In EnglishTruths we hold

“These Truths We Hold” (Part VIII)

15 Σεπτεμβρίου 2009

“These Truths We Hold” (Part VIII)

saint catherine monastery sinai

Altar prepared for the Liturgy (St Catherine's monastery, Mount Sinai).

Continued from (Part VII)

The Iconostasis.

The most prominent feature of an Orthodox church is the Iconostasis, consisting of one or more rows of Icons and broken by a set of doors in the center (the Holy Doors) and a door at each side (the Deacon’s Doors). In ancient times, the Iconostasis was probably a screen placed at the extreme Eastern end of the church (a tradition still preserved by Russian Old-Believers), but quite early it was moved out from the wall as a sort of barrier between the Nave and the Altar, with the opening and closing of curtains making the Altar both visible and inaccessible.

The Holy Fathers envisioned the church building as consisting of three mystical parts. According to Patriarch Germanus of Constantinople, a Confessor of Orthodoxy during the ico-noclastic controversies (7th-8th Centuries), “the church is the earthly heaven where God, Who is above heaven, dwells and abides, and it is more glorious than the [Old Testament] tabernacle of witness. It is foreshadowed in the Patriarchs, is based on the Apostles…, it is foretold by the Prophets, adorned by the Hierarchs, sanctified by the Martyrs, and its high Altar stands firmly founded on their holy remains….” Thus, according to St. Simeon the New Theologian, “the [Ves-tibule] corresponds to earth, the [Nave] to heaven, and the holy [Altar] to what is above heaven” [Book on the House of God, Ch. 12].

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Following these interpretations, the Iconostasis also has a symbolic meaning. It is seen as the boundary between two worlds: the Divine and the human, the permanent and the transitory. The Holy Icons denote that the Savior, His Mother and the Saints, whom they represent, abide both in Heaven and among men. Thus the Iconostasis both divides the Divine world from the human world, but also unites these same two worlds into one whole — a place where all separa-tion is overcome and where reconciliation between God and man is achieved. Standing on the boundary between the Divine and the human, the Iconostasis reveals, by means of its Icons, the ways to this reconciliation.

A typical Iconostasis consists of one or more tiers (rows) of Icons. At the center of the first, or lowest, tier, are the Holy Doors, on which are placed Icons of the four Evangelists who announced to the world the Good News — the Gospel — of the Savior. At the center of the Holy Doors is an Icon of the Annunciation to the Most-Holy Theotokos, since this event was the prelude or beginning of our salvation. Over the Holy Doors is placed an Icon of the Last Supper since, in the Altar beyond, the Mystery of the Holy Eucharist is celebrated in remembrance of the Savior Who instituted the Sacrament at the Last Supper.

At either side of the Holy Doors are always placed an Icon of the Savior (to the right) and of the Most-Holy Theotokos (to the left). In addition, next to the Icon of the Savior is placed that of the church, i.e., an Icon of the Saint or Event in whose honor the church has been named and dedicated. Other Icons of particular local significance are also placed in this first row, for which reason the lower tier is often called the Local Icons. On either side of the Holy Doors, beyond the Icons of the Lord and His Mother, are two doors — Deacon’s Doors — upon which are depicted either sainted Deacons or Angels — who minister always at the heavenly Altar, just as do the earthly Deacons during the Divine services.

Ascending above the Local Icons are several more rows (or tiers) of Icons. The tier im-mediately above are those representing the principal Feasts of the Lord and the Theotokos. The next tier above that contains Icons of those Saints closest to the Savior, usually the Holy Apos-tles. Just above the Icon of the Last Supper is placed an Icon of the Savior in royal garments, flanked by His Mother and St. John the Baptist, called the Deisis (prayer), since the Theotokos and the Forerunner are turned to Him in supplication. As these Icons (Apostles, Theotokos, and Forerunner) are arranged in order on either side of the Savior the tier is usually called the Tchin (or rank). Often this tier was to be found just above the Local Icons and below the Feast Day Icons.

The next row usually contains the Old Testament Saints — Prophets, Kings, etc. — in the midst of which is the Birthgiver of God with the Divine Infant Who is from everlasting and Who was their hope, their consolation, and the subject of their prophecies. If there are more tiers, Icons of the Martyrs and Holy Bishops would be placed above the Old Testament Saints. At the very top of the Iconostasis is placed the Holy Cross, upon which the Lord was crucified, effecting thereby our salvation.

As pointed out, the central place of the Iconostasis is occupied by the Holy Doors, be-cause the Mystery of the Holy Eucharist celebrated within the Altar, is brought forth through them to the faithful. They are also called the Royal Gates (or Doors), since the King of Glory passes through them in the Holy Eucharist. Behind the doors is placed a curtain which is opened or closed, depending on the solemnity or penitential aspect of a particular moment of the Divine services.

The Altar and Its Furnishings.

The Altar which lies beyond the Iconostasis, is set aside for those who perform the Divine services, and normally persons not consecrated to the service of the Church are not permitted to enter. Occupying the central place in the Altar is the Holy Table (Russian — Prestol), which represents the Throne of God, with the Lord Himself invisibly present there. It also represents the Tomb of Christ, since His Body (the Holy Gifts) is placed there. The Holy Table is square in shape and is covered by two coverings. The first, inner covering, is of white linen, representing the winding-sheet in which the Body of the Lord was wrapped. The outer cloth is made of rich and bright material, representing the glory of God’s Throne. Both cloths cover the Holy Table to the ground.


In the first centuries of Christianity, the Divine Liturgy was celebrated on the tombs of the Martyrs and this was celebrated by the Bishop. Later, as the Church expanded and the size of a typical Diocese with it, the Bishops of the early Church began to ordain Priests as their repre-sentatives to the growing number of Christian communities. Only with the Bishop’s permission could a community and its Priest serve the Liturgy and the same holds true today. One of the vehicles by which these important ancient practices are effected today is a simple piece of cloth, folded within another, and resting always on the Holy Table of every Orthodox church — the Antimension.

The Antimension is a rectangular piece of cloth, gold in color, measuring about 18 by 24 inches, and while on the Holy Table it is folded within another cloth, red in color, called the Ili-ton, which represents the swaddling clothes and the burial shroud of Jesus Christ. Depicted on the top of the Antimension is an Icon of the Burial of Christ, along with Icons of the four Evan-gelists, as well as Saints Basil the Great and John Chrysostom, for whom the usual Divine Litur-gies are named. Sewn into every Antimension is an incorruptible relic of a Saint, making real the early liturgical connection with the Martyrs who died rather than renounce Christ, and whose blood, after the Blood of Christ, formed the very foundation of the Church.

Printed on every Antimension are the words: “By the grace of the All-Holy, Life-giving Spirit, this Antimension, the Holy Table, is consecrated for the Offering on it of the Body and Blood of our Lord in the Divine Liturgy.” Each one is signed by the ruling Bishop of the Diocese and placed on the Holy Table, constituting his permission for the community to exist as an Or-thodox parish and to celebrate the Liturgy. This is so, since true Christianity has always held that without the Bishop there is no Church and through the Bishop comes our unity of Faith and Communion which is Orthodoxy.

The word Antimension is a combination of Greek and Latin which means in place of the table. While Holy Tables were always to have been consecrated and relics placed inside of them, it was not always possible for the Bishop to visit each community to do so. For that reason, Bi-shops consecrated cloths or boards and sent them to each community to be used in place of the consecrated Holy Table. This also allowed for portable Holy Tables for travelers. The use of the Antimension is mandatory, even on Holy Tables which have been consecrated, and a Priest is not permitted to celebrate the Divine Liturgy without it. Military Chaplains and Missionaries also use it instead of the table when serving in remote areas.

Also placed on the Holy Table are two indispensable items: the Cross and the Book of the Gospels. The Cross is placed there both as a sign of Christ’s victory over the Devil and of our deliverance. Since the Lamb of God was slain on the Cross for our salvation, it is especially ap-propriate that it be placed upon the Holy Table where the Bloodless Sacrifice is offered “on be-half of all and for all.” As it is the Word of God, the Book of the Holy Gospels is placed on the Holy Table, signifying that God is mystically present. It is usually richly-adorned and as it is the Book of Life, its Governing may not be of the skins of dead animals (i.e., leather), but is usually made of precious metals adorned with jewels. At the center of the cover is usually represented Christ, with the four Evangelists — Matthew, Mark, Luke and John — at the four corners.

As the Holy Table represents the sepulcher of the Lord, upon it, at the rear, is placed the Ark (or Tabernacle), so-called because of its general shape, within which are placed the Holy Gifts (Reserved Sacrament) used for the Communion of the sick. Candlesticks are also placed on the Holy Table, signifying the Light of Christ which illumines the world.

In addition to the above, a natural (not artificial) Sponge is usually placed beside the An-timension with which to brush off the particles from the Paten into the Chalice. Also found is a vessel containing the Holy Chrism used for Chrismation, and also a Sick-Call Kit (the Ciborium) within which are to be found a small chest for the Holy Gifts, a small Chalice and Spoon, a small vessel for wine and a sponge to clean the Chalice with. In addition, a small chest, called the Ar-tophorion is placed on the Holy Table during Great Lent, within which is placed the consecrated Lamb (s) used for the Presanctified Liturgy (if the same is not placed in the Tabernacle). Often a canopy is suspended over the Holy Table, representing the heavens over the earth, from which is suspended a dove with outstretched wings (the Fix), representing the Holy Spirit. (In many plac-es, the pre-sanctified Lamb was placed in the Fix during Great Lent.)

Behind the Holy Table a seven-branched Candlestick is usually placed (seven being the sacred number), and sometimes a large Processional Cross. Behind this, at the extreme East end of the Altar is a raised place, called the High Place (or Bema), upon which is placed the Cathedra (Bi-shop’s Throne), with seats for the Priests on either side. During the Liturgy, the Priests (representing the Holy Apostles) sit at either side of the Bishop (representing the King of Glory). [In modern times, the Cathedra is usually found only in Cathedrals and large Monasteries.]

On either side of the Bishop’s Throne are placed ceremonial Fans, with which, in ancient times, the Holy Gifts were fanned to keep away insects. Now they are carried in solemn proces-sions, signifying the six-winged Seraphim who minister at the Divine services, and who are represented iconographically upon them. Above the High Place is an Icon of the Savior and on both sides Icons of the Holy Apostles or (more often) Holy Bishops. Before the Icon of the Sa-vior is suspended a lampada, called the High Light.

The Sacristy.

At the North end of the Altar (in ancient times a separate room, called the Sacristy or Chapel of the Oblation (sometimes Chapel of Preparation — in Russian, Zhertvinnik) is placed the Table of Oblation (offering or Prothesis) where the offerings are prepared during the Proskomedia or Liturgy of Preparation. Like the Holy Table, the Table of Oblation is covered with rich coverings and the wall around it is decorated with Icons. Upon it are placed the sacred vessels used in the preparation of Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist.

Paten (Diskos).

This is a round vessel with a foot, upon which are placed the Lamb and the particles taken out from the breads (prosphora) in memory of the Theotokos, the Forerunner, the Saints, the Living and the Dead.

Star-Cover (Asterisk).

This consists of two bands of metal joined by a screw which, when put together, form the shape of a Cross. This is placed over the Paten after the Lamb and particles have been placed thereon, to support the veil above the Paten and also to keep the particles in order.


This is a lance-shaped knife, representing the spear with which the Savior’s Body was pierced, used to take particles out of the breads.


This is a cup with a foot into which the wine, mixed with water is poured during the preparation of the Sacrament. To the Chalice also belongs a small Ladle (Zeon) with which the mixed wine and water are poured into the Cup, and also used for the warm water (hence the name Zeon — hot water) poured into the Chalice at the Communion of the Clergy.


This is used to administer the Sacrament at the Communion of the Faithful.


There are two Sponges (cut from natural sponges) — one used at the Holy Table and one used at the Table of Oblation. That used at the Holy Table to wipe the particles from the Paten into the Chalice, is usually kept in a fold of the Antimension and thus is called the Antimension Sponge. The other is kept on the Table of Oblation to wipe the Chalice after it has been washed at the end of the Liturgy and thus is called the Cleansing Sponge.


Three Veils are used: two smaller ones to cover the Paten and Chalice, protecting the Lamb and particles from dust and insects, and a larger Veil, with which the Paten and Chalice and their respective Veils are together covered. This is usually called the Aer since it covers the Holy Vessels even as air covers the earth.


This is a cup-shaped vessel with a cover held by three chains uniting into one handle, within which are placed a piece of burning charcoal and incense. This is swung at many places during the Divine services, representing the prayers of the faithful ascending to Heaven. At the Liturgy of Preparation, the Censer, with the incense, represents the gifts offered by the Magi to the Infant Christ — gold, frankincense and myrrh.

The Vestry.

At the right (South) side of the Altar is a space reserved for the sacred vessels, books and vestments, called the Vestry (or Diakonnikon, since the Deacons are usually in charge of these items). In ancient times this was a separate room and here the faithful would bring all sorts of edible gifts (cheese, eggs, boiled rice or wheat, etc.) for the clergy.

The Bells.

A striking component of Orthodox worship is the ringing of bells. Every daily cycle of public divine services starts with the ringing of bells and no one who has witnessed the proces-sion around the church at Holy Pascha can forget the almost continuous ringing of all the church bells. In Pre-Revolutionary Moscow, for example, travelers invariably commented on the stirring clamor of the more than 1600 bells of the city ringing simultaneously at the Pascha of Our Lord. Usually a separate structure, the Bell Tower, was constructed to contain the bells, but more often in modern times a belfry is erected over the entrance to the church building, within which the bells are placed.

The purpose of ringing the bells is to call the faithful to services, to inform those absent from divine services of the various important liturgical moments of the services, as well as calling the worshippers to concentrated attention at these same moments. It is also used to signal the arrival of the Archpastor at the church or monastery. There are four basic types of bell-ringing in the Russian Church: The Announcement (Blagovest — announcing); the Peal (Trezvon — three bells); Chain-ringing (Perezvon — across (or linked) bells); and the Toll (Perebor — broken (or interrupted).

The Announcement (Blagovest’).

This is a slow rhythmic, unhurried striking of one bell, which is usually rung for the an-nouncing of the beginning of services: Before the All-Night Vigil (also accompanied by the Trezvon); before each group of services of the daily cycle (9th Hour — Vespers — Compline; Nocturns — Matins — 1st Hour; 3rd Hour — 6th Hour — Liturgy or Typical Psalms); and be-fore Great Compline). The Announcement is also employed at other important moments of the services. For example, there are Twelve strikes for the twelve parts of the Creed and also before “It is truly meet…” of the Divine Liturgy; before the Molieben (if there be) following the Liturgy.

During Great Lent on weekdays, the Announcement Bell is rung at the 3rd, 6th, and 9th Hours, as well as at Great Compline — three strikes for the 3rd Hour, six for the 6th Hour, nine for the 9th Hour, and twelve for Great Compline. During Passion Week, the Announcement Bell is rung at the beginning of each Passion Gospel (Holy Friday Matins), according to the number of the Gospel — one strike for the first, two for the second, etc. (At the conclusion of the reading of the Passion Gospels, the Trezvon is rung.) At the Royal Hours of Holy Friday, the Bell is rung — three strikes for the 3rd Hour, six for the 6th and nine for the 9th.

Before the Divine Liturgy, the Announcement Bell is rung until the Hours begin (usually accompanied by twelve recitations of Psalm 51 — for twelve strikes of the Bell — or the recita-tion of Psalm 119), usually about one-half hour before the Liturgy.

The Peal (Trezvon).

This is the ringing of bells in three modes, three times repeating a musical measure with a definite harmony of many selected bells. The Peal is used at the beginning of major services: Combined with the Announcement, the Peal is rung at the beginning of the All-Night Vigil, at Matins, before the Six Psalms, the Gospel, and at the end of the Vigil. At the Liturgy the Peal is rung after the 6th Hour and before the actual start of the Liturgy and after the conclusion of the Liturgy. If there be a Molieben on the church or monastery Feast Day, the Peal is rung before and after it. It is also rung at the end of the reading of the Twelve Passion Gospels of Holy Friday Matins, as well as after the Gospel reading during the Liturgy of the first day of Holy Pascha.

Chain-Ringing (Perezvon).

This is a successive ringing of all the bells from the largest (lowest pitch) to the smallest (highest pitch), with the striking of each bell a number of times before the next bell is struck, and repeating this method several times. It is used before the Blessing of Waters, before the carrying-out of the Holy Cross on the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross (Sept. 14) and the Third Sunday of Great Lent, as well as at the Hours before the Consecration of a Bishop. It is also rung, together with a short ringing of the Peal at the immersing of the Holy Cross during the Great Blessing of Waters and after the carrying-out of the Holy Cross to the center of the church.

This mode of ringing is also used during the Vespers of Holy Friday when the Plaschanit-sa is taken from the Altar to the center of the church, and also at the Great Doxology of the Ma-tins of Holy Saturday when the Plaschanitsa is carried out around the church. (When the proces-sion re-enters the church, the Peal follows.) Chain-Ringing is also used at the burial of Priests and Bishops.

The Toll (Perebor).

This is the slow tolling of each bell, beginning with the largest to the smallest and ending with a striking of all the bells at once. It is used at the carrying-out of the deceased from the church for burial and is known as the funeral toll. There is no Peal after the Toll.

At the Hierarchical Liturgy, the Announcement is rung at the appointed time; then the Peal is rung at the arrival of the Bishop. The Announcement then continues to ring up to the time of the vesting of the Bishop. The Peal is rung again at the 6th Hour.

To be continued…

Photo: Bruce White (