Wednesday, June 21, 2006

The Beauty of a Holy Place

Nearly one thousand years ago, Vladimir, the Grand Prince of Russia, began looking for a religious faith suitable for his people. The ruthless pagan leader intended to find a spiritual way of life better than the traditional paganism of his land. Vladimir received visitors from different cultures with whom he enthusiastically discussed the religions of their native countries. He also sent emissaries abroad on a search for the right path for his people to follow. Both the Grand Prince and his traveling ambassadors remained unimpressed with the religions they encountered until they arrived at Constantinople, the legendary capital of the Christian Byzantine Empire. In the imperial city, Vladimir’s emissaries entered the renowned Church of Holy Wisdom to see how Orthodox Christians worship. When they had experienced the glorious beauty of the Divine Liturgy, they walked out of the church in a state of inexpressible awe. They returned home and reported to their Prince what they had encountered in the great church: “We don’t know whether we were in heaven or on earth for surely no such radiant beauty exists upon the earth. We can’t even describe it to you, but we do know that God dwells there among men and that their worship service is superior to those found in all other places. The beauty is unforgettable.”

Vladimir, whose grandmother, Olga, had become a Christian years earlier, sincerely embraced the Christian Faith and was baptized in AD 989, an event that changed his own life and led the whole Russian nation to Christ and His Church.

The Orthodox Christian way of life was born in the first century when our Lord, Jesus Christ, the human embodiment of Divine Beauty, came into the world and established His Church. For several centuries after Christ's death, burial, resurrection, and ascension into heaven, the Church worshipped in secret during several periods of intense persecution. Eventually, the (Roman) Empire that killed the Martyrs was conquered by their Faith. In the fourth century, under the leadership of the Emperor Constantine the Great and his devout mother, Helena, the once persecuted Orthodox Christian Church was raised up out of persecution to become the official Church of the new Roman Empire, called the Christian Byzantine Empire. For the first time, the Church once forced to worship in secret was able to build magnificent temples (church buildings) where they could worship the One True and Living God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God is supremely beautiful and the heavenly reality where God dwells is filled with His glory. Therefore, Orthodox Christian temples, adorned with polished marble and dazzling gold with intricate mosaics and richly painted icons covering the interior walls, were constructed to reflect the heavenly glory of God.

The Orthodox Church continues the tradition of building beautiful temples, holy places where heaven and earth meet. What makes these church buildings temples is that God dwells there, in the place where His Church gathers together for worship and prayer. (Although these buildings are commonly called churches, the word Church, literally meaning "assembly," actually describes the Christian community gathered inside.) God is always present with His Church, wherever she may be.

The interior of the Orthodox Christian temple is a reflection of heaven itself. The architecture doesn’t just symbolically represent heaven, but the temple is a physical place where the invisible heavenly reality is actually present with us on earth. This is a great mystery.

What does the invisible heavenly reality look like? This is what the Prophet Isaiah saw when God opened his eyes to the beauty of heaven:

In the year of King Uzziah’s death I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, lofty and exalted, with the train of His robe filling the temple. Seraphim stood above Him, each having six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called out to another and said,

“Holy, Holy, Holy, is the LORD of hosts, The whole earth is full of His glory.”

And the foundations of the thresholds trembled at the voice of him who called out, while the temple was filling with smoke. (Isaiah 6.1-8, NASB)

St. John was also shown the beauty of heavenly worship:

The four living creatures, each having six wings, were full of eyes around and within. And they do not rest day or night, saying:

Holy, holy, holy
Lord God Almighty,
Who was and is and is to come!

Whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to Him who sits on the throne, who lives forever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall down before Him who sits on the throne and worship Him who lives forever and ever, and cast their crowns before the throne, saying:

You are worthy, O Lord,
To receive glory
and honor and power;
For you created all things,
And by Your will they
exist and were created. (Revelation 4.8-11, NKJV)

The worship of the Orthodox Christian Church is heavenly worship. When we gather together in our temples for prayer, the whole Church, including both saints in heaven and those on earth, is mystically present as one body. Those of us who are daily running the race on earth are cheered on by our spiritual fathers, mothers, brothers, and sisters who have completed this earthly life and now stand in the eternal glory of God. We are not alone. The great cloud of witnesses in heaven, including prophets, apostles, evangelists, martyrs, confessors, and all of Christ’s saints, surround us. The angels, archangels, cherubim, and seraphim are also there. Our churches are filled with holy icons, windows to heaven, that constantly remind us of the spiritual realty all around.

The Divine Liturgy, celebrated every Sunday morning in Orthodox Christian temples around the world, is the central service of worship for the Orthodox Christian Church, gathered together in prayer. Upon entering the church before the Divine Liturgy begins, you may find that a service of morning prayer is already in motion. The melodious sound of chanted ancient prayers and the smell of incense pervade the sacred place. The end of this prayer service, called Orthros or Matins, seamlessly flows into the beginning of the Divine Liturgy, which begins when the priest lifts up the Holy Gospels resting upon the altar, makes the sign of the cross with the book, and proclaims, “Blessed is the kingdom of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, both now and ever, and unto ages of ages!”

Like most of our services, the Divine Liturgy is mostly sung, involving a constant dialogue of prayer between the priest and the people, led by the choir and chanters. Some people pray aloud; others listen attentively and pray in silence with their hearts.

With the angels, we sing the thrice-holy hymn:

Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal: have mercy on us.
Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal: have mercy on us.
Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal: have mercy on us.

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit:
Both now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

and sing the glorious Cherubic Hymn:

We who mystically represent the cherubim
and who sing the thrice holy hymn
to the life-creating Trinity
now lay aside all earthly cares that we may
receive the King of All
Who comes invisibly upborne by the angelic hosts.

Receiving the censor, the priest, dressed in glittering vestments fit for service before the King of Creation, prays as he censes the holy altar, the sanctuary, the icons, and also the people, because we bear the image of God within us. The sweet smell of the incense fills the temple, reminding us that God is immediately present in our midst. The rising white smoke, mingling with our prayers, brings to mind what St. John saw in his vision of heaven:

Then another angel, having a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense, that he should offer it with the prayers of all the saints upon the golden altar which was before the throne. And the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, ascended before God from the angel’s hand. (8.3-4, NKJV)

Much more beauty exists in the Divine Liturgy than what I've described here. This reveals only a tiny glimpse of the heavenly reality present among us on earth. It’s something that must be experienced.

The temple where we gather together is beautiful and our spiritual worship, both ancient and timeless, is beautiful. The word Orthodox has a double meaning: right belief and right worship (or right glory). We believe the true Faith, having preserved what we have received since the time of the Apostles, and we worship the True and Living God in the manner He should be worshipped, in glorious splendor. This is the way of the Orthodox Christian Church, the way of divine beauty, the way of becoming beautiful with the radiance of divine beauty. In a broken, spoiled world where people desperately need real beauty in their lives, may we turn away from everything that corrupts the soul so that the divine beauty may shine within us, allowing the world to see through us the indescribably brilliant, enlightening beauty of our all-holy, ever-loving God.

“One thing have I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the LORD, and to inquire in his temple” - Psalm 27.4 (RSV)

This article is the third part of a trilogy on The Beautiful Life. The other articles include Natural Beauty and The Secret of Being Beautiful.

Copyright © 2006 by Dana S. Kees. (The photo of St. Mary Magdalene Russian Orthodox Church, located on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, is from the Pictorial Library of Bible Lands, Used by permission.)