“Taste and see…”
It is an evening service at the beginning of Great Lent. The lights are subdued, not completely off like they will be on Great and Holy Friday, but dimmed enough such that the candles have their say in the illumination of the small nave. This is an evening liturgy, and being Lent it is a special liturgy. The hymns and antiphons are all in a minor key, mournful and repentant. The priest is wearing darker vestments of purple. Even the censer is changed out for one with quieter bells, or perhaps no bells at all. The icons on the iconostasis glow and shimmer above their vigil candles. The icons on the walls around watch with their eternal gaze, keeping company during this holy time of year.
“Taste and see…”
The scriptures this evening were from Genesis, from the creation account. “And God blessed them. And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth’” (Gen 1:28, ESV). A reminder of our beginnings in the mists of time, a time stretching back to the beginnings of human memory and witness on Earth, far earlier than we can touch, and yet we are again in that moment in the garden, indeed somehow eternally in that moment as we gather.
During Lent, other churches too are gathering at night, in areas rural and urban, in large and venerable churches that have withstood the centuries, or in small house and mission churches whose exteriors look nothing at all like a church. Some might even be rented storefronts, or basements, or rented halls. Yet the structure and layout are more or less the same, and always a part of the worship. Some may be grand, some may be humble, and some are even purely temporary, to be dismantled, struck down, and packed away for use at another time or place.
“Taste and see that the Lord is good.”
Where the people gather is called the Nave, a word from the same root as Navel, because the church is seen as the very Ark of Salvation, of which Noah’s Ark was but a prefiguring. As my priest is fond of saying, the Nave is like the hold of a ship, full of everything and everyone getting sloshed about, but it’s also the shelter from the raging storm outside. And we are all saved together. At the end of the nave is the Iconostasis, a screen beyond which is the Sanctuary, and the Altar Table. The church may also have a narthex, a room of entry before the Nave (and where, in older times, the catechumens and guests might have to wait past a certain point in the liturgy, not being privy to the mysteries of the Eucharist). Candles and lamps abound.
Great or small, this is the church. Whether you visit a cathedral or a chapel, this is always the structure — perhaps a narthex, certainly a nave, an iconstasis, and a sanctuary beyond. The Church is where people are saved, and where the faithful find shelter and protection, and above all where they may venerate and worship The Lord. The grander the church, of course, the more ornamentation one may find. The Iconostasis may, particularly in Russian churches, be particularly grand and with many tiers of icons. There may be a dome as well, with The Pantocrator ruling over all, and icons of the four gospel-writers on the pillars of the dome. The Sanctuary apse may be surmounted by a great icon of the Theotokos, with Christ enthroned upon her, in the Platetera form. The walls and ceilings may even be entirely covered with icons of saints and depictions of the miracles of Christ or the prophets., or there may just be a few laminated wooden ones about.
But the purpose is always the same: veneration and worship. What architectural innovation there is in Orthodox churches is purely cultural or regional. The American-Orthodox architect Andrew Gould has described, for instance, an American style of Orthodox church, with wooden clapboard siding, a sort of amalgam of traditional New England church with Orthodox rules (see here for a church he designed near me). And the worship includes not just the living congregation present, but the great cloud of witnesses, the saints who are yet alive in Christ, and even the presence of angels (there are those who have claimed to witness angels in procession with the priest and deacons during the Great Entrance). God is the God of the living and all those who have died in Christ yet live with Him. The icons present are reminders of the greater family of Christians who have gone before us and worship with us.
The Greek or Russian domes are, of course (and forgiving the pun) iconic when one thinks of Orthodox churches, but they serve a purpose where present. For one, they let in light from all directions, but they also are, in a way, a model of the heavens above. Just as Gothic or Romanesque vaulting create massive vertical space, drawing the eye ever upwards towards the heavens, so too do the domes. The domes, however, often can allow for a more free and open Nave than can the vaulting of western churches. However, you will not find steeples (but you will find lots and lots of bells).
“Taste and see that the Lord is Good”
On this Lenten evening, the Great Entrance is a somber and quiet procession. The hymn sung just prior to the procession chants a line from the Psalms: “Taste and see that the Lord is good.” It is, like the church itself, an invitation to indeed taste and see (and smell the incense, and touch the icons) that the Lord is indeed good, and to stand in His presence. There is an old saying that One Christian is No Christian. We are made for communion and community with others. On this Lenten evening, and on any other times where we gather in this nave, this Ark, we are reminded that we are not ever really alone as Christians. We could argue theology till the end of times, but unless we gather together in community, in our Ark, and unless we do indeed taste, and see, and experience life in the Ark together, we cannot fully live.
The church may be grand, built in the style and ornamentation fit for a Roman or Russian emperor, or it may be a humble and very temporary structure, but its purpose is for a place for us to gather in community, to venerate and worship the Creator of all.
This essay is part of December’s Group Writing series on Veneration.