Don’t embarrass yourself or the clergy by going forward since the priest will probably ask you about your faith and refuse you if you are not Orthodox. (Blessed bread is sometimes passed out at the door and you should take a piece.  It comes from the custom of “bread for the journey” since people often walked many miles to get to and from church.)

Some of the Catholic churches (including Greek Catholic) practice Eucharistic hospitality, allowing non-Catholics to take communion when away from home. Check with the individual church. See A Western Christian Encounters the Eastern Church (below) for some suggestions about attending services and what to look for.

Periods of worship within your group are often very important as well but should not replace worship and contact with local Christians. You might also invite a local clergy person to lead a short service in your hotel one evening. At least, end your group debriefings or times of reflection in the evening with a prayer.

On site worship is one of the greatest gifts which the Holy Land offers. It was the inspiration of on site worship which led early pilgrims to bring home the idea of the Stations of the Cross so others could share in the event. The book, Living Stones Pilgrimage with the Christians of the Holy Land, offers suggestions for worship at sites on the Mount of Olives, locations related to Holy Week, the Via Dolorosa, and around the Sea of Galilee. Other books are available as well.

On site worship can be as simple as reading the scripture, praying and singing one verse of a hymn or it can be an extended service with a sermon and even communion in some places. If there are other groups at the same site, consider joint worship.

Bring small hymn books, music books, or copies of appropriate hymns and songs which you may want to sing, unless you only want to use the first verse (which most people know). Be careful of the words. For example, “Marching to Zion” is inappropriate for Christians in the Holy Land since “Zionism” is the driving political force for the founding of the State of Israel. Many Christians have suffered from the effects of Zionism. If you need to sing it, do so before you leave home. Other hymns may reflect a theology which supports colonialism, Zionism or even ethnic strife. This is a good time to look over the words and choose appropriate materials.

Check in a concordance of the Bible ahead to time, to find scriptures appropriate to locations you will be visiting and keep a list. Another source of scriptures for sites is the Christian Information Center. They publish a pamphlet and provide this information on (See Resources in Israel/Palestine) Think about the meaning for today behind the scripture and location in planning worship. For example, at Peter in Galicantu Church in Jerusalem, the possible location of Peter’s betrayal of Jesus, consider today’s betrayals and ways in which people in the group sometimes betray Jesus.

Use materials developed by the various churches of the Holy Land as well as some from other faith groups. Some of this research can be done at home in libraries, seminaries and by consulting with pastors of Orthodox and Catholic churches.

Be sure to check with local people as to whether worship is permitted in each location. You usually cannot use the inside of churches or other religious buildings without permission and you may be restricted by the denominational rules. This is no different from the way we treat churches at home. You would be upset if a group of strangers got out of a bus, marched into your church and held a service without even asking permission.

Most outdoor sites are open unless they are a closely related part of the church, such as the plaza in front of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. In that area, restrictions stem from a one-and-a-half-century old document called the Status Quo.

Encourage members of your group to participate in the leadership of worship. The group leader or even the clergy do not have to do it all.

A Western Protestant Encounters the Eastern Churches

I was working with an Orthodox theologian, co-authoring a book about churches in the Soviet Union. I said to her, “How come the Orthodox say ‘Lord, have mercy’ twelve times instead of three times like we do”? My Orthodox friend looked me straight in the eye and asked, “How come you Protestants say ‘Lord, have mercy’ only three times instead of twelve”? I was trying to understand the Eastern Churches on my own terms, but I learned that they must be understood on their own terms. They are not Churches deviating from Western Christianity but Churches that grew along a different path.

It was from that incident that I began to truly appreciate the Eastern Churches as part of the diversity in unity that is the Body of Christ in the world. Although there are various groupings such as Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, and Eastern Catholic with important differences, the term Eastern Churches will be used for the sake of simplicity.
Both the Eastern Churches and the Western Churches have grown out of the Church begun at Pentecost in Jerusalem and spread throughout the world. (See Who Are the Christians in the Middle East? which includes a history of the spread of Christianity and its divisions.)  Geography, politics, language, theological diversity, culture and just plain centuries have made the differences.  As in the West, the Eastern churches have also had their histories marked by national experiences and the upheaval of conquest and some of these experiences produced different customs. More important, though, there are differences born of theological conviction and controversy between various Eastern Churches and between East and West. 

In the Middle East, where it is said that all of the centuries co-exist at the same time, there are churches that try to preserve the earliest memories of the Christian Church as a way of being the true Church. They have valuable insights that are needed for the wholeness of Christianity for they see themselves in living continuity with the ancient Church.  They also have a greater appreciation for the visual imagery of theology that Westerners can learn from.

Western culture holds a view of the world that encourages change and “improvement” to the point where many people consider traditions backward looking.  Tradition in the Eastern Churches is respected and handed on fairly intact as a way of being faithful to Christ.  The decisions of the Ecumenical Councils of the early Church have a significance just next to the Scriptures. 

Because most Westerners have little knowledge of the growth of Christianity after the book of Acts and before the (Western) Reformation, they also have little knowledge about the history, theology and liturgy of the Eastern Churches.

Beginning in the fourth century, the Roman Empire was divided into the Western Roman Empire with its capital in Rome and the Eastern Roman Empire with the capital at Constantinople (now called Istanbul).  The Eastern Churches were growing and developing along different trajectories but at the same time as the Western Churches.  By the time of the formal split in 1054 the differences were quite pronounced and unlike the Western Churches, the Eastern Churches did not go through a massive period of Reformation and Counter-Reformation nor did they experience the Western Renaissance.

Western Protestants and Catholics are heir to the 19th century notion that the Western church, especially in its more Evangelical branches, was the best, most pure example of true biblical religion.  This belief led to a disdain of the Eastern Churches as dead Churches. Missionary activity that was aimed first at converting Muslims and Jews, turned to converting Orthodox believers to Western Evangelical fervor.  The missionaries found few converts, for the Eastern Church people also believed they were the true Church, and in continuity with its founding.  This myopic view of West over East persists today in the minds of many visitors to the Holy Land along with the false assumption that Islam virtually destroyed the Christian churches of the Middle East.

Some thoughts About Theology and Worship

The theology of the Eastern churches considers God as mystery.  God’s nature is incomprehensible and no words can contain the fullness of God.  All that we say or affirm falls short.  Knowing God and worshipping God is not just an intellectual journey but a process of experiencing the mystery, instead of just talking about it.  God is hidden yet revealed; unknown but well-known; and God is revealed in the Tradition as well as in the Scripture.

Jesus brought salvation into the world but He also is the one who brought to the world the light of divine revelation and entrusted it to the Church.  This light is the uncreated light of God.  It also is that light which shines through the icons (see below) and the saints, making God present in the Church. The nature of the relationship of Jesus’ divinity and humanity was controversial in the early Church and definitions of this relationship caused theological disagreements and schisms during the first 500 years which have lasted until today.

One of the theological concepts which separates some of the Eastern Churches from the Western Churches is known as the “filioque.”  In the creed many Eastern Churches say that the “Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father” while the Western Churches add “and the Son” (filioque).   Out of courtesy to the Orthodox, Pope Paul VI   omitted the filioque himself at a meeting with the Patriarch of Constantinople.  As looked at from the 20th century, the differences appear to many as linguistic and not substantial.

Although Mary is revered, since she was honored by being chosen to be the Mother of God, she does not have the same position (intercessor) as in the Western Roman Catholic Church.  When seen in an icon, she is often holding Jesus on her left arm and pointing to him with her right hand.  In Eastern Christianity Mary is also called “theotokos” — God bearer.  Mary is meant to be a model for both women and men as she points away from her self to God and as she is the bearer of God into the world.  There are no requirements such as miracles for sainthood, but saints are those who reflected the image of God in their lives in a special way.

Unlike many Western efforts to categorize theology on a step-by-step rational basis and avoid the “unknown”, Eastern theology accepts the mystery and favors aesthetic images along with the texts to convey meaning.  The liturgy (and especially icons) forms a bridge that brings the transcendent God and humanity in contact with each other.  It is an experience of heaven on earth in the company of God and all the saints.  As such it engages all of one’s senses–sight, sound, touch (movement), smell and taste.

The church building is a special place in the world.  The nave (area where the congregation sits – or more likely stands) is meant to be a place where the worshipper has put the world behind. The church is gathered in a different space and a different time and the worshipper stands before God because Christ has raised humanity from sin and death and made people into new human beings.  The lack of pews also facilitates the practice of personal piety in the midst of the community experience.  People move around, lighting candles, kissing icons and engaging in their own prayers.   Entrance into the holy space of the nave is a foretaste of entrance into the eternity of Paradise.

The area around the altar is the mystical center of the church and it is sometimes set apart by a curtain or an iconostasis (icon screen).  It represents the Kingdom of God to which the people are present when at worship.

The liturgy is mostly made up of texts from the Bible.  Music itself is the form of worship but there are no musical instruments used. The words are sung or chanted because the singing human voice is considered the most perfect way of worshipping God.  It is the Word of God and the human response is more than an ordinary conversation.  Sergei Glagolev in The Sound of Sacred Music says, “We sing prayers: we do not introduce them, accompany them, comment on them or complement them.  The songs are the prayers. Ultimately, that’s the way everything that breathes praises the Lord.”

Incense will stimulate your sense of smell, but unless you are from a church in communion with the one you visit, you will not have the opportunity to experience taste in the Eucharist. The incense echoes Psalm 141 “Let my prayer be counted as incense before you” and is reminiscent of Isaiah’s vision of God on the throne.  (Isaiah 6:1-8)   You will notice that the person carrying the censor incenses the clergy, special icons or places in the church and the “living icons”– the people attending the service.  Symbolic gestures such as lighting candles, participating in processions,  standing instead of sitting, signing the cross all have their way of drawing the worshipper into the liturgy.


What one sees in an Eastern Church is probably the most engaging of the sensual experiences.  There are, of course, the people, the vestments, banners and the crosses but understanding the icons is an important key to appreciating the Eastern churches.  The icons are not worshipped, for only God can be worshipped.  Icons, though, point to the God that is worshipped and makes God’s acts better known and understood. A few Eastern churches do not use icons but most do.

Icons are symbolic statements — theological statements — that give visual form to abstract doctrines of the Church.   Although icons do reflect the culture through the methods, materials and techniques of their production, icons are inseparable from theology.  There is a whole canon of imagery and color that the iconographer (icon writer) is expected to follow and the most important thing is not the beauty but the orthodoxy of the content.  People who know the theology behind the imagery, can “read” the icon even when no words appear.   A piece of art is not really an icon until the church community decides it is an icon.  The person of the artist disappears and the faith of the church is proclaimed.

But more than teaching tools, icons are considered “thin places” where the persons and events pictured are present to the believer in the here and now.  Human beings are created in God’s image and given the gift to commune with God.  The icon becomes a two-way window into the world of the Spirit–into the Kingdom of God–that allows it to happen.  The icon isn’t just what you see in terms of paint or wood, but it is also an image of God’s grace that can be seen only through the eyes of faith.  It is said that icons are lonely in a museum.  They need to be with the faithful in the Church.

Icons also make the persons and events pictured immediately present to the believer. They remind the worshipper of the great company of Christians in all times and places who are still present as they worship God.  Icons are meant to make the past present just as the living people (living icons) worshipping are also present to one another and to God.  Worship is a rich and full experience and people are expected to go back out into the world inspired by the time spent with God.

Churches in Jerusalem

In Jerusalem one encounters a great variety of Churches that the Middle East Council of Churches classifies as Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Catholic and Evangelical (Protestant and Anglican).  The Eastern Orthodox Churches (Greek, Romanian, and Russian) are those who accept the theological understanding of the nature of Jesus Christ proclaimed at the Council of Chalcedon in 451. Christ is one person in two natures “of one substance with the Father according to His divinity, of one substance with us according to His humanity…Only begotten in two natures without confusion, without change, without division, without separation.”

The Churches which did not accept the teachings promulgated at that council are termed Oriental Orthodox or non-Chalcedonian and they have not always been considered orthodox by the Eastern Orthodox Churches. The Oriental Orthodox have formed national churches to a greater degree than the Eastern Orthodox.  In Jerusalem the Oriental Orthodox include the Armenian, the Coptic, the Ethiopian and the Syrian Orthodox Churches.  These two groups of churches (Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox) have gone their own ways, although today it is felt by many that the differences in 451 were linguistic and both groups really represent the same faith.

Partly as a result of missionary activity on the part of the Latin Catholics (known in the West as the Roman Catholics) portions of the Orthodox churches have come into union with Rome.  Many of them still retain some degree of worship in the Eastern style.  The Maronites, whose liturgy and practices most resemble the Latin Catholics,   believe that they have never been out of communion with Rome.  In Jerusalem these Churches include Greek Catholics, Syrian Catholics, Armenian Catholics, Chaldeans, and Maronites in Jerusalem and are grouped as simply “Catholic.”

The Church of the Holy Sepulcher, also known as The Church of the Resurrection, is where many Westerners first get introduced to the Eastern churches.  It is probably one of the worst places to have that happen for, in addition to being a church, it has become a tourist attraction piled up with the dust of the ages and the litter of the “Status Quo.”  The ownership and the prerogative for cleaning and restoration has been in many church hands but several national groups (acting as “protectors” of Church groups) also took sides on the issues.  By 1852 an agreement called the Status Quo was finalized designating who had rights to occupy space and at what time.  It also set down rules for care, cleaning and restoration. 

Some people see this as a result of division and as evidence of enmity between branches of the Church, but there is probably no other place in the world where very different denominations cooperate to occupy the same building at the same time. 

Unfortunately it has resulted in halls of leftover stones and columns, and a cacophony of liturgies being celebrated.  If a person goes early in the morning to see the faithful stopping on their way to work, or late in the afternoon to follow a candlelight procession, it will feel less strange.   That is when the Church belongs to the local people. 
For an appreciation of Orthodox buildings and worship, go to one of the other Eastern churches.  The Greek Catholic Patriarchate church near Jaffa Gate is a remarkable place to experience icons, both painted and frescoed.  They also display their theology by carrying three candles in one bundle and two in another in processions.  The first symbolizes the trinity and the second, the unity of the human and divine in Jesus Christ, issues which divided the early church.

St. James Armenian Orthodox Cathedral with its dim lighting, open space and choir of seminarians is worth a visit.  It is only open for “tourists” at afternoon vespers so if you want to see it that is the time to go. The lamps hanging all over the nave are gifts from Armenian Christians who came on pilgrimage to Jerusalem.   Visitors remark on the sense of timelessness in the services.  There are many other Churches which should be visited.  Check with the Christian Information Center about location and times of services.

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