The Name of a Church
Every church building is consecrated (set apart, dedicated) to God and sanctified in the name of the Most Holy Trinity, and is therefore entitled “a Temple of God” or “House of God.” However, in addition to his general designation, each church has its own particular name, such as “The Church of the Holy Trinity, or “The Church of the Resurrection” or “The Church of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul” or “The Church of the St. Nicholas the Wonderworker,” or “St. Josaphat the Priest-Martyr” etc.. Churches are always dedicated to the memory of some event, a particular event in the life of our Lord, Jesus Christ, or the Mother of God, or else some Saint who is especially honoured.
Our Ukrainian Greek Catholic Cathedral in Edmonton is dedicated to the memory, life, and martyrdom of St. Josaphat, Archbishop of Polotsk.
A Cathedral is the main church in an Eparchy, where the bishop’s throne or cathedra is located. Cathedra is a Greek word which simply means “throne” or “seat.”
When a town or city holds several churches, one of them may receive the title of “general” or “universal assembly” (sobor), because, on solemn feast days, not only the church’s own parishioners, but also people from all parishes assemble there for divine service. In large cities there may be several churches designated as a sobor (general assembly).
The most generally accepted shape for Christian churches is the oblong, in imitation of a ship or an ark. By giving churches this shape, Christians express their belief that the Church is the Ark of Salvation, with Christ as the helmsman. As the Saviour, He saves men from drowning in the deep waters of sin and brings them into the Kingdom of God.
Churches are often built in the shape of a cross, as a reminder that salvation comes through the perfect sacrifice of Christ upon the Cross.
Church may also be built in the shape of an octagon, as a reminder of Christ’s Resurrection on the first and eighth day of the week. The eight sided octagon points to the Day of Resurrection. Since the octagon resembles a star, it also serves as a reminder that the Church of Christ is the light of truth that shines in the darkness of the world.
The entrance into a church is almost always from the west. One door serves as a reminder that there is only one narrow gate that leads to God and His Kingdom. Baptism is essential for salvation. We enter the Kingdom not on our own terms, but on God’s terms. “Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which lead to life, and there are few who find it” (Matthew 7:13-14).
An entrance with three doors points to the Mystery of the Holy Trinity. In Baptism, we enter and participate in the very life, the Divine Life of the Most Holy Trinity.
The church itself is almost always oriented towards the east. Christian prayer takes place towards the east, in expectation of Christ’s return in glory at the end of this age. “For as lightning comes for the east and flashes to the west, so also will be coming of the Son of Man” (Matthew 24:27). Traditionally, the East is a symbol of light, goodness and truth, because the sun rises in the east and the light dispels all darkness. The West is a symbol of darkness, evil and error, because the sun sets in the east, and darkness overcomes.
On the roof of the church there are usually one or several domes or cupolas (towers with rounded or pointed roofs). These serve as a reminder that Christians are called to live their lives free from earthly attachments, to seek God and to aspire for heavenly treasures, which will endure forever. “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew :19-21). The number of domes on a church also has significance. One dome is a reminder that the Church is one, and as one Body, it has only one Head, the Lord Jesus Christ. Three domes point to the three Divine Persons in the one true God. Five domes point to Christ and the four Evangelists. Seven domes point to the Seven Sacramental Mysteries and the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. Nine domes point to the nine choirs of the heavenly hosts. Finally, thirteen domes point to Christ and His Twelve Apostles. Every dome, or roof without domes, is surmounted with a Cross, the sign of our salvation.
The Narthex (Vestibule)
The first part of the church is the narthex or vestibule. This part represents “the world,” where evangelization takes place. The narthex is divided into two parts: the inner narthex, and the outer narthex, also known as “the porch.” Historically, the inner narthex was the place reserved for: catechumens, i.e., the unbaptized who were receiving instruction in preparation for Holy Baptism; and penitents, i.e., Christians who, for their sins, were refused Holy Communion. Baptisms took place in the inner narthex. Common meals after divine services also took place in the inner narthex. To this day, in some monasteries, the inner narthex serves as a dining room or refectory. In the early church, the outer narthex or porch was reserved for the “weepers,” a class of penitents who were forbidden to enter the church because of grave sins committed. Here, they implored the prayers of those who went in.
The Holy Place (Nave)
The main body of the church is called the holy place or the nave. This part represents the Church as: the Body of Christ, the Kingdom of God on earth, the Ekklesia (in Greek, “the assembly”), the People of God, the Royal Priesthood, the Ark of Salvation. The word nave comes from the Latin word navis, which means “ship.” This is the space where the baptized faithful assemble to worship the Lord God and to serve Him. When they gather, Christ Himself becomes invisible present in their midst, and their “assembly” becomes the kingdom of God, already present here on earth. “For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20).
The entrance into the holy place from the narthex is called the beautiful door or the church door. It is often richly decorated.
In the holy place, much of the walls, even the ceiling, may be covered with icons or mosaics depicting our Lord, Jesus Christ, His Mother Mary, Saints, and various events from Holy Scripture and Holy Tradition. These serve as “windows,” in which we see the kingdom of God. The use of gold is extensive, because in the heavenly Jerusalem, where God shall dwell among His people forever, the streets of the city are “pure gold, like transparent glass” (Revelation 21:21).
The Main Interior Dome. The main interior dome over the holy place represents the heavens over the earth. “In the beginning God made the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). Within the dome, “above the heavens,” is the image of our Lord Jesus Christ as the Pantocrator, a Greek word which means the “Almighty One,” “the One who sustains all things.” He is the King of the Universe, who sits at the right hand of the Father, and rules through His Church, His Kingdom on earth.
The Tetrapod. The tetrapod is a small table which is set in the nave, on in the central aisle. Icons are sent on the tetrapod for veneration. Also, the tetrapod is used for certain services that are celebrated in the nave, i.e., baptisms, weddings, burial services, Panakhyda services, etc.
The Central Aisle. The central aisle is the “narrow path” that leads the faithful from the world (narthex), into the kingdom of God (holy place), to the very throne of God in Heaven itself (holy of holies). All divine services and conducted by priests on this central aisle. Whenever faithful cross from one side of the church to the other, the stop at the central aisle, face towards the holy of holies, make the Sign of the Cross and bow.
The choirs are areas which are designated for the readers and singers. Normally, there are two choirs in the nave, one on each side. The choirs may also be located on the north and south sides of the solea (the raised platform in front of the iconostasis).
The main aisle in the holy place (nave) leads up to the iconostasis, an icon screen that separates the holy place from the holy of holies (the sanctuary). The main doors of the iconostasis are the folding doors in the middle, which lead into the sanctuary and the holy altar. These doors are called the holy doors or the royal doors, because during the celebration of the Holy Eucharist, Jesus Himself passes through them. Depicted on the holy doors are icons of the Annunciation and the four Evangelists. Just behind the holy doors, within the sanctuary, a curtain is hung. During certain divine services, this curtain is drawn away. There are two addition doors, on each side of the holy doors. These are called the south door and the north door, or the deacon’s door. They are used by the deacon and the priest. The south door is used to enter the sanctuary, the north door is used to exit the sanctuary.
The iconostasis can have one, two or more tiers.
First tier. To the right of the holy doors, we have the main icon of Christ, an icon of the Archangel Michael or a deacon-saint on the south door, and further, an icon of the patron saint of the church. To the left of the holy doors, we have the main icon of the Mother of God, an icon of the Archangel Gabriel or a deacon-saint on the north door, and further, an icon of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker. Above the holy doors is the depiction of the Last Supper.
Second tier. Located on the second tier, are icons that depict all the major feast days of the liturgical year.
Third tier. The third tier contains the icons of the Holy Apostles, and in the middle, the representation of Christ in royal of episcopal vestments, with His Mother on His right side, and St. John the Baptist on His left side. This icon is given a special name, Deisis, which means “prayer and intercession before God.”
Fourth tier. If there is a fourth tier, it is filled with icons of Old Testament prophets. In the middle of them is the Mother of God with the Divine Infant.
Fifth and sixth tier. These tiers will hold icons of holy martyrs and holy bishops.
The Cross. The top of each iconostasis is adorned with the Cross, with an image of Christ crucified upon it.
The raised platform in front of the iconostasis is called the solea, which means “an elevated place.” The choirs may be located on the north and south ends of the solea.
The middle part of the solea is usually extended into the nave, in the form of a semi-circle. This place is called the ambo, which means “ascent.” This place is set apart for the proclamation of the Gospel and for the delivery of the homily or sermon, and from where prayers are recited. Historically, the ambo was not part of the solea, but located in the middle of the nave. All Scripture readings were proclaimed from the ambo, facing the holy of holies.
An analogion is a movable stand, which is used as a lectern for readings. It may also be used as a stand, upon which the Gospel book or icons are placed for veneration.
The Holy of Holies (Sanctuary)
The third and most important part of the church is the holy of holies or sanctuary, which is normally elevated on a platform, above the nave. This part represents the kingdom of heaven. Persons not consecrated to the service of the church are not permitted to enter this space. The holy of holies is separated from the faithful by a curtain, and by the iconostasis.
In the middle of the sanctuary is the holy altar, also called the holy throne. this is the heart of the church, on which the Mystery of the Most Holy Eucharist is celebrated. The Gospel is always kept on the holy altar, together with the hand cross. Normally a processional cross is set on the east side of the holy altar, along with the seven-branched candelabra. These seven lamps represent the Holy Spirit, the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, and the seven Sacraments, and the fullness of the Holy Church of Christ.
Set in the middle of the holy altar is the ark or artophorion or tabernacle. This is where the Holy Gifts (the Body of Christ, saturated with His Blood) are reserved. God Himself is enthroned upon the holy altar in every church. If there is a need, Holy Gifts from the tabernacle are taken in order to bring Holy Communion to the sick, or to give Holy Communion to the faithful on days when the Divine Liturgy is not celebrated (weekdays of the Great Fast). Tabernacles are made in various forms. Some are made in the form of a church or temple, others are made in the form of a coffin or sepulchre. The tabernacle may also be made in the form of a dove, representing the Holy Spirit. This form of tabernacle is suspended from a canopy, erected over the holy altar, and set on four columns.
In early times, the church or temple shaped tabernacles were called Sion or Jerusalem. Any vessel used to reserve or to carry Holy Gifts to private homes is called a ciborium.
The place behind the holy altar (east side of the sanctuary) is called the bema or high place, because it is normally raised above the rest of the sanctuary. The bishop’s cathedra or throne is placed in the middle of the bema (facing the holy altar), with seats for priests on both sides of it (synthronos).
On the east wall of the sanctuary, above the bema, is the icon of Christ our Saviour in the middle, depicted as the High Priest and main celebrant of the Most Holy Eucharist, with His Apostles or holy bishops depicted on each side of Him, to the left and to the right.
Traditionally depicted above the icon of Christ as Hight priest is the Oranta, the Mother of God in prayer with outstretched arms, symbolizing the prayer of the entire Church.
The table of oblations or table of preparation is set on the left side (north side) of the sanctuary. This is where the gifts of bread and wine are prepared for the celebration of the Divine Liturgy.
The service table or vesting table is set on the left side (south side) of the sanctuary. This is where vestments, liturgical books, or liturgical items may be placed.
Suspended over the royal doors of the iconostasis is the eternal light – a lamp which is continually lit, as a reminder of God’s Presence in the Eucharist, reserved in the tabernacle upon the holy altar.