So, it’s your first visit to our church, and you feel a little out of your comfort zone. That’s OK. It’s perfectly natural when worshipping in the Ukrainian Catholic Church that you feel a little strange. There are so many things occurring simultaneously that it is difficult even for some parishioners to fully comprehend what is happening during Divine Services. Hopefully, this brief introduction can serve as a tutorial of what to expect (or what you witnessed) in our Church. If not, please feel free to ask anyone of us any question you would like, and we will gladly answer it for you.
When approaching a Ukrainian Catholic Church, one notices immediately that the church itself is adorned with domes. As opposed to the steeples, which attempt to “reach” heaven, found in the Western tradition, these domes are round, which represents perfection and in turn represents heaven. Even in the church proper, the inside of the central dome contains an icon of Christ the Pantocrator. Pantocrator is Greek in origin and literally means “Ruler of all”. This icon is a constant reminder that God is eternally with us. In His left hand, Christ holds the book of Gospels, by which we are all judged. With His right hand, Christ blesses us. The icon therefore depicts God as Judge as well as merciful as he constantly bestows His blessings upon all of us.
The domes also represent the Light of Christ. Usually, they are flame-shaped and covered in gold. On top of each dome, one will find a cross (usually the three-barred Saint Andrew’s Slavic cross) that does not contain the corpus of Christ. After Christ rose from the dead, the symbol of the cross no longer held the meaning of fear and death; rather, it became the symbol of salvation, for through the cross, Christ trampled death and bestowed eternal life upon all of us.
Even when someone first walks into one of our churches, one is immediately confronted with the business of the décor of the interior of the temple. One notices icons on the walls, ceiling, behind the altar and choirs. The reason for such iconography within the temple is that, in the Early Church, the building itself served as a catechism lesson for the faithful. There were no books that people could read, and the only educated class of people was the clerics. The clerics would use the Church iconography as an instructional tool so that the people can see first-hand visually what the Gospels and sermons depicted verbally. The depiction of feasts and saints in their heavenly form allows the faithful to witness the greatness of the glory of God through icons or “windows into heaven”.
The church building itself is divided into three sections:
- The Narthex
- The Sanctuary
- The Altar
The Narthex is the section of the church that represents the fallen world. This is where the Mysteries (Sacraments) of Initiation begin. Before being taken into the temple for Baptism, Chrismation (Confirmation) and Holy Eucharist, the catechumen renounces Satan in preparation to enter the temple. As the priest leads the catechumen and his/her sponsors into the temple, they profess the Nicene Creed.
The Sanctuary is where the congregation gathers for the celebration of Divine Services. If you think back to the old Hunchback of Notre Dame film, the hunchback runs into the church and exclaims “Sanctuary”. The church itself is where people running from the law would escape to evade civil law. If you observe church buildings in Eastern Europe, and even in Rome, you notice that there are no pews in the sanctuary. Traditionally, the faithful stand for the entirety of the Divine Services. In fact, pews emanate from Protestant worship where the main portion of the service is a lengthy sermon. Also, the Christian East emphasizes freedom of spirit during prayer, and sometimes you can witness people lighting candles, venerating icons and making profound bows to the floor (Metania) throughout various parts of Divine Services. Even if there are pews present in the sanctuary, it is still traditional to stand for the entirety of the Divine Services (except of course to sit for the sermon). This is especially true for the Divine Liturgy because the Liturgy emphasize the Risen Christ. Since we are celebrating a Resurrectional liturgy, the proper posture would be to stand as we, the literal Body of Christ, are rejoicing and participating in the Resurrection rather than merely watching some type of performance.
The sanctuary itself represents heaven where we join the celestial powers in their unending hymns of praise. Remember, the angels, archangels, principalities, powers and dominions are eternally praising God, and, when we attend Divine Services, we are taking part in their everlasting praise. Time and temporality mean absolutely nothing when the faithful gather as the Body of Christ for Divine Services, for one cannot place a “time” on eternity. As aforementioned, the sanctuary is adorned with icons of Christ, the Mother of God, saints and feasts to remind us that we are in the presence of the Divine. Again, icons reflect the Divine; they do not merely portray humanistic characteristics and qualities.
The altar is where the Sacrifice takes place. This section of the church building shows us what is to come after we repose in the Lord. We are constantly reminded of the blessings to come through Christ’s teachings, which rest on the Holy Table in the form of the Gospels, as well as through the most precious Body and Blood of our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ, of which we partake each and every Divine Liturgy.
Hopefully, this brief introduction answers some of the questions you may have about entering a Ukrainian Catholic Church. The usual question involves that “wall of icons” (iconostasis) that apparently separates the sanctuary from the altar. We shall discuss the iconostasis in its own section.