Orthodox America


  Heaven on Earth A Discussion of Some Aspects of the Orthodox Church


Upon entering an Orthodox church, one cannot help but be overwhelmed by its unearthly glory. This is not only seen in the unique and rich beauty of the decoration and the forms of worship, but it may be felt in the heart, especially during the church services. Below is a brief discussion of some aspects or the Church which, it is hoped, will aid in a greater understanding and appreciation of what is seen, heard and felt in an Orthodox church.

Centuries before Christ, God commanded Moses to construct a Tabernacle, a movable place of worship consisting or three parts:

the court with the altar of sacrifice,. the sanctuary, and the Holy of Holies. Only the High Priest was allowed to enter the Holy of Holies where the most sacred of holy things- the Ark of the Covenant-was kept. The Ark contained the two tablets of the Law, a vessel manna and Aaron's rod. God ordained that all this was to be-fabricated by skilled craftsmen out of beautiful and costly materials such as gold, silver, fine colored linens, onyx stone, etc. (Ex. 2:5-Ex. 3:10). On various feasts and important occasions the priests would offer on this Altar sacrifices to God by the burning of freshly slain animals. Solomon later built a magnificent temple to house the Ark of the .Covenant. This replaced the movable Tabernacle and was the prototype for the New Testament Church as a place of worship, sacrifice and thanksgiving

The primary significance of the Church, however, is not as a building for the gathering of the faithful. It is above all, the mystical Body of Christ to which all members are joined each in their own unique capacity (I Cor. 12:12-17; Rom. -12:4), just as a leg, an arm, an eye, are all unique members of a single body. How this occurs is a mystery known only. to God, but this mystical union is revealed to us in several ways.

In Holy Communion we partake of Christ's Body and Blood, thereby uniting ourselves to Christ as He said: “He that eateth My flesh, and drinketh My blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him” (John4:56.). Because Christ has only one Body, we are also united one with another

As the Head of His Body-the Church, Christ instructs and feeds us not only by means of the Sacraments., but also through all Scripture and Doctrine which is given for our enlightenment by the Grace of the Holy Spirit. Those who are separated from Christ's Body, however, cannot receive Grace, just as an arm separated from a human body cannot receive the nourishment of blood and nutrients necessary for life.

Finally, when we as Orthodox come together, either in church or elsewhere, we feel a certain indescribable affinity towards one another. This affinity differs from the bonds of friendship we may experience in the secular world. It testifies to us of the presence of the Holy Spirit mystically uniting us all in Christ's Body. No longer. are we just friends, but brothers and sisters in Christ (Matt. 12:50) with one heart, one mind, and one soul as the Holy Church sings in her Divine Services.

The Church, however, is not only a mystical body of believers, as some would erroneously believe. It also has a very definite material existence. just as God was pleased

by His creation, for He "saw that it was good", so too it is pleasing to the Lord that we should use all that we can from this world in glorifying Him Who created it. Christ Himself used the material objects of creation to procure the salvation of our souls: water is used to wash away sins through the Mystery.- of Baptism; bread and wine are transformed in the Mystery of the Eucharist to become life-giving food for the soul; the cross, once an instrument of torture and death, is now a sign unto salvation.. There is likewise a spiritual significance in the use of icons, resplendent vestments, candles, incense, melodious singing... All act upun our senses to help us lift up our hearts unto the Lord.

Among the external aspects encountered in the Orthodox Church are usually found the following:

Sanctuary  This is the place where the clergy attend to prayer and the preparation of the Eucharist. The Sanctuary faces east, being the direction from which the sun rises illuminating all men with light-just as Christ illumines and gives eternal life to alt

Altar The Altar table is the main feature in the Sanctuary. It is square according to God's commandment (Ex. 27:1), thus signifying that Christ's doctrine and Sacraments are offered to -all the faithful in the four corners of the world (Matt. 28:19). The Altar represents the actual throne of God Who is always present, as He promised, when two or more people are gathered to pray in His Name (Matt. 18:20). It is also Christ's tomb, because here on the altar at each Liturgy Christ gives us his sacrificed Body to eat and His shed Blood to drink.

Icons Icon's are pictorial representations of Our Lord Jesus Christ, His Mother- the Most Holy Theotokos, Saints, Prophets., Martyrs, various significant. events' from Scripture and/or a combination of some or all of these. Not only do icons remind and teach the faithful of the event or person depicted; they also testify that God took upon Himself the form of a man, revealing unto us His physical, human likeness in the person of Jesus Christ. Icons also help us to pray for they are reminders that we are standing in the presence of God and His saints, even though our sinful nature prevents us from seeing them with our physical eyes.

Iconostas  This is the large screen dividing the lay people (in the nave)from the clergy (in the sanctuary). The iconostas has large double doors-in the center called the royal Gates, through which the priest, as God's representative, brings to the faithful Christ's Gospel and feeds them with Christ's Body and Blood. On either side of the Royal Gates are smaller doors known as the “northern” and "southern" doors. Traditionally, the Royal Gates are adorned with icons of the Annunciation and the four Evangelists. On either side of the Royal Gates are icons of Christ (to the right) and the Most holy Theotokos (to the left). On the southern and northern doors are depicted the Archangels. To the side is usually found the icon or the feast of the saint to whom the church is dedicated. If the church has a particularly high iconostas, it may have several tiers: the second having icons of the Church Feasts; the third tier-the Apostles; the fourth tier- the Old Testament Prophets and Patriarchs; the fifth tier-the holy Martyrs, Church Fathers, Bishops, etc.

Banners  These are portable icons fastened to long poles and carried in church processions. The banners signify that Christians are warriors in a constant state bf battle with the evil powers of this world.

Lights  During various times of the church services lights are repeatedly lit and extinguished. Scripture teaches that Christ is the Light of the world Who enlightens every man (John 1:9). The presence of lights in the church indicate to us the very presence of Christ, guiding us, feeding us, teaching us. When the lights are extinguished, this reminds us that before the coming of Christ the world lay in darkness, just as also our souls are darkened by sin. The prayers that the Church offers at these darkened times are generally penitential and solemn. When the lights are illuminated, the hymns likewise become joyful and glorious thus indicating the Saviour’s presence, lights. usually take the form of candles or oil lamps. Candles remind us of the burning warmth we should have in our hearts toward God, and also serve as an offering of prayer to God; their beeswax is a pure and fragrant fruit of God's creation. The oil lamps hanging before the icons have the same significance as the church lights and candle flames, Furthermore, oil has been associated since ancient times with healing and mercy (in Greek). Our attendance in church should likewise be for the healing of our souls and for the beseeching of God's mercy.

Incense  The clergy often cense the various parts of the church during the services. This sacred tradition was ordered by God from earliest times (Lev.. 16:12; Ezek. 8:11) and is a rite which even angels perform (Rev. 8:3). King David writes in the Psalms of offering prayers as incense before God. It is also a reminder of the gift of the Magi.

Singing There is no doubt that the singing heard in an Orthodox church is the full expression of men, using the natural gifts that God has given them, to praise and glorify their Creator. If we glorify and pray to God through song with our whole hearts and minds (Eph.5:19), then we will approach those angelic hosts who formed a choir to glorify God's appearance on earth (Luke 2:13,14)and who continually cry out:

Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty (Rev. 4:8)

 

Through the beauty and harmony of the church and its services, we are made more aware of the state of creation before the Fall and the future state of blessedness to which we are called and which, even now, is open to those who have eyes to see.

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