Worshiping in the Holyland

Worshipping with the People of the Holy Land and visiting worship spaces

Your trip is a chance to be open to true ecumenical Christianity – different denominations, different countries and languages, and services reflecting different centuries. You are going to want to pray with your travel group, if you have one, but it is more important to worship with local people and immerse yourself in other expressions of Christianity. It will enrich you immensely. You might also like to learn more about Jewish worship and Muslim worship.

When you are visiting a church, synagogue or mosque:

Although you can dress less formally when you are traveling than at home, do not wear anything you would not wear at your home church worship service. Dress modestly. In other words, do not wear baseball caps or short shorts or swim suits. Do not talk loudly if a service is in progress when you visit a place of worship, but observe quietly or join in. Think of how you would feel if tourists came to your home church. 

Christian worship

Christian Unity Service at Redeemer Lutheran
Christian Unity Service at Redeemer Lutheran

When attending worship services you will experience the liturgy (words and actions). The words of most liturgies reflect the same purposes as your own at home. The service may include: Praise to God, Confession, Learning through scripture and a homily, Offering, Communion, Prayers and a Benediction. Some churches have several processions during the service. If there is no program or book of worship and the language is unfamiliar, try to worship using your own words in your head and give yourself over to the service.

Orthodox Churches don’t always have pews so you must stand. Don’t put your hands in your pockets or cross them in front of your chest as it is considered impolite to God. If there are some chairs, they are for elderly people who cannot stand for long periods. Many people walk around during the liturgy as they are honoring icons, lighting candles and praying.

As to receiving communion, some Catholic Churches practice Eucharistic Hospitality so Protestants might, in those cases, receive communion. Orthodox Churches require you to be Orthodox to receive. All Christians may take communion at most Protestant churches. Ask ahead of time and before the service

The visual and space context

Worship Icons
Peter and Paul

Every worship space reflects the beliefs of the group and many have spectacularly beautiful decor. Others are quite plain and this is all part of the diversity which Christianity expresses. In some Orthodox and Melkite Churches there are icons on the walls and ceilings in the form of paintings or frescoes. There is often an iconostasis (icon stand) at the front of Orthodox churches with the lower icons picturing holy people and the upper ones showing major feasts of the church year. The area behind the iconostasis is called the Sanctuary. The altar is there and it is considered a part of heaven. Only priests are allowed there. Incense might be used since the belief is that we experience God with all of our senses. There is the phrase in Psalm 141 saying, “Let my prayer arise in your sight as incense” linking prayer and incense. If there are candles to be lit, you may do so but leave some money. 

Catholic and Protestant Christians have been puzzled by icons over the ages and many old icons were destroyed in this confusion. The question has been raised as to how we should relate to icons and if we are to worship them. Bruce Rigdon, a Presbyterian minister, has explained icons to non-Orthodox people in terms of proclamation, presence, and prayer. 

Icons show theology not scenes
Icons show theology not scenes

As “proclamation” they teach the theology of an event or person rather than the portrayal of it. They are like sermons in wood and paint. The Church determines whether something is an icon, not the iconographer (icon-writer) for “orthodoxy” (right theology) is more important than beauty. Icons often include several scenes in one icon to lift up theological significance. 

As “presence” the icons make the persons or events immediately present to the believer and they make the believer present to God. The “energy” of the material things used to create the icon is transformed into “spirit” and becomes a window to the Kingdom – a presence of the Kingdom on earth.

As “prayer”, the icons are images of holiness. They remind worshippers of the great company of saints in the body of Christ of which they are a part. Worshippers feel themselves as living icons in constant prayer and never alone when in the presence of icons.

The musical context

Western churches often have musical instruments for listening and to accompany singing. Eastern Orthodox churches believe that singing alone is sufficient music, since God created the human voice and the angels in heaven do not have instrumental accompaniment. Some Eastern churches use chants which are sung by the choir and repeated by the congregation. As you pick up the tune and words you may also join in. The Ethiopian Orthodox Churches use rhythm instruments and drums, adapted from the old Jewish Temple traditions. It is believed that the Queen of Sheba brought to Ethiopia some customs such as these from the earliest Jewish temples.

After the worship service

There are sometimes discussion groups in English following the worship service, especially in Protestant churches. Stay if at all possible since you will get to meet local Christians and hear their concerns. You might get some ideas of other sites and places not listed in this book by talking with these local Christians.

Jewish worship

There are two foci for Jewish worship: the home and the Synagogue. The Shabbat (Friday night) meal is itself a worship service. So, if you wish to attend a Shabbat dinner in a Jewish home ask around for an invitation.

Synagogue worship spaces in the Jewish context are similar to those in many Christian churches in the United States. You are welcome to join in the service, but there may be separate spaces for women and for men. Men must cover their heads and such coverings are available at the door. Many women wear hats to remind themselves of the requirement that their mothers had to shave their heads and wear wigs, so it is polite for women to wear a scarf or simple hat. In many strict Orthodox Jewish places, women must wear long skirts and cover their heads and non-Jews are not particularly welcome. 

Muslim worship

Al Aksa Mosque
Al Aksa Mosque showing rug spaces for each worshipper to kneel

A mosque is a space designated as a place of prayer, but education and other functions may occur there. The prayer area is big enough for the noon prayers on Fridays as well as for special occasions such as Muslim holidays (called Eids). The front of the prayer hall is oriented in the direction of Mecca and worshippers stand in line and bow in unison. Most mosques have separate areas for women and for men. There may also be a minaret outside for calling the people to prayer. 

The mosque prayer hall will have a mihrab or niche that indicates the direction of Mecca, since worship must occur facing in that direction, even at home or other places. There might be a minbar (pulpit) where the Imam delivers a sermon during Friday noon prayer. Outside there will be a place to leave shoes. There is also another outside place to wash hands, faces and feet in order to be purified when worshipping God. Women are expected to cover their heads, so bring a scarf when visiting a mosque. Since worship is a unison action, Christians are not always welcome during worship unless they also know how to participate in the ritual.

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