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Inside an Orthodox Church

Updated: May 25, 2020

What's Inside an Orthodox Church?

The visitor to an Orthodox Church is usually impressed by the unique features and the external differences between this place of worship and those of the various traditions of Western Christianity. The rich colour, distinctive iconography, and beauty of the interior of an Orthodox Church generally are in sharp contrast to the simplicity which one finds in many Roman Catholic and Protestant churches. When one enters the interior of the Orthodox church it is like stepping into a whole new world of colour and light. The art and design of the church not only create a distinctive atmosphere of worship, but they also reflect and embody many of the fundamental insights of Orthodoxy.


Sacred Space

The interior church is most importantly, both the background and the setting for Orthodox worship. The art and architecture are designed to contribute to the total experience of worship, which involves one's intellect, feelings, and senses. The Eucharist and the other sacramental mysteries take place in God's midst, and they bear witness to His presence and actions. Therefore, in the Orthodox tradition there is a very strong feeling that the church is the House of God and the place where His glory dwells. For this reason, all Orthodox churches are blessed, consecrated, and set aside as sacred space. The whole church bears witness to God's indwelling among His people.


Ideally, an Orthodox church is relatively small in order to emphasize and enhance the sense of community in worship. The church is generally constructed in the form of a cross and is divided into three areas: the narthex, the nave, and the sanctuary.

The narthex is the entrance area. Centuries ago this area was the place where catechumens (unbaptized learners) and penitents remained during parts of the services. Today, the beginning of the Baptismal service and in some parishes, the Marriage service, begins in the narthex and proceeds into the nave. This procession symbolically represents a gradual participation in the life of the Church and the experienced knowledge of God. In many Orthodox parishes, the narthex is the area where the faithful make an offering, receive a candle, light it before an icon, and offer a personal prayer before joining the congregation.

The nave is the large centre area of the church. Here the faithful gather for worship. Although all Orthodox churches in this country have pews, some follow the old custom of having an open nave with no seats. On the right-hand side of the nave is the bishop's throne from which he presides as a living icon of Christ among his people. Even in the bishop's absence, the throne reminds all that the parish is not an isolated entity but is part of a diocese under the bishop’s pastoral and administrative care. On the left-hand side of the nave is the pulpit from which the Gospel is proclaimed, and the sermon preached. The choir and the cantors frequently occupy areas on the far sides of the nave.


The sanctuary is considered the most sacred part of the church, and the area is reserved only for the clergy and the altar servers. The sanctuary contains the Altar, the throne of God according to the book of Apocalypse, and it is separated from the nave by a screen bearing icons, known as Iconostasion. It serves as a symbol of the division between the spiritual/heavenly world and our world and the unity of these two worlds during Eucharist. Through Christ, heaven and earth are united. It should be noted that not all services take place within the sanctuary. Many are conducted in the centre of the nave, in the midst of the congregation. In doing so, Orthodoxy emphasizes the fact that the worship of the Church is offered by, and for all the people.


The Altar

The Altar is the heart and focal point of the Orthodox Church and worship. It is here that eucharistic gifts of bread and wine are offered to the Father, as Christ has commanded us to do. The altar, which is usually square in shape, stands away from the wall and is often covered with cloths. A tabernacle, with reserved Holy Communion for the sick or dying, is set upon the Altar, together with candles. When the Divine Liturgy is not celebrated, the Book of Gospels rests on the Altar. Behind the Altar is the sitting area for the clergy and the bishop’s seat known as cathedra.


Iconostasion

The Iconostasion is the screen bearing icons which separates the sanctuary from the nave. This is an evolvement of the ancient christian custom, still observed today in many denominations, of visibly separating the sanctuary with the chancel. In time, icons were placed on the raised screen, hence the term Iconostasion. In contemporary practice, the Iconostasion may be very elaborate and conceal most of the sanctuary, or it may be very simple and open. The Iconostasion has three entrances which are used during services. There is a door on either side, known as angels doors, as they always depict the Archangels Michael and Gabriel respectively, and the central entrance known as royal doors depicting the Annunciation. A curtain is always drawn closed concealing the Altar when services are not celebrated. On the right-hand side of the Iconostasion is the icon of Christ followed by the icon St. John the Baptist. On the left-hand side is always the icons of the Theotokos (Mother of our Lord) followed by the icon of the patron saint or the feast to which the church is dedicated. In addition to these icons, others are added depending upon custom and space.


Icons

An icon is a holy image which is the most distinctive art form of the Orthodox Church. We do not worship or venerate the icons but, according to the orthodox teaching, the veneration and honour is offered to the one who is depicted on the icon. In the orthodox practice the icon usually is a painting on wood, canvas, a mosaic, or a fresco. Icons depict figures such as Christ, Virgin Mary the Theotokos, the saints and angels. They may also portray events from the Scriptures or the history of the Church, such as Christmas, Easter, etc. Icons occupy a very prominent place in the Orthodox worship and theology. The icon is not simply decorative, inspirational, or educational. Most importantly, it signifies the presence of the individual depicted. The icon is a window into heaven. When we worship, we do so as members of the Church, including the living and the departed. We never lose contact with the departed in the Lord. This belief is expressed every time one venerates an icon or lights a candle before it.


Many Orthodox churches have icons not only on the Iconostasion but also on the walls, ceilings, and in arches. Above the sanctuary in the apse is the depiction of Virgin Mary as he is the human being closest to God. This also illustrates her important role in the Incarnation of the Son of God, and she is often called to be the person between Heavens and earth.

Dimensions Of Worship

Worship involves the entire Church. When we come together for worship, we do so as members of the Church which transcends the boundaries of space and time. Although we gather at a particular moment and at a particular place, our actions reach beyond, into the very Kingdom of God. We worship in the presence and company of both the living and the departed faithful.

There are two dimensions of the Orthodox Church worship which are reflected throughout the many Services of the Church. First, Worship is a manifestation of God's presence and action in the midst of His people. It is God who gathers His scattered sheep together, and it is He who reveals Himself as we enter into His presence. The Worship of the Orthodox Church very vividly expresses the truth that God dwells among His people and that we are created to share in His life.

Second, Worship is our response of thanksgiving to the presence of God and a remembrance of His saving actions - especially the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Orthodox Worship is centred upon God. He has acted in history, and He continues to act through the Holy Spirit. We are mindful of His actions and we respond to His love with praise and thanksgiving.


Expressions Of Worship

Worship in the Orthodox Church is expressed in four principal ways:

  • The Eucharist, which is the most important worship experience of Orthodoxy. Eucharist means thanksgiving and is known in the Orthodox Church as the Divine Liturgy.

  • The Sacraments, which affirm God's presence and action in the important events of our Christian lives. All the major Sacraments are closely related to the Eucharist.

  • Some of the major sacraments are Baptism, Chrismation, Confession, Marriage, Holy Orders, and Anointing of the sick.

  • Special Services and Blessings, which also affirm God's presence and action in all the events, needs and tasks of our life.

  • The Daily Offices are the services of public prayer which occur throughout the day. The most important are Matins, which is the morning prayer of the Church, and Vespers, which is the evening prayer of the Church.

Characteristics

Although Orthodox Services can very often be elaborate, solemn, and lengthy, they express a deep and pervasive sense of joy. This mood is an expression of our belief in the Resurrection of Christ and the deification of humanity, which are dominant themes of Orthodox Worship. In order to enhance this feeling and to encourage full participation.


Worship is not simply expressed in words. In addition to prayers, hymns, and scripture readings, there are a number of ceremonies, gestures, and processions. The Church makes rich use of nonverbal symbols to express God's presence and our relationship to Him. Orthodoxy Worship involves the whole person; one's body, intellect, feelings, and senses.


Services in the Orthodox Church follow a prescribed order. There is a framework and design to our Worship. This is valuable in order to preserve its corporate dimension and maintain a continuity with the past. The content of the Services is also set. There are unchanging elements; and there are parts which change according to the Feast, season, or particular circumstance. The regulating of the Services by the whole Church emphasizes the fact that Worship is an expression of the entire Church, and not the composition on a particular priest and congregation.


An important secondary purpose of Worship is the teaching of the Faith. There is a very close relationship between the Worship and the teachings of the Church. Faith is expressed in Worship, and Worship serves to strengthen and communicate Faith. As a consequence, the prayers, hymns, and liturgical gestures of Orthodoxy are important mediums of teaching. The regulating of the Services also serves to preserve the true Faith and to guard it against error.


Understanding the Sacraments of the Orthodox Church

One of the best-known prayers of the Orthodox Church speaks of the spirit of God being "present in all places and filling all things." This profound affirmation is basic to Orthodoxy's understanding of God and His relationship to the world. We believe that God is truly near to us. Although He cannot be seen, God is not detached from His creation. Through the persons of The Risen Christ and the Holy Spirit, God is present and active in our lives and in the creation about us. All our life and the creation of which we are an important part, points, to and reveals God. There are special experiences in our corporate life as Orthodox Christians when the perception of God's presence and actions is heightened and celebrated. We call these events of the Church Sacraments. Traditionally, the Sacraments have been known as Mysteries in the Orthodox Church. This description emphasizes that in these special events of the Church, God discloses Himself through the prayers and actions of His people. Not only do the Sacraments disclose and reveal God to us, but also, they serve to make us receptive to God. All the Sacraments affect our personal relationship to God and to one another. The Holy Spirit works through the Sacraments. He leads us to Christ who unites us with the Father. By participating in the Sacraments, we grow closer to God and to receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit. This process of deification, or theosis, as it is known by Orthodoxy, takes place not in isolation from others, but within the context of a believing community. Although the Sacraments are addressed to each of us by name, they are experiences which involve the entire Church. The Sacraments of the Orthodox Church are composed of prayers, hymns, scripture lessons, gestures, and processions. Many parts of the services date back to the time of the Apostles. The Orthodox Church has avoided reducing the Sacraments to a particular formula or action. Often, a whole series of sacred acts make up a Sacrament. Most of the Sacraments use a part of the material of creation as an outward and visible sign of God's revelation. Water, oil, bread, and wine are but a few of the many elements which the Orthodox Church employs in her Worship. The frequent use of the material of creation reminds us that matter is good and can become a medium of the Spirit. Most importantly, it affirms the central truth of the Orthodox Christian faith: that God became flesh in Jesus Christ and entered into the midst of creation thereby redirecting the cosmos toward its vocation to glorify its Creator.

The Eucharist

The Holy Eucharist, which is known as the Divine Liturgy, is the central and most important worship experience of the Orthodox Church. Often referred to as the "Sacrament of Sacraments", it is the Church's celebration of the Death and Resurrection of Christ offered every Sunday and every day. All the other Sacraments of the Church lead toward and flow from the Eucharist, which is at the centre of the life of the Church. The previous pamphlet in this series was devoted to the meaning and celebration of the Eucharist in the Orthodox Church.


Baptism

The Sacrament of Baptism incorporates us into the Church, the Body of Christ, and is our introduction to the life of the Holy Trinity. Through the three-fold immersion in the waters of Baptism in the Name of the Holy Trinity, we participate to Christ’s Death and victorious Resurrection. Following the custom of the early Church, Orthodoxy encourages the practise of infant baptism. From the day of their baptism, children are expected to mature in the life of the Spirit, through their family and the Church.


Chrismation

The Sacrament of Chrismation (Confirmation) immediately follows baptism and is never delayed until a later age. It is a participation to the Pentecost. With the Chrismation we receive the Holy Spirit and the gifts of the Holy Spirit. In the Sacrament of Chrismation, the priest anoints the various parts of the body of the newly-baptized with the Chrismation Oil saying: "Seal of the gifts of the Holy Spirit." The anointing also reminds us that our bodies are holy, valuable and participate in the long process and mystery of sanctification, theosis. The Sacraments of initiation always are concluded with the newly-baptized receiving Holy Communion for the first time.


Confession

Confession is the Sacrament through which our sins are forgiven, and our relationship personal relationship with the living God is restored, rediscovered, redefined, and strengthened. Through the Sacrament, Christ our Lord gains permission to heal our heart, spirit, mind, and body and we reinstate ourselves back to the Father's love. According to Orthodox teaching, the penitent confesses to God and is forgiven by God. The priest is the sacramental witness who represents Christ. The priest is viewed not as a judge, but as a physician and a guide. It is an ancient Orthodox practice for every Christian to have a spiritual father to whom one turns for spiritual advice and counsel. Confession can take place whenever we feel the need, judging by our conscience and heart.


Marriage

God is active in our lives. It is He who joins a man and a woman in a relationship of mutual love. The Sacrament of Marriage bears witness to His action. Through this Sacrament, a man and a woman are publicly joined as husband and wife. They enter into a new relationship with each other, God, and the Church. Since Marriage is not viewed as a legal contract, there are no vows in the Sacrament. According to Orthodox teachings, Marriage is not simply a social institution, it is an eternal vocation of the kingdom of God. A husband and a wife are called by the Holy Spirit not only to live together but also to share their Christian life together so that each, with the aid of the other, may grow closer to God and become the persons they are meant to be. In the Orthodox Marriage Service, after the couple have been betrothed and exchanged rings, they are crowned with "crowns of glory and honour" signifying the establishment of a new family under God. Near the conclusion of the Service, the husband and wife drink from a common cup which is a symbol of the sharing of the burdens and joys of their new life together.


Holy Orders

The Holy Spirit preserved the continuity of the Church through the Sacrament of Holy Orders. Through ordination, men who have been chosen from within the Church are set apart by the Church for special service to the Church. Each is called by God through His people to stand amid the community, as pastor and teacher, and as the representative of the parish before the Altar. Each is also a living icon of Christ among His people. According to Orthodox teaching, the process of ordination begins with the local congregation; but the bishop alone, who acts in the name of the universal Church, can complete the action. He does so with the invocation of the Holy Spirit and the imposition of his hands on the head of the person being ordained. Following the custom of the Apostolic Church, there are three major orders each of which requires a special ordination. These are Bishop, who is a successor of the Apostles, Priest and Deacon, who act in the name of the Bishop. Each order is distinguished by its pastoral responsibilities. Only a Bishop may ordain. Often, other titles and offices are associated with the three orders. The Orthodox Church permits men to marry before they are ordained. Since the sixth century, Bishops have been chosen from the celibate clergy.


Anointing of the Sick (Holy Unction)

When one is ill and in physical or spiritual pain, this can very often be a time in life when one feels alone and isolated. The Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick, or Holy Unction as it is also known, remind us that when we are in pain, either physical, emotional, or spiritual, Christ is present with us through the ministry of his Church. He is among us to offer strength to meet the challenges of life, and even the approach of death. As with Chrismation, oil is also used in this Sacrament as a sign of God's presence, strength, and forgiveness. After the reading of seven epistle lessons, seven gospel lessons and the offering of seven prayers, which are all devoted to healing, the priest anoints the body with the Holy Oil. Orthodoxy does not view this Sacrament as available only to those who are near death. It is offered to all who are sick in body, mind, or spirit.


Other Sacraments and Blessings

The Orthodox Church has never formally determined a particular number of Sacraments. There are many other Blessings and Special Services which complete the major Sacraments, and which reflect the Church's presence throughout the lives of her people.


The Eucharist

The celebration of the Divine Liturgy and the Sacraments is always led by an ordained clergyman. In the local parish, this will generally be a priest who acts in the name of the bishop, and who is sometimes assisted by a deacon. When the bishop is present, he presides at the Services. The vestments of the clergy express their special calling to the ministry as well as their particular office.

Since Worship in Orthodoxy is an expression of the entire Church the active participation and involvement of the congregation is required. There are no "private" or "said" Services in the Orthodox Church and none may take place without a congregation. This strong sense of community is expressed in the prayers and exhortations which are in the plural tense. The congregation is expected to participate actively in the Services in ways such as singing the hymns; concluding the prayers with "Amen"; responding to the petitions; making the sign of the Cross; bowing; and, especially, by receiving Holy Communion at the Divine Liturgy. Standing is the preferred posture of prayer in the Orthodox Church. The congregation according to the ancient tradition and custom of the Orthodox Church never kneels during the Divine Liturgy.


The Litany is an important part of Orthodox Services. A litany is a dialogue between the priest or deacon and the congregation, which consists of a number of prayer-petitions, followed by the response "Lord, have mercy" or "Grant this, O Lord." Litanies occur frequently throughout the Services and often serve to distinguish particular sections.


Orthodox Worship has always been celebrated in the local language of the people. There is no official or universal liturgical language. Often, two or more languages are used in the Services to accommodate the needs of the congregation. Throughout the world, Services are celebrated in more than twenty languages which include such diverse ones as Greek, Slavonic, Arabic, Albanian, Rumanian, English, and Luganda.


The Holy Eucharist is the oldest experience of Christian Worship as well as the most distinctive. Eucharist comes from the Greek word “efharistia” (ευχαριστία) which means thanksgiving. In a particular sense, the word describes the most important form of the Church's attitude toward all of life. The Eucharist was established at the Last Supper by Christ, were He and His disciples celebrated Eucharist for the first time, partaking of His Body and Blood before he was even sacrificed. The Eucharist celebrates the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Christ and it is a participation in the mystery of Salvation.

In the Orthodox Church, the Eucharist is also known as the Divine Liturgy. The word liturgy means people's work; this description serves to emphasize the corporate character of the Eucharist. When an Orthodox attends the Divine Liturgy, it is not as an isolated person who comes simply to hear a sermon.

Rather, they come as a member of the Community who participates in the very essence and heart of the Church, which is the Worship of the Holy Trinity. Therefore, the Eucharist is truly the centre of the life of the Church. Not only does the Eucharist manifests the Church and her eschatological boundaries, but it also a manifestation of Christ. This sacrament-mystery is the experience toward which all the other activities of the Church are directed and from which they receive their direction.

The Eucharist, the principal sacrament mystery of the Orthodox Church, is not so much a text to be studied, but rather an experience of communion with the Living God in which prayer , music, gestures, the material creation, art, and architecture come into full orchestration. The Eucharist is a celebration of life with God, a celebration of Christ as Life, which touches the whole man; body, spirit, mind.


Orthodoxy has clearly avoided the temptation of seeing and reducing the Eucharist to a simple memorial of the Last Supper which is only occasionally observed. Following the teachings of both Scripture and Tradition, the Orthodox Church believes that Christ is truly present with His people in the celebration of the Holy Eucharist. The Eucharistic gifts of bread and wine become for us His Body and His Blood and are not symbols. We affirm that these Holy Gifts are transfigured into the first fruits of the New Creation in which ultimately God will be "all in all".


The Liturgies

As it is celebrated today, the Divine Liturgy is a product of historical and theological development. The fundamental core of the liturgy dates from the time of Christ and the Apostles. To this, prayers, hymns, and gestures have been added throughout the centuries. The liturgy achieved a basic framework by the ninth century.


There are many forms of the Eucharist still in use in the Orthodox Church.

  • The Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, which is the most frequently celebrated.

  • The Liturgy of St. Basil the Great, which is celebrated only ten times a year.

  • The Liturgy of St. James, which is celebrated on October 23, the feastday of the Saint, the Sunday following Christmas and other occasions.

  • The Liturgy of St Gregory the Theologian and the Liturgy of St Mark, which are celebrated more rarely.

While these saints did not compose the entire liturgy which bears their names, they did author many of the prayers. The structure and basic elements of all liturgies are similar, although there are differences in some hymns and prayers.

In addition to these Liturgies, there is also the “Liturgy” of the Pre-Sanctified Holy Sacraments. This is not a liturgy but rather an evening Vesperal Service followed by the partaking of Holy Communion reserved from the previous Sunday. This liturgy is celebrated only on the weekdays of Lent, and on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday of Holy Week, when the Eucharist is not permitted because of its Resurrection spirit. The Eucharist expresses the deep joy of the Resurrection.

The Divine Liturgy is celebrated only once a day. This is because the events of Christ’s Passion and His Resurrection only happened once. Thus we only celebrate once within 24 hours.


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