Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese of the British Isles and  Ireland
"the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch."

[Acts 11:26] 

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INSIDE AN ORTHODOX CHURCH

A SIMPLE CHURCH DESIGN

          KEY

Church Plan

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  1. NARTHEX: Scenes from the Last Judgement and the Old Testament. We repent as we enter the House of God, (called a "temple" in the Orthodox Church).  The baptismal font is sometimes here or separately in a courtyard.

  2. NAVE: Where the people stand, just a few seats for the infirm.  Scenes from Christ's earthly life and the saints.  Above, Christ the Pantocrator, (He who holds all things in His hands).

  3. ALTAR:  Refers to the whole sanctuary area.  Contains the Holy Table for the celebration of the services including the Divine Liturgy or Eucharist.  Also contains the Table of Oblation, (upper, area 3), where the Holy Gifts of bread and wine are prepared before the Liturgy.

  4. SOLEA: a walkway/step in front of the icon screen, (iconostasis ... dashed line).

  5. AMVON: (ambo/ambon) ... a small platform for the use of the priest or deacon in front of the Holy Doors.  Only these ministers may enter through the Holy/Royal Doors.  Servers use the Angel/Deacons' Doors either side.

 

KEY TO ICONOSTASIS ICONS

 

ICON SCREEN (ICONOSTASIS)

  1. Last Supper

  2. Annunciation of the Archangel Gabriel to the Mother of God, (Theotokos), and Ever-Virgin Mary

  3. The Four Evangelists on the Holy Doors

  4. The Saviour

  5. The Mother of God, (Theotokos), and Ever-Virgin Mary

  6. The Angel/Deacons' Doors

  7. The Forerunner, St. John the Baptist

  8. The Patron Saint of the Church

  9. The Major Feasts (Festivals) of the Church

  10. The Apostles

  11. The Prophets

  12. The Fathers and the Mothers of the Church in Heaven with the Theotokos

  13. The Holy Cross ... above which in the apse (curved inset ceiling), the Mother of God Icon of the Sign, or "she who fills the heavens), welcoming believers to her Son whom she presents to the world.

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INSIDE THE ALTAR (SANCTUARY)

  KEY

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  1. Holy Table - where the Liturgy is served and the Holy Gifts become the Body and Blood of Christ

  2. Table of Oblation (Prothesis or Proskomedie)

  3. The High Place with the Bishop's throne.  The throne will also be in the Nave.

  4. The Iconostasis (Icon Screen)

  5. Solea (see above)

  6. Amvon (see above)

Orthodox Altars

altar plan

Some people may think that an altar is an altar, (or holy table a holy table), no matter what church houses it. They would be mistaken if they applied that reasoning to the altar of an Orthodox Church. The distinctive features of an Orthodox altar are not repeated anywhere else and have their own essential significance. In this article I shall refer to the "Holy Table" as the place for the Holy Mysteries. Strictly speaking, "altar" in Orthodox terminology refers to the whole of the "sanctuary" in its western reference.

The Holy Table itself should, ideally, be a perfect cube and one cubic metre is often a useful guide as to size. By this is indicated the perfection and wholeness of God’s dispensation to us in Christ. Inside the Holy Table a small reliquary is secreted with the relic of a saint given by the bishop to the church. At each of the four corners are embedded small icons of the four holy Apostles and Evangelists. All this is sealed with a super-covering which forms the upper surface of the Holy Table. When a church is consecrated by the bishop the Holy Table is washed and anointed with chrism and vested in a fair white linen covering and then the altar vestment. This procedure indicates that the Holy Table is the place of Christ, the anointed King and Saviour of the world. Only the appointed ministers of the altar, the Bishop, his priests and deacons may stand about the front and sides of the Holy Table and no one else may touch it. Servers may go about their business behind it and make the sign of the cross as they pass the throne and high place of the altar … an elevated section with the Holy Cross and the seven-branched menorah in front of it with the processional fans.

The whole arrangement of an Orthodox altar and Holy Table reflects the worship about the heavenly altar indicated in the Apocalypse (Revelation) of St. John in the New Testament. Sometimes, non-Orthodox folk express a little surprise that the Orthodox Church does not recite this book in any of her public services. This may refer to the fact that the Apocalypse was accepted into the Scriptural canon rather late and did not initially have a currency in all the churches. However, we may also reflect that since Orthodox worship is wholly informed by this book you may see and hear what you might otherwise read. Whether it is the prayer of the saints poured out as incense before the throne of God or the Lamb on the throne, the Orthodox Liturgy is the very worship of heaven on earth.

A closer attention to the Holy Table itself reveals the following items:-

The Holy Table cover

The Book of the Gospels

Antimins/Antimension, (a small cloth signed by the bishop and containing relics of a saint without which the priest is not able to serve the Liturgy).

The Blessing Cross and a small standing Cross

Tabernacle for reservation of Holy Communion for the Sick

Container for the Holy Chrism, (holy oil for Holy Baptism and Chrismation)

Menorah seven-branch candlestick (sometimes installed at the back of the Holy Table with other candles)

Kalima cloth for use in administering Holy Communion

The priest’s service books, sometimes placed on a side stand to keep the altar clear of "clutter."

The vessels of the Eucharist

No Holy Table should be cluttered with anything other than these items which strictly refer to the holy oblation of the Eucharist and the preaching of the Word of God. Orthodox take great care that all items used in worship are fitting and used appropriately. Any "sloppiness" in approaching these holy things is frowned upon and matched by the care and reverence for the prayers of the Liturgy in their recitation and chanting. This is the place where the earth itself, indeed the Cosmos, is to be transformed by the resurrection of Christ. We may offer God only our best.

The vessels of the Eucharist are first to be found on the nearby Table of Oblation (prothesis / proskomedie table) where the Holy Gifts are prepared at the beginning of the Liturgy. These and other items are as follows:-

Icon of the Nativity

The Prosphora (Holy Bread) and the Wine

Spear to cut the Prosphora

Spoon for administering Holy Communion

Zeon jug for the hot water

The Holy Chalice

Star to cover the Lamb (portion of the bread to be used for Holy Communion)

Diskos for the breads and particles for the prayers

The priest and deacon follow an order of service in the preparation of the Holy Gifts that clearly reflects the prayer of the Church for the whole world and in the communion of saints. Every time bread and wine is brought by the People of God to the temple, this offering is transfigured in the Kingdom for the redemption of all who worthily partake and those for whom they pray according to their intention and God’s good will. The language used for the preparation of the Holy Gifts clearly reflects the redemptive significance of the liturgical ascent through the power of Easter into the heavenly realm … star, spear, Lamb; there are so many references to the Passion and Pascha of Christ here. It is Easter then that enables our offering to be made to God.

The Prosphora (bread) is cut up into different pieces representing the following different commemorations in prayer:-

The Lamb – Our Lord and God and Saviour, Jesus Christ

The Mother of God and Ever-Virgin Mary

The Angels and Saints

The Living

The Reposed

The Lamb, the Body of Christ when consecrated, is divided up into four pieces during the Liturgy.  On each piece is a sealed piece of writing in abbreviated form.  It reads: "Jesus Christ conquers all."  The consecrated Lamb is placed in the Chalice of consecrated wine that also contains hot water as a symbol of the life-giving character of the Holy Gifts of the Body and Blood of Christ.  The faithful receive Holy Communion from a spoon.  This is partly for the ease of administration of the Holy Mysteries to babies and partly for the practical convenience of ensuring that the people can receive reverently.

Finally in the altar we may find a table for the servers. From here their sacred duty in the assistance of divine worship is performed. The incense, the censer, the charcoal, the candles are cared for with as much as love as any other aspect of Orthodox worship.

The keynote of worship in and before the altar in an Orthodox Church is love. It is offered with great love both for the Lord and for His People. All have their part to play. This work of the whole People of God is a participation in the transforming power of the Holy Spirit. The altar is the place where Christ is and where He is, so also is the Father. It is in the altar that we all receive divine power through repentance and faith to become more fully human; that is, in the likeness of God in whose image we have been so wonderfully made. 

GLOSSARY OF ORTHODOX LITURGICAL TERMS

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Contact: Fr. Gregory Hallam  orthodox@clara.net