Welcome to the Orthodox Church: A Guided Tour

by Deacon Daniel Swires

As you approach an Orthodox Church, you will notice that it is quite different from Western church buildings. The exterior of an Orthodox Church building will usually have one or more domes, often topped by a cupola. Unlike the pointed steeples of Western churches, which point to God far away in the Heavens, the dome is an all-embracing ceiling, revealing that in the Kingdom of God, and in the Church, “Christ unites all things in himself, things in Heaven and things on earth” (Ephesians 1:10), and that in Him we are all “filled with all the fullness of God.” (Ephesians 3:19).

Over the entrance of the building, or at times next to it, there is usually a bell tower. Different patterns of ringing the bells are used to call the faithful to prayer and to the divine services. They also used at important points during services. The sound of bells reminds us of the higher, Heavenly world.

Orthodox churches generally take one of several exterior shapes that have spiritual significance. The most common shape is a rectangular shape, in the form of a ship. Just as a ship conveys people through the stormy seas to a calm harbor, so the Church, guided by Christ, carries us to the Kingdom of God. Churches are also frequently built in the form of a Cross — to proclaim that we are saved through faith in the Crucified Christ.

Almost always Orthodox churches are oriented East-West, with the main entrance of the building at the West end. This symbolizes the entrance of the faithful from the darkness of sin (the West) into the light of truth (the East).

The interior of the Orthodox Church building is designed to convey the unity of the universe in God. It is not simply a meeting hall for people whose life exists solely within the bounds of this earth. The Church building is patterned after the image of God’s Kingdom, as revealed in Holy Scripture:

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lifted up, and the train of His robe filled the temple. Above it stood seraphim; each one had six wings: with two he covered his face, with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one cried to another and said: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; The whole earth is full of His glory!’ And the posts of the door were shaken by the voice of him who cried out, and the house was filled with smoke. So I said: ‘Woe is me, for I am undone! Because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts.’ Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a live coal which he had taken with the tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth with it, and said: ‘Behold, this has touched your lips; your iniquity is taken away, and your sin purged.’ (Isaiah 6:1-7)

This vision of the Holy Prophet Isaiah is a vision into the Heavenly throne room of God. In this vision is revealed the eternal worship and adoration of God which takes place “at all times and in every hour.” The Orthodox Church also lives this divine revelation. St. John the Theologian also heard the same loud voice and witnessed the eternal worship that takes place in the presence of the Holy God:

And from the throne proceeded lightnings, thunderings, and voices. Seven lamps of fire were burning before the throne, which are the seven Spirits of God. Before the throne there was a sea of glass, like crystal. And in the midst of the throne, and around the throne, were four living creatures full of eyes in front and in back … each having six wings,... And they do not rest day or night, saying: ‘Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, Who was and is and is to come!’ (Revelations 4:5-8)

The Divine worship, prayers, services and Mysteries which are celebrated in the Holy Orthodox Church lead us into this mystic, divine and continuous Heavenly adoration of the All-holy Trinity. In a most perfect way, the Church teaches us to fulfill St. Paul’s injunction to “pray without ceasing.”

St. John of Kronstadt reveals this understanding of the Church in his work, My Life in Christ:

Truly the church is Heaven upon earth; for where the throne of God is, where the awful sacraments are celebrated, where the angels serve together with men, ceaselessly glorifying the Almighty, there is truly Heaven. And so let us enter into the house of God with the fear of God, with a pure heart, laying aside all vices and every worldly care, and let us stand in it with faith and reverence, with understanding attention, with love and peace in our hearts, so that we may come away renewed, as though made Heavenly; so that we may live in the holiness natural to Heaven, not bound by worldly desires and pleasures. (Grinsbrooke, W. J.; Spiritual Counsels of Father John of Kronstadt, p. 75).

Since the Orthodox Church has always lived this mystical link between Heaven and earth, everything experienced in the Church is in response to this reality , pointing us to this reality. The Church building, the ordering of the Divine services, their actions, movements, images, smells, prayers and readings. It all acts to lead us into the throne room, granting access to the inaccessible.

The icons at the entrance to the Church remind Orthodox Christians that Christ and the saints are invisibly present in this Holy Place, the Sacred space of the Church. The first thing they do upon entering this Holy Place is to make the sign of the Cross and three deep reverences.

The interior of an Orthodox church is divided into three parts. The first is the Narthex (Lity in Greek; Pritvor in Slavonic). In ancient times it was a large, spacious place, where the Catechumens received instruction while preparing for Baptism, and also where Penitents who were excluded from Holy Communion stood. So, the Narthex of the Church represents this world in which mankind is called to repentance.

The main body of the church is the Nave, separated from the Sanctuary (Holy Place) by an icon screen with doors, called the iconostasis (icon stand). The walls of the Nave are decorated with icons and murals, before many of which are hanging lit lamps (lampadas). The Nave is the place of the assembled Church, which includes both the living and the departed, the people of God.

The Sanctuary, which lies beyond the iconostasis, is set aside for those who have a special function within the Divine services, and normally persons not consecrated to the service of the Church are not permitted to enter. Occupying the central place in the Sanctuary is the Holy Altar, which represents the Throne of God, with the Lord Himself invisibly present there. The Holy Altar is the point of meeting and union with God in His Kingdom.

As we noted, Orthodox churches vary somewhat architecturally. But, all Orthodox Churches are built to represent the universe. The ceiling represents Heaven. The opening in the ceiling (dome), within which is an icon of Christ Pantocrator, i.e., the all-ruling Christ, represents Christ looking down from Heaven upon the assembled congregation, hearing their prayers, reminding them of His presence in the whole universe. The floor of the Church, then, represents this world. The Holy Altar is uplifted from the floor by a series of steps and suspended, as it were, between Heaven and earth, because it is the meeting point, the place where our gift to God is brought in the Great Entrance, and from which comes the Grace of God in the readings and teachings of the Holy Gospel, and the Grace of the Holy Mysteries.

The iconostasis or icon screen separates the Nave from the Sanctuary, just as the veil in the Old Testament Tabernacle and Temple. But, this veil is no longer permanently closed: it has been opened by Christ Himself. On the iconostasis are placed icons of Christ, Mary and various other Saints. All these are a visible representation of an invisible reality. They reveal the presence of Christ and of His Saints gathered around His Throne.

The second row of icons on some icon screens depicts the major events in the life of our Lord from the Annunciation to His Ascension. This serves as the Gospel in pictures, revealed to the assembled faithful.

Icons are much more than just beautiful art or visual aids. Icons are windows through which the faithful see into the world beyond time and space. Just as Christ manifested and communicated God to us in His material body, so the Church today continues to use material things (wood, paint, etc.) to make God known to mankind.

An Orthodox icon depicts the transfiguration of the human body. It represents the saint’s body transformed, transfigured by Grace in the Kingdom of God. The Saints represented in icons look straight into the eyes of their beholders, as if to say, “Here I am. I am very much alive in the presence of God.”

During the services of the Orthodox Church, the deacon or priest censes first the icons and then the entire congregation. In so doing, the Church honors not only the angels, saints and martyrs, but also the living icon (image) of God which every faithful Christian bears.

The Tabernacle is kept on the center of the Holy Altar. In the Old Testament, the tablets on which God had written the Ten Commandments were kept in the Tabernacle. In the New Testament it is the Lord Jesus Christ Himself Who dwells here. His precious Body and Blood are ever kept in the Tabernacle. The Church, then, is truly the house of God. God is ever present here in a very real way. This is why the Orthodox Christian makes the sign of the cross whenever he passes before the Holy Altar.

The eternal light is the votive light that is suspended above the Tabernacle or burns before it on the altar table. It burns constantly to denote that the Lord Jesus Christ Who is the “Light of the World” is truly present.

The two circular fans, which are found in most Orthodox Churches on either side of the tabernacle, are called exapteriga (six wings) in Greek, or rapidi in Slavonic. Engraved on these are the six-winged angels which, according to Isaiah’s vision of God, surround the throne of God in Heaven. They remind us that these same angels surround the throne of God on earth — the Holy Altar.

The Table of Preparation is a small table to the left of the Holy Altar behind the iconostasis. Here the people’s gifts of bread and wine are prepared before the Divine Liturgy and later carried to the Holy Altar during the Great Entrance. An icon of the Nativity is usually found at the Table of Preparation to signify that just as Jesus was born in Bethlehem, so through the Holy Eucharist He comes to be born and dwell in our lives today.

The Bishop’s throne is found in different places in the various traditions, but it is always set apart for the bishop who is considered to be the head of the Church and represents Jesus Christ. For this reason an icon of Christ enthroned is usually found there. The bishop occupies the throne during the Liturgy when he is not actually serving.

Finally, remember that Orthodox Churches are Holy Places. One meaning of the word “holy” is “set apart.” In the case of our Churches they are set apart for God. There are rules about not entering certain areas, or touching certain objects. These rules are not so much bans or prohibitions but rather safeguards of that holiness, that being “set apart.”

In our modern world, people tend always to see things subjectively and self-centerdly; they are trained from childhood to do this. So, they think of their “rights,” and when they meet something like this Orthodox practice, they find the matter odd, because their first thought is that their “rights” have been eroded. In Churches that have been set apart for God, we have no “rights,” everything that is allowed us is a mercy from God, even entering there in the first place. This is why upon entering the Church, even the Narthex, Orthodox Christians make three deep reverences, remembering their unworthiness to enter, that they have been given a blessing to enter this holy place.

So, rather than speaking of prohibitions of entering an area or touching something, we would better say that we have no blessing to enter there or to touch that.

Properly, although this rule is not often kept today, the non-Orthodox and catechumens should remain in the Narthex, because the Nave itself is symbolic of the Church on earth and the catechumens are not yet members of the Church. In most churches, for pastoral and missionary reasons, they are allowed into the Nave. Sometimes they are expelled to the Narthex before the beginning of the Liturgy of the Faithful.

The laity stand in the Nave, and do not enter the Sanctuary. Often one hears that only men are permitted to enter the Sanctuary. More properly, only those whose ministry requires them to enter the Sanctuary, or those who have received a blessing to enter there, are permitted to enter.

Even in the Nave area, the faithful should be careful not to stand on the Ambon, the raised area immediately in front of the Holy Doors. This is because this area represents the Judgment Seat and we only stand there to receive the Holy Mysteries, remembering both that in doing so we participate in the royal priesthood of all believers, and that we shall have to give an account for our reception of the Mysteries at the Judgment. Thus, if one needs to walk across, say in lighting the lamps before the icons, one comes down from the Soleas (the raised area on either side), rather than walking across the Ambon. Also, the faithful should not walk across the Church in front of the celebrant if the service requires that he be standing in the Nave—always walk around behind him.

Those who are blessed to enter the Sanctuary should make a deep reverence when doing so (a prostration if it is appointed on that day). Except for the bishop, all enter through the Deacons’ (side) Doors, unless they are required to enter through the Holy Doors during the Liturgy, while properly vested. Even then, only the priests and deacons (and in some practices, the subdeacons) are permitted to enter through the central doors. In crossing from one side to the other in the Sanctuary, we always go behind (to the east) of the Holy Altar itself, unless, again, the service itself requires that one of the ministers walk across in front of the Altar, such as during a censing of the Altar. Again only those who are at least subdeacons would be permitted to do this, and even they do not walk across that area or stand there unless it is required by the Liturgy.

Only bishops, priests or deacons are permitted to touch the Holy Altar or the sacred vessels (the only exception is when, in the Russian practice, the faithful kiss the base of the chalice immediately after receiving Holy Communion). This applies at all times, both within the Divine services and at other times. Only the deacons and priests touch or carry the Antimension or the Holy Gifts themselves. No one, who is not at least a deacon, is permitted to take anything from, or place anything on, the Holy Altar, and the sacred things kept there are only touched by the faithful when they are offered for their veneration by the priest, for instance the Gospel Book during Matins of the Resurrection on Sundays, and the Cross at the end of the Liturgy. This should draw our attention to the importance of these blessings, and we should always venerate the Gospel and Cross on these occasions with great reverence.

Everything in the Orthodox Church is done with a blessing. So, sometimes a priest may give someone a particular blessing to do something that might not otherwise be generally allowed. These departures from normal practice are extraordinary and should never be taken for granted. In every situation it is proper to ask a blessing. And this is why we regard the seeming prohibitions against entering or touching things not as prohibitions but as our not having a blessing.

After these things I looked, and behold, a door standing open in heaven. And the first voice which I heard was like a trumpet speaking with me, saying, ‘Come up here, and I will show you things which must take place after this.’ Immediately I was in the Spirit; and behold, a throne set in heaven, and One sat on the throne. And He who sat there was like a jasper and a sardius stone in appearance; and there was a rainbow around the throne, in appearance like an emerald. Around the throne were twenty-four thrones, and on the thrones I saw twenty-four elders sitting, clothed in white robes; and they had crowns of gold on their heads. And from the throne proceeded lightnings, thunderings, and voices.

Seven lamps of fire were burning before the throne, which are the seven Spirits of God. Before the throne there was a sea of glass, like crystal. And in the midst of the throne, and around the throne, were four living creatures full of eyes in front and in back. The first living creature was like a lion, the second living creature like a calf, the third living creature had a face like a man, and the fourth living creature was like a flying eagle. The four living creatures, each having six wings, were full of eyes around and within. And they do not rest day or night, saying: ‘Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, Who was and is and is to come!’ Whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to Him who sits on the throne, who lives forever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall down before Him who sits on the throne and worship Him who lives forever and ever, and cast their crowns before the throne, saying: ‘You are worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honor and power; for You created all things, and by Your will they exist and were created.’ (Revelations 4:1-11)

Deacon Daniel Swires serves at St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in Mogadore, Oh.

Some Things To Do

Try the following activities to introduce your children or godchildren to the “physical environment” of the Orthodox Church:

Take a tour of your parish before or after services one day, and identify the Narthex, Nave, Sanctuary, dome, and icon screen. Ask your priest to give a “tour” of the Sanctuary (pointing out the Table of Oblation, the High Place, the Altar Table and the holy items on it, etc.), either by taking the boys into the Sanctuary or allowing boys and girls to stand in the doorway of the Deacons’ Doors. (Children love to peek through the Holy Doors and Deacons’ Doors when they open during services, but rarely get a good view!)
Ask your priest or parish caretaker for a copy of the blueprints/floor plans of your parish church building, if they are available. Ask your children to label the “key areas”, and draw in the Altar Table, Table of Oblation, Bishop’s throne, and any shrines you have in your parish.

(This is also a great activity for helping your child learn the icons on the icon screen; we found an old schematic of the icon screen frame when cleaning a back room, copied it, and asked our daughter to “draw” her own icons in the blank spaces on the schematic and tell us a bit about each. She had a great time “researching” who or what was depicted.)
Take a trip to your local library to research “historic” buildings used for Orthodox Christian worship, for example: the Parthenon in Athens; the Church of Holy Wisdom in Istanbul; the S. Vitale and S. Apollinare in Classe baptistries in Ravenna. Compare the floor plans of these buildings to your own parish’s floor plan.
Discuss the similarities and differences among the buildings of your parish and other Orthodox parishes in your area/that you visit while traveling. (With older children, you may also include non-Orthodox Christian churches or Jewish synagogues you may have visited for various occasions, like a friend’s wedding or bar/bat mitzvah. Just be prepared to discuss differences in theology, too!)

by Nichola T. Krause

© 2001 by Orthodox Family Life and the original author(s).
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