Questions about altar serving
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The primary duty of an acolyte is to help the faithful pray. His main duties
- Serving in the altar, and assisting the senior clergy (the priest, and also
the deacon and bishop) by getting the censer at the proper time, and other
duties associated with serving.
- Helping the clergy by following special instructions, cleaning the altar,
getting ready for services, and other tasks that are necessary to keep the
temple in good order.
Throughout all of his duties, the acolyte must strive to pray and act piously,
so that the people are edified by his example. This duty must be uppermost in his
mind no matter what he is doing in the church.
Any Orthodox Christian male who has the blessing of the priest may serve as an
acolyte in the altar.
Upon entering the altar for the first time, the acolyte should:
- Make three bows (poklons) or prostrations (if prostrations are allowed -
they are not done on Saturday and Sunday, and some other days) while facing
holy altar table.
- Go to the priest and ask for his blessing.
- Find his vestment, fold it, and present it to the priest in order to be
blessed to put it on.
The vestment an acolyte wears is called a sticharion. He puts it on before
serving any service, after getting the priest's blessing. At the end of the
service, he must also receive a blessing before taking it off. If the acolyte
wishes to commune the holy mysteries, he must also take off his sticharion
(unless he is a reader or sub-deacon, or is blessed to keep the sticharion on
during communion). He does not ask a blessing to do this.
The altar servers must carefully make sure all things are ready before the
Divine Liturgy is begun, so that there are no delays or awkward moments. Here is
a reasonably complete list (in no particular order) of some of the things that
must be attended to:
- Fill the water pitcher that is used for the clergy to wash their hands, and
make sure the towel is clean and available.
- Clean the area that is used to hold the incense, charcoal, etc.
- Put out the charcoal and incense in the usual place, making sure there is
enough for the service.
- Clean the censer, and polish it if there is time, and it needs it.
- Sweep the altar and clean as necessary.
- Trim and light the vigil lamps in the altar.
- Check the big candle stand (which is put in front of the royal doors during
the communion of the clergy), and replace the candle if necessary.
- Boil the water used to add to the holy chalice and store it in the thermos.
(Some will boil the water during the service - in this case, make sure that the
boiling kettle is filled and ready to be used).
- Bring the commemoration prosphoras into the altar, as needed.
- Be ready to do anything else the priest or deacon asks him to do.
The Small Entrance of the Divine Liturgy occurs at the "Both Now and ever"
verse of the third Antiphon (usually the Beatitudes).
- Just before the entrance, the acolytes light their torches, and assemble
together in a neat row facing the high Place. They all bow TOGETHER toward the
high place, then turn and bow towards the priest.
- During the singing of the last verse of the Third Antiphon, the priest (or
deacon) carries the Holy Gospel from the altar table around the high place, and
stands in front of the royal doors (on the ambvon). The servers all carry
candles or torches, and precede the Holy Gospel. The servers form a straight
row facing the iconostasis, and centered in front of the royal doors, behind
the clergy. If there is an icon in the center of the church, they also stand in
front of it.
- At the End of the singing, the priest (or deacon) raises the Holy Gospel,
and chants "Wisdom! Aright!" and makes the sign of the cross with the gospel.
After this, the priest goes through the royal doors, back into the altar,
pausing to venerate the icon of Christ which is on the right door post, turning
to bless the servers, and venerating the icon of the Theotokos on the left door
- After the priest blesses the servers, they go back into the altar, with
those on the left using the left deacons' door, the those on the right the
other deacons' door.
- When they return to the altar, they go to the high place, and make their
bows just as they did before the entrance.
- Then they put their candles away.
The censer is used 5 times in the Great Vespers service with Litya:
- Great censing at the beginning (if the service is part of the All Night
Vigil, which is always served on Saturday evenings).
- Censing at Lord I have cried.
- Small Entrance.
- Beginning of Litya while the troparia are being sung.
- Censing of 5 loaves while the troparia are sung, just before the blessing
of the loaves.
The priest uses the censer for the first censing, and is led by the deacon
around the entire church. He first censes the altar, then the iconostasis, and
the people. Then he senses the center icon (if there is one) and walks around the
perimeter of the temple, censing the icons, and turning occasionally to cense the
people, who have moved away from the walls. He finishes by censing in front of
the royal doors, reentering the altar through the royal doors, censing the altar
three times. When the priest is finished, and acolyte should be ready to take the
censer from him.
All the other censings are done by a deacon if one is serving:
- The censing at Lord I have cried is just like a great censing, except that
the priest (deacon) uses the deacons' doors.
- The censer is carried by the priest (deacon) during the small entrance, and
used to cense in front of the royal doors. At the end of the singing of the
Theotokion (at the end of the Lord I have cried stichera) the priest (deacon)
raises the censer, and chants "Wisdom! Aright", then makes the sign of the
cross with the censer.
- At the beginning of the Litya service, the priest (deacon) censes the
iconostasis and the people.
- At the signing of the main troparion, near the end of the Litya, the priest
(deacon) censes the loaves of bread, wheat, wine and oil, on all four sides,
The censer is used 2 times during most Sunday matins services:
- Polyeleos and magnification (if appointed), followed by "Blessed art Thou O
- Great censing during the eighth ode of the canon and the Magnificat.
The censer is used twice before the Divine Liturgy:
- It is used to cense the Holy Coverings and the Holy Gifts at the end of the
- The entire altar and temple is censed before the Divine Liturgy begins.
This often occurs immediately at the end of the oblation service, but it may
The censer is needed 4 times during the Divine Liturgy:
- Small censing (the altar, iconostasis, servers and the rest of the
faithful) during the reading of the epistles.
- Small censing before the Great Entrance. The censer is also carried by the
deacon or an acolyte during the Great entrance, and used to cense the holy
coverings and Holy gifts after the Entrance.
- The altar table (and altar, if a deacon is serving) is censed after the
- After Holy Communion, the priest censes the Holy Gifts on the altar table,
and again after he has brought them to the table of oblation.
The total items the censer is needed is six. The acolytes need to be alert,
and keep the censer hot!
After the divine liturgy, the acolyte is responsible for cleaning the Holy
altar. Here are some of the things he must attend to:
- FIRST, he listens attentively to the thanksgiving
prayers after Holy Communion.
- Before cleaning, he should remove and hang up his sticharion,
after getting a blessing to do so from the priest.
- Clean the censer.
- Clean the table that is used to hold the incense and charcoal,
and put these things away. Before putting them away, make sure the containers
- Clean the vessels used for the after supper.
- Distribute the antidron, and clean the bowl it is
- Empty and put away the zeon. The water should not be poured in a
- Sweep the altar.
- Extinguish all candles, and some or all of the oil
- Be ready to do anything else the priest or deacon asks him to