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
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
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
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
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 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
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
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
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
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