Dear Bob and Joe,
I'm glad you two seem to have had such a positive experience with one of our parishes. And I'm also glad that this was an evening service...I don't know many of our churches that have weekly Vespers. If I were to go to Liturgy what would I expect to see and hear? Do the Malankar's make the sign of the Cross? And would the Liturgy be in English? Please give us some more information on this Rite within the Oriental Orthodox Church.
The Malankara Orthodox make the Sign of the Cross many times in the Liturgy. I once tried to keep count of how many times it is done, but after like number thirty-seven I lost count. I think that's when I started praying.
Anyway, it is made in the exact same way you guys make it as far as finger formation, but you go from left shoulder to right shoulder, like the Roman Catholics, although the reasoning for this is different. The Sign of the Cross, for Oriental Orthodox Christians, is a confession of faith in the Incarnation, as well as the sign of the Holy Cross. For the Son of God came down from heaven (forehead) to earth (down to the sternum or lower) to save man, enslaved by sin (left shoulder) and bring him to salvation (right shoulder).
You'd have to ask the priest when English Liturgies are. Generally speaking, most parishes I know have a monthly English Liturgy, if not one every other weekend. In our church we have the monthly one, but it rarely gets celebrated. So much for monthly. Usually, though, a good amount of English should be used. The readings are usually done in English, except for maybe the Gospel (and even here it is often done in English), parts of the sermon, some of the diaconal parts, and whatever the priest chooses can and often are in English. Ask ahead if you want to plan on going to an English Liturgy. Or you could also ask someone for English "pew books" (don't know if this church has pews; we don't) and ask someone to let you know where you are in the service. We once had visiting seminarians from Saint Vlad's do this. It can work.
If you visit one of our churches on an average Sunday, depending on how early you get there, you will first see the service of Matins. The priest celebrates the first parts of it, along with the preparatory prayers before entering the altar, and then he'll enter the altar, kiss its corners, and ask forgiveness of the people. Then the curtains close, and while the Prothesis is going on behind the veil, the rest of the morning service will be led by one of the deacons/acolytes, with the people singing the responses. This is an especially pleasant part of the day because the hymns are sung antiphonally: one side sings one stanza, and alternates with the other side. Often, this will mean that one stanza is sung only by men, and the other by women, since the sexes are separated in church: men on the left, women on the right. Before the Liturgy begins, there are a couple of Old Testament readings, for which everyone gets to sit, since you'll have been standing for a while during Matins. While this is going on, the priest will come out and people prepared for Communion will go up to him and he will pray the Hoosoyo (absolution) over them.
When the Liturgy begins, the priest intones a short verse invoking the prayers of the Mother of God and Saint John the Baptist as we begin the Liturgy, and then the hymn of Saint Severios is sung (Byzantines sing this too, after the Second Antiphon, if I'm not mistaken...the hymn "Only Begotten Son and Word of God"), while the priest and other ministers process around the altar At this time, bells are rung, and the ripidia are waved: these have small bells all around them, and so they make a loud rattling sound...I held a ripidion once, and if I moved my hand even slightly, it was still loud, so they are pretty nice. Then the Trisagion is sung, and then the New Testament readings, culminating in the Gospel. Then the proper prayers of the day, the Proemion and Sedro are sung.
After these, the blessing of the censer is performed. This is pretty unique to us. Incense is burned and the priest takes the chains of the censer and intones "Holy is the Holy Father, Holy is the Holy Son, Holy is the Holy Spirit" and then censes the congregation while reciting a prayer.
The Creed is then recited, and if this particular parish follows the traditional practice, it will be different from the way most people recite it. Basically, a deacon will recite "In one God, the Father Almighty, the Maker of Heaven and Earth, and of all things visible and invisible" and the people will exclaim "We Believe!", and it will go on like that for the whole Creed. The priest is kneeling at the altar during this, and commemorating all the people he is asked to commemorate for the second time (the first commemoration was at the Prothesis).
Then the kiss of peace is exchanged. First the priest gives it to the deacon with the censer. Then he gives it to the other deacons on the left side. Then he descends from the altar and gives it to the men, who then pass it amongst themselves to the back. Same with the women, and then same with the deacons on the right side. To offer the kiss, one puts one's palms together as if praying, but keeps them open, and clasps the hands of one's neighbour. Then the veil is lifted from the holy gifts, and the Anaphora begins.
The Anaphora is pretty straightforward. It starts out with the blessing "The Love of God the Father, the Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ..." The words of Saint Paul here are altered a bit to place the Father first. That dialogue is carried out, then the preface, and then the "Holy, Holy, Holy", and then the Institution, the Anamnesis, and then the Epiclesis, which is very pronounced in our rite. The priest will flutter his hands over the gifts while the deacons exhorts the people:
"Barekhmor, How awe-ful is this hour and how dreadful is this moment, my beloved, wherein the Holy Spirit from the topmost heights takes wing and descents and hovers and rests upon this Eucharist here present and sanctifies it. Be in calm and awe, while standing and praying."
Then the priest says "Answer unto me, O Lord" three times, and then he pronounces the Epiclesis.
Then come the diptychs which commemorate the living and the dead. They are like a litany with really long diaconal petitions. When this is over, the altar is veiled and the rite of Fraction occurs while hymns are sung. This is considered one of the holiest moments of the Liturgy. Then the veil is drawn and the Lord's Prayer is sung, and then the elevation of the Holy Mysteries (Holy Things for the holy), and then there are prayers of incense offered first to the Mother of God, then the Saints, and then for the departed. During this time, the sermon might be given. After this, the altar is veiled again, and the priest and deacons receive Communion. Then the veil is drawn again, and the people receive Communion.
After this, some prayers are recited, then the closing hymns of the day are intoned by the priest, and then the final blessing. After this, there is some silence, followed by the post-Communion prayers. Announcements may be given after these, and then the faithful go up to the priest, place their offerings in the designated place, and venerate the hand-cross by letting the priest bless you upon the forehead with it. After this, there is usually coffee or something.
That's the average Sunday. It's not the best introduction admittedly, but it's the best I can do. I am interesting in knowing why three Altars in such a small Church. Your reply seems to indicate that all Malankar Churches have three Altars. What are the other two Altars used for? Additional Liturgies or specific services like Vespers, etc.
Most churches have three altars. These are used nowadays only for the Mooninmel
Qurbana. There is no adequate English translation of this word, although I have heard the use of "Tri-Liturgy". Basically, on important feasts (in America, usually on the patronal feast of the parish), when one can get two other priests, three Liturgies are celebrated simultaneously, with the main celebrant intoning the prayers aloud, and the others silently. Three altars, three sets of holy gifts, three priests, three sets of bells, ripidia, censers, three of everything. It's awesome. It's one of my favourite Liturgies of the year. In some places in India, like certain shrines, this Liturgy is celebrated every Sunday, or on certain weekdays when finding priests is easier. My cousins' parish church back home does it every Sunday with three priests...three Bishops do it on great feasts. Tri-Hierarchical-Liturgy...doesn't get much better than that.