Second Introduction to Eastern Orthodoxy
Everything about Eastern Orthodoxy is about union with God. The church building and the way it is made, religious artifacts and the way they are arranged, and all that goes on during worship services, in fact, absolutely everything is filled with powerful spiritual teachings and symbolism. All of these things were designed to teach the Gospel, put the Gospel into practice, to worship Christ in soul and body, and to focus one's attention on Christ during worship times. Thus, Orthodox worship involves the whole person: spirit, mind, and body, recognising that God became man because we are physical creatures and require a total (including physical) salvation. Thus, it involves not only the mind and heart, but also the ears (hymns, the bells of the censor), the eyes (Icons, processions), the nose (the smell of the candles, incense, and rose water, etc.), and touch (making the sign of the cross, and other gestures).
The apostles, as the Bible relates, continued to worship in synagogues and to hold Christian meetings in homes. During the time of the apostles' disciples, churches began to be erected. These early Christians gathered together and worshipped in private homes or in small churches, depending on the level of persecution. But shortly after Constantine the Great issued the edit of toleration in AD 313 legalizing Christianity, Christians began to build more and bigger churches based on the apostolic concept of uniting spiritual and physical symbolism during worship for the sake of enlightenment and impressing on the soul and body total communion with the Lord and eternal salvation.
The Church Building:
"We are the temple of the living God...." (II Corinthians 6:16).
This is what the construction of an Orthodox Church tries to communicate. Every part of what we see, what we do and what happens during church services (called, the Liturgy) is part of the "temple of the living God".
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). This symbolizes that the physical Church and the heavenly Church are visibly and invisibly unified. There is no distinction between the two, not even death.
Architecturally, Orthodox churches vary. Many are built in the form of a cross. Above the middle of the cross there is often a dome. This represents that in order to receive the many blessings that descend upon us from heaven through the open dome, it is necessary first to accept the cross, or salvation through Jesus Christ.
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. This was an early Christian concept. 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 all 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). There are a few Bible verses referring to this symbolism, such as Malachi 4:2 (or 3:20), "But for you who revere My Name the Sun of Righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings."
Over the entrance of the church 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.
The general 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 lives exist solely within the bounds of this earth. The church building is patterned after the image of God's Kingdom and it is meant only for prayer and union with the Divine. This concept of sacred geographical space was accepted by the apostles and practiced by them. Their reverence and prayers in the Temple of Jerusalem, as well as holy activities within synagogues have been recorded in the Bible. They understood the holy significance of sacred rituals and holy places. And this concept has continued ever since their times. As the Orthodox church teaches, one main goal of the Christian is to "pray without ceasing" (1 Thessalonians 5:17).
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, they all act to lead us into God's throne room, granting access to the inaccessible.
The Eastern Orthodox church is composed of three main sections: narthex (or porch), nave, and sanctuary.
Worshippers first enter the church through the narthex (sometimes preceded by a vestibule). Above the double doors to the narthex is the choir loft. Hidden from the congregation, which is facing the other way, the positioning of the choir contributes to the angelic nature of Byzantine music.
While in the narthex, we are still considered to be in this world, though the first prayer we offer up when going to Church is in the narthex. This symbolizes the fact that Christians begin their salvation in the world through the apostolic Church. In the narthex we kiss icons of Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and/or various saints in reverence, making three deep bows, and then prayerfully lighting a candle, remembering also our unworthiness to enter, that we have been given a blessing to enter this holy place. Lighting candles is a visible physical action to enhance the spiritual action of offering up prayers, a concept constantly repeated throughout the Liturgy and symbolically represented everywhere in the church. The icons remind Orthodox Christians that Christ and the saints are invisibly present in this Holy Place, the Sacred space of the Church.
Early in the Church the narthex was usually large. This is because that is where catechumens, unbaptized Christians, who wanted to become part of the Church, the Body of Christ, were instructed in holy matters. They were not allowed to stay in the nave during the later part of the Divine Liturgy, when Communion took place, a situation that could last up to 3 years. This was done because salvation is not a sudden experience. It is a preparation, a process of eradicating sins. The narthex was also used as an area of punishment. When the Priest decided that someone’s sins were serious enough to prevent him from receiving Communion, that person could only enter the narthex. From here he would plead for the prayers of the faithful as they entered the Church. This shows us that the apostolic teachings taught that a Christian can fall from God's grace and therefore become unworthy to stand with God’s faithful in worship of Him. Because the narthex represents the beginning of salvation, there was in early Church times a Baptismal Font (tub) large enough for an adult to be fully submerged as part of the catechumens' Baptism into the Church. The narthex was also used for a meal at the end of Liturgy. In some monasteries the narthex still serves as a dining room to this day.
Nowadays, the narthex provides an area of preparation for worship with its candlestand and icons.
The narthex or vestibule of the Church, represents this world in which man is called to repentance. The nave represents the Kingdom of heaven. Passing from the Narthex into the nave of the church symbolises the Christian's entrance into the kingdom of heaven. The Nave is the eternal place of the assembled Church, which includes both the living and the departed, the people of God.
Large full-length icons of Christ, Mary, and other saints immediately engage those entering the nave. The saints serve as examples to the ordinary faithful that they too can attain the destiny of heaven if they live according to the teachings of the church. Other icons may depict important events in the life of Christ.
The icons at the entrance to the nave remind the Orthodox Christian that Christ and the Saints are his invisible hosts when he comes to church. His first act upon entering church is to salute them by making the sign of the cross. Often the worshipper also lights a candle upon entering as a reminder that he is to reflect the light of Christ in the world.
The nave is the main area of the church. As one goes in, he will notice many things. Before the altar is 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).
In some churches there are no pews (or benches). These churches have "Stadia", or stands where the elderly or infirm can lean back supported by their arms while others stand throughout the service. (In ancient days, when the people would sit they sat on the floor.) Other churches have pews arranged with side and central isles. This allows for processions. Whether or not the church has pews there is a spirit of alertness throughout the services. Even in sitting, people sit ‘at attention’ with both feet firmly on the floor and legs uncrossed, the same formal way one would sit in the presence of a King. In both cases, there is an open space near the front (where the Iconistasion is located) called the "Solea". The Solea is often just slightly raised above the main floor level. This is like a ‘stage’ where chanters chant, the Deacon offers his Litanies, and other liturgical actions take place. The large, ornate seat on the right of the solea is the bishop's throne. If a member of the church hierarchy is present for a service, he is seated here. A pair of candle stands are before the Great Doors. This speaks of the church's ancestry in Judaism, where similar stands were seen in the Jewish temple.
The Nave strives to create Heaven on earth so the faithful may worship together with God and the saints. The floor symbolizes earth and the dome symbolizes heaven where the worshipers are reminded that although they reside on earth, their final and certain destination is Heaven.
In the Nave before the altar area and the icon screen, there are usually two large candelabras, which represent the column of light by which God guided the Jews at night to the promised land. When the light appeared the Jewish people followed it until it eventually led them to the promised land. During the day God used a cloud. these two candelabras remind us that we. too, have a promised land, the kingdom of heaven. Just as God guided the Jews to their promised land, so today He guides us to ours through the teachings of the Gospel and the grace of the sacraments.
The pulpit is usually located to the left of the Iconostasis near the center of the nave. Used for the reading of the Gospel and the preaching of the sermon, it symbolises the stone used to seal the entrance to Christ's tomb from which the angel proclaimed the good tidings of the Resurrection to the women who had come to anoint His body. Often the pulpit is decorated with icons of the Lord and the four Gospel writers.
A chandalier is usually suspended from the dome or ceiling to signify the majesty of the firmament and the glory of God's heavenly bodies i.e., the sun, the moon and the planets. "The heavens declare the glory of God." (Psalm 19:1).
All over the nave there are beautiful yet soft colors of gold, blue, white, etc. This is in symbolic reference to church being the palace of God's presence, where even here and now earth is changed into Heaven whenever the Eucharist is celebrated and divine grace is received.
The church edifice is considered to represent the universe. The ceiling represents heaven. The opening in the ceiling (dome) on which is usually painted a picture of Christ Pantocrator, i.e., the all-ruling Christ, represents Christ looking down through heaven upon the assembled congregation, hearing their prayers, reminding them of His all-pervading presence in the universe. The floor of the Church represents this world. The altar uplifted from the floor by a series of steps and suspended, as it were, between heaven and earth gives expression to the fact that its purpose is to lift us up to heaven through the teachings of the Gospel and the grace of the Sacraments, both of which emanate from the altar.
The Victorious Christ (Pantocrator). The victory of Christ is central to our Orthodox Christian faith. It is to dramatise this victory that the figure of Christ is placed at the highest point of the church, i.e., the top of the dome. It gives full expression to the great victory hymn of the early church.
The resurrection is not only an integral part but the predominant motif of the Eastern Church's view of Christ's work as Saviour. The East has always viewed redemption in its more positive aspect, namely, that "God became man that man might become God," to use the words of St. Athanasios. This divinisation of man is made possible through the resurrection of the Lord Jesus in Which all Christians share. This accounts for the great emphasis on the resurrection in the Eastern Church. And it explains why the greatest of all services in the Eastern Church is the midnight Easter liturgy, which has been described as having no parallel in the experience of other Christian worship services.
The four Gospel writers, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are usually depicted at the four corners of the base of the dome to express the fact that through their writings they spread the Gospel of Jesus to the four quarters of the earth.
The nave and the altar, or sanctuary, are separated by the iconostasis or wooden icon wall, just like the veil, or curtain, in the Old Testament Temple, behind which is the altar, or sanctuary. But, this veil is no longer permanently closed: it has been opened by Christ Himself. Yet, the iconostasis in the Orthodox Church exists not to divide the two sections, but to show the unity that exists between the faithful and Christ, His mother, the saints, and all the angels.
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 icons of the Iconostasis are arranged in prescribed tiers. All churches have a bottom tier that includes (as viewed from left to right): the Archangel Michael, the saint or event for which the church was named (The relationship between the Patron and Icon of the Theotokos reminds the worshipper that the merits of the Saints derives from their devotion to and imitation of the Christ, not from any inherent holiness of their own.), the Virgin Mary holding the Child Jesus, the Royal Gates with the four evangelists, Jesus Christ the Teacher holding the Book of Judgement and offering the sign of the cross in blessing (The symbolism of the two Icons flanking the Royal Door is the "three comings of Jesus" -- as the Child of Mary, as the Triumphant King at the end of the Age and the Loving God Who feeds His people (from the Holy Table) with His Body and Blood in the Holy Eucharist.), St. John the Baptist (This reminds the worshiper that the King who will come at the End of Days is the same Christ proclaimed by the prophet and Forerunner.), and the Archangel Gabriel. Icons relating to the twelve great feast days of Orthodoxy, the disciples, and the Virgin Mary may be included in additional tiers. Icons of other saints and significant Biblical events may be added to the walls of the church in frescoes, mosaics, and moveable boards. They, too, contribute to the extended family of saints that worship with the congregation and they all invite the faithful to a worshipful meditation of God.
Three doors or entrances punctuate the Iconostasion. In the middle is the "Royal Doors" or "Beautiful Gate". When open, this entrance allows the faithful to see the Holy Table, upon which the Holy Gifts of bread and wine are offered to God. To the left and right of the Royal Door are the Archangel Doors (so called because they feature Icons of the Archangels Michael and Gabriel). In keeping with the understanding that the church faces East, these doors are often referred to as the "North" and "South" Doors. The Archangel Doors are used by deacons, acolytes (altar servers) and attendants, while the Royal Door is reserved for Bishops and priests, and on specific occasions by the deacons.
The second, upper 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.
The Royal Doors on the icon screen are called "royal" in view of the fact that Christ the King is carried through them in the Sacrament of Holy Communion as the priest brings the precious Body and Blood to the congregation. They remind us that Christ alone is the door leading to communion with the Father.
Above the iconostasion are more icons. Going around the dome above the altar are icons of some of the Old Testament prophets. The scene is dominated by the icon of the Platytera, from the Greek "platytera ton ouranon", meaning "She who is wider than the heavens"- so called because she gave birth to Christ who as God is the Creator of all things. Having received and conceived in herself Him who cannot be contained in the whole of creation, the Theotokos is indeed Platytera ton ouranon, wider than the heavens, representing the Theotokos and Child in all their splendor.
There appears in the apse of the Church of the Holy Cross, as in most Orthodox Churches, the icon depicting the Virgin Mary with the Christ Child. This icon unites the roof of the Church with the floor, symbolically uniting the heavens and the earth. The Mother of God, hovering between the heavens and the earth serves as "'the heavenly ladder, whereby God has descended' and as 'the Bridge leading those on earth to heaven'". As such, we pray, "Through the prayers of the Theotokos, Savior save us (the Divine Liturgy).
The Theotokos (the Mother of God) with the Christ Child teaches us a fundamental truth of Orthodoxy- that is, that Christ is to dwell in each of us. Saint Ambrose expressed it well: "Every believing soul conceives and gives birth to the Word of God; Christ, by means of our faith, is the fruit of us all, thus we are all mothers of Christ." Thus, the same Christ that condescended to dwell in the Virgin Mary comes to be born in us, that we too may say, as did Saint Paul, "it is no longer I who lives, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God (Gal 2:20).
Icon means image, and they are used as lessons or things that God wishes us to see. In Orthodox teaching, we are all images or icons of Christ.
There is hierarchical plan in the way the icons are arranged in the orthodox church. The highest point, the dome, is reserved for our Lord. Then on the front wall there is a figure of the Mother of God, the link between the Creator and the creation. Next there are the icons of the angels, apostles and saints on the Iconostasis screen. These constitute the Church Triumphant in heaven. The floor level of the church is reserved for us - the members of the church Militant. Thus around the figure of Christ is gathered His entire Church both that in heaven and that on earth.
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, prayer, and Holy Communion. 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."
Icons are more than visual aids in the Eastern Orthodox Church. They are sermons in form and color. They are prayers enshrined in painted wood, sanctified by Church blessing to assist worshippers in their heavenly ascent by making real the presence of God. They are used for inspiration and instruction. It has been said that the Eastern Orthodox Church has two Gospels: one written and the other visual, consisting of the icon. Icons are not considered to belong to the realm of art but to that of theology. They are visual sermons. They make real the persons they depict. For this reason Eastern Orthodox worshippers do not hesitate to kiss the icon. This reverence is not intended for the painted wood but for the person depicted thereon (whose presence the icon actualises).
The origin of the use of icons is the Egyptian funeral portrait. It was the desire on the part of the deceased not to be forgotten that led the Egyptians to have a portrait of the deceased person's face on the mummy's coffin. The distinguishing feature of the Egyptian funeral portrait was the large eyes, wide-open and staring at the gazer, as if to say, "Here I am. You may think I'm gone and forgotten, but as I look at you with these piercing eyes, I dare you to forget me."
The early Christian icons followed the same pattern. The saints whom they represented also looked straight into the eyes of their beholders, as if to say, "Here I am. I may seem dead to you, but I am very much alive in the presence of God. I am still a member of the Church - the Church Triumphant in heaven."
The Christian people need to realise that they belong to a pilgrim people en route to heaven. Here we have the role of iconography in our churches: to represent some of the major phases of salvation history to the worshippers and provide a reminder that the small local parish is in communion with the angels and saints. The whole story of the incarnation is depicted on the walls of an Orthodox Church.
During the services of our Church the 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 Sanctuary is the third section in the Orthodox house of worship. As the narthex was historically the place of the penitent and the catechumens and the nave was the place of the faithful, the sanctuary was the place of the clergy. Although the penitent and the catechumens now find themselves integrated with the faithful in the nave, the sanctuary remains the 'presbytery' of the Church, that is, the place of the clergy.
It is here that the greatest mystery of the church - the changing of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ - takes place. The central element is the altar which represents his tomb. The other elements are complementary to the altar, such as the table of oblation placed to the left of the altar. The table normally stands in a concave area that represents Christ's manger. The icon is that of the Nativity. The oblation table is where the priest conducts the proskomithi during the orthos service (just before the Liturgy), in which he prepares the bread and the wine to be used for Holy Communion (Eucharist).
Only men are allowed in the Sanctuary and only those ordained by the church may pass through the Great Doors, the large opening in the center of the iconostasion. The altar is visible through the Great Doors. It is on this table that bread and wine are transformed into the sacrament of the Eucharist during the Orthodox Divine Liturgy. The most visible item on the altar is the gold, box-like tabernacle. It houses consecrated Eucharist for use later in the week. It is symbolic of the Ark of the Covenant that was housed in the Jewish temple.
In Greek the Sanctuary is called the Agion Vema, which is literally "holy raised floor". The Sanctuary is raised since it is the most holy part of the interior of the Church. Since it’s the most holy part, entrance into it is only for the clergy and attendants. Another name for it in Greek is "Agia Agion" or "Holy of Holies", echoing the Holy of Holies in the Temple of Solomon. We say this because it is where the most holy of sacraments is celebrated, the Holy Eucharist. In fact there is always a small portion of the Eucharist in the Sanctuary, so we can say that Christ is actually in the Sanctuary. Its not just another area of the Church, and it should always be looked upon reverently (as should all parts of God’s house).
The sanctuary, separated from the nave by the ikonostasion, is always located on the east side of the church because Christ, the light of the world, will arise again in the east. The sanctuary has certain main features.
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. This is why the Eastern Orthodox Christian makes the sign of the cross whenever he passes before the holy altar.
Most of the Divine Liturgy is conducted around the altar, usually made of stone or marble in keeping with the practice of the early Christians who used the tombs of their deceased brethren for tables to perform the Eucharist. Relics of saints are even placed in each altar to replicate those early tables. One or more columns support the altar. The one column signifies the foundation of the world, Jesus Christ. But four columns signify the four evangelists: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. On the altar the changing of the bread and wine takes place, the church's most important mystery. On the top of the altar lie the Gospel book and the artophorion, a large four-sided box made of precious metal with a cross on top that contains the consecrated bread immersed in the Blood of Jesus. This is reserved for emergencies and for the offering following the sacrament of baptism. Behind the altar stands a large crucifix on which the body of Christ hangs, a reminder of his sacrifice for mankind.
From the beginning Christians honored the memory of those who died in the prosecutions. The tombs of the early martyrs were held in high veneration. On the anniversary of their deaths the liturgy was celebrated on their graves and a sermon was preached. This was practiced especially during the first 300 years of Christianity when worship was entirely underground, in the catacombs, where the tombs of these early martyrs were easily accessible. From this early Christian custom has come the practice of placing the relics of some martyr in the holy altar of each church upon its consecration. It represents that the Church is founded on the sacrifices of the martyrs.
The practice of the ancient church was simply to celebrate the "breaking of bread" on a simple wooden table not unlike that used in the Last Supper. In time though, the place on which the bread was broken changed from common wooden tables to the righteous tombs of those men and women of the faith who were persecuted and martyred in the name of our Lord. This practice evolved into the use of marble altar tables (reminiscent of tombs) in which the precious relics of the martyrs of the Church are housed.
Today, the Altar Table is covered with two cloths. The first cover next to the flesh of the table, the katasarkion, is reminiscent of the shroud placed on our Lord in the tomb upon His burial. It is placed on the table upon its consecration by the bishop and remains there permanently as the very Body of our Lord has sanctified it. The second and often richly ornate cloth placed on the table stems from a gesture of the Emperor Constantine in the Church of the Holy Wisdom in Constantinople. As an offering of respect and love Constantine brought forth a beautiful cloth "gold threaded and adorned with precious stones" to cover the table which houses the relics of the martyrs and upon which is placed the precious gifts of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Today, members of the Body of Christ offer beautiful altar covers in like manner.
The Gospel Book (which is constantly enthroned on the Holy Altar to signify that Christ is present as the Word of Life in the Gospel and as the Bread of Life in the Tabernacle), the Antimension, the blessing cross and Tabernacle (to store the Reserved Sacrament) are also placed upon the Holy Table, located in the center of the Sanctuary. The priest and deacon stand on the 'west' side of the Holy Table, thus facing the same direction as the people. (The celebrant of the Liturgy does not 'stand in the place' of Christ, rather he leads the people in the spiritual sacrifice of the Lord's Table.)
The Antimension is a cloth designed with an image of the burial of Christ. Originally it was used in Churches whose Holy Table did not store Holy Relics. Thus it was considered a 'portable altar'. As the Antimension includes the signature of the Bishop, it also serves as a kind of symbol of credentials for the liturgical life of the church. If for reasons of canonical order or in the event of a relocation the Antimension is removed, the building may no longer function as an Orthodox Church for the purpose of worship.
The Prothesis, or Table of Preparation or Table of Oblation, is a smaller table usually located on the Northeast side of the Sanctuary and used for the preparation of the bread and wine for the Liturgy, later carried in a solmen procession to the main altar. It is the place where the Eucharistic Gifts are prepared during the Morning Matins Service (Orthros), prior to the celebration of the Divine Liturgy.
Additionally it is the place where the Eucharistic items i.e., the Holy Chalice, the Holy Paten, the communion cloths, the spoon that dispenses the gifts etc., are stored. An icon of the Nativity is usually found on the altar of preparation to signify that it represents the manger of Bethlehem. Just as Jesus was born in Bethlehem, so through the Eucharist he comes to be born and dwell in our lives today. It also reminds us that Christ is the sacrificial lamb that is offered "in behalf of all and for all."
The Diakonikon is the place where other liturgical items are stored by the priest; specifically he keeps the book of the Gospels and liturgical texts on this shelf (relics of the saints would be kept on this shelf as well). It is here that the icons, which are brought by the faithful to be blessed, are placed for 40 days. The icon traditionally placed here is either that of the Resurrection or that of the extreme humility of Christ.
Early on in our Church's history, these shelves were not found in the altar. Instead the Holy Gifts were prepared and the liturgical items of the Church were kept in a separate building, the skevophylakion. And it was from this place that the Gospel and the Offerings were brought into the Church at the appropriate time in the service by the clergy (our processions today with the Gospel during the Small Entrance and the Offering during the Great Entrance are reminiscent of this practice). The skevolphylakion, "the place for guarding the vessels", however, fell into disuse being replaced by the Prothesis and the Diakonikon.
The ceiling above the altar shows the Platytera ton Ouranon (wider than heaven), depicting the Virgin Mary with open arms and with the Christ Child on her lap. She is called Platytera because in her womb she held the omnipotent God. Her outstretched arms welcome and encompass the worshiper.
The two circular standards on either side of the tabernacle which are found in many Orthodox Churches are called in Greek "exapteriga" (six wings). 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 ‘east’ side of the Holy Table is called the "High Place", and in some churches will include a raised area with a throne for the Bishop (who is the true minister and Pastor of the parish Church community) and additional chairs for other assisting members. This area is called the "Synthronon" (or High Place). The clergy stand at the Holy Table to offer up prayers and spiritual sacrifices on behalf of the people of God. The censor is used to symbolically represent the prayers of the faithful ascending up to God and ‘psychologically’ presents the aroma of worship. Also stored in the Sanctuary are the Processional Cross, Lanterns and Seraphim Fans (representing the angelic host accompanying and protecting the worshipping faithful).
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 in the tabernacle.
The Bishop's throne is usually found to the right of the Iconostasis. It is set apart for the bishop or archbishop who is considered to be the head of the Church and represents Jesus Christ. For this reason an icon of Christ, the High Priest, is usually painted somewhere on the throne. The bishop occupies the throne during the Liturgy when he is not actually serving.
Early on in our history, the bishop's throne was located in the center of the church, elevated a bit amidst the faithful. But why an elevated place from which to preach and educate the faithful? Practically, it ensured that the preacher could be seen and heard throughout the church. Symbolically, the preacher would stand upon the stone rolled away from the tomb (the Sanctuary being the tomb) as did the angel of the Lord, who preached the Good News to the women, "do not be afraid; for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, he has risen, as he said" (Matthew 28:6).
Unfortunately, the balance between the Liturgy of the Word, the reading from the Gospel and the sermon, and the Liturgy of the Faithful, the celebration of the Eucharist, has been compromised. In some Christian traditions, the Word is the focus, while in others it is simply the celebration of the Eucharist. It is only in the balance and synthesis of these two works of the people, however, that we experience the fullness of the faith and the practice of the ancient Church.
In addition to the areas noted above, a church might have rooms at either side of the Sanctuary to store books and vessels for liturgical use (in the west often called a "Sacristy") and/or to store the vestments of the clergy and attendants (a "Vestry"). Near the Narthex, some churches may also have vestibules, or cloak rooms.
Everything in the Orthodox Church is done with a blessing. 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. Also, 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. 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.
As the Sanctuary is the place wherein special Liturgical actions are performed (prayers and blessings), it is reserved only for those authorised and/or ordained to perform or assist in those functions. The work of the clergy and their attendants is to stand at the Holy Table and offer up special prayers. The work of the people is to pray and worship God, and this is done in the Nave. In some services, the clergy never enter the Sanctuary at all but join the people in the Nave for prayer. Thus, it is not a question of the Sanctuary being "off-limits" but of the worship space of the church being arranged for specific purposes and each area being used by those assigned to perform those functions.
An Orthodox Church, laid out in this precise arrangement, is designed to promote and enhance prayer and allow the worshipper to leave behind the outside world, mystically step into God’s ‘space’ and become aware of God’s close loving presence in our lives. The use of this ‘worship space’ for other purposes is foreign to the tradition of Orthodoxy, and thus even national flags and other things that do not have a direct function in worship are prohibited. This is the way the early Church worshipped according to apostolic teaching, which comes from the Jewish prophets.