About entering the Temple

Bishop Seraphim : Article
About entering the Temple
December, 2006

For a long time, I have meant to write about how we enter the Temple, and at last I have remembered to do it. I have noticed that a great many people seem to be unsure of themselves as they enter the Temple. Recently, I was asked a question which gives me the opportunity to present what I have received, and how I understand this.

It has to be understood that by writing this, I am not expecting everyone to do exactly what I am writing here. It is to be remembered that this is a reflection on my general experience, and that there is a great variety of practice in the Church.

In the first place, we have always to remember that the church is a building, also called the Temple. In some ways similar to the Old Testament Temple, it shelters the Holy Table, the Altar, and also the assembly of the faithful, who are also called the Church (being members of the Body of Christ, as the Apostle writes in 1 Corinthians 12). Where this Holy Table rests is similar to the Holy of Holies in the Old Testament, and that is why the area surrounding it is treated with such awe, care, and reverence. The central part of the Temple is now called the nave, partly because it can resemble a ship. The word “nave” comes from the Latin navis, which means a ship. In many Temples, the ceiling is arched in such a manner that it looks like the inverted hull of a ship. This is where the faithful stand together in worship, in prayer, and focussed on this Holy Table. In a way, this nave is a parallel to the Old Testament Holy Place, the place where the Israelites stood in worship. This Holy Place was outside the Holy of Holies. This ship part is also connected in our understanding to Noah’s Ark. From this, we also understand the Church to be the Ark of Salvation. There are many other ways in which we have perceived these parallels and connexions ; but they all have to do with understanding the continuity of God’s revealing Himself to us, and our response to Him. This understanding of the Church is not based on an abstract principle. It is part of the unified life of an Orthodox Christian. As we are taught, because of Christ, we should treat everything we have as though they were objects on the Holy Table.

The building does not constitute the Church. It is the faithful who do that. However, where the faithful assemble, and where they worship the Lord, has always been considered a holy place because of what happens there. Because of this, one can often see in Orthodox countries, persons who in passing a church, always stop, make the sign of the Cross on themselves as they turn to face the entrance and bow deeply, before continuing on. If they are driving, they sign themselves with the Cross and bow their heads respectfully, as they drive by. Often one sees, too, a person venerating the doors and walls of the church, in much the same manner as one would venerate an icon. Sometimes they do this before entering, and sometimes they do this when they have something on their heart to bring to the Lord.

There are various verses from the Psalms which come to mind as we enter the Temple, but a commonly repeated one is, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord" (Psalm 117:26). At the beginning of the Liturgy Book, we find the Entrance Prayers of the Clergy. The entrance prayers are there, because the clergy so pray before serving, before even entering the Altar. However, the entrance prayers are not for the clergy alone. We all may use these prayers, although we will not be saying the prayers at the solea as the clergy do. The solea is the platform that is in front of the whole iconostasis. We enter the Temple, make the Sign of the Cross three times, with bows. We then make our offerings for candles, and perhaps for prosphora. Then we go to venerate the central icon in the Temple (if there be one present). We then stand in a convenient place to one side, so as to be out of the way of others. Facing the Altar, we can begin to say these prayers, quietly. After the initial tropars following the Our Father, we can then go to the icon of Christ, and the icon of the Theotokos, and venerate them, and say at the same time the tropars of these icons that are provided in the book. In some places, it is possible and practical for the faithful to venerate the icons on the iconostasis itself. This is done in Constantinople, and in many places in Greece. We can also, as the clergy do, face the rest of the assembly (even if no-one is visibly there, the saints and the angels are present), and we bow in asking forgiveness of all who are there, and of all who will be there later. Then we can venerate other icons and offer candles as we wish. It is often done that, besides any other prayers, a person would very quietly recite the tropar of the saint or feast represented in each icon. This would be so from the start, beginning with the first veneration of the central icon (if there be one present). If there be several icons in one place, it is always important to pay attention that we observe the order of precedence of the icons there, and venerate them in order. Of course, the Holy Cross and the Holy Gospel come first, as does an icon of the Holy Trinity, or of Christ, or of the Theotokos.

If, when a person arrives, a bishop should happen to be present in the Temple and on the cathedra in the middle, one may still follow this pattern. One can approach the central icon to venerate it first (unless there are too many priests), and bow to the bishop before offering a candle. This bow is from respect, since one is turning the back to him while venerating. Then, after venerating the icons on the side of Christ, one would pass behind the bishop to venerate icons on the side of the Theotokos. This is the normal route one would take, regardless (passing to the west of the central icon) ; but again, out of respect, one would not pass between the bishop and the open Royal Doors. It is correct and respectful to go to the other side by passing behind the bishop as he stands or sits on the cathedra. Processions of servers and clergy properly do the same at the Entrance of the Holy Gospel. Sometimes, if time and space allow, it is possible, after venerating the central icon, to come and ask for the blessing from the bishop’s hand. There are no strict rules about such things. It is a matter of being sensitive to the situation at the time, and to the local customs. During the service, once we have found our place, it is important that we feel comfortable in our spiritual home.

There are many parallels between the Temple and the home. For instance, it is an old and wide-spread custom, upon entering a home, first to venerate the icons (which ought to be noticeable from the entry-way), and only then to begin a conversation with the persons present. The table in our home is treated as a parallel with the Holy Table in the Temple (which is one reason we do not sit on tables). Our daily personal and corporate prayers at home are simply an extension of what is done in the Temple in worship. The daily reading of the Scriptures is based on what is read in the Temple.

While I am addressing the entering of the Temple, I might as well address the entrance of a bishop into the Temple. Some think that the ceremonial accompanying his entry is about imperial practices. I am not in agreement. It seems to me that we need to remember our oriental roots, and how oriental people treat their fathers (like kissing hands). The assembled people in the Temple acknowledge the arch-pastor as their shepherd. Their representative members (subdeacons) go to greet the arch-pastor, and they escort him to the Temple. Either from the moment of greeting, or at the moment of his entry to the Temple, He is vested by these subdeacons in a mantiya (monastic mantle), because that is what a monk wears when entering the Temple (except that of a bishop is more colourful and more decorated). The bishop and the deacon say the entrance prayers, in the same way as do the other clergy, and with the same prayers as everyone else. Then, in the midst of the people in the Temple, he is vested by the people (usually represented by subdeacons) in order to serve the Divine Liturgy. Thus, the people recognise him as their Father-Bishop (or as they call him in Bulgaria, “Grandfather-Bishop”), and it is they, vesting him, who prepare him to serve the Lord on their behalf. He feeds them, and they prepare him to feed them. It is a family operation.

Our lives, as Orthodox Christians, are to be one, unbroken whole, all reflecting the fact that we love, and carry within us, Jesus Christ. Let us all be evident Christ-bearers to those around us. Let us reveal Christ by how we love all. Let us refer everything to Him, and glorify Him in everything. May we truly say : “Glory be to God for all things”.