Descent of the Holy Spirithome

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The Iconostas

by Father Alexis U. Floridi, S.J.

The iconostas, the most distinctive feature in all Byzantine rite churches Catholic and Orthodox, is situated between the sanctuary and the nave. This icon screen or wall with three doors bears images of Christ, the Mother of God and the saints. The iconostas expresses the unity of God and man through Jesus Christ, who is both God and man. His icon stands on the right side of the central or royal doors, so called because Jesus, with His teachings ("I am the way") and his sacrifice, reopened for us the gates of the Kingdom of heaven.

To the left of the royal doors, as we face the iconostas, is placed the icon of the Mother of God. Before it, during the preparation for the Divine Liturgy, the priest and the deacon pray: "The gate of mercy open to us, O blessed Mother of God...Manifest your power as ever, for we set our hope on you and hail you aloud, as one did Gabriel, commander of the angelic hosts." The scene of the Annunciation and the icon of the four Evangelists are shown on the same royal doors. Over them is a representation of the Last Supper.

Next to the icons of Jesus and Mary are the deacons' doors, called also north and south doors because traditionally the sanctuary of the church is orientated toward the East, whence came our salvation. On these two side doors, used mostly by the deacon, are placed the icons of St. Stephen, the first martyr, and St. Roman the Melode. Beyond the deacons' doors are the icons of St. John the Baptist and St. Nicholas, Archbishop of Myra in Lycia, the Wonderworker, very much venerated both in the East and West (his relics are kept in Bari, Italy).

Far from being a sign of separation, the iconostas unites the heavenly and eternal world with the earthly and temporal man, the glorious and triumphant Church, expressed by the divinized faces of the icons of the saints, with the suffering and militant Church, represented by members of the congregation.

To understand the importance of the icons, we must go back to the times of the iconoclast persecutions (8th - 9th Centuries), which instead of dividing, united the Christians of the East and the West (7th Ecumenical Council, 787). St. Theodore the Studite appealed to Pope Paschal I and wrote:

"Whatever novelty is brought into the Church by those who wander from the truth must certainly be referred to Peter or his successor...Save us, Chief pastor of the Church under West (7th Ecumenical Council, 787). St. Theodore the Studite appealed to Pope Paschal I and wrote:."

And Also:

"Arrange that a decision be received from old Rome as the custom has been handed down from the beginning by the tradition of our fathers."

The Pope received the monks sent by St. Theodore and gave the monastery of St. Praxedes to them and others who had fled from the persecution in the East. On February 19, 842, the First Sunday of Lent, the icons were brought back to the churches in solemn procession. Today, the First Sunday of Lent is still observed by Orthodox and Catholics of the Byzantine rite as the Sunday of Orthodoxy or the Sunday of the Icons.

As the refugees from the East, especially the monks, brought to entire regions of the West, including Rome (some Greek and Syrian monks became Popes around that time), the riches of the Byzantine rite, so, in more recent times, the Ukrainians and others persecuted Christians from Eastern Europe brought to America the same ancient art and spirituality. Entering into their churches, the visitor is greeted by the angels and saints of the iconostas, and led into the awesome atmosphere of the divine presence.


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