A Tour of an Orthodox Church
Steven Robinson and Bill Gould · July 10, 2006
It is said that if you are familiar with the book of Revelation you will feel right at home in an Orthodox Church. The interior of the Church is modeled after the vision of St. John, who on the Lord's Day in worship, sees the heavenly worship he is participating in here on earth. The 'sacred space' of the Church building is the joining of us who are still 'in the world but not of it' to those who are before the altar of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world in the Heavenly Jerusalem in eternity. This is not mere symbolism, but the mystical reality of the communion of the saints spoken of in Hebrews 12. Steve and Bill give an 'audio tour' of an Orthodox Church building and talk about the meaning of the things that you will see beginning from entering the doors from the west parking lot to the easternmost back wall behind the altar.
Steve Robinson: Good evening and welcome to this edition of Our Life in Christ. I am your host tonight, as usual, Steve Robinson, in the basement studio with Bill Gould, as usual. Bill, last week we were talking about the topic of sacred space. This is really a cool topic.
Bill: Essentially, it just really expands my imagination to think about God and his dwelling with us, and that we are, in fact, creatures of time and space, and that the Church building really has significance in the Orthodox tradition because we believe in the sacramental world view that essentially says that God, in fact, is uncontainable. He transcends time and space, he transcends infinity, so to speak.
Steve: He is uncreated.
Bill: He is uncreated. He is from everlasting to everlasting, all the things that we know by heart that the Bible says. Orthodox tradition, and ecclesiastical history, in general, attests to the fact that God has, in fact, chosen to dwell in a circumscribed place. This goes back to the building of the tabernacle, the building of the temple in the Old Testament, and then, of course, the ultimate circumscription of God in the incarnation, which is the foundation of everything that we believe in the Orthodox faith.
Steve: That leaves absolutely no dogmatic doubt that what the scriptures say is true, that God created the heavens and the earth, and he saw them, and they were good.
Steve: Because now we have God condescending to actually dwell in that which he created.
Bill: Right. Last week we were trying to solve the problem that we find in the gospel of John, when Jesus is talking to the woman at the well. How do we reconcile this idea that no longer in this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, will we worship, with the idea that God, in fact, in these times, actually consecrates a space, and actually promises to meet us in the space?
I think we answered that by saying that it wasn’t Christ’s mission to come and disembody the gospel. It wasn’t his mission to come and say that time and space do not matter. In fact, what the Orthodox Church and the people of God are really about is reclaiming the lost space that was forfeited when we transgressed in the garden. The garden was a space.
Steve: That entire space, and our entire existence, was dedicated to unceasing, and continual, offering to God in praise and worship, and communion with God.
Bill: Right. There was no church building in the garden. There wasn’t a need for it, because the garden, itself was consecrated completely to God. But, having said that, with the fall of man, we recognize that there is a space now outside of the garden that man has taken up his dwelling in, that is his space, and God, in the incarnation, comes back to restore our position, and to lead us back to the garden. Part of that process is for us to appoint and sanctify a space, and glorify God by that action. That is why we have church buildings.
Steve: I think that comes back to the vision of salvation, of the salvation of the cosmos, that we have talked about so many times, especially in the programs on Theophany. It is the salvation of the human being, it is the salvation of the human person, that, in fact, sanctifies creation. This is a very important principle. It is because the people of God are holy, it is because we have been sanctified in Christ, that creation is sanctified.
It is God who offers creation, first, to the human being. Then it is the human being that offers creation back to God in praise and thanksgiving. This is what ultimately is going to happen when the human being realizes the fullness of his salvation in Christ. It is what Paul says in Romans, Chapter 8, that all the creation will be restored to its proper and right relationship to God, because we are restored to our proper and right relationship to God.
We are, in fact, now, staking out creation and offering it back to God. This really does affirm what I think all of us suspect, that beauty, and art, and the creation of our hands offered to God, is something that is intrinsic to human nature. That is something that God has created us to do, and that is part of our communion with him.
Bill: That’s right. Every Christian tradition, every group that I have ever been a part of, has never quite been satisfied to have their services or their activities scattered about, but there has always been a desire to get a place. We talked last week about what happens when we get a place, no matter what it was before. It might have been a bar, it might have been a brothel (laughter), it could be a brand new building that we build, but our task, at that moment, when we have that place, is to decorate it and to order it according to what we believe. This speaks of our being (created beings) time and space-oriented, and our need to reflect what we believe in decorating our buildings, or as in the case of some traditions, not decorating our buildings.
Steve: Our buildings are, in fact, a theological statement. Last week we talked the modern auditorium. Just the name auditorium really tells us what it is about. Audio-torium. This is a place where you listen. It is where somebody speaks to you. In our modern Protestant culture the spoken word of God has, in a very real sense, supplanted the incarnate word of God, because in the liturgical church, the altar is where Christ is celebrated as the incarnate sacrifice of God, but in the Protestant church, it is the written word of God that is front and foremost.Our architecture and the design of our buildings do, in fact, make a theological statement.
St. Simeon, the New Theologian, has a great take on this. He talks about beauty in terms of Genesis I. In the beginning there was chaos. The earth was without form, and it was void, and God’s Spirit moves over the face of the waters, and he says, “Let there be light,” and the Spirit of God brings order out of chaos. He says that everything in creation has number, it has weight, it has measure, and this is an activity of the Spirit of God. It is the sign of the presence of the Spirit of God. So when we design, and when we order our space, this is what we are doing. We are following the image of God that we are created in—the creative image.
Bill: Absolutely, and of course, just as the children of Israel got their direction on how to design, and how to order the space in the tabernacle, then of course they carried that same wisdom and that same tradition over to the temple…
Steve: ...and then into the synagogue.
Bill: ...and into the synagogue. We now see this being reflected as the Christian, as the Orthodox Church, looks to heaven, and to the Book of Revelation, to see the order of the temple. We look to that and we say, “Oh, okay, our goal,” and I think all Christians would agree with this, “is, in fact, the heavenly Jerusalem.” The Orthodox Church looks to heaven, looks to the pattern of the temple in heaven, as it is revealed in Revelation, and that is what drives the design of the Church. It is a fabulous thing.
Steve: Who would have ever thought that you could go to Revelation, and instead of looking at the end times and trying to discern when Christ is coming, look at it and say, “Christ is, in fact, with us.” The Kingdom of God is present with us, and how do we make that present, here and now, in time and space? How do we connect to that eternal kingdom that we are presently a part of?”
Bill: That’s right, and it is a wonderful, sublime vision that we can get when we contemplate the design of the building, the design of the church. St. Maximus the Confessor said, “It is a most admirable thing that a small church can be like the vast universe. Its raised dome is like the heaven of heavens and rests solidly on its lower part. Its arches represent the four corners of the earth.”
What that is really saying is that, yes, there are many, many different kinds of church buildings. We have the great and glorious Hagia Sophia in Istanbul (Constantinople), and you can now go and see that. It was a wonder of the world in its time. Today we have our humble little square-boxed churches, little chapels that aren’t very big at all, and yet, because of our being holy, as you said, because of God coming in the flesh, and circumscribing himself, we can actually look at that space and say, “This is, essentially, the whole universe.” This is the picture of the heavenly Jerusalem that we draw.
Steve: Exactly, and what it reflects, what church architecture tries to instill within us, is the experience of the Christian, and that is, God with us. This is exactly what the Church is supposed to tell us, that yes, God is with us, in material form, in creation, in the world, in our lives, in space, and in time. That is the vision of the heavenly Jerusalem. We do the scriptures a disservice when we take the vision of the heavenly Jerusalem in Revelation, and spiritualize it out of existence.
Bill: Right, just turn it into a sort of a metaphor for some disembodied spirituality.
Steve: Invisible something.
Bill: Right, exactly.
Steve: The thing that the incarnation tells us, with Christ’s resurrection and his ascension back to the Father in his human flesh, is that the invisible world is still a created order. The angels are still circumscribed. Christ is still circumscribed in some mysterious way, by his human flesh. He did not dump his human body off into the Mediterranean when he got up into the clouds.
Bill: (laughter) No, absolutely not. Again, that is the destiny of the Church, to be with God, and still maintain its physical capability.
Steve: That God is in heaven, and also with us here on earth. It is not an either/or.
Bill: No, that’s right. We are the Body of Christ, and we are here on earth.
Steve: It is the union of the uncreated and the created, of the invisible with the visible. It is the incarnation. Bill, you mentioned that the churches are really ordered after the pattern that we find in the Book of Revelation. If we read it from an architectural standpoint, and we look at how worship is done in the Book of Revelation, when we look at how the New Jerusalem is ordered in the Book of Revelation, we really do find a template for the place of worship in the Orthodox Church.
Whenever I used to give church tours at our food festivals and spirit festivals, I would bring them into the church and they would look around, and they would look up in the dome, and they would look at all the icons, and they would see all the beauty, and I would always say, “Now, if you are intimately familiar with the Book of Revelation, you will feel very comfortable here, because this is what it is. It is modeled after that.” We look around and we see the icons, we see the gospel, we see the gold, the beauty, we see the altar, the candlestands, we see the vestments, and the robes, and the incense, and all of that. It is all there.
Bill: We are going to talk about that a little bit tonight, to try to walk our audience through the Orthodox Church building, its structure, and try to add a little bit of meaning to that, so that people can get an understanding of how it is that the building really does matter, the fact that it is ordered, that there is, in fact, significance to why you see what you see, and smell what you smell, and hear what you hear, inside the four walls of the church building.
Steve: Let’s take a walk through an Orthodox Church, beginning at the doors, from the parking lot, and leading all the way up the altar. We will do an audio tour of an Orthodox Church building, noting that the Church is really about the eternal worship of God that we find in the Book of Revelation, and the thing that we see central in the Book of Revelation, in the heavenly Jerusalem, is the altar. This is the dwelling place of the Lamb of God, sacrificed from eternity. But it is also the place of the marriage supper of the Lamb.
Bill: That’s right. When you go into an Orthodox Church, despite how it really looks physically, what we are really supposed to do is understand that we have, in fact, walked into the entire Kingdom of God, and everything that goes on inside is to reflect the Kingdom of God. What we see, what we hear, what we smell—all of it is to reflect the central focus of the throne of God, of the presence of God inside the building. There is this wonderful, transcendent interaction that takes place between everything that goes on inside of it. It is like stepping into another world. It is like stepping into, really, another universe.
Steve: Absolutely, and this is where the concept, or the image, of the marriage supper of the Lamb, really does take over. Bill, your daughter just got married a few months ago, and we went there and it was beautiful wedding in somebody’s back yard, in Sedona, Arizona. Sedona is a beautiful place, but you know what? With all the trees, and all the grass, and all the beauty and everything, what did they do to that back yard?
Bill: Yes, we still had to decorate it. We still had to set up a raised platform for the ceremony to actually take place on.
Steve: Yes, decked out in white, and they put this arbor over it, and there were flowers added to it, and it was made even more beautiful in some sense, and more special, because of what was going to take place there, the union of two human beings. This is ultimately what the church building is about, it is the marriage supper of the Lamb, and just as we don’t do a human marriage in an ordinary space, we don’t do the marriage supper of the Lamb in an ordinary space.
We talked about, a couple of weeks ago, all of the Kingdom parables in the gospels. So often they are cast in the metaphor of the feast, and you have to have these special robes, and you have to have special invitations, and it is not just ordinary time, it is not just ordinary space. This is what the church building reflects to us. As you said, there is this interplay, this interaction, this movement toward the Kingdom of God, not just in a metaphor, it is not just symbolism. There is a spiritual reality, a tangible, physical reality, to what is happening to time, space, and materiality when it is focused toward the Kingdom of God.
Bill: Again, it just is a different way of looking at things from going into an auditorium and sitting down and listening to someone preach the gospel, which we don’t disagree with. We do that, too. But what we are, in fact, trying to do is take it further than that, in the sense that we are reflecting what we really believe is happening, and that is, that it is not just us getting something from God, but it is us giving to God and God giving to us, and all the saints that have gone before us, giving and taking, and Christ giving and taking, and the Spirit giving and taking. It is really the reflection of the Trinitarian fellowship that we have talked about in other programs.
Steve: It is communion.
Bill: It is communion. It is community and it is communion. So now we probably ought to step outside the church for a second and try to get people oriented to what they are actually doing.
Steve: First of all, when the foundation is laid, the church faces east.
Bill: That’s right, and of course, there are a number of scriptures that reference the fact that, especially in the eschatological view of the church, and now we are talking about end times, but we are also talking about the heavenly vision, the destiny of the church. We face the light. We face the rising of the sun. We face the direction that Christ will return from. As it says, “Like lightning he will come from the East (the Orient).” Do the churches always face east? Not always. There are times when churches don’t face east.
Steve: In the tradition of the Church, that is what it is supposed to do.
Bill: It is supposed to face east. Most of the time, when you walk into an Orthodox Church, you will be walking in from the west side of the church, and facing east. The space that is outside the church is essentially considered to be chaos. We have to be careful here, we don’t want to freak our audience out, but essentially, you are in the space outside of God’s Kingdom when you are outside the church, and the church building is a testimony to the fact, that when you are not in the church, you are in what has been called demonic space, “Woo-woo, demonic space,” but seriously, this is the idea. You are in the west, as it were.
Steve: That is an interesting thing, because when we do a baptism ceremony, or a Chrismation, when we are told to spit on the devil and his works, we turn and we spit to the west, because that is where Satan dwells.
Bill: That’s right, no matter where you are on earth, you are “in the west” before you enter the church. When you step in, you step into a place we call the narthex. Steve, what is the narthex?
Steve: The narthex is, as you said, the entrance to the church. Sometimes it is called the vestibule. What you find in the vestibule, or the narthex, are some icons, very often the icon of the patron of the church. You will find places where people can light candles. You will find a place where you can make an offering, and in some traditions you will find the gospel, during parts of some services. The priest comes and gets the gospel when it is time for the reading from the gospel. These are some of the things that you will see in the narthex.
The narthex, in a very real sense, represents the world. The narthex represents the fact that the church sanctifies the world. You haven’t actually entered into the place of the people of God yet. And yet, within the narthex, you still find holy things. You still find the saints, you still find light, you still find the gospel being preached. This is where we enter into the church. We have to enter the church from the world.
Bill: That’s right, and I think what is also implied is that there are actually some stages that we move through. The important thing to remember is that we are moving toward the Kingdom, toward the throne. We start out in demonic space in the west, and then we move the next step in, and that is where, as you said, we find that we have, in this world, the presence of God, and we engage that as we enter the church.
Steve: Liturgically, that is also affirmed, because there are certain parts of sacraments that are done in the narthex. Baptisms and Chrismations often begin in the narthex, so the people are moving from the world into the church. When a baby is churched, he is brought in from the narthex into the church. Liturgically, we make our movement from the world into the communion of the saints, into the sacramental life of the church, into the ordered universe of the Kingdom of God.
Bill: Yes, our gradual movement to the altar, which is what we might call the high place, starts down in the narthex, and moves forward.
Steve: We move from the narthex, now, into what is called the nave.
Bill: Yes. Now, what is the significance of the nave?
Steve: The nave is often called, in a lot of traditions, the sanctuary. But in proper church architecture language, the nave is the place where all of the people of God gather together. The sanctuary, in Orthodox terminology, is properly the area where the altar is, so when we talk about the sanctuary, we are talking about the altar area. When we talk about the nave, we are talking about the area in which the congregation gathers together to worship God.
Bill: Paul Evdokimov says it this way: “The central rectangle of the church building (that is the space we are talking about) is called the nave, Noah’s Ark being the prophetic figure of the church.” The word nave actually comes from navis, meaning ship, so we are actually now in the ark, as it were.
Steve: The ark of salvation.
Bill: That’s right, the ark of salvation, and of course, as we know, in the story of Noah’s Ark, everyone that was inside the ark was okay, and everybody outside wasn’t. This is the idea then, that we move into the ark of salvation, and we are like those who have been rescued from the world.
Steve: Now, what is it that we see in the nave that affirms to us that we are, indeed, now in the ark of salvation? When you walk in, the first thing you do is you start looking around, and you look at the walls. The walls are lined with icons. When we look at all the icons, what does this tell us? What are the meanings of all the icons along the walls of the church? There are icons in the dome and around the altar, too, but the first thing that everybody notices when they walk into an Orthodox Church is the presence of all the iconography, the images of all the pictures of the saints.
Bill: That’s right, this is the cloud of witnesses. This is what we read about in Hebrews. Of course, we talk about it in terms of the communion of saints. What it means, essentially, is that inside the Kingdom of God, inside the ark of salvation, all the saints are alive. All the saints are with us. All the saints are engaged, as they are before the throne of God in the vision of heaven in Revelation.
Steve: Exactly, and this is what Hebrews is all about with the great cloud of witnesses, and it is what Revelation is all about when we enter the heavenly worship, which is already going on around the heavenly throne, around the heavenly altar. All of the saints who are alive in Christ are present with us in the church. We have joined them, and they are joining us, in this eternal worship to God in the Kingdom, which is to come, but is also now present. It reminds us that we are part of a huge continuum of sacred history.
Bill: Yes, that’s right, so it is not just space, but it is also time.
Steve: Yes. Now, one of the other things that you will see if you look up, if the church has a dome, is a huge icon of Christ on the ceiling of the church.
Bill: Yes, I love going into a church where there is a dome and there is an icon of the Pantocrator. The Pantocrator is a picture of Christ as the creator of all things, or the ruler of all things. It is this idea that inside the church, we, in fact, have the entire universe. It says very clearly in the epistles that Christ was the creator of all things.
Steve: It is the message of the gospel, that while Christ is in the heavens, we have this image of him in his human form. He is the thing that unites heaven and earth.
Bill: Exactly. We joke about this at times, and almost poo-poo it, when we hear that expression, the man upstairs— but there really is a man upstairs! He is Christ, himself. He is the creator of all things, and he is a man. When we look up and we have this vision of the dome being the universe, and our being in and underneath Christ, we are, in fact, under the incarnate Christ.
Steve: It is the summing up of all things in Christ. This movement is upward to the incarnate Christ, in which all of these things, everything within creation, is going to be summed up.
Bill: Paul Evdokimov makes a real point of mentioning that the upward thrust of the architecture in some of the older churches, the cathedrals and the basilicas and some of the older architecture, really did have that effect of transporting people upward, and that we have to remember that it is not merely horizontal movement that we are talking about. You bring up a good point. It is actually a vertical movement as much as it is a horizontal movement. We look up and we almost want to ascend right then. It is just glorious, when you really contemplate it.
Steve: There are a couple of things about that icon that are interesting. If you look at the icon, you will see Christ holding the open gospel in his left hand, and he is blessing with his right hand, but the other thing about it is that he is staring directly at you.
Bill: That’s true, you can almost stand in just about any place underneath that dome ...
Steve: Yes, it’s one of those pictures where the eyes follow you everywhere you go. (laughter)
Bill: That’s right, that’s right. A good iconographer will have created that effect on purpose. His eyes see us, not only in our physical condition, but also in our spiritual condition, and as you said, he is holding the gospel is in his left arm, he is blessing with his right hand, and what he is saying is, “Pay attention to the gospel. This is what I am using the judge the world.”
Steve: Right. This is interesting. Let’s talk about the iconostasis, the icon screen in front of the church. Usually when Christ is depicted on the icon screen, he is holding the gospel, but it is closed there, because he is the gospel, his flesh is the gospel, but when he exists as judge, we will be judged by whether or not we have kept the words of the gospel. All of this has meaning.
One of the other things that you will find when you are looking up in the dome, very often, is Christ surrounded by cherubim, and seraphim, and sometimes there will be icons of the saints up there. Also, if the church is traditionally structured, at the four columns which support the dome, you will find icons of the four gospel writers. These are, of course, the witnesses to the incarnate, and risen, and glorified, Christ, who is going to come as the judge of the living and dead.
Bill: Referring back to the sayings of St. Maximus the Confessor, those four pillars also represent the four corners of the earth. Christ rules over the heavens and the earth. And what was the task of the church?
Steve: To take the gospel into all the world…
Bill: And baptize in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. All this is going on around us in the church.
Steve: Another thing that you will see up in the dome, in traditional Byzantine architecture, is a lot of windows up there. Sometimes there are 12 of them, sometimes there are 24, sometimes there are 40. It sometimes depends on how much money the church has (laughter)...
Bill: (laughter) Right…
Steve: Light really has a lot of meaning in church architecture. There are churches that don’t have domes, but what you will find is that the Pantocrator is sometimes placed above the altar instead of up in the dome, and that what has replaced the dome and the lights and the windows up there are large chandeliers. The chandeliers represent the same thing as the windows, that the light of Christ illumines all, that the light has come in to the world and the darkness did not overcome it. Even the chandeliers have meaning.
Bill: I think that is probably what we are going to start out with—chandeliers. (laughter)
Steve: Yeah, mission churches don’t usually have domes.
That takes us as far as the ceiling and the walls. When we move toward the altar, imagine yourself walking up toward the altar, then what we are going to see on the right and the left are, very often, canter stands, or a place for the choir, or a place for reading to be done. That is called the kliros. That is where the prayers are chanted. Some churches will have a kliros on either side.
Bill: One other thing about the nave, and that is that in the original architecture of the church there was no such thing as a pew. In American Orthodox churches you will find pews, and we are not here to debate pews versus no pews. That is not our point. The point is that standing in the church was important, because standing is the posture of resurrection.
Steve: It is also the posture of prayer. When you look through the entire scriptures, and find people praying, they are usually standing.
Bill: Standing and praying. And of course, when the church calls for a prostration, it is a little easier to prostrate when there aren’t wooden pews in front of you and behind you. (laughter)
Steve: There’s an old joke: You can always tell a Roman Catholic on Ash Wednesday because they have ashes on their forehead, and you can always tell an Orthodox Christian in a parish with pews when they have done prostrations because they have knots on their foreheads. (laughter)
Bill: (laughter) Yeah, because they have banged their heads on the pew in front of them, right? Just to note again, the nave is actually an open space where people stand, as you said earlier.
Steve: Now we have seen the icons, we have looked up, and we have looked to either side. When we begin moving toward the altar we see some other things there. Usually, at the right hand of the nave, up on the raised area toward the altar, you will see a very fancy chair, especially in the cathedrals. This is the bishop’s chair. Sometimes the bishop’s chair is in front of the iconostasis (the icon screen), and sometimes it is behind the altar. Both are traditions within the Orthodox Church. The bishop’s chair is always there to remind us that our church, our parish, does not exist apart from the bigger picture of the presence of Christ in all churches.
Bill: That’s right, and as we have talked about on other shows, the bishop is, in fact, a living icon of Christ for us.
Steve: He is also the icon of the unity of the church, because he exists, ecclesially, with all of the other bishops of the Church. The bishop’s throne, or the bishop’s chair, is a reminder to us when the bishop isn’t actually sitting in it, that we are, indeed, connected to the bigger body, that we are, in fact, connected to a bishop, that we are under authority, that we do have the icon of Christ, who oversees our souls and is shepherding us, but is also connected to the entire body of Christ, which is the Kingdom of God.
We have mentioned, a couple of times now, the icon screen. As we move toward the altar, we will see an area that is raised. The raised area is called the ambon. Sometimes it is spelled ambon, sometimes it is spelled amvon. This is the raised area. On that raised area we will find the bishop’s chair, but we will also find what is called the icon screen, the iconostasis. This is a large wall on which there are icons. As with all things in Orthodoxy, there is an order to how these icons are placed on the icon screen, and there is a meaning to why they are put where they are.
Bill: That’s right, and for those who haven’t ever been to an Orthodox church, or may be still familiarizing themselves with it, when you first see an icon screen, immediately you begin to get a little nervous, because it actually separates the nave from the sanctuary. That makes us a little nervous because of the scriptures referring to when Christ died on the cross, the veil of the temple was rent, and we tend to apply that interpretation of the scriptures to the icon screen and we think, “Well, wait. Christ opened the Holy of Holies with his death. Why should there be this separating screen that shields the people from what goes on behind the screen, which is the actual altar table?” So what about that Steve? What happens with that?
Steve: This is troublesome sometimes because people look at it as a barrier between the people and the altar of God. They look at it as a division between the ordinary folks out in the nave and the really holy people who are up there behind the icon screen.
Bill: Yeah, the guys in the robes and stuff.
Steve: Yeah, with all the incense and the candles.
Bill: Right, and it doesn’t make much sense if we have just gotten finished explaining how the inside of the building is the whole Kingdom of God and there is this interplay between God and man and this seems to just put a big divider up between us. So what is going on there?
Steve: When we look at the icon screen, there is a certain arrangement to the icons. This arrangement is important, because it gives us the message that we are really supposed to get from the iconostasis. An icon screen can be very elaborate, or it can be very simple. In our mission, we have an icon screen that just has two icons, the icon of Christ on the right, and the icon of Mary on the left, and we have some of the festal icons, little ones, tacked up above that.
Bill: Yes, six on each side, right.
Steve: In Russia, you will often see huge icon screens that are very tall. They are five-tiered and they have the entire salvation history depicted on them, beginning with Adam and Eve, all the way to judgment.
Bill: Yes, the twelve apostles, and just all kinds of things going on.
Steve: They can get very elaborate, but the message and the meaning is always the same. There is a division of space here. There is a movement that goes from the nave to the altar. This division serves to remind us that on this earth, and while we are reclaiming this sacred space for God, we still, in fact, do have a division between the sacred—God—and the human being, who still dwells here on earth in this flesh and still struggles with sin.
Bill: Right, we do have to have a reverent attitude about the real sacramental mysterious presence of God in church, and this seeks to remind us of that. It is not a barrier to the grace of God, but it is, in fact, a reality that we are still being sanctified, we are still growing and still moving toward our heavenly home.
Steve: On the other hand, the icon screen is not meant so much to be a barrier, but reminder to us that that, indeed, has been accomplished, and is being accomplished, through Christ, and in his saints.
Bill: That’s right. The icons that are on the icon screen are real people. They are not angels, necessarily, although Michael the Archangel does appear often on the icon screen.
Steve: The angels, Gabriel and Michael, are depicted on the icon screen because the icons are placed on the iconostasis to give us the true meaning of the Kingdom. It is through Mary, who is on the left-hand side of the icon screen as you are looking at it, that Christ is incarnate, and that Christ has united the invisible and the visible, the uncreated and the created, the spiritual realm with all of the angels and the archangels and the cherubim and seraphim, and all the heavenly hosts, that which we see, and that which we feel and which we can touch in human flesh. This has all been brought together in Christ. The icon screen demonstrates to us that what goes on in the sanctuary, what goes on at the altar in the heavenly holies, has been united to that which goes on in the nave, with us who are still struggling on earth toward the Kingdom of God.
Bill: To take it even one step further, it is to say, essentially, that all things in heaven and in earth are united in Christ, of which the angels are a part. They are invisible. They are the unseen, bodiless powers. But the fact is that they are part of the created order, and they, in fact, are part of this whole story of redemption, as well. They are on the icon screen because they are part of what is going on in redemption in terms of what Christ has done by becoming flesh.
Steve: Hebrews 10:20 really says this succinctly. St. Paul says, “Therefore, brethren, we have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way, which he inaugurated for us through the veil, that is, his flesh.”
Bill: Oh yeah, awesome.
Steve: That is the veil. That is how we enter the Holy of Holies now, through the flesh of Christ. That is exactly what the icon screen says by putting Christ right there at the right hand of the Father, in the Kingdom. It says that we have our access to the Holy of Holies, to the table, to the altar of the Kingdom, through his flesh.
Bill: The rationale for icons, themselves, comes from the incarnation. We have discussed that on a number of our shows about icons. The fact that Christ came in the flesh gives us the freedom, and actually, the mandate, to depict Christ as human. With icons, with Mary, with the patron saint of the church, with St. John the Baptist, and with the Twelve Apostles, and any number of icons that can appear on the icon screen, the icons, themselves, tell us that Christ has come in the flesh.
The fact that Mary is there, the Theotokos, the birth-giver of God, just drives that point home, so that we won’t ever forget that our salvation has been wrought by a human being, that it is not a disembodied gospel, that the gospel is, in fact, Christ incarnate. At every turn the Orthodox Church is going to try to drive that point home, and of course, as you said, Hebrews says it all right there, the veil of his flesh. It is the flesh that got us to where we are.
Steve: And it is also the flesh of the human beings who have become saints on the icon screen that have participated in the flesh of Christ, in his heavenly life, in his physical life, that have reached the Kingdom of God, in Christ.
Bill: Taking that a step further, it is, in fact, the marriage supper, the body and blood of Christ, that actually makes that a reality for us. It is really all about the body, the blood, and the flesh of Christ. The icon screen just makes that real. It makes it tangible, makes it physically accessible to our senses, that this is really what has happened. This is the story of our salvation being shown to us.
Steve: Let’s move on to what goes on behind the icon screen. This is where we find the altar. This is what is called the sanctuary. This is the Holy of Holies. This is where the priest serves. This is where the deacons serve. This is where we find the body and blood of Christ. This is where we find the Lamb that was slain from the foundation of the world enthroned. This is where we find the gospel on the altar. As in Revelation, we find the seven candlestands. We find the light perpetually lit there. This is the table of the Kingdom of God.
This is what Paul is talking about in I Corinthians 10:20 when he says, “You cannot drink of the cup of the Lord, and the cup of demons.” You cannot partake of the table of demons and the table of the Lord. This is where our salvation comes from, in the shed body and blood of Christ, in the Lamb of God. This is the marriage supper of the Lamb. This is what unites us to God. This is where everything in the church focuses, ultimately, at the altar.
Bill: I think it probably would be a good idea for us to go through the specifics of the altar. The altar is often, as it should be, in the shape of a cube, much like the pattern of the heavenly Jerusalem. You were saying before about having to build a few of these.
Steve: Yes, I have built a couple of altars and they have always been 40 inches by 40 inches, the magic number in the book of Revelation. But there is something else in the Book of Revelation that is unique to the Orthodox altar. This is really cool. We saw this when we saw the consecration of the altar at Holy Trinity in Santa Fe, the bishop actually put some relics of a saint in the altar and permanently sealed them in there. What is that about?
Bill: In Revelation it talks about the souls of those who were slain for Christ under the altar.
Steve: Revelation 6:9.
Bill: Right. In the Orthodox Church, literally, based on our sacramental world view, this is something that we take very seriously, that this is something that we can benefit from in the Church, by having the presence of a saint, the physical presence, with us.
Steve: This is, in fact, an image of the heavenly worship. There are those saints who have gone before us who are under the altar, and as Revelation says, they are praying. They are asking God, “How long? How long, O Lord?” This is ultimately what we are all looking toward—the consummation of the Kingdom. The altar is the reflection of what is happening in heaven, here on earth.
Bill: Going back to our vision of the Church, there is really only one altar, even though there may be a zillion churches around the world, in many different places. There is only one altar, there is only one sacrifice, there is only one bread, there is only one cup.
Steve: Exactly. We are participants in that. We don’t multiply it, but we participate in the one.
Bill: Most people won’t see these things, because they won’t be going up to the altar unless they are invited to come up, and it is hard to go back there and take a good look at things, so they will just have to rely on our meager description of it.
In addition to the relics, do we have anything else up there, Steve?
Steve: There is one last thing. This is really cool, too. Behind the altar is usually what is called an apse. This is kind of a bump-out in the church architecture. In the apse is usually the icon of Mary with her arms outstretched in prayer, with Christ in her womb. This is called the Panagia. This is so neat. It is the icon of She Who is More Spacious Than the Heavens, because she contains, in her womb, the uncontainable God. She is the one who is between the altar and heaven. She is the one who has united heaven and earth, in her flesh. She is the one who united the uncreated God to his created world, in her flesh.
It is not worship of Mary, but it is an acknowledgement that apart from Mary, and apart from the incarnation of God through, and in, her flesh, by her flesh, we would not have that altar, we would not have that sacrifice, we would not have the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world that unites us to God, through his flesh.
Bill: That is a wonderful point. And that same mysterious vision of Mary’s womb, having uncontainable God in her womb, her womb being more spacious than the heavens, that is the same way that we can look at the church building, itself, and say, “This is the entire universe, this is the entire Kingdom of God,” even though it may be multiplied in a million places around the world, it is still the entire Kingdom all at once, because the mystery of the incarnation is real. We can, with confidence, recognize, and be in awe of, and be truly enraptured by, the vision of the church building and church architecture, and what it really means for us, as Orthodox Christians.
Steve: That completes our tour of the Orthodox Church. Thank you for joining us.