The Orthodox Faith – The Church Building (4a)

One of the first things that visitors, especially non-Orthodox, notice in Orthodox Churches is the abundance of icons. Icons are everywhere. They hang on the walls and lie on stands. There may be frescos or mosaics. Believers light candles, kiss them and pray before them. They are an integral part of Orthodox life.

But some Christians, some Protestants, are very much against the veneration of icons. They accuse Orthodox of worshipping idols. We have to understand the difference between worship and veneration. We worship only God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But we can venerate, that is show respect, honor and love to other people and things. For example, no doubt  we have photographs of our loved ones. In our homes, they are placed in places of honor. What is more natural than to keep a photograph of our mother and kiss it, if she has passed away. This is veneration. Or when the national flag is raised, we remove our hats and place our hands on our hearts. This is another form of veneration. We should also remember how many schools and public buildings have portraits of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. They too are hung in places of honor and honor is shown to them. All of these are forms of veneration, and are in a sense, secular icons. Considering that, what is more natural than have and to venerate icons of Jesus Christ, His mother and the saints.

We also have to remember that we are not venerating the paint and wood of the icon. Rather, the veneration given to the icon passes right  through, so to speak, to the person depicted in the icon. To look at in another way, a father of the church said that if he see a cross made out of two simple pieces of wood he venerates this as the cross of Christ. However, if later to the cross is broken into parts, for him they are now simple pieces of wood.

Those who oppose icons base their opposition on the Ten Commandments which say

“ And God spoke all these words, saying, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. “You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me…” (Ex 20:1-5)

What is surprising is that opposition to icons even arose in the Orthodox Church. In the 8th century AD the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) emperors began a campaign against icons. They ordered icons to be taken out of public places, church and even private homes. Many Orthodox believers, clergy, monastics and lay people, suffered in defense of icons. No one is sure why the emperor began this movement of “iconoclasm” (literally meaning the smashing of icons). After all, icons had been used in the Orthodox Church for many centuries. There is even a tradition which says that St. Luke painted the first icon of the Mother of God. Some suggest that the Emperor began this campaign against icons under the influence of Islam, which is very much against icons. This campaign disturbed the church and a council was called in 787 AD to proclaim the importance, the necessity of icons.

Even in the Old Testament itself, God orders the making of images for the Ark of the Covenant. This is the holy box that contained the tablets of the Ten Commandments, the manna and Aron’s staff that budded. This was the holiest thing in Judaism, the locus of God’s presence. God told the Jews to put Cherubim (angels) on the Ark

“…And you shall make two cherubim of gold; of hammered work shall you make them, on the two ends of the mercy seat. Make one cherub on the one end, and one cherub on the other end; of one piece with the mercy seat shall you make the cherubim on its two ends. The cherubim shall spread out their wings above, overshadowing the mercy seat with their wings, their faces one to another; toward the mercy seat shall the faces of the cherubim be. And you shall put the mercy seat on the top of the ark; and in the ark you shall put the testimony that I shall give you.” (Ex 25:18-21)

So we can see that even in Old Testament times God ordered images to be made.

Fr. John

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The Orthodox Faith – The Church Building (3)

If we look at the altar table in the sanctuary from the nave with the Royal Doors open, what do we see? There are candles, of course. We will see the tabernacle, shaped like a small church, in which the reserved sacrament, meaning the consecrated body of Christ, is kept for the communion of the sick and infirm. One can also see the chalice, the cup from which Holy Communion is given. If we look carefully one can also see the discos, a round, metal plate on a stand, on which the consecrated Body of Christ is kept before it’s put into the Chalice for Communion. And, of course, there is the spoon with which Holy Communion is given.

None of this surprises us. But there is one thing on the altar table whch we cannot see from the nave which is necessary to celebrate the Divine Liturgy. This s the antimension, or antimins. This is a cloth with a picture of Christ lying in the tomb. On it is also the bishop’s signature. This is to show that each individual parish is not an isolated entity but is in communion with and under the authority of the bishop. Antimension literally means “instead of the table”. In other words, instead of celebrating the Liturgy on the altar table of the bishop we are celebrating on the table of the parish.

What is important to realize is that there is a relic of a saint, often a martyr sewn into the antimension. At our Church of Our Lady of Kazan, there is a relic of Hieromartyr Hilarion Troitskii, a bishop killed by the Communists during the Russian Revolution. There is also a relic in the altar table itself.

The presence of these relics takes us back to the very early days of the Church, bbefore Christians had actual church buildings. The Divine Liturgy was celebrated on the toms of the martyrs. This shows that the Church is built on the blood of the martyrs. An early church writer wrote “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”

For Orthodox and Catholics and some Anglicans, the veneration of relics [not worship since worship is given to God alone] is an important part of church life. A relic can be the entire body of a saint or a part of the body. It can also be something the saint wore or used.

The veneration of relics goes back to the earliest days of the Church as noted above. But some Christians, mostly protestant, say this is idolatry, something forbidden by the Bible.

But there is a fundamental mistake here. Human beings are not simply spirits stuck in the body which goes to live in heaven with God after death. This is a pagan view. Rather we are union of body and soul, and Christ came to raise the entire human person, body and soul, into heaven. The veneration of the relics of the saints reminds us that our bodies, too, will be raised by Christ at the end of time when He comes again.

Fr. John

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The Orthodox Faith – The Church Building (2)

Orthodox Churches, as well as many others, are divided into three sections: the vestibule, the nave and the sanctuary. The vestibule is near the entrance of the church. It symbolizes the world. It is the place where “church business” is conducted. People buy candles here, or prosphora. They fill out commemoration slips., There may be icons or crosses on sale here. The nave is where the worshippers stand. Traditionally Orthodox churches do not have pews, so people stand for services. There may be benches on the sides where the elderly or sick can sit. In practice there are many churches that do have pews or chairs for people to sit. It is where the believers gather to worship. In a sense it is where people come together as a church. The world church ecclesia in Greek, does not refer to a building, but to the people who worship together as a church.

The sanctuary is where the clergy and altar servers lead the worship. It will have an altar, a holy table. Christ is present on the holy table in the Gospel book which lies on the altar and in the bread and wine become Christ’s Body and Blood. But the sanctuary is more than just a place to lead the service. The Fathers of the church tell us that angels and saints are present at every Divine Liturgy. Usually of course, they are invisible. But over the course of centuries many saints have seen the angels around the Holy Table participating in the Liturgy. As St. Paul tells us we are “…no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God”

The sanctuary is the Holy Place. However, we should not think that those worshippers in the nave are somehow “worldly” or non-sanctified. The word for lay people in some languages means the “worldly”, the non-sacred. But our English world “laity” or “layperson” comes from the Greek expression “laos tou theo”. This means the people of God.  All Christians become members of the people of God though the sacraments of Baptism and Chrismation. In a very real sense, when a man is ordained to a sacred ministry he does not cease being a  member of the “laos tou theo.” He is a member of the people of who has been set apart for a particular reason. We have to be very careful to not divide the different members of the people of God. All are holy, all are sacred, all participate in the Liturgy of the Church. At the very least, we should all strive for this. The sanctuary, nave and even the vestibule are all in a very real sense, a foretaste of the heavenly kingdom.

Fr. John

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The Orthodox Faith – The Church Building (1)

The writer of these articles once read a book that said if you ask a Christian to point to where God is he will point upward, but if you ask a Hindu he will point to his heart. The idea here is that for Christians God is up far away in heaven while for Hindus God is best found within. The implied criticism is that God is distant for Christians, where for a Hindu god is close. But this is a rather naive way to think because God is not bound by space. God is above, God is below and ultimate is “everywhere present and fillest all things” as the prayer says. For the Christian God is quite clearly in our hearts. As a matter of fact, the Jesus Prayer (Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner) is also called the Prayer of the Heart. The idea is that God far away in space that contradicts the fundamental belief of Christianity and that God is within us in the person of the Son of God who became a human for our sake. When the angel appeared to St. Joseph telling him that the Theotokos was going to give birth to the Son of God, the angel said “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son,and his name shall be called Emmanuel” (Mt 1:23). As it says, Jesus is Emmanuel which means that God is with us.

This is seen in the traditional Orthodox Church building. We know that in the Christian west the traditional Gothic church has the pillars pointing up to heaven, the traditional Orthodox Church building emphasizes that God is with us. In the dome in the traditional Church we see Jesus Christ in the dome which shows us that the space of the church including the people, are part of and filled with the presence of God. God is near us, he embraces us. As St. Paul writes, Christ “as a plan for the fulness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” (Eph 1:10) and we are “to make all men see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things” (Eph 3:19)

The church does not try to reproduce the scene of the Last Supper not is it a simple gathering space. The real model for an Orthodox Church is found I the Book of Revelation, the last book of the Bible.

“After this I looked, and lo, in heaven an open door! And the first voice, which I had heard speaking to me like a trumpet, said, “Come up hither, and I will show you what must take place after this.”  At once I was in the Spirit, and lo, a throne stood in heaven, with one seated on the throne! And he who sat there appeared like jasper and carnelian, and round the throne was a rainbow that looked like an emerald. Round the throne were twenty-four thrones, and seated on the thrones were twenty-four elders, clad in white garments, with golden crowns upon their heads. From the throne issue flashes of lightning, and voices and peals of thunder, and before the throne burn seven torches of fire, which are the seven spirits of God; and before the throne there is as it were a sea of glass, like crystal. And round the throne, on each side of the throne, are four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind: the first living creature like a lion, the second living creature like an ox, the third living creature with the face of a man, and the fourth living creature like a flying eagle. And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all round and within, and day and night they never cease to sing, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!” And whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to him who is seated on the throne, who lives for ever and ever,  the twenty-four elders fall down before him who is seated on the throne and worship him who lives for ever and ever; they cast their crowns before the throne, singing, “Worthy art thou, our Lord and God” (Rev 4:1-11)

So in the Orthodox Church we are experiencing some of the goory of heaven. Pointing to this passage is a good way to help Christians who say that churches devoid of vestments or incense or Liturgy are really not following the Bible. So we must remember that while God is aloe, he is also around us and within us.

Fr. John

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The Orthodox Faith – Salvation History (9)

As we have seen, God sent prophets to the Jewish people for centuries. But the Jews expected a Last Prophet who would bring prophecy to an end and usher in the era of the Messiah.

People began to believe that Jesus Christ was the last prophet because of his words and deeds. Christ was one who spoke with authority.

“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house upon the rock. (Mt 7:24)

And they were all amazed, so that they questioned among themselves, saying, “What is this? A new teaching! With authority he commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” (Mk 1:27)

When the Old Testament prophets spoke they would say what God wanted to say and finish up with “thus says the Lord”. This is to show that the prophet was delivering God’s message, not his own. But when Jesus Christ spoke he said “Amen. Amen, I say to you.” In other words, Christ is speaking with his own authority, not relaying someone else’s words.

But what really made people think that Jesus Christ was the Last Prophet was his feeding the 5000 in the wilderness. When people saw this they said,

“…”This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world!” (Jn 6:14)

But the Old Testament prophets did not know that the Last Prophet was the Son of God. Christ no only spoke God’s words, He is God’s Word incarnate.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men…. And 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 1:1-4,14)

But of course at the “end of times” when Jesus Christ comes to establish His kingdom, prophecy will cease. That is because Jesus will be present in all His glory. All prophecy will be fulfilled.

But not only that, we will become partakers of the divine nature.

“His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, that through these you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of passion, and become partakers of the divine nature.” (2 Peter 1:3-4)

This does not mean that we will become God, but just as Jesus Christ is God by nature, we will become sons and daughters though grace.

Fr. John

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