From The Blog

Monthly Meditation – August-September 2010

St. John Chrysostom church in Fort Wayne, Indiana, will be consecrated the weekend of September 18-19, 2010. It is our joy to be close to this holy event through our relationship with Fr. Anthony Michaels. Let us meditate on the following explanation of the Consecration of a Church (from OrthodoxWiki):

The Consecration of a church (in Greek, thyranoixia; literally “opening of the doors”) is the service of sanctification and solemn dedication of a building for use as a church. The consecration of a church is a rite filled with profound symbolisms. Many biblical elements are taken from the Old Testament: the Consecration of the Tabernacle (Exodus 40) and of the Temple of Solomon (1 Kings 8; 2 Chronicles 5-7). Once a building has been consecrated as a church it may not be used again for a secular purpose. Before construction of a new church building the local diocesan bishop must bless the endeavor. At the start of construction, the bishop lays a foundation stone that may or may not contain relics of a saint. Once construction is complete the building can be consecrated.

The consecration is usually performed by the diocesan bishop, but if he is unable he may ask another bishop, archimandrite, or possibly a senior priest to perform the service on his behalf. While the consecration encompasses the whole church, the ceremony centers around the holy altar and holy altar table in particular. At the center of an Orthodox Christian's salvation and life in Christ is the holy altar. As we will see, the consecration of a church and its holy altar is its baptism and chrismation.

In preparation for the consecration, the altar table is cleared and left uncovered. On the eve of the consecration, following the evening service, all the elements needed for the Consecration service are assembled. On the day of the consecration, the service begins with the blessing of a quantity of waters. The morning service (Matins/Orthros), may be held using a covered table before the Royal Doors set with a candle, tray (diskos), where the bishop will place holy relics and a cover for the diskos.

The service begins with the reading of Psalm 143, followed by the reciting of petitions and prayers. The people and singers, led by the bishop carrying the holy relics, and priests, process around the church three times, reminiscent of the three processions around the font at baptism. Each time the procession reaches the front of the church, the bishop places the diskos on a table and reads from the Holy Scriptures. After the third procession is completed, the bishop chants a dialogue from Psalm 24 as he enters the church: “Lift up your gates, O ye princes; and be lifted up, ye everlasting gates, and the King of Glory shall enter in”; this represents Christ the King entering and taking over the building by defeating the power of the devil. After the dialogue is completed the bishop makes the sign of the cross with the diskos and enters the church.

In the early days of Christianity when Christians were heavily persecuted, the faithful met in the catacombs where the Eucharist was celebrated on the graves of martyrs. Once the Church was officially recognized this custom was continued by placing relics in the altar table during the consecration of the church. This is a reminder that the Church was built on the blood of the martyrs and their faith in the Lord.

After the bishop has entered the church, he continues into the altar. In the altar he places the diskos on the altar table. There he removes the relics and places them in a small box. The bishop then pours holy chrism over the relics, symbolizing the union between our Lord and his martyrs. With prayers and the reading of Psalm 145 the bishop then places the box with the relics in a cavity in the altar table where it is sealed in with a wax/mastic that contains fragrant spices as were used by Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus to anoint our Lord's body before his burial. In this, the holy altar represents Christ's tomb.

After the relics are placed in the altar table, the bishop proceeds to the washing and anointing of the altar table. For this purpose the bishop is vested in a special white linen garment over his vestments called a sratchitza or savanon. The baptism of the altar table begins with the prayer of consecration by the bishop, followed by petitions. The bishop then is given a basin of water and, with a blessing and prayer, pours the water over the table three times and washes it while Psalm 84 is read. Symbolizing baptism, the table is cleaned by washing and made holy by the grace of the Holy Spirit.

After the table is dried, the bishop sprinkles rosewater on it and continues reading Psalm 51. The assisting priests then dry the table. Having anointed the table with chrism, once in the center and on each side, the bishop proceeds to spread the chrism over the whole table while reciting a section of Psalm 133. The excess chrism is wiped off by the priests and icons of the four Evangelists are fastened, one at each corner, to the altar table.

While Psalm 132 is read, a white linen cloth, representing the Lord's burial shroud, is laid over the altar table. The cloth, called the katasarkion, is tied on the table with a cord that represents the cord with which our Lord's hands were tied when he stood before the high priests. The katasarkion is permanently installed, to remain as long as the church stands. After washing his hands, the bishop now covers the altar table with a more ornate cover that symbolizes the glory of God and places the other holy articles, including the antimins, Gospel Book, the tabernacle, and candle sticks, on the altar table, as the reader reads Psalm 93.

After the altar has been consecrated, sanctified, and adorned, the entire church is censed while Psalm 26 is read. Then, the bishop anoints with holy chrism the four walls of the church and holy icons, making the sign of the cross on each with the chrism. The bishop then offers prayers for the altar, church, and faithful and places a lighted vigil light on the altar table. As the consecration service comes to an end, the bishop removes the sratchitza he is wearing and may offer it to be cut up into small pieces that are given to each person in church. Concluding prayers for the consecration service are then offered before starting the first Divine liturgy to be celebrated in the newly consecrated church.