Ideally, an Orthodox church is relatively small in order to emphasize and enhance the sense of community in worship. The church is generally constructed in the form of a cross and is divided into three areas: the narthex, the nave, and the sanctuary. The narthex is the entrance area. Centuries ago this area was the place where catechumens (unbaptized learners) and penitents remained during parts of the services. Today, the beginning of the Baptismal service and in some parishes, the Marriage service, begins in the narthex and proceeds into the nave. This procession symbolically represents a gradual movement into the Kingdom of God. In many Orthodox parishes, the narthex is the area where the faithful make an offering, receive a candle, light it before an icon, and offer a personal prayer before joining the congregation. The nave is the large center area of the church. Here the faithful gather for worship. Although most Orthodox churches in this country have pews, some follow the old custom of having an open nave with no seats. On the right-hand side of the nave is the bishop’s throne from which he presides as a living icon of Christ among his people. Even in the bishop’s absence, the throne reminds all that the parish is not an isolated entity but is part of a diocese which the bishop heads. On the left-hand side of the nave is the pulpit from which the Gospel is proclaimed and the sermon preached. The choir and the cantors frequently occupy areas on the far sides of the nave. The sanctuary is considered the most sacred part of the church, and the area reserved for the clergy and their assistant. The sanctuary contains the Holy Altar and is separated from the nave by the Iconostasion. This division serves to remind us that God’s reign is not complete and that we often find ourselves ‘separated’ from God, through sin. However, during the Divine Liturgy, when we have access to the Holy Gifts, we are reminded that, through Christ, heaven and earth are united and that through Him, we have access to the Father. It should be noted that not all services take place within the sanctuary. Many are celebrated in the center of the nave, in the midst of the congregation. In so doing, Orthodoxy emphasizes the fact that the worship of the Church is offered by, and for all the people.
The Altar or Holy Table is the heart and focal point of the Orthodox Church. It is here that eucharistic gifts of bread and wine are offered to the Father as Christ commanded us to do. The altar, which is usually square in shape, stands away from the wall and is often covered with cloths. A tabernacle, with reserved Holy Communion for the sick or dying, is set upon the Altar, together with candles. When the Divine Liturgy is not being celebrated, the Book of Gospels rests on the Altar. Behind the Altar is a large cross with the painted figure of Christ.
The Iconostasion is the panel of icons which separates the sanctuary from the nave. The origin of this very distinctive part of an Orthodox church is the ancient custom of placing icons on a low wall before the sanctuary. In time, the icons became fixed on a standing wall, hence the term iconostasion. In contemporary practice, the Iconostasion may be very elaborate and conceal most of the sanctuary, or it may be very simple and open. The Iconostasion has three entrances which are used during services. There is a Deacon Door on either side, and the center entrance which is called the Royal Door. A curtain or door, usually conceals the Altar when services are not being celebrated. On the right-hand side of the Iconostasion are always the icons of Christ and St. John the Baptist. On the left-hand side are always the icons of the Theotokos (Mother of our Lord) and the patron saint or event to which the church is dedicated. In addition to these icons, others may be added, depending upon custom and space.
An icon is a holy image which is the distinctive art form of the Orthodox Church. In actual practice the icon may be a painting of wood, on canvas, a mosaic or a fresco. Icons depict such figures as Christ, Mary the Theotokos, the saints and angels. They may also portray events from the Scriptures or the history of the Church, such as Christmas, Easter, etc. Icons occupy a very prominent place in Orthodox worship and theology. The icon is not simply decorative, inspirational, or educational. Most importantly, it signifies the presence of the individual depicted. The icon is like a window which links heaven and earth. When we worship we do so as part of the Church which includes the living and the departed. we never lost contact with those who are with the Lord in glory. This belief is expressed every time one venerates an icon or places a candle before it. Many Orthodox churches have icons not only on the iconostasion but also on the walls, ceilings, and in arches. Above the sanctuary in the apse, there is very frequently a large icon of the Theotokos and the Christ Child. The Orthodox Church believes that Mary is the human being closest to God. This very prominent icon recalls her important role in the Incarnation of the Son of God. The icon is also an image of the Church. It reminds us of our responsibility to give birth to Christ’s presence in our lives. High above the church, in the ceiling or dome, is the icon of Christ the Almighty, the Pantocrator. The icon portrays the Triumphant Christ who reigns as Lord of heaven and earth. As one gazes downward, it appears as though the whole church and all of creation comes from Him. As one looks upward, there is the feeling that all things direct us to Christ the Lord. He is the “Alpha and the Omega,” the beginning and the end. This is the message of Orthodoxy.