In Church Slavonic, the word used for the Church building, khram - temple
- helps us to distinguish it from the Tserkov - the Church - the people of God.
Anyone who has visited an Orthodox Church will have been impressed by the very different
atmosphere and setting for prayer and worship.
In Russia, one expects Orthodox Churches to be onion-domed with golden or coloured cupolas
and belfries. Indeed many of the most historical and beautiful of Russian Church buildings fit this expectation. Yet, for
Old Believers such buildings were forbidden by the government. The persecutions of the 19th century saw many Churches desecreated,
closed or seized by the state Church. However since the beginning of the 2Oth century many beautiful and traditional Churches
and Cathedrals have been built by Old Believers and Old Rite Orthodoxy has been able to reclaim traditional Russian Orthodox
In Holy Russia, sacred architecture was full of details loaded with symbolism and
The onion dome itself, reminds us of the beautiful rounded flame of a beeswax taper.
Like the taper we must burn with love for God; our hearts must burn with zeal and prayer as a fitting offering to
The number of domes on a Church remind us of aspects of our faith.
One dome reminds us of Christ the Lord, reigning from His heavenly throne.
Three domes remind us of the Holy Trinity, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit -
one God in three persons.
Five domes remind us of the Lord and Holy Evangelists who wrote His message for the
words in the Holy Gospels.
Seven domes remind us not only of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, but also of the
Seven ecumenical councils, through which the same Holy Spirit confirmed the teaching of the Church and the seven Holy Mysteries
in our Christian life: baptism, chrismation, confession and repentance, matrimony, holy orders, holy communion and holy unction.
Nine domes remind us off the ranks of the heavenly powers
who worship and serve God - the cherubim and seraphim, thrones, dominions, virtues, principalities, powers,
archangels and angels.
Thirteen domes remind us of the Lord and His twelve apostles gathered around Him.
On Old rite Orthodox Churches, the domes are always
topped by the eight pointed cross, the Russian Orthodox cross. This is the three barred cross with the slanting footrest.
Although other crosses were used for decoration in ancient Russia, only this cross was used in icons of the crucifixion.
The top bar of the cross is that on which the title
in Latin, Hebrew and Greek was placed above the Lord's head.
The middle bar is that upon which the Lord's
hands were nailed and the slanting bottom bar is the see-saw like footrest on which the victims of crucifixion tipped and
writhed in the agony of their death. Like the scales of divine judgement seen in the hands of the Holy Archangel Michael on
icons. It is raised towards the righteous thief who confessed the Lord, 'Remember me in Thy kingdom'.
The interior of the Orthodox Church building is
generally divided into three, like the main parts of the ancient Jewish temple. When we enter, we come into the narthex. This
is where we perform the entrance prayers, acknowledging that we are entering the house of God and sacred-space. When we leave we perform the departure
prayers here also. The narthex is the place for the catechumens - the learners - and the penitents, and in some places the
non-Orthodox to stand during worship.
From the narthex we pass through into the nave
of the Church. This is the place where the laity stand during worship, the men on the right and the women on the left.
If there is a dome above us we are reminded of the Lord who reigns over us.
At the front of the nave is a barrier, which
may bear icons like a low ikonostas. Beyond this is the solea with its choirs - the krylosy - to the right
and to the left. This area is set apart for the chanters.
Standing above the solea is the ikonostas, the wall
of icons with its traditional arrangement.
In the centre are the Holy Doors with the icons of
the Annunciation and the Evangelists or liturgical fathers below. Above the doors are icons of the communion of the apostles,
often with the icon of the mandilion - the holy face- in the middle. The threshold of these doors represent the meeting place
of heaven and earth where we meet Christ in the readings of the Holy Gospel and in the comminion of His Body and Blood.
To the right of the Holy Doors is the icon of Christ
and to the left the icon of the All-Holy Mother of God. Beyond these are the other doors used by the clergy
during divine worship. They support icons of sainted deacons or archangels. This local level of icons will also support
icons of popular Orthodox saints such as Saint John the Forerunner and St Nicholas, and beside the Saviour,
the icon of the saint or feast to which the Church is dedicated.
The level of icons above the local ones
will be that of the twelve great feasts of the Church together with the icon of the Resurrection.
The next level, the tchin/deesis, is that of Christ flanked by the Mother of God, the
Forerunner and the saints who, turned towrds Him from the right and from the left, intercede for us.
Above them there may be the same sort of arrangement of prophets turned towards the
icon of the Mother of God of the Sign, Her hands raised in prayer and the long awaited and expected Saviour superimposed in
light upon her breast. There may also be a tier of the forefathers of the Old Testament above.
As we look down the levels of the ikonstas the history of our salvation unfolds, from
the forefathers of the Old testament, through the exprectation of the prophets, down to the Church triumpahnt with the saints
gathered around the Lord. Before the icons of the Annuncaition of the Good News to Mary and the Evangelists, the proclaimers
of the Good News, we meet Christ the Incarnate God in the words of the Gospel and in the communion of the Holy Eucharist...
and before the ikonostas we stand as the Church on earth who are yet to pass into heaven, though we gain a foretaste in our
worship here on earth.
The ikonostas is crowned by the crucixion, the mystery through which death is conquered
and through which the Gates of Heaven are opened to us because of the love of Him whose arms are open wide for us, nailed
to the wood of the cross.
Rather than being a barrier, the ikonostas is a bridge that links earth and heaven,
giving us a glimpse of the spiritual beauty of the New Jerusalem on high, leading us to communion with the Lord, His All-Pure
Mother, the angels and all the saints, who themselves lead us towards the throne of God.
Behind the ikonstas is the Holy of Holies, commomly called
the 'altar'. Like the sanctuary of the Jerusalem temple, only those ordained or tonsured for ministry in the sanctuary
are permitted to enter. This rule is adhered to in Old Orthodoxy, but is often ignored in mainstream 'Orthodoxy'.
The central place of the Holy of Holies is occupied by the Holy Table - the Throne of
the Lord Jesus Christ. It is here that the Lord is present in His Most Pure Body and Precious Blood in the chalice and upon
the diskos during the Holy Liturgy, and in the Tabernacle in which the Holy Gifts are reserved for the sick and dying.
It is here that the Lord's Word, the Holy Gospel is enthroned upon the Holy Table.
The Holy Table is generally cubic and is covered with two cloths. The inner covering
of white linen reminds us of the winding cloth in which the Lord's body was wrapped for the tomb, whilst the colourful outer
cloth shows the glory of God's throne.
Between the two cloths, on the top of the table we find the antimension, a square of
cloth signed by the bishop with his blessing for the Liturgy to be served in his absence. It is decorated with the three-bar
cross of the Lord and generally with the tools of His passion.
On the top of the table we place the folded eiliton. This cloth is unfolded during the
Holy Liturgy and the holy vessels stand upon it. It catches any particles that fall from the diskos (the eucharistic plate).
When it is not in use, the folded eiliton is placed in the centre of the Holy Table with the Gospels upon it.
The Holy Gospels remind us of the mystical presence of Christ. The Gospel book is richly
bound, though never in leather. As it contains the words of life, animal skins - the product of death - are not used. The
cover of the Gospel bears icons of the crucified Lord and the evangelists.
A cross, the sign of victory and our salvation lies next to the Gospel, linking the
sacrifice upon the cross with the bloodless sacrifice offered in the Holy Liturgy.
The Holy Table may also hold the Ark - the tabernacle holding the reserved Holy Gifts
for the communion of the sick. It is placed at the back of the Holy Table before the seven branched candle-stand. During the
Great Fast (Lent), the artophorion containing the consecrated Holy Gifts for the Liturgy of the Pre-sanctified gifts is also
placed upon the Holy Table.
Behind the Holy Table, there stands the seven-branched candlestick of the Old Testament-
a reminder of the Holy Temple and the Old Covenant that the Lord Jesus Christ fulfilled. In its glasses we burn pure olive
oil, a symbol of the mercy and bounty of God. The large processional cross usually stands behind it with the processional
icons and ceremonial fans on either side.
The left hand side of the sanctuary (as we look from the body of the temple) is occupied
by the table of preparation, known as the zhertvenik. It is here that the Holy Gifts are prepared for the Holy Liturgy and
from which they are carried in procession at the Great Entrance. During the preparation the priest takes seven loaves and
cuts out commemorative particles in addition to the Lamb - the cube of prosphora (altar bread) consecrated for the communion
of the faithful.
The right hand side of the sanctuary is the diakonikon, the place where liturgical objects,
books and vestments are stored - the vestry.
In the raised high place, behind the Holy Table we find the bishop's throne, where he
sits as the representative of Christ, the Great High Priest. On either side their are the chairs for the bishop's clergy.
Even if the high place is seldom used it reminds us of the fact that in the early Church the bishop was the normal minister
of the Holy Liturgy. Only later, with the growth of the Church was it necessary to delegate the celebration of the Liturgy
to the presbyters. Above the high place is the icon of Christ, whose priesthood is granted to the bishops and priests who
act on his behalf as successors of His apostles.