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The Church as a Building
Orthodox Christians understand their churches to be portals or sacred pathways to the Kingdom of God. Every Orthodox church is designed to symbolize the human journey to union with God. To carry this message, Orthodox churches are divided into three parts: the narthex, where the faithful enter the church and cross into the heavenly kingdom; the nave, where the faithful gather for worship; and the sanctuary, or the altar area, which, like the Holy of Holies in King Solomon's temple in Jerusalem, is divided by a wall from the main area of worship and restricted to the clergy and the altar servers.
St. George Cathedral, which was constructed on Fairfield Avenue in the mid-1960s, is built in popular style of Orthodox church architecture. The community's first church was located on Jefferson Street in the Frog Hollow neighborhood.
Orthodox liturgical symbolism can seem very complex to outsiders, but Orthodox churches convey the human journey toward redemption in two ways. The first is horizontal -- believers enter the church and move toward the Kingdom of God -- as they approach the altar, where the body and blood of Christ are consecrated and where God resides as in the Temple in Jerusalem. The second is vertical -- from the dome of the church downward symbolizing God's desire to act unilaterally to redeem fallen humanity and his overwhelming love for the world. Many of the most important events in an Orthodox Christian's life - baptism, the reception of the Eucharist, marriage, and the funeral take place at the intersection of these two planes - under the dome and just in front of the Royal Doors of the altar. Dominating the dome is the icon of Christ the Pantocrator - the Ruler of the Universe.
St. George and other Orthodox churches are filled with icons, which convey the Gospel to the faithful. Around the walls of the nave are a series of icons representing the major feasts of the church - focused on the life and ministry of Christ. On the left the cycle begins with the feasts of the Annunciation and the Presentation of Christ at the Temple (in stained glass) and ends with the Crucifixion, Resurrections and Pentecost. The icon screen, which divides the sanctuary from the nave, has another fixed scheme of icons: with Christ and St. John the Forerunner, to the right of the Royal Gates and Mary the Mother of God and our patron, St. George the Trophy-Bearer on the left. Also on the screen are icons of the apostles and over the Royal Gates, the Last Supper. Visible at the rear of the altar is the most common Orthodox icon of Heaven - Christ vested as a bishop celebrating the eternal Eucharist. In the apse able the sanctuary is another "teaching icon" of great importance. It depicts Mart, the Mother of God, arms outstretched, with the young Christ depicted the union of divinity and humanity that enables our Salvation and which took place because a human being agree to carry God within her and to give him human flesh. It ties together the vertical and horizontal dimension of holiness symbolized. Other icons fill the walls of the church, many chosen by parishioners who wished to express devotion or love for saints to whom they feel close.
Over the years, many Orthodox churches have been designed externally to represent the shape of a boat, suggesting that Christians are sailing, as if in Noah's Ark, towards salvation or heaven. Other have taken on the form of a cross as the cross is the very foundation of the faith. Whenever possible, Greek Orthodox churches face eastward where Christ was born and from where the sun, the source of light, rises. Most churches have a central dome, but there are some that have pointed tops or flat roofs and even others that exhibit features dictate by place, means, and the artistic needs of the people.
Strangers, on entering Orthodox churches, cannot help but be impressed by their colorful and often magnificent interiors, with nearly every inch of space covered in sacred pictures. On the ceiling of the dome above the center of the nave is found the principal icon in the church, called the Pantocrator, or Ruler of the Universe. It is the icon of Christ holding the New Testament that tells the story of His life and teachings. Whenever the dome is supported by four columns, one finds on them icons portraying the four Gospel writers - John, Luke, Matthew, and Mark. Below the icon of Christ are frequently painted the Old Testament prophets of Israel, who wrote about the coming of Christ on earth. Elsewhere on the walls of the church, one sees renditions of saints and martyrs as well as visual portrayals of the events of the life of Christ and diverse scenes of an ecclesiastical or historical nature. All of the aforementioned visual representations serve to educate and inspire congregates as they participate in the liturgical life of the church.
The church building itself is divided into three parts: (1) the narthex, or entranceway; (2) the nave, or church proper; and (3) the sanctuary, or altar. The divisions exist because in early church there were three classes of Christians; (1) the catechumens or learners; (2) the faithful; and (3) the clergymen, all occupying specific areas during worship.
The Narthex (from the Greek word for "porch") is the antechamber to the nave of the church and originally functioned as that part of the building where the catechumens (persons receiving Catechesis, or instruction) were taught the faith in preparation for becoming Christians. Today the narthex is a place where votive candles are lit, where icons of Christ and other sacred image can be venerated, and where on can achieve a solemn and spiritual mood prior to entry into the church itself. Even to this day, the narthex is the setting for the initial part of the baptismal service, when one is brought into the faith as a new Christian member.
It is important to remember that upon entering the Narthex, one is in Church - A fact which calls upon the parishioner to show the same sense of piety and respect that is displayed within the Nave itself. Loud conversation should be avoided as well as overzealous greetings and frivolous chatter about family and social affairs which can best be discussed later in the Social Hall.
The Narthex is a place where candles are lit, where icons and sacred images are venerated and where one tries to achieve a solemn and spiritual mood prior to entry into the Church proper.
The Nave, or church proper, is where the people is, that is, the area from the narthex to the iconosatsis, which will be described later. Within the nave are found the bishop's throne, the pulpit, the baptismal font, the soleas, and the pews. The Soleas, or that elevated portion of the nave just in front of the iconostasis stretching from the pulpit to the bishop's throne, is where the clergymen and chanters stand at various times to perform weddings, baptisms, funeral, memorial services, and doxologies.
The iconostasis is a divider that is highly decorated with icons and separates the sanctuary from the nave of Orthodox churches. Originally, a low rail embellished with Christian symbols provided this division, but in the 14th century the divider was raised and became today's iconostasis, thus completely separating the sanctuary from the name and, in a way, the clergy from the congregation. Part of the iconostasis consists of three doors that allow entry into the sanctuary. The larger, middle one is called the Royal Door, behind which that altar is situated. From this vantage point, the altar can be seen by most of the congregation. The door to the right is called the Deacon's door; and the one to the left, the Sexton's Door. The Royal Door can be closed by a gate or screen symbolizing the curtain of Solomon's Temple, which concealed the Holy of Holies The gate also reminds us of the dealing and guarding of the Tomb of Christ.
Only four icons are placed on the iconostasis in a prescribed order. The icon of Christ is always the first on to the right of the Royal Door as one faces the altar from the nave. Next to it is placed the icon of St. John the Baptist. And to the left of the Royal Door, one sees the icon of the Mother of God, next to which is the icon of the saint in whose honor the church is dedicated. Other icons follow in no specific order, apart from those on the two side doors where the archangels Michael and Gabriel are depicted. Frequently above the iconostasis, a row of similar icons portraying the twelve great feasts of the Orthodox year are displayed. Above the Royal Door, the icon of the Last Supper appears, while over it the All-Seeing Eye of God is sometimes found.
The Sanctuary, representing the heavens, is an elevated area above the soleas, which is considered sacred because it is the place where the Divine Liturgy is performed. At the center of the Sanctuary stand the Holy Table or altar, upon which the Holy Eucharist is consecrated. Within the altar are deposited the relics of a saint at the time of the consecration of the church by a bishop.
Upon the Holy Table are placed the Antimension (a decorated cloth that can be folded, transported, and used, if necessary, as an altar itself), a bejeweled, gold or silver-covered Book of the Gospels, the blessing cross, the Artophorion (a tabernacle or repository reserved for the sacrament or Holy Communion), small candlesticks, and the priest's liturgical book. Behind the altar at the center, there is always a large wooden cross bearing the detachable body of Christ on it for use during Good Friday matins service. Situated on either side of the cross are two Hexapteryga (gilded, six-winged seraph discs on standards for use in processions).
The rear wall of the sanctuary is in the shape of three half-vaults or apses. The one on the left is called the Prothesis, or offertory chapel where frequently that Nativity scene is displayed and where the priest performs the office of oblation, i.e., the blessing of the bread and wine to be administered during the sacrament of Holy Communion. Painted on the wall of the center apse is the important and frequently imposing icon of the Theotokos enthroned with the infant Jesus in her arms. It is called the Platytera, a term taken from the Liturgy of St. Basil in the sentence "...for He made thy womb a throne, more spacious than the Heavens that embrace mankind." The apse on the right serves as a repository for texts, censers, and other objects used during services.
Thus, it can be seen that the Orthodox Church there is an elaborate system of symbols involving every part of the church building and its decorations. Icons, frescoes, and mosaics are not mere ornaments designed to make the church look nice, but have a theological and liturgical function to fulfill. The icons throughout the church serve as the point where heaven and earth meet; and as the congregation, surrounded by the figures of Christ, the angels, and the saints, prays these visible images remind the faithful of the invisible presence of the whole company of heaven at the Liturgy. The faithful can feel that the walls of the church open out upon eternity, and in this way, they realize that their Liturgy on earth is one and the same with the great Liturgy of heaven. The beauty and splendor visible within the church, together with the rich ceremonial drama that unfolds during Orthodox worship, attempt to convey to the believer not only a sense of being in God's House, but also of symbolically experiencing "Heaven on Earth".