August 25, 2011 Length: 51:05
Is there a prescribed physical place where the liturgy is to be served or not served? Fr. Tom traces the history from the "house church" to the present day.
We reflected last time about the fact that the place of the Divine Liturgy is the Church. It is the gathering of the baptized, chrismated faithful people in the Church as Church, the Church of God, the Church of Christ, the Church of the final covenanted community. The place of the Divine Liturgy is in people. It’s in an assembly or gathering of people. That’s where the Divine Liturgy takes place. Of course, the Church is a visible community in the world: it has a structure, it has leadership. It begins by the apostles; it’s the apostolic Church. Then the apostles lay their hands and appoint elders and bishops in the churches. What happens by the end of the first century, already we see that each church has its one proistamenos, its one presiding officer, who came to be called the bishop, and then there’s the council of the elders assisting the bishop, with the bishop, called the presbyters. Then you have deacons, both men and women in the diaconate doing ministry.
You have widows, you have virgins, you have people with the various charisms that belong to the Church: teaching, preaching, administration, healing, prophesying, etc. But we said the place of the Divine Liturgy, the eucharistic liturgy, the place of worship in spirit and in truth is the gathered people, the people of God, the kingdom of prophets and priests, gathered as the body of Christ and as the household, the oikos of God, the family of God, the oikos, the household. So we have the term “church,” ekklesia; we have the term “household,” oikos or family; we have the sense—the reality, I should say—of the Church as the people of God in which and by whom, among whom, through whom, the final worship of God in spirit and truth is done in the time of the Messiah.
Now what we want to speak about today is the physical place for the gathering of the people, in one place, epi to afto. When the Church gathers, when we gather as Church, when we come together as Church, to actualize the Church in space and in time as God’s kingdom on earth in anticipation of the coming kingdom when the whole creation will become God’s kingdom. When we speak about the Church as the gathering of the faithful, the people of God, the Church of the living God, the pillar and the bulwark of the [faith], the fullness of him who fills all in all, Christ’s body, Christ’s bride, there’s still the issue: where does this Church gather? Does it gather just anywhere? Are there places of gathering? Where did it gather in the earliest time that we know of? And then, as the centuries went by, where was this liturgy celebrated? Or just simply, to put it again the other way, where did the Church gather to be the Church, to do the liturgy, to do the common work of God, to do what in Latin was called the opus Dei, the worship of God? Where, physically, did this occur?
Now we know from the New Testament Scriptures that the very first Christians, as it says in the book of the Acts of the Apostles, it said that they continued to attend the Temple, and the continued to do it together. Those who believed, it says, and continued in the apostles’ doctrine, the communion, the breaking of the bread, and the prayers, they held all things in common. Many wonders and signs were done through them. They sold their possessions and goods, distributed them to all as any had need. And then it says, day by day, daily, day by day, kathemeron, they attended the Temple together and, breaking bread in their homes, their houses, they partook of food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people, and God added to their number day by day those who were being saved. So we see that they went into the Temple. That’s the book of Acts, written by Luke.
But even the very last sentence in the Gospel according to St. Luke, it says—this is how the Gospel of St. Luke ends—it ends with the words: “Jesus led them out as far as Bethany. Lifting up his hands, he blessed them, and while he blessed them he parted from them and was carried up into heaven (or into the heavens). And they returned to Jerusalem with great joy.” Some texts say, “And they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy.” Then it says, “And they were continually in the temple, blessing God, worshiping God.” They were continually in the Temple. So they went to the Temple.
What happened, of course, as time went by… Two major things happened. One thing was that those Jews who believed that Jesus was the Messiah and was even divine, the Son of God, and would participate in the Eucharist, eating his broken body and spilled blood in the consecrated bread and wine—which not all Jewish Christians did… There was a sectarian group of Jewish Christians, called Ebioniates usually, “the poor,” who believed that Jesus was the Messiah, but they didn’t believe that he was divine. They didn’t believe that he was God’s unique Son with the same divinity as God the Father, and they thought that God has kind of raised him, taken him out of the earth for a while, and then would very quickly send him back on earth and there would be this earthly kingdom where even the blood relatives of Jesus of the house of David would rule over the whole of creation, led by Jesus who was crucified, raised, and then returned by God.
But those people did not have Eucharist, because why would they eat the flesh and drink the blood of the Son of God, the Son of man? That was outside of their possibility. The Temple would still exist somehow and the Temple sacrifices would go on; they perhaps even thought that, who knows? That’s why in St. John’s gospel it often says that Jesus said to the Jews who came to him or the Jews who believed in him, “I am the bread of life. Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you have no life in you.” This was an affirmation of the messiahship and the divinity of Jesus, and the center of the Church as communing with Christ as the Logos of God and as the Lamb of God and as the bread of life, which not all Jews at that time accepted.
But what we see in the holy Scripture is that those who believed that Jesus really was God’s Son, really was the bread of life and the Lamb of God and the great high priest and so on, they would continue to attend the Temple, but they would break the bread in their homes. They would offer themselves to God together with Christ through the broken body and spilled blood and participate in the eucharistic gifts, the sacrificed eucharistic gifts of the bread and wine, what the letter to the Hebrews will call the priesthood according to the order of Melchizedek, that they would do that in the homes.
Then those who believed in him were very quickly kicked out of the synagogues. They were expelled from the Temple. They were not allowed. They were considered heretical sectarians who worshiped a man and so on. Then the other thing that happened was the Temple was destroyed. In the year 70 there was no more Temple; there was no physical Temple. Many people see that that was the end of the sectarian Jews called Sadducees who were built totally on the priesthood and the Temple and the sacrificial Temple. Then that created the great change among the Pharisees, where synagogues grew up all over in the Diaspora, where the Jews were going, but there were no sacrifices. Here in America, when we call a synagogue a temple, like Bethel Temple or Temple Emmanuel or something like that, that’s totally a misnomer even for Jews. For the Jews there was only one Temple, and that was in Jerusalem and that had been destroyed. So there were synagogues—“synagogue” means a place where people gather, synagogi, they come together—but they were not temples. Certainly there were no temples.
And we know that among the Jews there were problems in the Temple even before Jesus. The Dead Sea Scrolls, for example, which seems to be the Essene community of Qumran, they didn’t have anything to do with the Temple and the priesthood anyway already. They thought it was corrupted; they thought it had been defiled. They even believed that the Echad, the community of the Essenes, was itself the temple. They already had this idea that the people gathered were the living temple of God.
But be that as it may, as far as what they call the nation of Christianity is concerned, or the original Jesus movement, which ultimately came to be the Christian Church, what we know from the Scripture is that as long as there was the Temple, they all together prayed in the Temple, but then the Temple disappeared; they were rejected from the Temple anyway. So then there was no Temple any more. But then we know from the letters of the Apostle Paul particularly and already from the book of Acts, where it says they did the breaking of the bread in their houses, in the house. So what happened was that the Church of Christ in Jerusalem would meet in a house.
Then certainly we know that the Church in Rome, the Church in Corinth, the Church in Ephesus and so on, were meeting in a home. They were even called house churches. It had a special expression in Greek: katoikon ekklesia, the church according to the house. So what the scholars think, certainly Metropolitan John of Pergamos in his book that I mentioned last time, Eucharist, Bishop, Church, he really is convinced himself and makes a good case that in any given city and in any given place, there was only one house in which the Eucharist was served, where all of the believers of that particular city gathered. They gathered epi to afto, in that one place, like in Corinth they gathered in that one place. So it was one of the houses of members of that community that came to be the house of the Church, where God’s household gathered to actualize themselves as the household of God and therefore as the ekklesia, the qahal of God, the Church of God.
Just for example here in the letter to the Romans, you have in the 16th chapter St. Paul greeting all of these various people in all of these various places, and then he says: Greet Prisca and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus, who risk their necks for my life, to whom not only I but also all the churches of the Gentiles give thanks; greet also the church in their house, the kathikon ekklesia, the church in their house, the church that gathered in their house. So you have that very particular expression in Romans, and then he says to greet all of the churches. Then to Gaius, who is a host to me and the whole Church greets you. So when he’s writing, probably from Ephesus, maybe even in prison in Ephesus, wherever it was—Tertius was the writer of this letter to the Romans—he actually not only greets the whole Church in Rome and the church that meets in the house of Prisca and Aquila, but he speaks about sending the greeting from the whole Church that’s in the city from where he is writing this particular [letter], which people think may have been Philippi or perhaps Ephesus. So you definitely have that teaching of the church in the house.
It’s in other epistles as well. For example, when St. Paul writes to the Philippians, he greets all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the overseers and the deacons. So there are the bishops and the deacons in that particular city that he greets. So he sends it to the Church as a whole, and when he closes the letter, he said: All the saints greet you, especially those of Caesar’s household. Now, that doesn’t simply mean the Christians who happen to be working for the Roman government. It probably means all the saints who belong to the household of God in the city of the Caesar, which is Rome. So it might possibly be translated, when the people make their offerings and their sacrifices that are acceptable to God in the city of Rome and wherever they happen to be—and [Philippi] was collecting money for Jerusalem—it could be that when St. Paul writes this letter to them, being in prison himself, he simply says: The household of God, the church of God, in the city of Rome, greets you. So it’s a church greeting a church.
In the letter to the Colossians, he again has this expression: Give my greetings to the brethren at Laodicaea and to Nympha and the church in her house. And when the letter has been read among you, have it read also in the church of the Laodicaeans, and see also that you read the letter from Laodicaea. So he speaks about the church that is there in the house. You have this expression also in the letter of Paul to Philemon. It begins like this: Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus—again, probably in Rome, under house arrest in Rome, virtually certainly—and Timothy our brother, to Philemon, our beloved fellow worker, and Appia our sister, and Archippos our fellow soldier, and the church in your house, the church that is in your house—meaning that probably in this particular place, and probably the place was Ephesus, that there was the church in the house and it was the house of Philemon. Very interestingly, in that house there was Onesimus, the runaway slave that Paul sent back to Philemon, and later on it will be understood that this Onesimus himself in Ephesus became a bishop in that particular city.
So you have the churches in the house. What we can say is—I think what we are constrained to say, compelled to say—that in the earliest New Testamental period, the Jews and the Gentiles in the Gentile cities that had been baptized, that had received the Holy Spirit, that had believed in the Gospel, that constituted the Christian Church, that in each city they all gathered in one place in one house. Metropolitan John (Zizioulas) thinks that there were not multiple eucharistic celebrations in a city; there was only one. People could have met in different houses, they could preach, they could teach, they could hear the gospels, they might have a meal like an agape and share it, but it wasn’t the eucharist. It wasn’t the Lord’s supper; it wasn’t participation in the broken body and the spilled blood of Christ as we see described in the first Corinthian letter. That community was the one headed by the leadership of the community that Paul himself or one of the apostles had installed, and it was the whole Church; it was the catholic Church, the katholike ekklesia, the Church according to the whole, where they would all meet.
Metropolitan John even says that when in a city people couldn’t always meet in the same place because of persecution or because of distance or whatever, they would often even take a part of the Eucharist from that one main church headed by the bishop and carry it and put it together with the sacrificial offerings in other places led by those whom the bishop had assigned, called priests or presbyters, and that bread that they carried was called frumentum, like a yeast, and it meant that it was preserving the unity of that one Church, the one body of Christ, the one Lord, the one faith, the one baptism, the one body, the one spirit, in the one, holy Church. They showed this by the unity of the Eucharist in any given place, and even carrying the bishop’s Eucharist to other Eucharists headed by presbyters or other elders in order to show and to maintain the unity of the Church.
So we could say that what we know of or seem to know, that originally the physical place where the Church gathered was the Church in a household. There was the household of God in some Christian family’s household. Then that whole Church of God would gather in that particular household.
As time went by and the Church grew and more and more people were being added to the Church, then you had other developments taking place. These other developments were that different physical locations, geographical locations, became very common for the place where the Church—the temple of God who was the people, the body of Christ, the household of God—would gather and meet in order to worship, to have the worship in spirit and in truth. Where some of those places were are interesting to know, because we know about them.
For example, there was the practice very early on—we know this from archaeology and other texts—that the Christians might gather or would often gather in cemeteries, in catacombs, in places where the bodies were buried—but not just bodies in general, any body, so to speak, anybody or any body, but the bodies of those who were killed for Christ. So for example in Rome where if Peter and Paul were killed in that city and the bodies were there, the bishop of the city—and we have a list of the names of the bishops of Rome; St. Irenaeus gives us that first eleven bishops: it begins with Linus and then Clement, then Eleftherios, then it goes through others; eleven of them he names—the Church in that city might go into the catacomb and celebrate the Eucharist over the bones and the relics of the martyrs, the same way that the Church in Jerusalem would be there where the empty tomb of Christ was, well, the Christians in other cities would go to the tombs where the bones of those who were killed for Christ and together with Christ, being members of Christ and their own bodies becoming members of Christ, where they themselves were interred, where they were laid to rest. So we know that very early on that the cemetery, the burial place of martyrs, came to be places where they would gather.
Then as things got looser and things got freer, we know that sometimes actually the Christians would build martyria, or buildings over the places where martyrs had been killed, over cemetery places. By the way, in those early cemeteries, we even see a eucharistic type of graffiti. We see Christian symbols that stood for Christ. For example, there’s one like of a fish, because IXTHYS was a symbol for the Christians, meaning Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Savior, and a fish of course was something that you ate. So they used the fish as a symbol of the Lord’s supper. Sometimes even in the later iconography where you have icons of the Mystical Supper, there would be a fish on the table to show that the food was Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Savior. Sometimes there was an image of a young man with a lamb on his shoulders, to show that Jesus was the Good Shepherd. He was also the shepherd who laid down his life for the sheep; he was also the Lamb. Of course, you had crosses everywhere. Sometimes, I think there’s even one in Roman catacomb of Jonah coming out of the belly of the whale, which was a symbol of the resurrection of Christ. So of course the Eucharist was celebrating the resurrection of Christ, his victory over death.
Little by little, the churches began to build buildings to have what you might call the house of the household, the building of the household, or a church building, or a building or a place or a shrine where the Christians would gather. But we have to remember that those buildings were not temples. They were not temples. They certainly were not like the Temple in Jerusalem. The people was the temple.
Here we can just make a little excursus here on on the term “temple” or the term “holy.” I checked through the New Testament here, and you actually have three different words for “temple.” You have the term naos, which means the inner shrine, the holy place, the temple as a whole. Whenever it speaks about the temple as a whole or as a holy place, like when Jesus says, “I will destroy this temple; I’ll raise the temple,” he spoke of the temple of his body, or, “You are the temple of the living God” and so on, that term, naos was used.
Then there’s another word, often translated in English simply as “temple,” which is hieron, and that meant the temple court; that meant the porticoes around the temple. That did not include the holy of holies and the holy places where sacrifices were given. For example, Mary and Joseph take Jesus to the temple court. Jesus preaches in the temple court. The sick and the maimed are lying in the temple court. Jesus cleanses with the whip the temple court. Now, that is called hieron, and often in English it’s just called “the temple,” but actually in Greek if we translated it really, we should translate naos as temple and hieron as the temple courts or the temple porches.
Then you have another word, ta agia, the holy place or the sanctuary, and that really meant the inner shrine. That meant the holy of holies, and that’s the word used in the letter to the Hebrews, where it says that we do not have a sanctuary made by hands, but we enter into the sanctuary of God in the heavens. Jesus enters into that holy place. It’s very interesting that that term, ta agia, is plural, because in Hebrew they often used plurals. Even the name for God is plural: Elohim. So, for example, in the Divine Liturgy, we will see when we say for example before holy Communion, “Ta agia tois agois. The holy things are for the holy”—now they translate it sometimes, “The gifts of God for the people of God” and so on. Well, that’s not really very helpful; it’s not really very accurate. What it is saying is: The holy things, meaning that the holy of holies place is the place where the people are, and so it belongs to the holy. Then the response is: Only One is holy, only One is Lord, Jesus Christ. Even at the Church liturgies when we bless the sanctuary, which is called the holy place, we say, “Blessed be the entrance of the holy.” That’s that word that is used, and it’s often even in plural. [svyataya svyatykh], in Slavonic, or the entrance of the ta agia, ton agion.
So what we are seeing here is another way of speaking about the exact holiest holy place in that particular building. So you have one word for the building as a whole, centered on the holy place. You have one word for the holy place itself. Then you have another word for the courts and the porches that are around it. The first is naos, the second is hieron, and the third is ta agia. We have these various differences.
For the Christians, there will not be a hieron. There’s no porches; there’s no porticoes; there’s no outer courts—because there’s no Temple, because the people are the temple. The people are the temple. So the holy of holies are the people. That’s the people in which God dwells. God rests in the holy; that means the people. So the sanctuary, so to speak, in the new covenant, is the people itself. It’s not a part of a building.
But—we’ve got to go on here—what happened was that building began to be built for the Church. I already said that I think it’s wrong to call them temples; that’s very misleading. The best expression I can think of for the building for the Church to gather, since the Church itself is the temple, not the building, would be the house of the Church. That would be very New Testamental: the katoikon ekklesia. That building would be the oikos, the place where the household of God gathers. It’s holy because the household of God gathers there. That church building then becomes consecrated by the people who gather there. It’s not the building that consecrates or sanctifies the people; it’s the people that consecrates and sanctifies the building. We’ll see that again in a minute, how that is expressed in the Christian history.
But what we want to see now, at this point in our reflection today, is that, again, the people are the temple, but then they build buildings in which they gather as the tabernacle or the living temple or the living shrine, the living holy place of God himself, which is the people, the sanctuary. By the way, at some times and in some places, that sanctuary area, even in the New Testament, is called altar. So in many of the Slavic traditions they would call the altar area, the area where the table now is set in that part of the building, they’ll call it the altar, meaning the space, not the table. “I go into the altar. I serve in the altar.” That means the holy of holies place in the building.
But let’s take a look at this building and think about this building now, because originally it was a basilica-type building. I think that we can say, without any fear of being wrong—I think this is totally accurate; maybe it’s wrong, but I think it’s not; I think it’s right—that when the Christians were becoming free to make buildings for their gathering of the whole church in a given region—which I believe they started to do even under persecuting times when there was a little bit of times of freedom, they would do it—but then after Constantine, after Christianity became legal, then these church buildings were built all over the place. Constantine the Great himself built them. He built them in Jerusalem, he built them in Constantinople, he built them in various places of these kind of buildings.
But what kind of buildings were they? Well, I would say in one word they were basilica buildings. Basilica was a meeting place. It was a place where people gathered. It was user-friendly to the gathering of the people. But it was also a place where those who were leading in the gathering were up front, and their part of the building was elevated. The overseers—in church language, it would be the bishops, the episkopoi, the elders of the community, the presvyteroi, the proistamenoi, the proistamenos, those who stood forth and presided—they were in front and they were slightly higher than the rest of the building. So a basilica was normally rectangular in shape, and in the front of the building, sometimes even having a kind of a dome over the top of it, probably for acoustic purposes and so on, you had the place where the rostrum was, the amvo, the solea, where the speeches were made, where the government of the meeting took place, where what was done at the meeting was led.
It seems that the first Christians simply imitated that because that was a meeting hall. So they built the church buildings like meeting halls. Then as time went by various things happened to that building. Very soon it became domed, so a dome was placed over the middle of the building. In order to support that dome, the basilica became cruciform. You had two wings being built on the side of the rectangle so that it would be in the shape of a cross. Then the head of the cross would be the sanctuary or the elevated place, which came to be called the high place—it’s still called the high place to this day in Orthodox terminology, and it’s called also the synthronon, the place where the leaders have their chairs; that’s where they sit. So you had a domed basilica that became cruciform. Then that became the traditional, quintessential form of a Christian church building that housed the living temple of God that was the people.
When the church was built in this way, it itself began to be a statement of the Church’s faith. It began to be a proclamation of the Gospel just in its very form and shape. Then, what happened very early on was this basilica where the Church people gathered for the celebration of the holy Eucharist and the Divine Liturgy and for the worship in spirit and truth, it began to also take on a very conscious patterning of the tabernacle and the Jerusalem Temple of the old covenant. So you had a kind of conflation of the Old Testament tabernacle and Temple and the basilica meeting place of the Christians as the house of the Church where there was no more temple: the people were the temple, but you needed a building for them to meet in that itself would be adequate and fitting and proper for what was going on there, namely, the worship in spirit and truth of the people of God, the Church of God, the household of God, that was gathered together for the sake of celebrating the Divine Liturgy, which meant singing the songs, making the hymns, hearing the Scriptures, listening to the preaching and the teaching, offering the gift of bread and wine according to the Melchizedek priesthood, doing the sacrifice in the name of Christ, believing that Christ himself was present within the leaders of the community, offering himself to the Father, we together with him to the Father, and offering our own body and blood to be broken and shed with his, and then invoking the Holy Spirit upon that activity so that the bread and the wine become the very body and blood of Christ himself and we have holy Communion with Christ, risen and glorified, in the kingdom of God.
So when those developments took place, that front area of the church came to be identified with the age still to come, the coming kingdom. The nave of the building, called the nave because it means like a ship, that was where the people stood and prayed and stood each in their places. Then you even had a narthex in the back, where the people who were entering would come in, those who were not yet baptized would stand, those who were under penance would be. So the building itself became a very utilitarian as well as, you might say, exegetical and kerigmatic type of building. So that is how it developed. And little by little, other things happened to that building. The sanctuary area, the holy of holies area that was elevated, and was even elevated in regular basilicas, that became the area for the clergy, those who were set apart from among the people to be the leaders of the people. I will have a reflection on clergy and laity among the people at another time.
But first, what we have to see right now is that all the people were the laos, the people, and then from among those people came a kleros, a clergy, that was set aside to lead the community. But the clergy itself were originally part of the people. Then the people as a whole were a kleros. They were a kleronomia, an inheritance, taken from the whole of the human race to be a kingdom of prophets and priests for the sake of the whole of humanity. So you have the Church as both laos and kleros, and then you had the leaders of the Church within the community, both being laos and kleros, clergy and laity. But we’ll talk about that at another time.
In any case, what happened then is that area began to be somehow set off. Then there was a kind of a curtain put over it when the church was not in use. By the way, there were canons very much in the ecumenical councils that these houses of the Church should only be used for Church purposes. That would mean worship, that would mean preaching and teaching, that would mean meetings, but they would never be used for anything else. There were canons forbidding people to sleep in there, for example, for good reasons. There were canons forbidding people to eat and drink in there. You couldn’t use them for entertainment. You could not have agape meals in the church building as such, because it was consecrated completely and totally for the worship of God in the covenanted community which was the living temple, and this was the house for that particular temple, the temple being the people.
So it developed, and then as the iconography developed and the churches began to become—how can you say?—more detailed in how they were built, then you have developing a special table in the holy area at the front of the church where the Eucharist was celebrated on the holy table, called the trapeza, the table, or the thesiasterion, the sacrificial table, or the throne, it was called, even, meaning the throne of God: God is seated upon his throne in the Church.
Then they began patterning that table after the Old Testament, a square with a seven-branched candlestick, and in place of the tablets of the Law, like was on that table in the old covenant, you had the book of the four gospels—not the whole New Testament, not the whole Bible: the four gospels. You had in place of the manna that the people had on their table, you had the consecrated bread and wine of the holy Eucharist that’s kept there and taken to people to eat when they are ill. Then you had in place of Aaron’s rod that budded, which was on that table in the old covenant, you have the tree of the cross: you have the hand cross. So what you have is a conscious fulfillment of the Old Testament table in the holy place by Christians with a Christian meaning.
Then behind the table, on the table, over the table, you had also on the table these items. Then later there developed putting on the table a piece of cloth showing the death of Christ lying on the tomb, signed by a bishop to show that that table was belonging to a bishop and it was belonging to a church, that it was a church table, and that the bishop was present there, in the person and through the person that he had assigned to be the head of that community, the presbyter or the priest. Over the altar, there developed a painting [of] the Theotokos with the Child, enthroned on her lap or within her bosom, as the living mercy-seat, because the old sanctuary in the old covenant had the mercy-seat over the altar, where God spoke to the people. Now God speaks from heaven through the bishop and the preacher, the same Christ preaches, but he is now visible; he can be seen. So the mercy-seat in the New Testament temple came to be the enthroned Mary with the angel on either side of her, which we have in our Orthodox churches to this day.
Then in front of that table, they put holy gates, like the gates through which you enter into the holies. There was a curtain that covered it, like in the Old Testament. In the dome of the church, when they became domed and cruciform, you had the icon of Christ as the Pantokrator, the Lord of the living and the dead, the One who was and the One who is and the One who is coming, the holy God, the ancient of days from the ancient of days, in and through whom the invisible God is revealed. So over the church you have the risen and glorified, enthroned Christ.
Then icons began to be painted and develop. You had the members of the Church who were already with Christ in heaven, namely, the canonized saints. So their images were painted. Then of course you have the icon of Christ himself with the Theotokos, being born. You had Christ in glory. They were put on both sides of the gates, because the Church lives between the two comings of Christ: the incarnation from the Virgin and the coming again in glory. Then churches were dedicated to particular martyrs if they were over their bones, or particular saints from the region. So their icon was put in the church. Then the whole thing really developed into how we see Orthodox churches today. Then therefore these buildings became permanent, and then they became consecrated.
By the way, I mentioned here that they were always domed, rectangular basilicas and cruciform. Here I would say very clearly that a square building is not adequate for Christian faith. A circle is certainly not adequate, because the kingdom is still ahead of us, the kingdom is over us. We’re moving toward it. The Church is a pilgrim Church; it’s in progression. So you have to have the sanctuary area not in the middle, surrounded by the people, but it’s got to be at the end, where all the people, including the clergy, are facing. Here it’s interesting to note that in the Orthodox Church when the Divine Liturgy is not being served—when it’s matins or vespers or the hours—the clergy don’t even stand in the sanctuary in the altar area; they sit outside on special chairs in the nave as special members of the people of God. The clergy only go to the holy place for the Eucharist or for other sacraments, when the Gospel is going to be read and preached formally and where the Mystical Supper is going to be celebrated.
So you have the development of the church building, the house for the church—but it’s not a temple. It’s not a temple. One of the very important things to note is that when Christians began to build buildings for Church gathering, for the holy Eucharist, they would even call them like a katholikon. A katholikon means a place where the whole Church of God gathers, the whole gathers. In Slavonic they call it sobor, from sobyrat. It means where the people gather. So the buildings were distinguished by the gathering of the people, and it was the people who consecrated the building; it wasn’t the building who consecrated the people.
Then it happened that these buildings began, in fact, to be consecrated. Rituals developed for the consecration of an altar table, for the consecration of the building itself, for the consecration of its foundation stone, for the consecration of its walls and its ceilings. But interestingly enough, extremely interesting and extremely important is that the service of the consecration of a building—the building that houses the Church, the living people of God, the people—it was treated like a person. If you study carefully the consecration rite of an Orthodox church building, you have references of course to Solomon building the Temple and so on, but the consecration itself is patterned after baptism and chrismation. The church is washed, it’s baptized, it dies as a secular building, it rises again as a building for the Church of God housing the kingdom of God, and it is anointed, it is chrismated. The very chrism that’s used for baptism, the altar table is anointed with it, the walls are anointed with it, the ceiling is anointed with it. Sometimes on very long poles, with the chrism on the end, they make the sign of the cross on all the walls, all the ceiling. Interestingly enough, the church is baptized and chrismated.
This is shown very particularly in the altar table, which is first stripped. Then it’s washed, like it’s baptized. Baptism means to wash or to clean or to purify, as well as to immerse. Water is poured over it, holy water. It is washed with sponges and everything. Then it’s dried, and then chrism is put all over it, just like on a person. Then it’s clothed in a white garment; a white garment is put on the table like a baptismal robe, and then it’s all tied around the table. Then the fancy clothes, the church clothes, are put on top of the altar on top of that. Then it could be colored or some fancy material and so on, befitting an altar table. Then the candles are put there, just like you’d put a candle into the hand of the newly baptized and chrismated. On the altar it’s the seven-branched, like in the old covenant. So you have the altar table in particular and the building as a whole being treated like a person.
It’s interesting that in the history of salvation you had the people of God of the old covenant. Then you had the Temple where alone God was to be worshiped, and that Temple where the sacrifices took place and then sanctified the people who came there. Then you had the Messiah come, the Temple is destroyed, the people become the living temple, and then after a period of time the people began building houses for their Church to gather, and when those houses are built and are set aside only for the gathering of the Church, to be used exclusively for Christian worship in spirit and in truth, then that church is blessed and consecrated like a person would be. It is baptized, it is chrismated, and then it becomes a place for the offering of the holy Eucharist.
It’s very interesting how all of this developed, but what we want to see now and just to remember, to sum up here, is that in the new covenant, the place of the Divine Liturgy is the gathering of the people. Then there were various places where people gathered, but still the Church was the people. Even when shrines and temples and martyria and basilicas and buildings were built for the people to gather, in which the people would gather, even then those buildings were not temples. The people were the temple, and they were the house for the temple. Then when they’re consecrated, they are consecrated the way the people would be consecrated.
This leads us to one final word for today. If you ask the question: geographically, where can the Divine Liturgy be celebrated? The simple answer would be: Wherever the people could peacefully gather. Where the people gather, that’s where the liturgy can be celebrated. Does it have to be in a consecrated church building? The answer is no, it does not really have to be in a consecrated church building. If you have a building that is built just for the gathering of the Church and for worship, then of course you use it. Of course, sometimes in the Russian missionary period of the 18th, 19th centuries, they preferred, when a missionary would form a community of believers, that immediately they would build a house for the people to gather in an to worship. They would build a church building. Sometimes they said that they really shouldn’t celebrate the Eucharist or the sacraments unless you have that building. That would be normative. So you get the building as quick as you can. St. Innocent, for example, as soon as he arrived in Unalaska, he build the Church of the Ascension, a building.
Nevertheless, it is certainly the case that while the building was being built or before a building for the house of the church was being built, the people celebrated the sacraments. The people were baptized. The holy Eucharist was celebrated. You could say, therefore, that the holy Eucharist could be celebrated in any clean, clear, nice, beautiful place where the Church gathers for worship. It can be used. Hopefully it becomes—or normally it becomes permanent, and then that place is baptized, chrismated, and consecrated for that particular use.
But for example we have missions today in America that serve in different places, temporary places. They should be nice places, they should be set up properly, they shouldn’t be dirty, they shouldn’t be used for bad purposes, they shouldn’t have the Eucharist in a brothel-house or something like that. You find a nice place. There is a question about whether we should use non-Orthodox buildings for this purpose. I think that if we have nice Christian brothers and sisters that are willing to let us use their space we should, but we should not use their sanctuary space; we should use another piece of space in their property, just to avoid all kinds of confusion.
Sometimes there are general chapels, like at colleges or airports or something, where anybody can use it. Then I think we could use that, because it’s not any particular church: it’s not a Lutheran church or a Catholic church or whatever; it’s just a space with a podium, with a table, that can be used and consecrated by the people who use it. So probably then we can use that.
But theoretically we could serve the liturgy outdoors. You could serve liturgy in a prison camp. You could have the Divine Liturgy wherever you have the people of God gathered with a priest or a bishop present to have the holy sacrament, to have the Church qua Church gathered. And you need the clergy for that; it cannot simply be a group of Christians. Now, if some Christians were stranded on an island and had no bishops and priests, they could pray, they could offer, they might even take bread and wine and pray over it and ask God to bless it, but they certainly—that would be very, very extreme oikonomia, because you would need to have… And even probably in such a situation, someone should be appointed the overseer and then regularly ordained at first opportunity.
But in any case, normatively, normally, to make the Church be the Church, you have to have the bishop and the presbyters in apostolic succession, the people gathering in one place, epi to afto, gathered as Church to do the Church’s worship, the worship of the Church as such. Now, you don’t really need a permanent, physical house for the household of God to meet—it could meet in temporary quarters, it could meet in various places, it could meet outdoors—but it has to be a place that is sanctifiable, sanctified, kept holy, and is proper and fitting for the celebration of the Divine Liturgy.
But by the time we get to the 21st century, we have basically two possibilities unless it’s the time of the Communist persecution in the 20th century or something. You would have the church buildings built for this purpose and consecrated properly. Then you would have temporary quarters used for these purposes that are capable of serving that particular purpose, but would not permanently be consecrated as buildings to house the Church of God.
But the point here is this: wherever you have a church gathered with the presbyter or bishop, the presbyter that he assigns, you can have the holy Mysteries, because there is indeed the Church of God, the household of God, the living temple of God, the holy of holies. It is all there in the people, whether or not you have a permanently consecrated building. But normally, normatively, when you have a group of Christians in a particular place, they make themselves a building and consecrate it to God for the sake of their gathering for worship in spirit and in truth, celebrating the holy Mysteries, and particularly the regular celebration of the Divine Liturgy on the Lord’s days, the festal days, and the days when the Church gathers for that particular purpose to worship God in spirit and in truth.