In the long history of the Orthodox Church a definite style of Church architecture has developed by the attempt to reveal the fundamental experience of Orthodox Christianity: that GOD IS WITH US. The fact that Christ the Emmanuel (which translated means 'God with us') has come, determines the form of the Orthodox church building. God is with man in Christ through the Holy Spirit. The dwelling place of God is with man. "We are the temple of the living God..." (2 Corinthians 6:16), and it is exactly this conviction and experience that Orthodox Church architecture wishes to convey. It is also of interest that Churches are oriented so that the altar faces the East and sunrise, symbolizing Christ, the Light.
Orthodox Church architecture reveals that God is with all people, dwelling in them and living in them through Christ and the Spirit. It does so by using the dome or the vaulted ceiling to crown the Christian church building, the house of the Church which is the people of God. Unlike the pointed arches which point to God far up in the heavens, the dome or the spacious, all-embracing ceiling gives the impression that in the Kingdom of God, and in the Church, Christ "unites all things in himself, things in heaven and things on earth," (Ephesians 1:10) and that in Him we are all "filled with all the fullness of God." (Ephesians 3:19)
The interior of the Orthodox Church building is particularly styled to give the experience of the unity of all things in God. It is not constructed to reproduce the upper room of the Last Supper, nor to be simply a meeting hall for people whose life exists solely within the bounds of this earth. The church building is patterned after the image of God's Kingdom in the Book of Revelation. Before us is the altar table on which Christ is enthroned, both as the Word of God in the Gospels and as the Lamb of God in the eucharistic sacrifice. Around the table are the angels and saints, the servants of the Word and the Lamb who glorify him - and through him, God the Father - in perpetual adoration inspired by the Holy Spirit. The faithful Christians on earth who already belong to that holy assembly enter into the eternal worship of God's Kingdom in the Church. Thus, in Orthodox Practice, the Narthex orVestibule symbolizes this world. The nave is the place of the Church understood as the assembly and people of God. The altar area, called the sanctuary or the holy place, stands for the Kingdom of God.
In the Orthodox Church the icons bear witness to the reality of God's presence with us in the mystery of faith. The icons are not just human pictures or visual aids to comtemplation and prayer. They are the witnesses of the presence of the Kingdom of God to us, and also of our own presence in the Kingdom of God in the Church.
The iconostasis or icon screen in the Orthodox Church exists to show our unity with Christ, his mother and all the angels and saints. It exists to show our unity with God. The altar table is placed behind the so-called royal gates, between the icons of the Theotokos and Child and the glorified Christ, showing that everything which happens to us in the Church happens in history between Christ's coming as the Savior born of Mary, and his coming at the end of the age as the King and the Judge.
We have mentioned that the entire church building is centered around the altar table. The altar table does not merely symbolize the table of the last supper. It is the symbolic and mystical presence of the heavenly throne and table of the Kingdom of God.
The Book of the Gospels is perpetually enthroned on the altar table. It is on the altar table that we offer the "bloodless sacrifice" of Christ to the Father. And from the altar table we receive the Bread of Life, the Body and Blood of the Lord's Passover Supper. This table is the "table of God's Kingdom." (Luke 28:30)
In Orthodox Tradition the altar table is often carved in wood or stone. It is usually vested with material to show its divine and heavenly character. On the altar table one always finds the antimension. This is the cloth depicting Christ in the tomb which contains the signature of the local presiding bishop and is the permission for the local community to gather as the Church.
The Altar table also contains relics of three saints which show that the Church is built on the blood of the martyrs and the lives of God's holy people. This custom comes from the early Church practice of gathering and celebrating the Eucharist on the graves of those who have lived and died for the Christian faith. The relics of Saint Panteleimon, Saint Boniface and Saint Kyrikos were embedded in the altar table here at Saint Barbara on October 9, 1994 when the Church was consecrated.
Also found on the altar table is a tabernacle, in the shape of a church building, which is a repository for the gifts of holy communion that are reserved for the sick and the dying. There is also a small hand cross used for blessing and for veneration by the faithful. The sign of the cross is used throughout the church building: on the holy vessels, stands, tables, and vestments.
The cross is the central symbol for Christians, not only as the instrument of the world's salvation by the crucified Christ, but also as the constant witness to the fact that men cannot be Christians unless they live with the cross as the very content of their lives in this world. "If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me" (Mark 8:34).
For these reasons Christians place upon themselves the sign of the cross. The Orthodox place their first two fingers and thumb together to form a sign of the Triune God and cross themselves from the head to the breast and from shoulder to shoulder, right to left. This unique and all-embracing symbol shows that the cross is the inspiration, power and indeed the very content of our lives as Christians; and that man's mind, heart and strength must be given to the love of God and man.
Catherine the Great Martyr of Alexandria
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