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The arrangement of the Interior of the Church


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 definite plan.

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 cross.

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 seven-branched candelabrum.

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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