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2. The Church Building and Its Arrangement.


In the Old Testament the Lord Himself gave mankind directions through the Prophet Moses as to how the Temple should be set up for divine worship. New Testament churches were constructed on the basis of the Old Testament Temple.

Just as the Old Testament Temple (initially a tent) was separated into three portions, the Holy of Holies, the Sanctuary and the Courts, so an Orthodox church is distinguished by three sections, the Altar (or Sanctuary), the Nave (Middle Portion) and the Narthex (Vestibule).

As the Holy of Holies signified then, so now the Altar represents the Kingdom of Heaven. No one could enter the Holy of Holies except the High Priest once a year, and only with the blood of a purification sacrifice. The Kingdom of Heaven, after the fall of man into sin, was closed to us. The High Priest was a prototype of Christ, and his action told the people that a time would come when Christ, through the shedding of His blood and suffering on the Cross and Resurrection, would open the Kingdom of Heaven to all. Therefore, when Christ died on the Cross the veil of the temple which closed off the Holy of Holies was torn in two, and from this moment Christ opened the gates of the Kingdom of Heaven to all those who with faith would come unto Him.

The Sanctuary of the Temple corresponds in our Orthodox churches to the Nave or middle part of the building. No one had the right to enter the Old Testament sanctuary except the priest, but all believing Christians may stand within our churches because the Kingdom of God is closed to none.

The Courts of the Old Testament Temple in which all the people could be found have their counterpart in an Orthodox Church in the Narthex which now, however, has no essential significance. Earlier, the catechumens who were preparing to become Christians, but were still not ready for the Mystery of Baptism, stood there. Today those who have sinned grievously or those who have apostatized from the Church are temporarily sent to stand in the narthex for correction.

An Orthodox Church is built with the altar at the eastern end, directed towards the light from whence the sun rises. The Lord Jesus Christ is for us the "Dayspring," for from Him has dawned upon us the eternal Divine Light. In the Church prayers we call Jesus Christ the "Sun of Righteousness" and "Dayspring from on high."

Every church consecrated to God bears the name of one or another sacred event or Saint, in memory of that occasion or person. Examples include churches dedicated to the Trinity, the Transfiguration, the Ascension, the Annunciation, the Protection of the Mother of God, the Archangel Michael, St. Nicholas, etc. If there are several altars in the church then each of them is dedicated to the memory of a different event or saint. All altars, save the main one, are called side altars.

A church in its external appearance is distinguished from other buildings. Most are designed in the form of the Cross to signify that it is a place sacred to Him Who was crucified for us and that the Cross of the Lord Jesus Christ delivered us from the tyranny of the Devil. A church may be built in the form of an elongated ship to symbolize the image of the ark of Noah that brings us through the sea of life to the calm haven of the Kingdom of Heaven. Sometimes a church is built in the form of a circle to remind us that the Church of Christ is eternal, without beginning or end. A church can even be built in the form of an octagon, like a star, suggesting that the Church is like a guiding star which shines into this world.

A church building is usually capped by a dome which is an image of Heaven. The dome comes to a point upon which is a cross, to the glory of the head of the Church, Jesus Christ. Often a church is topped by several cupolas. Two cupolas symbolize the two natures of Jesus Christ, human and divine; three — the three Persons of the Holy Trinity; five — Jesus Christ and the four Evangelists; seven — the seven Mysteries and the seven Ecumenical Councils; nine — the nine ranks of angels; thirteen — Jesus Christ and the twelve Apostles; and sometimes there are even more cupolas.

Over the entrance of the building, or at times next to it, a bell-tower or belfry is built to hold the bells.

The patterns of ringing the bells are used to call the faithful to prayer, to the divine services, and also to mark the most important moments of the services being conducted in the church. The ringing of one bell is called an "annunciation," that is, the announcement of the good, joyous news of a divine service; the ringing of all the bells to express Christian joy on the occasion of a solemn feast is called a "festive peal." The tolling of bells on a grievous occasion is called a "knell." The sound of bells reminds us of the higher, heavenly world.

The most important part of the church is the Altar or Sanctuary. The Sanctuary is the holiest place in the entire church and is where the Altar Table or "Throne" upon which the Mystery of Holy Communion served by the priest is located. The Sanctuary is built upon a raised portion that is usually higher than the other portions of the church so that all that is done there will be audible and visible during the service. The very word "Altar" means an elevated place of sacrifice.

The Altar Table is the term for the special, sacred, usually cube-shaped table found in the center of the Sanctuary and adorned with two vestments: the lower which is of white linen, and the upper which is of a more expensive material, usually of brocade. The very Lord Himself, as King and Master of the Church, is present there mysteriously and invisibly. Only ordained clergy may touch the Altar Table or venerate it. Upon the Altar Table one finds the Antimins, the Gospel, the Cross, the Tabernacle and the Communion Set.

The Antimins is a silk cloth consecrated by a bishop upon which Jesus Christ is depicted being placed in the tomb. Into the other side a fragment of the relics of a saint must be sewn, since in the first centuries of Christianity the Divine Liturgy was always celebrated upon the graves of the martyrs. One is not allowed to celebrate the Liturgy without an Antimins. The word is from the Greek and means "instead of an altar table."

In order to protect the Antimins it is folded into another silk cloth called the Iliton. It is to remind us of the cloth which was wrapped around the head of the Saviour in the tomb. On top of the Antimins rests the sponge for collecting the particles of the Holy Gifts during the liturgy.

The Gospel is the Word of God, the teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ. The Cross is the sword of God by which the Lord conquers the Devil and death. The Tabernacle is the ark in which the Holy Gifts are kept for communing the ill. Usually it is in the form of a model of the church building. The Communion Set is a small tabernacle which contains the utensils for bringing Holy Communion to those who are ill.

Behind the Altar Table stands the Candelabrum, a stand for seven lamps, and behind it is the Altar Cross. The place behind the Altar at the very farthest eastern end of the church is called the High Place. Usually it is raised. When in his own cathedral, the bishop sits here during certain portions of the services.

To the left of the Altar Table in the northern part of the sanctuary stands another smaller table similarly vested on all sides like the Altar Table. It is here that the Gifts are prepared before the Liturgy. This table is the Table of Oblation. Upon the Table of Oblation are kept the sacred vessels and all that pertains to them. They include:

1. The holy Chalice or cup into which, before the Liturgy, wine is poured with water, which is transformed later during the Liturgy into the Blood of Christ.

2. The Diskos which is a small round plate on a stand. The bread is placed upon it for consecration at the Divine Liturgy, for transformation into the Body of Christ. The diskos symbolizes simultaneously the manger and tomb of the Saviour.

3. The Star is composed of two metal arcs fixed about the center so that they can be closed and opened into a cruciform shape. It is placed on the diskos so that the cover will not disturb the cut out portions of prosphora. The star symbolizes the star that appeared at the birth of Christ.

4. The Spear is a blade resembling a miniature spear for cutting out the Lamb and other portions from the prosphora. It symbolizes the spear which wounded Christ upon the Cross.

5. The Spoon is used to administer Holy Communion.

6. The Sponge or cloth is used to clean and wipe the vessels.

The small covers which are used to cover the chalice and the diskos are called the Coverlets, while the large covers which is used to cover both the chalice and the diskos together is called the Aer. The aer symbolizes the expanse of the heavens in which the star appeared, which led the Magi to the manger of the Saviour. It, together with the coverlets, represents the swaddling clothes in which Jesus Christ was wrapped after birth and also His burial shroud.

No one but the bishops, priest, and deacons are allowed to touch these holy things.

Also found on the Table of Oblation is the Cup or ladle which is used in the beginning of Proskomedia to pour the mixture of wine and water into the holy chalice. Before Communion, hot water is added to the contents of the chalice.

Located in the sanctuary is the censer which is used for censing during the divine services. Censing was instituted in the Old Testament Church by God Himself. We offer the incense as an offering to God and use it to sanctify objects.

Censing before the Holy Altar and the icons expresses our respect and reverence for them. When the laity praying in church are censed this expresses the desire that their prayer would be heart-felt and truly reverent and might ascend to Heaven like the smoke of incense and that the Grace of God might envelop them even as the smoke of incense envelops them in the church. While being censed, the faithful should respond with a bow.

The dikiri and trikiri, which are used by a bishop to bless the people, and the altar fans are kept in the sanctuary also.

Dikiri refers to the candlestick that holds two candles, which remind us of the two natures of Christ, the divine and the human.

Trikiri refers to the candlestick that holds three candles, which remind us of our faith in the Holy Trinity.

The altar-fans refer to the metal circles with long, wooden handles on which are represented the Seraphim. The deacons hold the fans over the Holy Gifts during the consecration, and over the Gospel book in procession. Earlier they were made of ostrich feathers and were used to keep insects away from the Holy Gifts. Today the waving of these fans is symbolic and represents the presence of the heavenly hosts during the celebration of the Liturgy.

To the side of the sanctuary area is found the Vestry. The vestments, sacred robes used during the divine services, are kept here, as well as the ecclesiastical vessels and books.

The altar is separated from the middle portion of the church building by a special kind of wall upon which are hung icons and is thus called the Iconostasis.

The iconostasis has three doors or gates. The middle and largest is found in the very center of the screen and is called the Royal Gates because through them passes the very Lord Himself, Jesus Christ, the King of Glory, Who comes in the Holy Gifts invisibly. No one is allowed to pass through the Royal Gates other than the clergy. A curtain is hung across the Royal Gates, on the inside, which is drawn and withdrawn during the course of the divine services. Icons of the Annunciation of the Theotokos and the Four Evangelists, Sts. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, are usually on the Royal Gates. An icon of the Mystical Supper is placed above the Royal Gates, since the faithful stand before them when partaking of Communion.

To the right of the Royal Gates there is always an icon of the Saviour, and on the left, one of the Mother of God.

The southern door is located to the right of the icon of the Saviour, while the northern door is to the left of the Theotokos icon. Generally, the Archangels Michael and Gabriel are depicted on these two side doors, though sometimes icons of the first deacons Sts. Philip and Stephen, or the high priest Aaron and the Prophet Moses are placed here. These side doors are also called the "deacon’s doors," since the deacons pass through them frequently.

On the far ends next to the doors are placed the icons of especially revered saints. The first icon to the right of the Saviour icon is almost always the icon of the church, that is, the representation of the feast or Saint to whom the church building is dedicated.

On the highest point above the iconostasis is placed the Cross with an image upon it of our crucified Lord, Jesus Christ.

If the iconostasis is built with more than one row of icons, then usually on the second row are placed the icons of the twelve Great Feasts; on the third row— the Apostles; on the fourth row — the Prophets; and on the top— the Cross.

Icons are also placed on the walls of the church, either in special large frames or shrines, or on analogions, high, slanted stands, for veneration.

The raised platform, upon which stand the altar and the iconostasis, extends forward for several feet into the middle portion of the church. This elevation in front of the iconostasis is called the solea.

The middle of the solea, directly in front of the Royal Gates is called the ambo or place of ascending. From the ambo the deacon intones the litanies and reads the Gospels. From here, as well, the priest delivers sermons, and the faithful partake of Holy Communion.

At the end of the solea near the side walls of the church are found the cliros, or choirs for the readers and chanters. Above the cliros are hung the banners, icons made of either cloth embroidery or metalwork fastened to long poles. They are carried in processions as ecclesiastical flags.

Usually on the side of the nave is a small table for the reposed, on which is an image of the Crucifixion, before which are placed candles. A Pannykhida (memorial service) is served at this table.

Candlestands are placed in front of the iconostasis or behind the analogions, upon which the faithful place candles during the service. A chandelier or polycandelabrum hangs from the central dome in the middle of the church. This large metal chandelier holds either a large number of candles or lights which are lit during the most festive moments of the services.

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