The Orthodox Faith – The Church Building (5B)

Light is associated with the coming of Christ. In the Old Testament, the prophet Isaiah points forward to the coming of the Messiah in the world.
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined.” (Isaiah 9:2).
Some of these passages we read during Advent, the period before Christmas because Christ is the light that dispels darkness. At Christ’s birth, there was light in heaven.
“And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear.” (Luke 2:9)
During His earthly ministry, at the Transfiguration Christ appeared surrounded by light. “And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James and John his brother and led them up a high mountain apart. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his garments became white as light.” (Mt 17:1-2)
Finally, Christ says of Himself
…Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12)
So God is light. Jesus Christ is light and before them, all darkness, gloom, negativity disappear.
Interestingly, there is a connection between the dikiri and trikiri and the sign of the cross. As Orthodox Christians, when we make the sign of the cross, we join our thumb, index and middle finger together and fold the ring finger and pinky into the palm. The thumb, index finger, and middle finger represent the three persons of the Holy Trinity, just as the trikiri does, and the ring finger and pinky represent the two natures of Christ, divine, and human, just as the dikiri does. So every time we make the sign of the cross, we are confession our faith in the two fundamental dogmas of the Orthodox Church. The Trinity and the Incarnation, that God is in three persons and that Jesus Christ is human and divine.
We have to remember that nothing we say or do in the church is just for show. The Orthodox Church and the Orthodox Liturgy are rich symbol systems. A person could spend a lifetime studying the symbols and never exhaust their meaning.
The clergy does not wear vestments for show or to make themselves important, but rather to show that the church and the Liturgy are foretastes of the glory of the Kingdom of Heaven. Our experience of the Kingdom of heaven does not begin after death or after the Second Coming. We enter the Kingdom of Heaven when we are baptized and then receive Holy Communion. It is to symbolize this that the clergy wears vestments.
Another aspect of Orthodox Liturgy is the use of incense. The use of incense signifies our prayers ascending into heaven Incense was used in the Old Testament. For example
“… and when Aaron sets up the lamps in the evening, he shall burn it, a perpetual incense before the Lord throughout your generations.” (Exodus 30:8)
“Let my prayer be counted as incense before thee, and the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice.: (Psalm 141:2)

This Psalm is used at the evening Vespers service in the Orthodox Church. The choir sings this psalm while the priest or deacon censes. So, our prayers rise to heaven like the incense and the words of the psalm are united with the action of the priest. The use of incense will continue in the Kingdom of Heaven, as we see in the Book of Revelation.
And another angel came and stood at the altar with a golden censer, and he was given much incense to mingle with the prayers of all the saints upon the golden altar before the throne;…” Revelation 8:3)
Again, all of this shows that nothing we say or do in church is arbitrary, but is a richly woven tapestry of meaning.

Fr. John

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The Orthodox Faith – The Church Building (5A)

In the Orthodox Church, bishops, priests, deacons and altar servers wear special clothing during the services These special clothes are called vestments. They are usually beautiful and ornate. The vestments of bishops are especially ornate. There is a reason for this. After the fall of the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) empire the bishops began to wear vestments which only the emperor could wear before the fall of the empire. This requires some explanation. When people talk about the fall of Rome, they are usually speaking of the deposition of Emperor Romulus Augustus in 476 AD. But this was the end of the empire of the West. However, there was also an Eastern Roman empire centered in Constantinople (now Istanbul). The relocation to Constantinople was done by Emperor Constantine, the emperor who legalized Christianity. The Byzantine or Eastern Roman empire continued until 1453 when the Ottoman Turks conquered Constantinople. So an Orthodox Christian empire fell and an Ottoman Muslim empire was established in its place. After this the Orthodox bishops started wearing some of the special clothing the emperor used to wear.
The most notable of these vestments is the mitre, a special hat for bishops (and in the Russian church certain priests are given a mitre, as well). The mitre is simply the crown the emperor used to wear. Why did this happen? Were the bishops trying to make themselves more important or to show off? The answer to this is probably no. We have to remember that the Roman empire with all its faults, was a Christian empire. The whole society, from emperor to peasant, was Christian. In America, church and state are separated and church membership is seen as a personal choice. But this is not how it was in the Roman empire. The empire was a Christian commonwealth until the capture of Constantinople by the Turks. Christians became, at best, a tolerated minority and sometimes a persecuted minority. The vestments of the bishops showed that the ancient Christian community still survived, although now in a difficult position. In the absence of the emperor the bishops took on the role of leading that Christian community.
In addition to the bishop’s vestments, bishops use two special candle holders to bless the people. They are call dikiri and trikiri. The trikiri has three candles and the dikiri have two candles. These candle holders have great significance. The trikiri, which means three candles, points to the Orthodox dogma that God is one and three, one nature and three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The dikiri with two candles signifies the dogma of Christ’s two natures, human and divine.
Someone might ask why we have so many candles in church. In the days before electric light one needed candles, but we no longer use candles for illumination. So why are they there? The symbolism of light and dark is something that exists in all cultures and religions. Darkness is associated with blindness, gloom, danger, death and despair. Light is the cure for these things. Light drives away the above-mentioned negative conditions. Light is associated with God. We see this over and over again in the Bible. In the first book of the Bible, Genesis, right at the beginning of creation
“…God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light” (Gen 1:3)
God guides us with His light during our life’s journey.
“Thy word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Psalm 119:105)

Fr. John

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Christmas Letter

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The Orthodox Faith – The Church Building (4c)

Depending on how big the iconostasis is, there may be rows of different kinds of saints, but again, the placement is not arbitrary but follows some plan. Very often the icon of Christ Almighty is found in the dome of the church. An icon of the Mother of God with Christ is in the Altar area. Directly behind the Altar table itself there is often an icon of Christ in glory, or Christ with the chalice giving Holy Communion.

Something must be said about the iconostasis. Sometimes it’s said that the iconostasis divides the church between the “holy area” for the clergy and the worldly area for the laity. This is a grave error. The whole church is holy  and all the people present are also holy, despite individual weakness.

The iconostasis is rather a window into heaven. We see Christ, His mother and his saints, as they are in heaven. Generally speaking, all the icons are visions of heaven. We have to understand something about icons. They are not photographs, so to speak, or portraits of the person depicted. Rather, they are painted in a symbolic way, to show humanity as it looks when glorified by God. Icons show us the holiness that is often invisible to the naked eye.

There is a great difference between Western religious art and icons. If one looks at a painting of a religious person and scene done in the Renaissance, we see how realistic the picture is. We can see every detail of the person’s face, clothing and so on. Renaissance religious art are almost contemporary scenes of Renaissance Italy. Some artists used their girlfriend or even prostitutes for portraits of the Mother of God. This is unthinkable for Orthodox. It is true that in recent centuries Orthodox icons have sometimes adapted the realism of the West, but this is a kind of decadence. True Orthodox iconography has its own renaissance or beginning in the latter half of the 19th century and continues until today. Orthodox iconography has spread beyond Orthodox Churches; many Protestants can see how icons express the truth of the faith in a unique way.

Just to finish with one example of the difference between Western religious art and Orthodox icons, no doubt we have seen paintings or sculptures of Christ on the cross, often the works of art have our Lord as a victim of suffering. There can be blood everywhere, chunks of skin cut out etc. So the emphasis is on the suffering Christ.

Of course, Christ did suffer horribly on the cross and Orthodox icons of Christ on the cross also portray His suffering. But the emphasis is not on gory detail. Sometimes Christ even appears to be at peace. That is because Christ on the cross is not simply a passive victim but actually does battle with and conquers death and the devil. In other words, even on the cross Christ is victorious and this is depicted in Orthodox icons.

Fr. John

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The Orthodox Faith – The Church Building (4b)

The important thing to realize is that in the Old Testament it made sense to forbid the making of images of God. After all, God was invisible so any image of God would be an idol, a product of human fantasy. And we know the Jewish people were tempted to worship to idols. But this changed radically in the New Testament because God (in the person of Jesus) became visible.

The council said that icons are not simply religious art, which can be used or not used as a matter of taste, but rather that they make the point that “…the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.” (Jn 1:14) and that Jesus Christ is Himself an icon

“He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation…” (Col 1:15)

However, in New Testament times, strictly speaking, making icons of God the Father was forbidden because the Father remains invisible. It is true that we do see icons with the Father as an old man in a white beard sitting on a throne. These icons are fairly common, but many theologians think that such icons are not in the best tradition of the Church.

The placing of icons in the church is not simply a matter of whim. The icons on either side of the Royal Doors are the Mother of God with the baby Jesus on the left side and Christ in glory on the right. This shows us that the history of the church takes place between Christ’s two comings, as a baby and at the end of days in glory. In other words, Christ’s first coming was as a small, vulnerable infant, completely dependent on his parents. Even the circumstance of his birth was quite humble. As St. Luke’s Gospel says

In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled. his was the first enrollment, when Quirin’i-us was governor of Syria. And all went to be enrolled, each to his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to be delivered. And she gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” (Lk 2:1-7)

On the other hand, Christ’s second coming in glory is referred to in many places in the New Testament

“For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first; then we who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so we shall always be with the Lord.” (I Thes 4:16-17)

“For the Son of man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay every man for what he has done.” (Mt 16:27)

“For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of man.: (Mt 24:27)

The icons on the Royal Doors depict the four Evangelists, the writers of the Gospels.  We have to remember the actual meaning of the word “evangelist”. The Greek word for Gospel is “evangelion”. It literally means “good news” which is what our English word “Gospel” also means. The Greek word for the feast of the Annunciation is “Evangelismos”. The feast celebrates the coming of the Angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary to tell her that she would be the Mother of the Savior. Good news, indeed. So, an evangelist is one who writes down the Good News (the Gospel).

Over the Royal Doors is often the image of the Last Supper. This is because the Last Supper is the foreshadowing of the Divine Liturgy. On the doors on the right and left the Royal Doors of the iconostasis are angels. These doors are the ones where the deacons enter and exit the sanctuary and are often referred to as the “deacon’s doors” because the deacon and altar servers go through these doors, the Royal Doors being reserved for bishops and priests.  Deacons are often considered messengers because they proclaim the Gospel at the Divine Liturgy. To the right of the deacon’s door is traditionally the icon of the patron saint of the church. For example, a church named after St. Seraphim of Sarov will have that icon painted on the right side of the iconostas.

Fr. John

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