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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The Orthodox Faith – Salvation History (8C)

However, as was mentioned above the Bible is not only about future events. Biblical prophets were sent by God to announce His will for His people. For example, when the Hebrews strayed from God’s will by oppressing the poor, worshipping false gods or marrying foreign women God would send a prophet to condemn this kind of behavior. For example Jeremiah 23:1,10-15. Jeremiah foretold the coming destruction of Jerusalem and the carrying away of the Jewish people to Babylon. Jeremiah is condemning the failure of some of the Jewish people.

“Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!” says the Lord. For the land is full of adulterers; because of the curse the land mourns, and the pastures of the wilderness are dried up. Their course is evil, and their might is not right. “Both prophet and priest are ungodly; even in my house I have found their wickedness, says the Lord. Therefore their way shall be to them like slippery paths in the darkness, into which they shall be driven and fall; for I will bring evil upon them in the year of their punishment, says the Lord. In the prophets of Sama’ria I saw an unsavory thing: they prophesied by Ba’al and led my people Israel astray. But in the prophets of Jerusalem I have seen a horrible thing: they commit adultery and walk in lies; they strengthen the hands of evildoers, so that no one turns from his wickedness; all of them have become like Sodom to me, and its inhabitants like Gomor’rah.” Therefore thus says the Lord of hosts concerning the prophets: “Behold, I will feed them with wormwood, and give them poisoned water to drink; for from the prophets of Jerusalem ungodliness has gone forth into all the land.”

This is a strong condemnation of the Hebrews behavior.

Or Hosea 7:1-5. In the Book of Hosea, the prophet condemns injustice and misbehavior on the part of some of the Jewish people. He prophesies Israel’s coming punishments, but also God’s love and compassion.

When I would heal Israel, the corruption of E’phraim is revealed, and the wicked deeds of Sama’ria; for they deal falsely, the thief breaks in, and the bandits raid without. But they do not consider that I remember all their evil works. Now their deeds encompass them, they are before my face. By their wickedness they make the king glad, and the princes by their treachery. They are all adulterers; they are like a heated oven, whose baker ceases to stir the fire, from the kneading of the dough until it is leavened. On the day of our king the princes became sick with the heat of wine; he stretched out his hand with mockers.

There are many such passages with God condemning the bad behavior the Israelites through the voice of his prophets. On the other hand God sent out prophets to comfort the Jewish people in times of trouble. The Book of Isaiah was compiled over a long period of time from before the Assyrian captivity of the Northern Kingdom until several years after it. It shows that God condemns His people’s misbehavior and the punishment which follows but also God’s lover and final redemption of His people. The following texts refer to this love and redemption. For example, Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11 or Isaiah 54:7-8, 10, 13-15.

Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins. A voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, fear not; say to the cities of Judah, “Behold your God!” Behold, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; behold, his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. He will feed his flock like a shepherd, he will gather the lambs in his arms, he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young. Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11

 Upon a high and lofty mountain you have set your bed, and thither you went up to offer sacrifice. Behind the door and the doorpost you have set up your symbol; for, deserting me, you have uncovered your bed, you have gone up to it, you have made it wide; and you have made a bargain for yourself with them, you have loved their bed, you have looked on nakedness. You were wearied with the length of your way, but you did not say, “It is hopeless”; you found new life for your strength, and so you were not faint. When you cry out, let your collection of idols deliver you! The wind will carry them off, a breath will take them away. But he who takes refuge in me shall possess the land, and shall inherit my holy mountain. And it shall be said, “Build up, build up, prepare the way, remove every obstruction from my people’s way.” For thus says the high and lofty One who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: “I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite. Isaiah 54:7-8, 10, 13-15.

 Ultimately, the prophecies in the Old Testament are on the one had God’s word to His people in specific situations, on the other hand there have a timeless message especially as they point to Jesus Christ. We will see how they are fulfilled in the next article.

Fr. John

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