Western Christians are usually shocked when they discover that Orthodox Christianity has been standing for the entirety of very, very long church services - for over 2000 years; and Russia has preserved this strenuous feat of physical endurance. Congregations with 500 people might have seating in the back for the sick and elderly
One of the first things people notice about Russian churches is that they have no pews.
Russians are famous for standing for hours on end during their long, long services. While usual services are 2-3 hours, services during Great Lent and in monasteries span up to 6 hours.
And for most of that time, most of the congregation is standing upright.
Why? Is it a form of masochism? No.
Asceticism? Maybe a little.
Unlike many other Christian denominations, Russian Orthodox Church services are considered active, focused “service” and prayer to God.
Historically, ancient churches did not have pews. Not only because standing was a due sign of respect in the house of the King, but because the services, or worship, were different.
Pews are actually a modern addition to Christian churches.
Today, it makes sense that during Protestant worship, for example, where the crux of the service is the sermon, people sit. They are listening, passively receiving instruction and advice.
However, for Russian Christians, the sermon is not even an integral part of every service; instead, services comprise of active preparation and participation in prayers and the Holy Sacraments (such as the Eucharist).
Such active service requires concentration, energy, and a degree of exertion.
And it’s traditionally thought that it is easier to be focused and alert if your body is standing upright, straight.
Isaac the Syrian, a famous Orthodox Christian saint and ascetic, said:
“If during a prayer, the body does not exert itself, and the heart does not experience repentance, it is not yet a fully ripened fruit, because such a prayer is - without soul”
Naturally, hour-long standing is not required of everybody; how much one stands and for how long really is more of a personal choice. There are seats in the back of most churches for the children, the sick and the elderly. Each person knows his or her own abilities, physical and mental capacities, as well as one's own health, and decides accordingly.
But standing does remain the rule and the standard position of the believers praying in Russian churches is upright.
"Like burning candles," Russian moms tell their children.
Here’s more from the Bible and the Holy Fathers on why one should stand in church (published by Orthodox Info) :
To stand during prayer was thus it customary rule among the Jews, as is proven in their writings, in the manner of the Heavenly and the Old Testament Church, Orthodox Christians have maintained the custom, since apostolic times, of standing during divine services.
The correctness of such it practice is evident from New Testament scripture, where we find the words of Christ: "When ye stand praying" (Mark 9:25), and in apostolic tradition, where it is often proclaimed "Let us stand well."
Christians, according to the apostolic teachings, all had to stand during the reading of the Gospel and the "Liturgy of the Faithful."
Tertullian, in the year 190 A.D., mentions the practice of standing during services.
He says: "Some, in preparation for prayer, throw off their cloaks, and some think it their duty not to stand, but to sit, and we are not to imitate these. It is especially improper to pray while sitting at the very time that a multitude of angels stand before the face of the Lord in fear and trepidation;
sitting shows that we are somehow praying unwillingly, carelessly, in a lazy manner."
Blessed Augustine, when discussing standing in church, says: "Moved by fatherly love, I have advised those who have an affliction of the legs, or are burdened by other sickness, that they should sit quietly and listen attentively during lengthy readings.
But now even some of our healthy daughters think that they should do this all the time.... Even worse, they engage in idle talking not listening themselves, nor allowing others to listen.
Thus, I ask you noble daughters, and implore you with fatherly concern, that none of you should sit during readings or homilies, unless a profound weakness of the body forces you to do so."
In the early works of the Holy Fathers a reverent attitude during services was shown to be an important and sacred duty. I
n one such writing it says: "One must stand and not look around, nor lean against a wall or pillar, nor stand with a cane, nor shift one's weight from one foot to the other."
To stand before God and His holy saints during the church services is the only acceptable posture for the faithful, both for the ones who art serving, and the ones praying, for does a servant sit before his master The faithful are all servants of the Lord, redeemed by His blood (Luke 17: 10; 1 Cor. 6:19, 20).
The entire life of an Orthodox Christian, according to the Scriptures should he it continuous Spiritual uprightness and attentiveness toward God.
The Apostle Paul says: "Watch ye, stand fast in the faith" (I Cor. 16:13); ''Stand, therefore, having your loins girt about with truth (Ephes. 6:14); "Stand fast in the Lord, my dearly beloved" (Philippian 4:1).
If a Christian must always stand on guard spiritually over his salvation then he must do so even more during, the divine church services, which serves as an expression and an enrichment to private everyday service to God.
If the spirit of the ones serving and praying strives toward the Highest, will it not also lift up the body which is subject to it? Standing during church services shows us to be humble servants, ready, attentive and willing to serve God.
Not unlike the Old Testament sacrifice: the faithful, standing and becoming fatigued during services, themselves symbolically become offerings to God, as the Apostle says: "Present you bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is you reasonable service" (Romans 12:1).