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The Ethos of Orthodox Catechesis: The Mind of the Orthodox Church (Part 4)

By Fr. George Morelli

Noah's ArkNoah's Ark

Connections: The Church and the Temple (The Building-Structure)

The Church, the Body of Christ, is related to the Temple (church building). The Temple is a vessel carrying the body of Christ to union with God, that is to say salvation, deification, to becoming partakers of the Divine Nature (2Pt 1:4).

The central part of the Temple is called the nave [Latin: nāvis, ship: from its rectangular appearance], a reference to Noah's Ark which, as recounted in Genesis (6-9), was built by Noah at God's command to save himself, his family, and the earth's animals from devastation.

Noah's ArkNoah's Ark

Also, the temple building is related to St. John's description of the "New Jerusalem," The Kingdom of God, in the Book of Revelation (21: 14-27). The mission of the Church, the Assembly, is to be the ship of our salvation.

Those who have not yet committed to Christ remain outside the nave. Although all are called, these are they who have yet to become members of the Church.

In ancient times the catechumens (those learning about Christ and awaiting baptism) could enter into the Narthex, (the waiting area) but not into the Nave, the area in which  the baptized, that is to say those of Royal Priesthood, assembled. During the Divine Liturgy, catechumens could look into the nave and hear the Lessons (Epistle, Gospel and Homily.  At the command: "The Doors, the Doors, in wisdom, let us attend"  the doors of the Nave were shut and only the baptized remained in the Temple proper (the nave). 

The Iconostasis

This gradually developed and roughly took on its current form in the 15th Century.  It developed to be visual presentation of salvation history. It contains icons of the Holy Trinity, Christ, the last supper, the Cross, the major Feasts of the Church, the angels, the prophets and patriarchs (the righteous of the Old Testament), the Theotokos, St. John the Baptist, the Apostles, the patron saint of the assembly (the Temple) and other saints. It physically and symbolically separates the nave, containing the assembly who are journeying to salvation, from the holy of holies, the Sanctuary. It has three doors. The Royal Doors through which Christ comes forth and departs back into the holy of holies. Only the vested bishop or priest who represents Christ may pass through these doors. On the South side is a door with the icon of St. Michael the Archangel, often depicted with a raised sword or lance as guarding this door. During Divine Services it is through this door that servers and Clergy exit.  On the North side of the iconostasis is a door with the icon of the Archangel Gabriel who announced to the Theotokos that she was chosen to become the Mother of Our Savior and to whom  she communicated her assent, by God's grace, to His will.

Stained Glass Window of the AnnunciationStained Glass Window of the AnnunciationSt. Luke tells us:

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin . . . and the virgin's name was Mary. And he came to her and said, "Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with you!" . . .  And the angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there will be no end. "And the angel said to her, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God. For with God nothing will be impossible." And Mary said, "Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word." And the angel departed from her.  (Lk 1: 26-28,30-33,35-38).

Platytera IconPlatytera IconIn the Exaposteilarion of the Feast of the Annunciation the Theotokos is called "O ladder and door!” Because of Mary's fiat (Thy will be done), the North door on which is the icon of the Archangel Gabriel is now opened for all of the church to climb into salvation.  During liturgical services it is through this door that attendants (sometimes clergy)   enter the Sanctuary. This is through the south door that symbolically all who attain salvation will enter. At the rear of the Sanctuary is the Platytera icon. The Theotokos, by her fiat, opened the door of salvation by her conceiving and giving birth to Christ, who overcame sin and death for our salvation. Her upraised arms, with the infant Christ at the center, depicts her as the ladder to heaven for mankind.

The Sanctuary

The sanctuary (and the priest and assembly) face east. St. Matthew (24: 27) records the words of Jesus talking about the Days of Tribulation, His glorious Second Coming: "For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of man." The entry into the Temple is in the West, facing the place where the sun sets, a place of darkness.  Going east into the Temple, (the Ark, the New Jerusalem, that is to say, becoming baptized and joining the assembly (ecclesia, church), they will encounter the light of Christ, the source of salvation. As David, tells us to "Sing to God, who rides upon the heaven of heavens towards the east . . . (Ps 67: 34) Furthermore, "Light rises in thedarkness for the upright . . ."Ps.111: 4).  The upright are those who are baptized and strive deeply to live a life committed to Christ as members of the Church.

The Temptation of ChristThe Temptation of ChristThis connection between Old and New Testament, the geographic orientation of the Temple building and the symbolism of darkness, light and salvation is elegantly summarized by St. Matthew's telling of Jesus’ action after He encountered and overcame  Satan, the Evil-one  in the desert, (Mt: 4: 1-11).

St. Matthew tells us:

". . . He went and dwelt in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: "The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, toward the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles --the people who sat in darkness [the west] have seen a great light,  and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned [the east]."From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand [the beginning step of our salvation]." (Mt 4: 13-17).   

The sanctuary area itself is filled with many interrelated spiritual symbols. It represents paradise, the natural home of our ancestral parents and the place we are called to return to. St. Isaac of Syria (Alfeyev, 2000) tells us:  ". . . when [God] expelled Adam and Eve from paradise . . .  as though dwelling in paradise had been taken away from them because they were unworthy.  But within all this rested the Divine plan . . .rather they were going to subjugate the entire earth . . . " This theme is echoed liturgically in the  Vespers of Cheesefare Sunday: "Verily, Adam for eating was driven away from Paradise. Wherefore, he sat opposite thereto, wailing and mourning in a pitiful voice . . . . Therefore the Savior cried out to him, saying, I desire not the loss of my creation, but that it be saved, and come to the knowledge of the truth; for he that cometh to me, I shall not cast out." The Archangel Michael guards and keeps shut the impenetrable North door.

Archangel MichaelArchangel Michael

The Archangel Gabriel allows the South Door, the door back into paradise to be open to those who have attained salvation.

Archangel Gabriel beckoning us into ParadiseArchangel Gabriel beckoning us into Paradise

Although God is everywhere present, the sanctuary  also represents the Kingdom God, His special dwelling place. Recall God's command to Moses: "And let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst." (Ex 25: 8); of which St. Paul told the Hebrews (9:3): “Behind the second curtain stood a tent called theHoly ofHolies." It is in the Holy of Holies, where the Ark of the Covenant was placed. The account of Jeremiah the Prophet:

Holy of Holies in Solomon's TempleHoly of Holies in Solomon's TempleAnd King Solomon and all the congregation of Israel, who had assembled before him, were with him before the ark, sacrificing so many sheep and oxen that they could not be counted or numbered. Then the priests brought the ark of the covenant of the Lord to its place, in the inner sanctuary of the house, in the most holy place, underneath the wings of the cherubim . . . in the ark [were] the two tables of stone which Moses put there at Horeb, where the Lord made a covenant with the people of Israel, when they came out of the land of Egypt . . . so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud; for the glory of the Lord filled the house of the Lord. (1Kgs 8: 5-6,9,11)

Our holy Spiritual Father, St. Maximos the Confessor would have us consider another connection: the Holy of holies, the dwelling place of God in the Temple, and the nous, the temple which is the center of our heart, is the sanctuary of God indwelling in us. Our body as the Temple nave beholding the glory of God, through our senses (c.f.Morelli, 2010), and the ordering of our bodies for Godly action and good works.v

The altar

The altar or holy table within the sanctuary has multiple symbolic meanings. First, it is tied to the altar of sacrifice in the Holy of holies in Solomon's temple. It is also tied to the table at which Our Lord had 'The Last Supper' -'The Mystical Supper' with His Apostles. As recorded by St. Luke 22: 14-15, 19-20: "And when the hour came, He sat at table, and the Apostles with Him. And He said to them, "I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; And He took bread, and when He had given thanks He broke it and gave it to them, saying, "This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me." And likewise the cup after supper, saying, "This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood."

This symbolism cannot be missed in this Russian altar which has an icon of the Mystical Supper behind it:

Altar with Mystical Supper IconAltar with Mystical Supper Icon

Very meaningful is the uniting, the connection between the Bread of Life, His  Body and Blood, given to us by Christ Himself during the Mystical Supper and the Theotokos who made this possible. This is beautifully represented at the Apse of the Sanctuary of the Chapel of the Antiochian Village in Ligonier, Pennsylvania:

The altar also is spiritually, but realistically, tied to Calvary-Golgotha where Our Lord was crucified and died on the Cross for our salvation. This is depicted quite dramatically in the altar of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem.

Altar in the Church of the Holy SepulcherAltar in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher

The altar also references the Throne of God. As the holy Apostle and Evangelist John tells us: "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." (Rev 4: 1-3)

Christ Enthroned with the Father and the Holy SpiritChrist Enthroned with the Father and the Holy Spirit

It is "from the Throne with the Father and the Spirit" (from the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom) that Christ comes forth from Paradise, sacrifices Himself for our salvation, and feeds us His life-giving bread. St. John (6:48) records Jesus’ words: "I am the bread of life."

Christ feeding us His Bread of Life from the AltarChrist feeding us His Bread of Life from the Altar

The altar also symbolizes the tomb in which Jesus was laid until His Resurrection three days later. The Antimension, depicting Christ entombed, is laid on the altar during Divine Liturgy. The Liturgy cannot properly be said without it.


From the tomb Christ would descend into Hades, and pave the way for the righteous of all ages to enter Paradise and the Heavenly Kingdom.

Icon depicting Christ and the major events in His life leading the righteous into ParadiseIcon depicting Christ and the major events in His life leading the righteous into Paradise

As is said in the Anaphora Prayer of the Divine Liturgy of St. Basil: "And having descended into Hell [Christ] through the Cross, that He might fill all things with Himself, on the third day, making a way for all flesh through the Resurrection of the dead . . . ."

The Temple (The Church Building)

Cut-out of the Temple:

Diagram of the Iconostasis:

  1. Altar-Holy Table - where the Liturgy is served and the Holy Gifts become the Body and Blood of Christ
  2. Table of Oblation (Prothesis)
  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. Ambon (see above)

**adapted from:**