Following the pattern of the Old Testament Temple, which had
a courtyard, a nave and the holy of holies, an Orthodox church is also divided
into three areas: the narthex, the central part of the church and the sanctuary.
The rear of the church (customarily the western
side) surrounds the main entrance and is called the narthex. In the ancient
church, this section was set aside for the catechumens (those preparing to be
baptized) and the penitents (those who were excluded from Communion on account
of grave sins). The narthex was usually quite large; sometimes it included a
pool for the baptism of adults. At the present time, the narthex is usually
rather small. It is here that candles and prosphora are sold. The stairway
leading to the narthex and the area at the top of the stairs form the porch.
The central part of the church, the nave, is where
the faithful stand to pray. It is separated from the sanctuary by the
iconostasis, a partition covered with many icons. In the most ancient churches,
this partition was not very high and did not have any icons. Around the end of
the eighth century, after the heresy of iconoclasm had been condemned, icons
began to be placed on the partition between the nave and the sanctuary, and the
partition itself was made higher. Over the centuries there was thus developed
an iconostasis consisting of several rows of icons, arranged according to a
The iconostasis has three doors in it, leading
into the sanctuary. The central doors are called "royal"; through
them the Lord Himself, the King of heaven, invisibly passes in the Holy Gifts
or Holy Communion. To the right of the royal doors is the southern door, and to
the left, the northern. The icons on the royal doors depict the Annunciation to
the Mother of God and the four Evangelists, Saints Matthew, Mark, Luke and
John. The side doors usually have icons of the Archangels Michael and Gabriel.
To the right of the royal doors there is always an icon of our Saviour, and to
the left an icon of the Mother of God. To the right of the icon of the Saviour
is the patronal icon of the church, representing the event or the saint to
which the church is dedicated.
The lower level of the iconostasis also contains
icons of saints who are especially venerated, such as St John the Baptist, St
Nicholas the Wonderworker and others. Over the royal doors there is always an
icon of the Mystical Supper (the Last Supper), reminding the faithful of the
greatest sacrament offered in the church, Holy Communion.
The iconostasis usually has several rows or tiers.
The second tier holds icons of the major feast days; the third, the Apostles;
and the fourth, the Prophets. The top of the iconostasis is crowned with a
The iconostasis is usually situated on an elevated
area called the solea. This area is reserved for those who perform the church
services. The middle of this section, in front of the royal doors, is called
the ambo. Here the deacon intones the prayers of the litanies and reads the
Gospel, and the faithful come up here to receive Holy Communion. To the sides
of the solea are the areas called the kliros, or choirs, where the
readers and singers stand. In front of the choirs are
placed the banners, consisting of icons affixed to cloth and attached to long
poles, so as to resemble flags hung vertically. These banners are carried
during church processions, as the standards of the church.
The altar area, or sanctuary, is the holiest part
of the church, containing the altar itself and the table of oblation. The altar
is a specially consecrated square table, on which the Sacrament of Holy
Communion is celebrated. It stands in the middle of the sanctuary and is
covered by sacred vestments. On it are found the cross, the book of the Gospels,
the antimension, the tabernacle and the pyx.
The tabernacle is the ark or chest in which the
reserved Sacrament is kept. The pyx is a small box in which the priest carries
Holy Communion to the sick in their homes. The antimension is a silk cloth upon
which are depicted the placing of Christís Body in the tomb and the instruments
of His Passion: the crown of thorns, the spear, the sponge, the column at which
He was scourged, the nails, etc.
The antimension bears an inscription, noting when
it was consecrated, by which bishop and for which church. On the reverse of the
antimension there is sewn a little bag which contains relics, in keeping with
the tradition of the first centuries of Christianity, when the faithful used to
celebrate the Holy Communion on the tombs of the martyrs. Without a consecrated
antimension the Liturgy may not be celebrated. To protect the antimension it is
enfolded in another silken cloth.
Behind the altar stand a cross and a
The Table of Oblation is another table, also
covered by sacred vestments. Upon it the proskomedia
is performed, the rite of preparing the bread and wine for the celebration of
the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist or Holy Communion. This table stands
in the northeastern corner of the sanctuary and holds the sacred vessels. First
among them are the chalice (cup), into which the church wine is poured, and the
diskos, a small round plate on a stand. The diskos usually bears a
depiction of the Infant Jesus lying in the manger. It is used to hold the Lamb,
a piece of bread, cut out of the center of a little loaf (prosphora), which
will be consecrated at the Liturgy, as well as particles of bread cut from
other prosphora. Along with the chalice and diskos are found the following
items: the asterisk, composed of two bent metal arcs, joined together in the
form of a cross, which is placed on the diskos so that the veil will not touch
the pieces of bread cut from the prosphora; the lance or spear, a knife which
is used to cut out the Lamb and portions of other prosphora; the spoon with
which Holy Communion is administered to the faithful; and the sponge used to
wipe the chalice.
In addition to the main sanctuary, some churches
have other chapels with altars, in which additional liturgies or other less
festive services may be celebrated.
The main altar, towards which the faithful direct
their gaze, is located on the eastern side of the church. Since Apostolic times
it has been customary to pray facing the east, which symbolizes Jesus Christ,
the Son of God, Who enlightens every man that comes into the world.
The Liturgy which is celebrated in the church has
its origin in heaven, not on earth. We are led to this conclusion by the vision
of the St John the Apostle, recounted in the book of Revelation (the
Apocalypse). The heavenly liturgy which he describes reminds us of our Orthodox
Liturgy in many ways. He saw the altar, the candelabrum, the golden censer with
the smoke of incense, the chalice, the Lamb Which was slain in the middle of
the altar, elders in white robes and crowns of gold standing in front of the
Altar, and then a countless number of angels and righteous people, all praising
the Creator (Rev. 4-5). The twenty-four elders correspond in number to the
twenty-four priestly courses or divisions established by King David for
services in the Temple (1 Chron. [1 Paralipom.] 24:1-18).
In the Orthodox church,
as in heaven, the Lamb Which was slain [i.e., the host, the cut portion of a
prosphora] also lies on the altar. St Johnís vision of souls under the heavenly altar, the souls of
those that were killed for proclaiming the Word of God, corresponds to the
relics of the holy martyrs, on whose tombs Liturgies were performed in ancient
times. Thus, when we come to church for the Divine Liturgy, we should be
conscious that we are being allowed to take part in a great and mystical sacred
service, at which our prayers are joined with the prayers of the angels and
saints who surround the throne of the Heavenly King.
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