The Russian Orthodox Church

Features And Practices

1. Russian Orthodox churches are built in a cruciform with the altar facing east. Everything in the church is placed according to tradition with a specific reason and a symbolic meaning.

2. The altar is separated from the nave by a wooden icon screen called an "Iconostas" (Iconostasis is Greek). The "Iconostas" has three doors: the central or "Royal Gates, " called "Royal" because the "King of Glory" brings the Holy Eucharist through them to feed his faithful people. "Deacon's Doors" with icons of the archangels, Michael and Gabriel, are on the left and right sides of the Royal Gates. The deacon, altar boys and other men enter these doors but no women are allowed behind the Iconostas. Special icons are placed according to prescribed tradition, e.g., the Royal Gates almost always have icons of the four evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) and at the top, an icon of the Annunciation with the angel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary. An icon of the Last Supper is above the Royal Gates and an image of Jesus Christ above that, with the holy birth-giver of God (Mary) to the right and St. John the Baptist to the left. This grouping of three images is called the "Deesis." Depending on the size of the church, Iconostas may have an "Apostles" tier of icons and above that a "Prophets" tier of icons showing prophets from the Old Testament.

3. An icon of the church's patron saint or an icon of the "feast day" often is placed on a cloth-covered lectern in the center of the church with candle stands nearby.

4. A large crucifix with a painted image of Christ is placed to the left of the church. This image has candles placed before it by the faithful in memory of the departed.

5. Other icons are placed on cloth-draped lecterns in front of the church, also with candle stands. More icons are hung on walls and posts without candle stands. Some have oil lamps hung before them.

6. Beeswax candles are placed in the candle stands near icons by the faithful. Beeswax and olive oil, as the purest of substances and free from animal matter, are used for lighting before sacred things. The wax and oil are symbolic of the purity and sincerity of the gifts that provide them.

7. Icons and people are honored with incense. The censing of people is symbolic of the grace of the Holy Spirit, which is shed upon all men. The censer, or kadilo, represents Christ, the Divine Ember.

8. People usually stand or kneel during the liturgy, out of respect for the presence of God. Some folding chairs for the elderly and infirm are placed along the walls, but people stand if they can when the "Royal Gates" are open. Women do not wear slacks or shorts, only dresses or skirts and many often cover their heads. Men remove their hats.

9. Musical instruments are never used in the church, only human voices in an a cappella choir singing hymns and responses to the chanting of the priest.

10. People make the sign of the cross with the thumb and first two fingers of the right hand joined at the tips with the third and fourth fingers closed at the palm, as a symbol of the Trinity, by touching the brow, the breast, the right shoulder and the left shoulder, meaning that every power of mind, heart, soul and strength are dedicated to the service of God. When the priest or bishop bless the people, it is with the fingers held to form the Greek letters IC XC -- the first and last letters of Jesus Christ.

11. The faithful receive communion from the chalice with a spoon. Communion is in the form of a small piece of prosfir, or blessed bread, soaked in wine. Confession must precede communion, either before the liturgy or the night before, and the communicant must have fasted since midnight.

12. Children receive chrismation at baptism and may receive communion without confession or fasting until the age of reason.

13. Priests may marry before ordination. If widowed, a priest may not remarry. A bishop is either a widower or has never married.

14. Bishops comprise the highest rank in the Church and as hierarchs, are leaders of the priests. Senior bishops are archbishops, while bishops whose sees are centered in major cities are termed metropolitans. Bishops of ancient major cities of the Roman Empire, Jerusalem, Constantinople, Rome, Alexandria and Antioch, and of the capitals of some Orthodox counties such as Belgrade and Moscow, are called patriarchs.

Source: Treasures of the Czars education guide by Vera B. Espinola.

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