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The Church Building and Its Arrangement


In the Old Testament, the Lord Himself directed mankind through the Prophet Moses, indicating the way to set up the Temple for divine worship. The churches of the New Testament are 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; an Orthodox church is distinguished by three corresponding sections: the Altar (or Sanctuary), the Nave, and the Narthex (Vestibule).

As the Holy of Holies signified in the Old Testament Temple, the Altar represents now the Kingdom of Heaven. In those times, no one could enter the Holy of Holies except the High Priest, and even he only once a year, with the blood of purification. This signified that the Kingdom of Heaven, after the fall of man into sin, was closed to man. The High Priest was a prototype of Christ, and his action foretold that a time would come when Christ, through His shedding of blood, 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. From that moment on, Christ has opened the gates to the Kingdom of Heaven, for all who with faith would come unto Him.

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

The Courts of the Old Testament Temple in which all the people could gather have their counterpart in the Narthex of an Orthodox Church. However, the Narthex has no essential significance today, though in earlier times catechumens who were preparing to become Christians, but not ready for the Mystery of Baptism, stood there. Today, those who have sinned grievously, or those who have apostatized from the Church, are sent to stand in the Narthex temporarily 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 also call Jesus Christ the "Sun of Righteousness" and the "Dayspring from on high."

Every church consecrated to God bears the name of a sacred event or Saint, in memory of that occasion or person. For example, churches are dedicated to the Trinity, the Transfiguration, the Ascension, the Annunciation, the Protection of the Mother of God, the Archangel Michael, St. Nicholas, and so forth. If there are several altars in the church, 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 distinct from other buildings. Most churches are designed in the form of the Cross; this signifies that the church 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 also be built in the form of an elongated ship, to represent the image of the ark of Noah, for the church brings us through the stormy 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, suggesting that the Church, like a star, guides us by shining into this world.

A church building is usually capped by a dome, which is an image of Heaven. The dome comes to a point crowned by 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. Sometimes there are churches found with even more cupolas. Over the entrance of the building, or at times next to it, a belltower or belfry is built to hold the bells.

Different patterns of ringing the bells are used to call the faithful to prayer and to the divine services; they also mark when the most important moments of the services are being conducted. The ringing of one bell is called an "annunciation"; it announces the good, joyous news of a divine service. The ringing of all the bells is called a "festive peal," and expresses Christian joy on the occasion of a solemn feast. 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. It is here where the priest serves the Mystery of Holy Communion upon the Altar Table, or "Throne." 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 can be seen and heard during the service. The very word "Altar" means an elevated place of sacrifice.

The Altar Table is the term for the special, sacred table found in the center of the Sanctuary. It is usually in the shape of a cube and adorned with two vestments. The lower vestment is of simple white linen, and the upper one of a more expensive material, usually 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 upon which Jesus Christ is depicted being placed in the tomb. It must be consecrated by a bishop. On the other side of it, a fragment of the relics of a saint must be sewn; this is because the Divine Liturgy was always celebrated upon the graves of martyrs in the first centuries of Christianity. One is not allowed to celebrate the Liturgy without an Antimins. The word is of Greek origin and means "instead of an altar table."

To protect the Antimins, it is folded into another silk cloth called the Iliton. The Iliton reminds 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; it is usually raised. When in his own cathedral, the bishop sits there during certain parts of the services.

The Table of Oblation stands to the left of the Altar Table and in the northern part of the sanctuary. Smaller than the Altar Table, it is similarly vested on all sides. It is here, upon the Table of Oblation, that the Gifts are prepared before the Liturgy. The sacred vessels and all that pertains to them are kept here. They include:

    • The holy Chalice or cup. Before the Liturgy, wine and water are poured into it, which are transformed into the Blood of Christ during the Liturgy.
    • The Diskos, which is a small, round plate on a stand. The bread is placed upon it for consecration, where it is transformed into the Body of Christ during the Liturgy. The Diskos symbolizes both the manger and the tomb of the Saviour.
    • The Star is composed of two metal arcs fixed about the center, which can be opened and closed 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.
    • The Spear is a blade resembling a miniature spear. It is used to cut out the Lamb and other portions from the prosphora. It symbolizes the spear which wounded Christ upon the Cross.
    • The Spoon is used to administer Holy Communion.
    • The Sponge or cloth is used to clean and wipe the vessels.

The Coverlets are the small covers which cover the chalice and the diskos. The Aer are the large covers which cover both the chalice and the diskos. The Aer symbolizes the expanse of the heavens wherein appeared the star which led the Magi to the manger of the Saviour. The aer and the coverlets represent the swaddling clothes in which Jesus Christ was wrapped after birth, as well as His burial shroud.

No one but the bishops, priests, 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.

The censer which is used for censing during the divine services is located in the sanctuary. Censing was instituted in the Old Testament Church by God Himself. We offer up incense both as an offering to God and to sanctify objects. Censing before the Holy Altar and the icons expresses our respect and reverence for them. To cense the laity while they are praying expresses the desire that their prayer be heart-felt, truly reverent, and ascend to Heaven like the smoke of incense; and that the Grace of God might envelop them even as the smoke of the church. While being censed, the faithful respond with a bow.

The dikiri and trikiri, as well as the altar fans, are also kept in the sanctuary. The Dikiri is the candlestick that holds two candles. The two candles remind us of the two natures of Christ, the divine and the human. The Trikiri is the candlestick that holds three candles, which remind us of our faith in the Holy Trinity. The dikiri and the trikiri are used by a bishop to bless the faithful. The altar fans are 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. In earlier times they were made of ostrich feathers and 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. Vestments, the 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 by a special kind of wall upon which icons are hung, and which is thus called the Iconostasis. The iconostasis has three doors or gates. The middle and largest gates found in the very center of the screen are called the Royal Gates; this is because the very Lord Himself, Jesus Christ, the King of Glory, Who comes in the Holy Gifts invisibly, passes through the Royal Gates. No one is allowed to pass through them 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 of 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 to 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. Sometimes icons of Sts. Philip and Stephen, the first deacons, are placed here, or those of the high priest Aaron and the Prophet Moses. 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, icons of saints especially revered are found. The first icon to the right of the icon of the Saviour 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, usually the icons of the twelve Great Feasts are placed on the second row; the Apostles, on the third; the Prophets, on the fourth; and the Cross, on the top row.

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

The elevation in front of the iconostasis is called the solea. The altar and the iconostasis stand on this raised platform, which extends forward for several feet into the middle portion of the church. 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, is found the cliros, or choirs for the readers and chanters. Banners are hung above the cliros; they are icons made of embroidered cloth or metalwork, which are fastened to long poles. They are carried in processions as ecclesiastical flags.

There is usually a small table for the reposed on the side of the nave, with an image of the Crucifixion. Candles are placed here and Pannykhidas (memorial services) are served at this table.

Candlestands are placed in front of the iconostasis or behind the analogions, where the faithful may light and 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 a large number of candles or lights, which are lit during the most festive moments of the services.

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