Baptism and Conversion

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Coming into the Orthodox Church can be as exciting as it is bewildering for an adult convert. At times, inquirers find it difficult to get straight answer on what reception into the Orthodox Church is like. Put simply, one is received into the Orthodox Church by:

  • Confession of the Orthodox Faith
  • Baptism
  • Chrismation (the sealing of the Holy Spirit by anointing with oil)

All must confess the Orthodox Faith. Some will also need to baptized and/or chrismated. Sometimes a baptism, or a baptism and chrismation, are “grandfathered” in. This latter practice is sometimes done, for example, with the non-Chalcedonian “Oriental Orthodox” Christians, such as the Copts and Armenians.

The exact practice depends on the jurisdiction, bishop, or parish priest. But the Church does not simply leave a minister to his own devices. There are canonical and historical considerations, personal considerations, local considerations, and considerations of the bishop’s judgment that all factor into the manner of a person’s ultimate reception into the Orthodox Church. It is important to understand the way these several streams come together in the Church today.

There are several canons that govern reception of converts. Most famously, the seventh canon of the Second Ecumenical council states clergy should chrismate certain professing Christians who hold non-Orthodox beliefs, such as Arians and “Macedonians” (among others), but only after they have renounced any false beliefs they once held. Whereas, Montanists, Sabellians, and Eunomians were to be received by confession, baptism, and chrismation after a period as a catechumen. There are similar canons in other councils, and once we factor in more controversial historical discussions from Orthodox luminaries such as St. Cyprian of Carthage and Blessed St. Augustine of Hippo, we have a rich tapestry of reception for the bishops to draw from.

The trouble is, there is no canon that says, “Roman Catholics, Anglicans, and Protestants who call themselves Lutheran or Reformed or Methodist, do this; but with Southern Baptists, Pentecostals, Mormons, and the so-called Churches of Christ, do that.” Complicating matters further, there is a good bit of difference between a Lutheran and a Presbyterian, often even chasms of difference between Lutherans and other Lutherans, or Anglicans and other Anglicans. The Canons are a matter of wisdom and exegesis—an exegesis and wisdom that belongs almost entirely to the bishops as successors of the Apostles.

When people from the particular groups in question described in the seventh canon of the Second Ecumenical Council were in view, it is safe to say they were received with a fairly strict application of the canon. Several hundred years later, at the Quinisext Council, the same basic canonical rules were repeated with minor expansion, and the canons of the Quinisext Council later enjoyed ecumenical standing.

Beyond that time, application of the Holy Canons varied. Many of the heretics listed in the Canons died out, and relations with the Western Church grew complicated due to linguistic, theological, and liturgical differences, and eventually the unprecedented Protestant Reformation arose in Western Europe.

By the time the Orthodox faith reached America in the late 18th century, the Slavic tradition almost universally received converts from other Christian confessions by chrismation. We know of saints in the last century who were received without rebaptism, such as St. Elizabeth the New Martyr (formerly a German Lutheran) and St. Alexis of Wilkes-Barre (formerly a Byzantine-rite Roman Catholic). More recently, certain local churches have strengthened canonical applications as it relates to reception of converts (perhaps in part responding to what is perceived to be excesses of the ecumenical movement).

It is not surprising that in this modern era there is diversity of practice. Since the current cadre of converts to the Orthodox Church is not the same as it was 1600 years ago, the application of 1600-year-old canons will necessarily vary. It is the prerogative of the bishop to determine the best application of a canon, and by proxy, his priests are often left with discretion in such matters.

Despite minor variation from one bishop to another, the Orthodox Church has been quite consistent in its insistence on determining decisions based squarely on the Holy Canons.

[Editor’s note: The author of this Field Guide is not taking a position on the matter of baptizing converts, but simply trying to be faithful to the facts of historical and current practice.]

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The Holy Canons

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The Holy Canons of the Orthodox Church are the plumb line by which the bishops have historically responded to pastoral and theological difficulties in the Church. Beginning very early in Church history, Church leaders responded to pastoral challenges by drawing up guidelines for Church life. These canons were written during important councils of assembled bishops.

Many canons cover conduct of clergy or specify areas of authority for certain episcopal sees, placing constraints on Church leadership to mitigate potential for abuse or scandal. Many canons also apply to non-clerics in the Church. Canons speak on matters as varied as sexuality and marriage, sacraments, excommunication, reception of converts, how clergy are to behave in public, and even matters of personal violence.

It is helpful to think of the Canons as the “house rules.” They are the standard for daily activity, but they are not necessarily strictly applied in every instance. That should not lead us to be dismissive of them, though. Just as good parents consider how to apply their own house rules with their children, so it is the bishop’s (and by proxy, a priest’s) job to determine when and how to apply applicable canons to particular pastoral situations.

Canons are not all created equal—some local canons never reached beyond a particular region, and were eventually phased out, while other canons went on to enjoy universal acceptance in the Church. Other canons were more specifically focused on the situations and cultural concerns of their time, finding application to a lesser extent in the Church today. It is not that these canons are ignored or abrogated, it is more that the very specific contexts in which they were introduced are absent, and should some similar context emerge again in the future, those canons would be relevant again. Until then, many simply don’t apply.

The manner of applying the Canons is typically categorized as akravia or oikonomia in popular Orthodox teaching. Akravia refers to a strict, to-the-T application of a rule. Oikonomia literally refers to the management of a household (Greek: oikos = household; nomos = law; or “economy” in English). It is used commonly to describe adjusting canonical requirements for pastoral considerations, with an individual’s salvation in mind.

St. Nicodemos the Hagorite (1749-1809) explains:

One kind of judgment is called strictness (akrivia); the other kind is called economy (oikonomia) with which the economists—the Greek meaning herein is “management of the household of the Spirit” to promote the salvation of souls—at times [go] with the one, and at times with the other.

The definitions and applications of oikonomia and akravia have varied through the centuries. The current usage is consistent with the harmonizing synthesis described by St. Nikodemos, and may refer to a departure from the norm for pastoral reasons for the salvation of those involved—this departure may more lenient or even more strict. St. Nikodemos is only one voice among many, but he is at least the most prominent voice when it comes to  canonical commentaries in English.

Access to the Canons by the laity in the age of the Internet has been a mixed blessing. Some modern Orthodox people have been openly critical of the Canons, and have used certain canons to mock Orthodoxy; others, who are more rigorist have used strict application of the Canons to criticize clergy of the Church (ironically, forbidden by the very Holy Canons they are seeking to preserve and defend) for not strictly applying certain canons. As we move toward greater administrative unity in Europe and America (and more in line with canonical norms), it is important that our bishops and clergy familiarize themselves with the Holy Canons, and that laity support them in this endeavor as we all grow into the future of the ancient Orthodox Faith.

There is always a danger of misapplying the Canons in a zeal to embrace the Canons. It may be something of a cliché to call this Pharisaical, but isn’t this what the spirit of the Pharisees was? They took legitimately enacted regulations of religious life and turned them into ends in themselves.

Certainly, the Canons should not be ignored willy-nilly, but the canonical corpus itself demonstrates that canons may be altered over time for various (good) reasons that don’t have anything to do with compromise. After all, the Church was not made for the Canons, but the Canons were made for the Church.

Holy Water

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The Orthodox Church teaches that God created all things good, and that sin has invaded this good world with sickness and death. And part of the mission of the Church is to restore all things by the grace of God.

This is why we have “holy water.” It is a setting apart of water as a kind of act of restoration. It’s mystically transforming water not into something magical, but it is restoring it to its Edenic dignity, and with this honor, it becomes another touch point of deeper communion with the Divine.

We use it to bless ourselves, our homes, our cars, our pets, our food—virtually anything! Some people will take a sip of holy water first thing in the morning, others will put a small amount in their food when they cook. Others may take a small bottle while traveling to discretely sprinkle around while praying for the area and the people. It may be used generously.

It is customary for clergy to set apart a sizable amount of water at Theophany (sometimes called Epiphany) in January, and the faithful will bring special containers to fill after the services. Many clergy will also bless a lake, river, or the ocean, and throw a cross in the water for the faithful (often children) to scramble after and retrieve. Some priests are very generous with the distribution of holy water and will use a large brush to fling droplets all over the faithful!

Should you need to dispose of holy water, it should be used to bless things, you should drink it, or you may pour it into the ground.

Fun fact: We do not need to set apart water from the Jordan River. By virtue of God being baptized in that water, we believe that is holy water forever. Many pilgrims will bring home holy water from the Jordan when they visit.

What about you? Tell us about how you’ve seen holy water used by the Orthodox clergy and faithful, and if you think we’ve left something important out!

Theology in Orthodoxy

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It is not uncommon for the teaching ministry of the Orthodox Church to be described variously as dogma, doctrine, or theology. These words are occasionally used interchangeably, but there are specific differences between the words.

Theology is the broadest category, which refers to “the study of God” in general, based on divine revelation. Doctrine literally means “teaching,” but refers specifically to propositional teachings. Dogma originally meant “opinion,” but now is used to denote beliefs based firmly in divine revelation and taught as necessary to be believed by all Orthodox Christians.

The Orthodox Church finds divine revelation in several sources, and sorts carefully through these sources of revelation to instruct the people of God.

Imagine the Church’s Tradition as a symphony orchestra with Jesus Christ as the Conductor. When we hear all the sections of the orchestra playing in proper tune and with the appropriate dynamics we will rightly appreciate the melody of faith and the harmony of hope. Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev describes theological inquiry and how we may sort through sources of Tradition to find the appropriate balance.

The Holy Scriptures are an unconditional and indisputable authority. All Orthodox Christians accept the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as unified messengers of Christ. The Old Testament is “a herald of the New Testament,” and the New Testament saturates the Tradition of the Church. The Scriptures are essential to the motif of Tradition.

Our liturgical tradition is an indispensible part of the orchestral motif of the Church’s Tradition. Liturgical texts have been refined over many centuries, led by the Holy Spirit, and are an indisputable source of teaching in our Church. We must distinguish between newer texts that have not been tested by time, and those texts which have led the Church for hundreds or thousands of years. These liturgies are a close second to Scripture.

The Ecumenical Creeds and Councils of the Church rank high with the canonical liturgical texts and Scriptures. The Councils deal with incredibly difficult matters, both of a pastoral nature and a doctrinal nature, articulated in creeds and carefully worded dogmatic definitions. The dogmatic statements of the Ecumenical Councils are paramount, and the canonical guidelines—while varied in their local application—share a similar authority. The Church retains the right to return to the decision of the Councils and modify them.

Doctrinal questions find further clarification in the testimony of the Church Fathers. The Church Fathers are an integral part of the symphonic harmony of the Orthodox Church. We are the heirs of the Fathers and should follow their consensus in all things. It is important to distinguish between personal opinions of the Fathers and those texts “which express general Church teaching.” Opinions that are not dogma, and are not condemned ecumenically, may be considered as personal opinions, but not pressed upon others as necessary to be believed.

Other ancient “teachers” of the Church are important, in a qualified way. It is important to consider the writings of other ancient teachers of the Church, but to make a distinction between these teachers and those the Church has designated as “Fathers.” For example, Tertullian and Origen have serious problems in some of their work, but remain important influences to consider.

We should also consider apocryphal literature of late antiquity, especially those pieces that have influenced the Church in some sense. Apocryphal books here, of course, not referring to those books of Scripture some have labeled as “apocrypha,” but rather to books like The Protoevangelion of James or The Gospel of Thomas. Some of these early writings ought to be rejected outright (such as Thomas), but those that are “reflected in the liturgical life or in hagiographic literature” of the Church have some standing for the Orthodox Christian. Where this literature contradicts the above received wisdom, we do not follow them.

Finally, other teachers should be considered, both ancient and modern. The teaching of the Church is revealed by God and unchanging, but that doesn’t mean its articulation is static. Fresh explanations abound in different periods of history, and since the “age of the Fathers” for Orthodoxy is not limited in scope, we remain attentive to the lead of the Holy Spirit and the fresh articulation of old truths.

Conclusion: Theology for the Orthodox Church is found in that beautiful symphony that is our Tradition, and only when all the sections play their appropriate parts at the right volume does the output sound appropriate. An over-emphasis on any one part of the symphony can only create discordant sounds, contrary to the appropriate execution of the piece by the great and holy Conductor, Jesus Christ.

Note: All quotes taken from Archbishop Hilarion Alfeyev, Christ the Conqueror of Hell: The Descent into Hades from an Orthodox Perspective (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, Crestwood: 2009), 205-208. Slight modifications made to capitalization for stylistic consistency. This is a modified form of a post that previously appeared at Orthodoxy & Heterodoxy.

How to Make the Sign of the Cross

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The sign of the cross is one of the most ancient and revered customs of the Church. St. Gaudentius of Brescia, a fourth/fifth century saint, said: “Let the sign of the cross be continually made on the heart, on the mouth, on the forehead, at table, at the bath, in bed, coming in and going out, in joy and sadness, sitting, standing, speaking, walking; in short, in all our actions. Let us make it on our breasts and all our members, that we may be entirely covered with this invincible armor of Christians.”

The Orthodox Church engages in worship using all five senses, and the sign of the cross is a physical prayer. And we use it a lot! In some parishes, you might see someone cross him or herself hundreds of times in a single service!

The general idea of the sign of the cross is identifying and calling to mind the death of Christ on the cross. It’s a prayer for God to bless you. It’s an acknowledgement of prayer, and a calling on the mercy of God. Some might even see it as a reminder of their baptism and chrismation, when they entered the Church and the sign of the cross was made on them many times, declaring them a beloved child of God!

In current Orthodox practice, the sign is made by holding the right hand’s thumb, index finger, and middle finger together, and tucking the ring and pinky fingers into the palm, side-by-side. The three fingers together symbolize the Trinity, and the two remaining fingers represent the two natures of Christ. Then, the sign begins by touching the forehead with the three fingers, bringing the hand straight down to the torso or chest, over to the right shoulder, then to the left shoulder.

Typically the signing is completed by a slight bow of the head, or by a full bow, where the signer reaches all the way to the ground and touches it briefly. In some cases, the crossing is punctuated with a full, facedown prostration on the ground.

We cross ourselves many times throughout the day, and throughout a worship service. It is customary to cross oneself when entering and exiting a church building. We cross ourselves before venerating an icon or a relic. We cross ourselves during prayer, sometimes at the beginning and the end of a prayer. Many will cross during litanies, as we sing, “Lord have mercy!” or “Grant this, O Lord!” We cross near the end of reciting the Nicene Creed, before and after the Gospel reading in the service, and many cross themselves when the Holy Gifts are brought out in the midst of the congregation during the Great Entrance.

Crossing yourself is acceptable just about any time. However, it is preferred that you don’t cross yourself “at” a priest or bishop, even when he is blessing you, and it’s generally frowned upon to cross yourself when receiving the Body and Blood of Christ at communion (accidents happen!).

Sidebar: The Russian “Old Believers” or “Old Ritualists” cross themselves slightly differently. They place their thumb, ring finger, and pinky together in the palm, and have their index and middle fingers together in a pointed fashion. There are a few Old Believer communities in communion with the worldwide Orthodox communion of Churches. If you belong to one of these communities, this would be the way to cross yourself. If you do not, then don’t. Cross yourself in unity with your worshiping community.

Orthodoxy in America

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Orthodoxy came to America in four waves. The first wave was by missionary activity in Alaska, a land that belonged to Russia at the time. Russians began trading with natives for fur in the 18th century, and a very successful fur trading company was established on Kodiak Island—the Russian-American Company—along with a school for the indigenous people. Over time, under influence of the fur traders and with quite a bit of intermarrying, many natives converted to the Orthodox faith.

With a slew of Orthodox converts and no priest to care for them or administer the sacraments, the fur traders appealed to the Russian Holy Synod of Bishops to send a priest. Catherine the Great, the Empress of Russia, decided that it would be better to establish a genuine mission to the local peoples, not merely send a stopgap priest.

In September 1794, a small group of monks arrived on Kodiak Island to spread the Gospel to the natives. And though it was very successful, it was not an easy mission. The monks were upset with the way the Russians behaved, and how they treated the native population. Often, the natives’ greatest advocates and protectors were the missionaries.

Over the years, a number of monks, priests, and bishops came to Alaska to minister to the Russians and natives, traveling land and sea to bring the Gospel to the people. In the process, many saints were shown forth in the Americas, including protomartyr of All-America, St. Juvenaly of Iliamna, St. Herman of Alaska, St. Tikhon of Moscow, St. Innocent of Alaska and Moscow, and St. Peter the Aleut.

Today, there is a notable Alaskan expression of Orthodoxy that took root and grew over the last 200 years. It was the Orthodox who taught the natives how to read, and translated the Scriptures and services into the native languages. It was through this mission that Orthodoxy first came to America, and various historical situations and missionary endeavors led the Russian mission to expand to the United States and Canada.

The second wave of Orthodoxy coming to America was through immigration. Massive immigration of Arabs, Russians, Ukrainians, Romanians, Serbians, Albanians and others entered America through Ellis Island and other ports. Greeks especially came in several heavy waves of immigration—there’s a saying, wherever there is a seaport, there you will find Greeks!

Many times, the first things these immigrant groups did was form a “society of ________ (ethnicity)” and that society would rent or build a church, and try to get a pastor from their home country (who spoke their language) to come to America. There are many cases where multi-ethnic communities existed, and perhaps a Bulgarian priest might serve an Antiochian and Greek dominated parish, or something similar. It was an interesting and exciting time of new beginnings.

Indeed, Greek, Arab, and Slavic immigrants established the first congregation in the lower 48 states in New Orleans, Louisiana. Prior to their establishment as a congregation, they had a society that even raised up a militia to fight for the Confederate States in the American Civil War. This church—Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church—still exists, and has grown to be a large community today.

This period also saw the heirs of the Alaskan mission spread their reach to Canada and the lower 48 states. By 1900, the Holy Synod in Russia established the Diocese of the Aleutians and North America, with St. Tikhon of Moscow at the helm. St. Tikhon traveled from coast to coast tirelessly working to care for his growing flock, dedicating and consecrating churches for more recent Russian immigrants.

Soon, there were so many ethnicities represented in this country with largely disconnected and overlapping jurisdictions. Squabbles among the clergy, and trouble brewing back in the Old Countries—think Communism in Russia or Hitler’s invasion of Greece, for examples—led to increasing ethnic separations, or even splits within ethnic jurisdictions (the Russians, in particular, had a bitter split).

The third and fourth waves of Orthodox expansion in the Americas were by conversion. The third wave began when Fr. Alexis Toth, an Eastern Rite Roman Catholic priest, ran into conflict with the local Roman Catholic bishop who was trying to suppress Eastern Rite practices and other Roman Catholic ethnic groups. Livid from an unsatisfactory meeting with the local bishop, Fr. Alexis began to re-evaluate the nature of the Church and the claims of Rome, and eventually concluded that he needed to jump ship to the Orthodox Catholic Church.

In March 1892, he and 361 Eastern Rite Catholics were received into the Russian Orthodox Church. He began to evangelize other Eastern Rite Catholics, explaining why the Orthodox Church was the true ark of salvation. By the time of his death in 1909, approximately 20,000 so-called Uniates had come into the Russian Orthodox Church, and by 1916 an estimated 100,000 had entered. Many of these parishes are still operational today as Orthodox churches. We now honor Fr. Alexis as St. Alexis of Wilkes-Barre.

The fourth wave of growth has been slow and steady over the last generation. Evangelicals, Anglicans, Roman Catholics, and non-Christians alike are discovering the Orthodox Church, especially as many parishes have now embraced the English language, and the average parishioner has assimilated into the fabric of America (usually while holding onto his ethnic identity). People are discovering that this ancient, unchanged faith is surprisingly relevant to their lives today, and embracing it wholeheartedly.

One of the more interesting stories of this fourth wave was when 2,000 evangelicals came into the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese in 1987. The short of it is that a group of Campus Crusade for Christ ministers were seeking to be true to the ideals of the early Church in their ministries, and through investigation, over time, their ministries and faith began to resemble that of the early Church (and consequently, the Orthodox Church). Despite having doors slammed in their faces by several Orthodox hierarchs, they found a warm reception in the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese. They were received en masse, and since then have integrated nicely into this Arab-Syrian jurisdiction, bringing a new enthusiasm and refreshment into American Orthodoxy.

Skipping over a great deal of history and grossly oversimplifying, these four waves did not successfully create a single Orthodox administration in this country. As the churches here grew, new churches were established, and more cohesive structures connecting the various churches developed—usually along ethnic lines. This is why a phone book may have “Russian Orthodox,” “Greek Orthodox,” or “Albanian Orthodox” entries.

In 1970, many of the Russian churches (both from the original mission and from immigration) desired a uniquely American-run administration, independent of Russia. It was hoped that all of the other groups of Orthodox people would be excited about this idea of “The Orthodox Church in America” and all join together in a single infrastructure. A few Romanian, Bulgarian, and Albanian churches shared this idea, but many Orthodox in America were not thrilled with what is now known as the OCA. After squabbles in the 1920s and 1940s within the Russian churches, the creation of the OCA deepened the existing schism with the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR)—a schism that has since been healed, thank God. (There are a few intramural arguments about the timing and canonical propriety of Moscow creating the OCA, but that discussion is for another time and place.)

To this day, there is a multiplicity of “jurisdictions” in this country, with many overlaps and unfortunate situations out of line with canonical norms. Still, we remain a single Church, a genuine expression of the universal Body of Christ, united in our sacraments and faith, and guided by the one Holy Spirit.

Administrative unity is on the horizon now. Over the years, several groups have been established to work toward this end; most recently the Episcopal Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of North and Central America was established to determine the way forward, and bind our many people, ethnicities, and clergy together more tightly—and over time, to correct any canonical irregularities that may exist.

The Iconostasis

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One of the central and most notable features of nearly every Orthodox church is the iconostasis (all, save the Western Rite parishes). “Iconostasis”—simply “iconostas” among Slavs—means nothing more than “icon stand,” and it separates the nave from the sanctuary and altar. It may consist of icons set up on two easels in a mission church, or be as large as a gigantic wall with dozens of icons and three doorways.

The iconstasis developed over time, but it is not without precedent in antiquity. Recent archaeological evidence suggests that certain groups of ancient Jews decorated their synagogues with icons depicting biblical figures and events, and in at least one archaeological excavation, there is a full wall of icons separating the gathering room from a sort of Torah shrine.

Around the 5th century, it became customary in eastern churches to construct a templon between the nave and altar. In the west, a similar development occurred with a “rood screen.” Over time, these elements came to be adorned with icons, and eventually became what we know as the iconostasis. There are many variations in these icon stands, but the general set-up is guided by Church rubrics, and so several features are fairly common. (And despite many years of separation from the mainstream Chalcedonian Orthodox Church, even some of the so-called “Oriental Orthodox” churches, especially the Coptic Orthodox, have embraced the iconostasis.)

Beyond the basics, liturgically, the iconostasis is equipped with three important entrances: two “deacon” doors, and one central entrance. Anyone with a blessing from the bishop (or by proxy, the priest) can enter the deacon doors, but only ordained clergy (bishop, priest, or deacon) may enter the central doors. In churches where there are several deacons, these doors are used frequently in services, and it’s hard not to imagine the workings of a cuckoo clock! These deacon doors are typically adorned with icons of deacons or archangels (and are sometimes called “angel doors” due to the icons of Archangels Michael and Gabriel).

The middle entrance usually consists of two doors, sometimes called the Royal Doors or Beautiful Gates, and a curtain. This doorway is used exclusively by clergy for liturgical purposes. These two doors are frequently adorned with icons of the four evangelists (Gospel writers) or of the Annunciation, displaying the Archangel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary. Since these are the gates through which the life-giving flesh and blood of God will enter the nave of the Church to be given to the people, it is fitting that the Virgin Mary is depicted on these gates (or similarly, it is fitting that sometimes the Gospel writers who brought us the message of God incarnate are depicted).

Directly above the Beautiful Gates (or Royal Doors), you may see an icon of the Mystical Supper (Last Supper), or perhaps Christ enthroned, and very likely a large cross.

The central doors are always flanked by an icon of Christ to the right, and the Virgin Mary and with the Christ child to the left. Next comes the patron saint or patronal feast of the parish—in Byzantine parishes, the patronal icon goes next to the Virgin Mary, but in Slavic parishes, the patronal icon is next to Christ. Often—though not always—St. John the Baptist is depicted to the right, either next to Christ or after the patron saint. Other well-loved saints, such as St. George or St. Nicholas, may be depicted on other panels.

Depending on the size of the iconostasis, you may see one or more rows of icons above the first tier of icons. These rows may depict the major feasts of the Church (based around Christ’s and the Virgin Mary’s lives), the twelve apostles (sometimes St. Matthias is replaced by St. Paul), and/or Old Testament patriarchs and prophets.

Though not part of the iconostasis, when looking at the iconostasis you may be struck by a large iconographic representation behind the altar. In Byzantine parishes, this is almost always an icon of the Virgin Mary and Christ, known as the Panagia (all-holy). She usually has her arms open wide, and Christ is making a blessing, or may have his arms open wide, too. These open arms symbolize that she is “wider than the heavens” having “contained the uncontainable one” in her womb—and some see the open arms as an invitation of love to the world.

Slavic parishes sometimes depict the Resurrection of Christ, the Mystical (Last) Supper, or Christ enthroned in heaven and surrounded by angels in this space instead.

In a very real sense, the iconostasis and curtain separate the nave from the sanctuary—the common area from the Holy of Holies. But unlike the Holy of Holies in the Old Testament temple, this Holy of Holies is accessible. We can see it, and in fact, the icons draw our eyes toward it. And at the apex of every Liturgy, God enters the Holy of Holies in his body and his blood, and then condescends to come to us through the Beautiful Gates. And finally, he gives himself to us.

This is the true faith that established the universe!