Come and See: Tour Notes for an Orthodox Church

Orthodox Worship

Worship in Spirit and in TruthWe believe that “worship in Spirit and in Truth” that Christ referred to (John 4:23) is Christian worship: the Divine Liturgy, which is the fulfillment of the Old Testament worship, patterned after heaven (Exodus 26:30), given to Moses by God.

Keys to Understanding Orthodox Worship

  1. Trinity: We worship the Holy Trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit
  2. Incarnation: True worship is centered in the Incarnation of Christ, the Son of God, the Word made flesh, the second person of the Holy Trinity who became man for our salvation.
  3. Heavenly Worship: Orthodox Worship is not a man-made invention, but rather the same divinely inspired form of worship shown to Moses in the Old Testament, patterned after the heavenly tabernacle and heavenly worship, but fulfilled in Christ. Old Testament worship looked forward to the coming of ChristNew Testament worship celebrates Christ as the fulfillment of all things that were foreshadowed in the Old. Christ said “I did not come to abolish but to fulfill” (Matthew 5:17).

Heavenly Worship: Christ our High PriestHebrews 8:1-6 says:

We have such a High Priest, who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens, a Minister of the sanctuary and of the true tabernacle which the Lord erected, and not man. For every high priest is appointed to offer both gifts and sacrifices. Therefore it is necessary that this One also have something to offer. For if He were on earth, He would not be a priest, since there are priests who offer the gifts according to the law; who serve the copy and shadow of the heavenly things, as Moses was divinely instructed when he was about to make the tabernacle. For He said, “See that you make all things according to the pattern shown you on the mountain.” But now He has obtained a more excellent ministry, inasmuch as He is also Mediator of a better covenant, which was established on better promises. 

A question to consider is:  “Has heaven changed since God’s revelation to Moses?” The answer is “no”. What HAS changed is the fulfilment of “a more excellent ministry” and “a better covenant.” The form, the model, the majesty, and the sense of Holiness endemic to Old Testament worship has not been tossed out, but rather fulfilled in Christ.

Worship in Every Place: The Old Testament prophets foretold a time, which is now fulfilled, when offerings would be made to God, not just at the temple at Jerusalem as the Law prescribed, but in every place among the gentiles. Malachi 1:11 declares “For from the rising of the sun, even to its going down, My name shall be great among the Gentiles; In every place incense shall be offered to My name, And a pure offering;  For My name shall be great among the nations,” Says the Lord of hosts.”

Church Architecture

Offering of Love. Why build a beautiful church? Why waste money on a building? Why not give the money to the poor? The Answer: Love. Like Mary of Bethany who extravagantly poured costly ointment on Jesus’ feet- when the disciples objected, Jesus rebuked them and commended her for her love. (Matthew 26:6-13) Consider the love of a man for a woman, willing to save and purchase the most beautiful ring he can afford for his bride to be…  The Early Church worshipped in the temple initially, but after the temple was destroyed they were unable to build beautiful churches because of persecution. As soon as the persecution ended, there was an explosion of beautiful church architecture. To be sure, the Church then and now has always, and continues to care for and minister to the poor. Yet for the next 1,500 years (until about the past 100 years), in every Christian city or town, the largest, most prominent, and most beautiful structure in the center of a town or city was the church – as an offering and testimony to God in their midst. Today, the largest and most expensive buildings in our cities are either office buildings (a testimony to our pursuit of wealth), or hospitals (a testimony for our clinging to natural life rather than eternal life).

Facing East – Orthodox Churches are built facing toward the East, with the entrance on the West end and the Altar on the East end. This is rooted in the sure expectation of, and longing for Christ’s second coming. “For as the lightening comes from the East and flashes to the West, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be.” (Matthew 24:27) There are many other scriptures that mention facing East for prayer and worship including Ezekiel’s vision (Ezekiel 43:4), and the offerings in the temple (Ezekiel 46:12).

Church Architecture Models our Approach to God –  As we enter the church we turn our full attention to God, leaving the cares of this world behind and pressing further in to draw near to God. (James 4:8) As we move through each section of the Church, our attention is focused more acutely on God.

Three Sections of the Church follow Old Testament (Heavenly) Pattern – The interior of the Church is separated into three parts, that correspond to the three portions of the Jewish temple: The Narthex (court), the Nave (Holy Place), and the Altar/Sanctuary (Holy of Holies). In traditional Christian architecture, the church is shaped like a cross, with the Altar at the East end, the nave at the center (with alcoves extending to the North and South), and the Narthex at the West end.

Narthex (Outer Courts) – Like the outer court/court of the Gentiles in the Temple, the Narthex symbolizes our approach to God. It is our first step out of the world and toward God. We immediately feel a sense of quiet, reverence, and holiness as we light a candle (symbolizing our prayers rising up to God) and begin our prayer. Traditionally, in larger churches, baptisms take place in the Narthex, based on the understanding that baptism is our entry into the Kingdom of God and the beginning of our salvation.

Nave (Holy Place) – The Nave corresponds to the Holy Place in the temple and is the main portion of the Church where the people stand to worship. The word “Nave” is Latin for “ship” because the Church is the Ark of Salvation.

Sanctuary/Altar (Holy of Holies) – The inner-most part of the church behind the iconostasis corresponds to the inner Sanctuary, the Holy of Holies where the ark of the covenant was kept.

Icons/Images – Icons of Christ, the Angels, and the Saints fill the walls to remind us that we are surrounded by that great cloud of witnesses (Hebrews 12:1) and an innumerable company of angels (Hebrews 12:22-24) spoken of in the book of Hebrews. Furthermore, the icons are a testimony to the fact that Christ Himself is the “icon”, or “image of the invisible God”. (Colossians 1:15)

Iconography in History – Images have always been an integral part of worship beginning with the OT when God instructed Moses to make images of the Cherubim to stand above the Ark of the Covenant (Exodus 25:18) and to weave the curtain of the temple with images of angels (Exodus 26:1). We also know from archaeological discoveries such as the Jewish synagogue discovered at Dura Europos that images of biblical scenes and characters were used in the Jewish synagogues. Of course the second commandment forbade making an image of the unseen and uncircumscribable God. But in the fullness of time, the Word of God became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14) and now He, who is the image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15) became visible precisely because He truly became a man, sharing and restoring our human nature. Because of the incarnation we can now depict the human nature of Christ in images and we do so as a testimony to the reality and centrality of the incarnation to our salvation.

And when you stand praying… (Mark 11:25) What, no pews? Just as in the Jewish Temple, we stand for prayer and worship, as we naturally would if any great dignitary were in our midst (not to mention the Creator and Savior of the World). Of the 200 references in scripture to a bodily position in prayer, only 1 reference is to sitting. Liturgy is the work of the people. We come to offer a sacrifice of praise, not to be entertained.

Bishop’s Throne – The Orthodox Church is “Apostolic” in that it maintains a physical, spiritual, and doctrinal continuity with the Apostles through the succession of bishops. Apostolic succession, instituted by Christ and referred to by Paul in his charge to Timothy: “And the things that you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” (II Timothy 2:2) is the unbroken succession of Bishop’s ordained by the laying on of hands back to the Apostles themselves, and ultimately the Lord Jesus Christ. The Bishop is an icon of Christ in our midst, for “Wherever the bishop appear, there let the multitude be; even as wherever Christ Jesus is, there is the Catholic Church” (110 A.D.) (Ignatius of Antioch, Epistle to the Smyrnaeans)

Choir/Antiphonal Singing – Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs have always been an integral part of Christian worship (Colossians 3:16). In larger churches, the choir is traditionally separated into two groups on either side of the Nave – in the alcoves to the North and South, while in smaller parishes the choir is typically in the back of the Nave, opposite the Altar. During the services the chanting of the priest and singing of the choir are done “antiphonally” singing back and forth like the archangels in Isaiah’s vision: “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!’” (Isaiah 6:2-4)

The Dome and the Pantocrator Icon

The dome symbolizes heaven, and reminds us that we are participating in heavenly worship. The icon of Christ in the dome is called the Pantocrator – meaning “God Almighty” portraying Christ in the heavens with great strength. Isaiah testified  “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!’” (Isaiah 6:1-3). Orthodox worship is understood to be a joining with and participation in that heavenly worship that goes on continually around the throne.. We are reminded 1) that the pre-incarnate Word came from heaven, and 2) after His incarnation, death, and glorious resurrection, ascended back to heaven and sits at the right hand of the Father in Glory where he now rules and reigns.

Traditionally icons of the seraphim mentioned by Isaiah surround the icon of Christ. Further out, the Old Testament prophets are shown surrounding the icon of Christ because they saw clearly and foretold the coming incarnation, and finally the four Evangelists/Gospel writers  who testified of Christ after His incarnation are depicted.

The Apse and the Platytera Icon (Mercy Seat)

The Dome (representing heaven) descends toward the floor (representing earth) at the back of the Holy Place in what is called the Apse. The Apse is usually rounded representing the cave/manger where Christ was born. Here in the Apse, at the point where the two meet, is traditionally a large icon of Mary – the Theotokos (mother of God) with Christ shown seated in her womb. Mary is understood to be the fulfillment of the Mercy Seat from the temple, where God spoke to Moses from “above the mercy seat” (Exodus 25:21-23), which, in the Old Testament was empty. Mary, the True Mercy Seat is NOT empty, indeed God himself is seated within her. This icon is referred to as the “Platytera” icon translated “more spacious than the heavens”, meaning that the eternal and uncontainable Word of God willed to be incarnate and was contained in Mary’s womb. Heaven (dome) and Earth (floor), God, and Man, were united for all of eternity in the womb of the Virgin through the miracle of the Incarnation.

The Cross of Christ: Front and Center – “But God forbid that I should boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” (Galatians 6:14) The central and most prominent feature in the Church is the life-giving cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is front and center on the highest point of the iconostatis and is centered above the altar between the Cherubim. Orthodox worship is centered and firmly rooted in the cross of Christ. “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:17-19)  

Iconostasis

The Iconostasis (panel of icons at the front of the Nave) and specifically the “Beautiful Gates” or “Royal Doors” and curtain are prefigured by the Old Testament temple curtain that separated the people from the Holy of Holies. The temple curtain was embroidered with images of the Cherubim, as a reminder to worshipers of their separation from God due to the transgression of Adam and Eve in the garden (Genesis 3:22-24). The curtain in the temple was always closed, and even the High Priest was only able to go into the Holy of Holies once each year on the day of atonement (Exodus 30:6-10). The icon portrayed on the gates of the iconostasis is that of the Annunciation, when the Archangel Gabriel comes to the Virgin Mary. In Mary’s response “Let it be unto me according to thy will”, she counters the transgression of the first Eve with her own obedience to the will of God, and as a result, in the sacrificial death and resurrection of her own Son, the veil and curtain separating mankind from God is rent (Luke 1:26-38). The Gospel of Matthew tells us that the veil of the temple was torn from top to bottom when Christ died on the cross for our Salvation. (Matthew 27:50-52) This event is portrayed during the Divine Liturgy when the Beautiful Gates/Royal Doors and curtain are closed during the consecration of the Eucharist, and then, the veil (Beautiful Gates/Royal Doors/Curtain) are opened, and God comes to us in the Eucharist, the body and blood of Christ. (Hebrews 10:19-21)

Icons on the Iconstasis – Starting from the Royal Doors, Mary/Theotokos holding Christ is always to the left and symbolizes the first coming/nativity of Christ. The icon of Christ is on the right of the Royal Doors and represents the second coming. Our life in the Church is between the first and second coming, where we are nourished by the bread of heaven – the Eucharist which comes to us from the altar. To the left of Mary/Theotokos is the Archangel Gabriel – the herald of the annunciation and first coming of Christ (Luke 1:26-38). To the right of the icon of Christ is the Archangel Michael – who announces the second coming (1 Thessalonians 4:16). Further to the right (on Christ’s left) is the icon of St. John the Baptist, of whom Christ declared “among those born of women there is not a greater prophet than John the Baptist” (Luke 7:28). To the left of Gabriel is the icon of the Patron Saint for the parish/church.

Facing the Altar – Unlike many churches today, when the priest serves at the altar, he faces the altar, not the people, leading the people in the offering of prayer and worship to God.

Altar (Holy of Holies) – The altar area which corresponds to the Holy of Holies, is the fulfillment of the Old Testament types from the Tabernacle/Temple. The altar is prefigured by the “Most Holy Place” – the “Holy of Holies” maintaining a continuity with, and fulfilment of the pattern of heavenly worship and the ark of the testimony, revealed to Moses: “…and behind the second veil, the part of the tabernacle which is called the Holiest of All, which had the golden censer and the ark of the covenant overlaid on all sides with gold, in which were the golden pot that had the manna, Aaron’s rod that budded, and the tablets of the covenant; and above it were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat. Of these things we cannot now speak in detail.” (Hebrews 9:3-5)

The altar table is prefigured by the Ark of the Covenant, which prefigures the Heavenly Altar:

  • The Ark of the Covenant held three things, which were the types and shadows that are fulfilled in Christ, and present on every Orthodox Altar table:
  • Jar of Manna (Type: bread from heaven) => Jar/box containing small portion of the Eucharist (Reality: Christ’s body/blood – the Bread of Life) (Hebrews 9:4John 6:48-58)
  • Aaron’s rod that budded (the evidence for the validity of the Aaronic priesthood)  => Cross of Christ that bloomed forth for eternal life (the evidence for the validity of Christ’s priesthood)  (Hebrews 9:4)
  • Ten Commandments (Old Covenant)  => Gospel (New Covenant) (Hebrews 9:4)

Other elements of the altar area: types and fulfillments:

  • Mercy Seat (Empty) = Mary/Theotokos with Christ seated (Platytera – “more spacious than the heavens”) –  behind the altar – between the Cherubim, in the place of meeting. Here the eternal Word becomes flesh and dwells among us. (Exodus 25:22)
  • Cherubim above the altar (fans) (Exodus 25:18-20)
  • 7 branch lampstand (Exodus 25:31-40)
  • Golden Censer (Hebrews 9:4)
  • A lamp to burn continuously – always burning on or above the altar (Exodus 27:20-21)
  • Altar table dimensions – The altar table is typically in the shape of a cube, patterned after the heavenly Jerusalem (Revelation 21:16-17).
  • Martyrs under the Altar – The altar table and/or the antimension (covering of the altar table provided by the Bishop) contain a relic (normally a piece of bone) of a saint which shows that the Church is built on the blood of the martyrs and the lives of God’s holy people. This custom comes from the early Church practice of gathering and celebrating the Eucharist on the graves of those who have lived and died for the Christian faith – and the reference to the souls beneath the heavenly altar mentioned in John’s Revelation (Revelation 6:9)

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