The Divine Liturgy within sacred space: church architecture

In Commentary on the Divine Liturgy for laity on July 17, 2008 at 5:19 pm

Continuing our sustained reflection on the Holy and Divine Liturgy, we must take a little side detour to view the space in which the Liturgy is normally celebrated. I say normally, since from time to time special circumstances may arise in which the Liturgy is served in some other setting, even outside in the forest or desert. In fact, during the darkest years of the godless communist regimes in eastern Europe, there were many occasions when such a thing took place. But this is not the norm.

We liturgize in a church temple, so called because it is a building which houses the Church per se, i.e., the faithful gathered together for worship.  Just as the physical body of a faithful Christian is “the temple of the Holy Spirit” (St Paul to the Corinthians), so the physical structure set apart for Orthodox Christian worship is a temple for the Church.

The Orthodox church temple is divided into three sections.

The worshipper enters the narthex from the noisy world outside and there prepares for prayer: putting off the coat, turning off the cell-phone, taking a breath and warming up or cooling down as needed. Then, after leaving the offering of money in support of the parish and of the good causes sponsored by the parish, the worshipper takes candles and any printed aids available for the divine services.

The narthex is also the place where certain prayers are said (churching prayers for new mothers, enrollment to the catechumenate, etc.; and even whole services (9th Hour, Compline, etc. But this usually is only observed strictly in monasteries.) Classically, the baptismal font is located near the juncture of the narthex and the nave, since it stands at the central portal by which new Christians enter the Kingdom of Heaven and become fit to stand with the faithful in the eucharistic synaxis (gathering).

The worshipper stands before the doors leading to the second area: the nave, or the holy place. these doors are those mentioned later on by the deacon, just before the anaphora: “The doors! the doors! Wisdom, let us attend!” Opening the door (or passing through the colonnade), the worshipper makes a bow and reverently enters, after ensuring that there will be no interruption of the sacred action being performed in the nave. Assuming he has arrived on time, at least as Matins is concluding, he will notice the Beautiful Gate (sometimes called the Holy Doors, or the Royal Doors) being opened just prior to the beginning of the Divine Liturgy. This Beautiful Gate both separates and conjoins the nave with the holy altar or the bema, the “high place,” where the Holy Table is centered.  Here, only the clergy and their assistants enter, in order to fulfill their work. We all face east; we are properly oriented, both literally and metaphorically.

So, to sum up, there are three spaces: narthex, nave, and altar. The narthex is for all classes of inquirers and catechumens; the nave is for the faithful; and the altar is for the clergy. These three areas are in direct continuity with the ancient Israelite temple, whose shape was revealed by God Himself directly to Moses the Prophet and God-seer. In that ancient temple, there was an inner court where sacrifices were offered and cleansing was accomplished (our narthex). Then, passing through the outer curtain, the priests alone entered into the ancient holy place where prayer with incense and lights was offered, by the Table of the Bread of the Presence (our nave). And, finally, the Holy of Holies, separated by yet another curtain, beyond which only the High Priest passed and that only once a year, where the Ark of the Covenant lay (our holy Altar, where the Holy Table is, on which the eucharistic mystery is fulfilled). We will have much more to say about these things in further posts.


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