The Church Interior
You may have noticed that our church looks a little different from most other Churches. Though we are in communion with the Pope of Rome, we do have a unique tradition that reflects both our Eastern (Orthodox) Byzantine heritage and our rich Ukrainian culture. It is within that mix that we find a wonderful path that leads us to experience the divine.The experience of heaven is the foundation of Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church traditions and architecture. This earthly experience of the heavenly is the very reason why St. Volodymyr the Great accepted the faith of the Byzantines in 988 AD. St. Nestor the Chronicler wrote that when the Grand Prince Volodymyr wanted to unify his people with one common religion, he sent out emissaries to inquire about the religions of the world. When they returned, they all praised their appointed religions, but the emissary that returned from Byzantium reported that when he was in the Church of Hagia Sophia he did not know whether he was in heaven or on earth. And so the grand prince decided that this is what he wanted for his people–to live the rest of their days in heaven.This experience of the Heavenly Kingdom is actually a journey from the everyday world into the mystery of God, the Body of Christ, and Heaven. To reflect this journey, the Church is built in three sections: the vestibule, the nave, and the sanctuary. The first part of the church as you walk in is called the vestibule, or the church of the catechumens. It is called the church of the catechumens for catechumens (adults preparing for baptism) had to undergo preparation and initiation before being allowed to face the awesome mystery celebrated in church at the liturgy. In this section we prepare ourselves by leaving our earthly cares and worries behind so that we may be unencumbered by them as we enter to celebrate our communal experience of God. If we were to enter unprepared, then we would not be quite as open to accept the heavenly mystery of the church and liturgy.

Duly prepared, we are now ready to enter into the main body of the church, the nave or the church of the faithful. The assembled faithful incarnate the body of Christ; therefore, in the dome above this section there is traditionally a large icon of the Pantocrator, God the ruler and creator of all, which is as the head over the body. From the dome traditionally hangs a very ornate chandelier that represents Christ who is the light of the world. Around this chandelier on the corona there are traditionally two sets of icons, one set facing the light and the other turned outward. The icons facing the light are Old Testament prophets who prophesied the coming of Christ but were never able to see Him, so now they are eternally bathed in His light. The icons facing outward are the apostles and disciples who were told to go forth and teach all nations.

In the church of the faithful there are a myriad of icons: icons of the saints, prophets, apostles, martyrs… They pray with us at all times. To this day, every time I walk into our church, I still feel as though I am walking in the grandeur of heaven. I automatically feel surrounded by God and so many holy people gone before. Even when at a daily liturgy, when there is but a handful of parishioners present, the church is always full. This foretaste of heaven is important for it gives us the strength to continue our daily spiritual journey.

Let us pause a moment to reflect upon the meaning of icons and iconography. They are not solely meant to be historical pictures or just biblical illustrations–they are much more. As one Church Father described, they are theology in color. They are painted not in a natural style, but rather in an almost surreal style that reminds us of the transfiguration that we shall undergo by being touched by God. There is symbolism in the colors used: red and gold are regal colors that denote the divine while blue and green denote the human. We see in the icons of Christ the theology of the incarnation. Christ was divine–the red undergarment–and he took upon himself humanity–the blue cloak. The Mother of God, as with most of the saints, wears the blue undergarment of humanity and a red cloak showing the sanctification and divinization that she underwent. Icons are meant to be contemplated, used as modes of communion with God. However, they are not worshipped. The reverence shown towards them is directed to the figures depicted. This is similar to a photograph of a loved one that we may kiss or contemplate when separated: it brings the two spiritually closer, though no one would confuse an image with reality.

In the nave, where we together mystically form the Body of Christ, we are strengthened for our journey by the icons, by the community, with the word of God, and the Eucharist, but our focus is drawn to the iconostas (icon screen) and what lies beyond it.

The third section of the church is separated from the nave by the iconostas. The nave represents the heavenly kingdom that was brought to us with the coming of Christ; even so, it is not perfect. The sanctuary represents perfect heaven yet to come. As eastern Christians, we believe that the kingdom is with us, but that it’s full realization is yet to come. The icons of Christ, the mother of God, and the saints on the iconostasis stand on the “border” of heaven and face the people, beckoning them on in their journey.

You may still ask, “So what does this all mean?” The vestibule where we prepare ourselves, the nave where we get a foretaste of heavenly glory, and the sanctuary as our heavenly goal… the whole layout of the church symbolizes the journey of the Christian through Christ to the Heavenly Father. We move from the world, go through purification, enter into the body of Christ, and finally are transfigured in heavenly glory. This is the eternal heavenly procession. This is why the priest in our church does not face the people, for he too is on this journey; he simply leads the faithful as a shepherd (pastor) leads his flock to Christ. This predates the newer symbolism of the priest facing the faithful to emphasize the community gathering around a table in prayer. Both symbols are rich, beautiful, and simply different.

The stress upon the experience of the heavenly and the divine leads the Byzantine churches, of which the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church is one, into symbolic maximalism. The whole psycho-somatic person is to be involved in this experience of divination, to engage the spirit with all the bodily senses and not just human reason. The eyes feast upon the colorful icons, the nose smells the incense, the ears hear a beautifully sung liturgy, we touch and kiss the icons, and we taste the Eucharist, which involves the use of leavened bread soaked in wine. The whole person is brought along in the journey that the princely envoy experienced over 1,000 years ago. Strengthened by the experience of heaven, we are now able to return to the everyday world we left at the beginning of the journey. We return and share the Good News of Christ with others, building with love, forgiveness, compassion, justice and joy the heavenly kingdom on earth with God. Building this Heavenly Kingdom on earth first with our family, then our friends, community, nation and eventually the whole world is our mission.

Adapted with permission and appreciation of St. Joseph the Betrothed UGCC in Chicago