This is the place we are formed, shaped into our true selves. This is the place where we taste and see that the Lord is good, as we see and smell and hear and taste and experience the present and future reality of God’s kingdom every time we celebrate the divine liturgy. This is the place were visible and invisible come together, where heaven bows down and the earth is lifted up. This is the place where all creation comes to meet its maker, and find its place in God’s eternal kingdom.
Hey everybody, this is Steve, and walking into an Orthodox Church for the first time, or even the hundredth time, can be pretty overwhelming. So I drove out to St Demetrios Orthodox Church in Merrick, NY, so we could walk through a church building together.
Before we go any further, the first thing to keep in mind is that we’re talking about the church building. The Church is the body of Christ, while the church building is the place where we gather as the Church,to truly be what we are. And, like all of Orthodox spirituality, nothing is done at random, including how our buildings are designed. Everything is done to direct us toward Christ and His kingdom.
The church building is divided into three basic parts. The first part you enter is the narthex. It’s where you can light a candle, and offer a donation for the life and work of the community. We’ve talked a bit about lighting candles before. They’re our small offering to the church, and they symbolize preparation and humility. Just like a candle melts and shrinks so that its light can shine, our pride and ego need to decrease so that Christ can shine through us into the world. And as our path to God begins with purification, our struggle to set aside our false, sinful selves, our first steps in the church building are in the narthex: where we can collect and quiet ourselves, and offer ourselves to be purified as we offer our candles. The narthex also has a few icons which we can venerate, greeting our Lord and His saints as preparation to join the community of the faithful. We’ve talked about icons before, check out the episode if you missed it. Because it’s a place of preparation, the narthex often has icons of the Old Testament or of the life of the Theotokos on its walls, stories that tell of how the world prepared for the coming of our Savior.
The next part of the church building is the nave. Here is where the real work begins. The nave is the place of illumination, where we begin to be filled with the light of Christ. It’s here where we hear the Word of God read in the Scripture, preached in the sermon, and chanted in the beautiful hymns. It’s where the faithful stand attentively, anticipating the coming of Christ in the Eucharist and ultimately in His glorious second coming. The walls of the nave are normally covered with icons, in a particular order: from Christ up in the dome, all the way down the walls. And in the midst of Christ, the angelic powers, and the saints, we stand, a sign that in the Church, heaven and earth are joined together and time and space are transcended in the Liturgy. At the front of the nave is the icon screen. It separates the nave from the next part of the church building, the sanctuary. As you face the icon screen, you’ll see in the center the beautiful gate, the main entrance to the sanctuary. Those doors have an icon of the archangel Gabriel announcing to the Virgin Mary the birth of Jesus; since the moment Mary agreed to be the Mother of God was the moment the gates of heaven were opened to us. Immediately to the right, you’ll always see an icon of Christ. Immediately to the left, you’ll always see an icon of the Theotokos. Next to Christ you’ll always see an icon of St. John the Baptist, and he’s usually pointing toward his cousin, Jesus, to show us the way. And next to the Theotokos, you’ll almost always see an icon of the patron saint or feast of the church community. In this case, it’s St. Demetrios. There are two other other doors, called deacon doors (because deacons go in and out of them as they lead the people in prayer). To your left as you face the icon screen, you’ll see a door that has an icon of the Archangel Michael on it. This is the door the deacon uses to leave the sanctuary. It symbolizes Michael lead Adam and Eve out of paradise, and blocking their way back in with a flaming sword. On your right is a door with an icon of the Archangel Gabriel on it. This is the door the deacon uses to enter the sanctuary. And it symbolizes our return to paradise through the Word of God, Jesus Christ, who Gabriel brought to the Theotokos.
Behind the icon screen, in the sanctuary, is where the altar sits. It’s where the clergy lead the community in prayers, and offer the gifts (bread and wine) to be lifted into Christ’s Body and Blood. The sanctuary represents our ultimate goal, the fullness of the kingdom of God. It is here that our path culminates in deification, where we are united to Christ as part of His Body. It is here where bread and wine become Christ’s Body and Blood, just as we are lifted up and incorporated into Christ through baptism, chrismation, and holy communion. Church buildings are normally on an east-west axis, with the sanctuary on the East. Because the priest and the people all look forward to the return of the Son of God, to the rising of the sun on the eighth day, a day of sunrise and no sunset, the advent of God’s eternal kingdom. The sanctuary is the most solemn place of the entire building. It’s a place of work, where clergy go to do the work of the people as they lead the people in prayer. That’s why the only people who enter the sanctuary are those who are doing some sort of work in the service. The clergy, as well as altar boys, or other altar servers. In a women’s monastery for instance, the nuns are the ones who serve and enter during services as needed. The whole church building is a vibrant place, engaging every part of us. The walls are covered in colorful icons, the air is full of sweet smelling smoke, our ears echo with the sound of the bells and the beautiful hymns and chants, every human sense is engaged and enlivened in the church building. Because salvation and union with God is not simply something we do with our minds, or our emotions. It’s something we do with our entire hearts, with our entire lives.
The Church, symbolized in the church building, is our womb:, where we are shaped by the Liturgy into the Church, into Christ’s body, the people of God. This is the place we are formed, shaped into our true selves. This is the place where we taste and see that the Lord is good, as we see and smell and hear and taste and experience the present and future reality of God’s kingdom every time we celebrate the divine liturgy. This is the place were visible and invisible come together, where heaven bows down and the earth is lifted up. This is the place where all creation comes to meet its maker, and find its place in God’s eternal kingdom. So let’s be the bee and enter into the church to make our journey of salvation.
Be the Bee, and Live Orthodoxy Remember to like and subscribe and share. I’ll see you all next week. Thanks to our supporters on Patreon who helped make this episode possible. To support the creation of more Orthodox Christian content, please visit patreon.com/y2am.