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The Holy Altar is Not Your Daycare: Revering the Holy of Holies

Updated: Jul 25, 2023

By Subdeacon Nektarios, M.A.

Originally Posted at the Orthodox Ethos

 

Most Orthodox Christians on any given Sunday are accustomed to seeing parishioners enter the Church for Divine Liturgy, and those with young male children casually sending their boys into the holy altar to help “serve” the Liturgy, often times without even the blessing of the priest, so that parents can watch them from a distance while the children help carry candles during the Little Entrance, the Gospel Reading and process in grandeur during the Great Entrance with all the clergy prior to the consecration of the holy gifts.

Mystical Reality of the Divine Liturgy

Some parents think it is their children’s “right” to serve in the altar, while other parents who are well-intentioned believe their children will benefit from serving in the altar and the priests may be too scared to say no. But most of the time parents allow their boys to serve while not actually understanding what they are sending their children into. Knowingly or unknowingly, with intention or without, they treat the Holy of Holies as a liturgical daycare, where those priests, deacons, subdeacons, and readers become responsible for watching the children instead of focusing on their primary purpose of the Liturgy — prayer.


Serving in the Holy of Holies is not something anyone has a right to and it is not a task that should be undertaken without the proper preparation and understanding of the heavenly realm that is being entered. All too often, parents send their children into the altar, as something to do in order to keep them occupied during the longer liturgical services without explaining to them what their actual purpose is and how seriously they should take their presence in the holy altar and unfortunately the clergy, frequently, are guilty of not explaining it to them or to the parents. The children are often allowed full access without meeting any of the presuppositions, proper preparation, or a full explanation of what they are doing. These children come into the altar thinking that it is just an ordinary place where they can chat with their friends, laugh, joke, play with candles, play with melting wax, constantly fiddle with the censor, and stand irreverently in the altar during Divine Services. This also is frequently, but unfortunately, reinforced by irreverent clergy who talk unnecessarily during the liturgy.


Being able to serve in the altar during the divine services is something which must be prepared for constantly. This preparation begins at home through a consistent prayer life. If a consistent prayer life is not taking place in the home among the family members then this will carry over to irreverence in the holy altar. How are people, especially young children, to learn reverence for the holy things if they are not first being reverent in their icon corners at home during their own family prayer time?


However, the first question that needs to be asked is this; is it permitted or necessary for children and laymen in general to serve in the holy altar at all? For this we must look to the canons of the Church.


Canon LXIX

It is not permitted to a layman to enter the sanctuary (Holy Altar, Gk.), though, in accordance with a certain ancient tradition, the imperial power and authority is by no means prohibited from this when he wishes to offer his gifts to the Creator. [1]


Reading this ancient canon, we can see that it is not blessed by the Church to have laymen in the altar. This is the reason that many of the minor clerical orders of the Church, such as Subdeacons and Readers, were blessed. The holy altar is consecrated to those in Holy Orders. It is for this reason that this canon prohibits every layman from entering it, except only that person who is the Emperor or King (during the Byzantine period); and he is excepted not as a layman, but as having power and authority and as one anointed of the Lord, who has been permitted to enter it, in accordance with a most ancient tradition, whenever he wishes to offer gifts to God his Creator and to partake of the Holy Mysteries.

Readers & Subdeacons, Clergymen, Ordained for Service in the Altar.

Zeger Bernhard van Espen, an ecclesiastical historian and commentator of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Church Fathers volume states that “in the Latin Church (pre-schism) as well as in the Greek for many centuries it was the constant custom, ratified by various councils, that lay-men are to be excluded from the sanctuary and from the place marked off for the priests who are celebrating the divine mysteries, is so notorious as to need no proof, and the present canon shows that among the Greeks (Orthodox) the laity were not admitted to the sacrarium [Latin: Altar] even to make offerings.” [2] Every person who enters in the holy altar must enter with a purpose. It is not permitted that even just any male be allowed to enter the altar but that they have a specific purpose to be there and to serve, and “women may not go to the altar” whatsoever according to Canon XLIV (44) of the Council of Laodicea. [3] The holy canons and tradition of the Church teach that it is not blessed that laymen enter the Holy of Holies.

"If I talk to you before talking to God then doubt my priesthood" - Hieromonk Felipe (Balingit)

However, because most jurisdictions and their bishops have abandoned the tradition of ordaining minor clergymen (Readers and Subdeacons) for the service, in the holy altar parishes and local clergy find themselves short staffed and in need of using economia and permitting laymen to serve. This, however, brings us to the next question which parents and clergy must ask themselves; is it necessary and blessed to have an army of young adolescent altar servers to conduct the Liturgy? Or should only the minimum number of servers that would be absolutely necessary to conduct the Liturgy in a prayerful yet efficient manner be used?


If it is found necessary to use laymen, and particularly younger ones, parents and clergy need to recognize how serious it is to serve in the altar during the divine services. To do this we can look to the liturgical prayers of the Church and to the lives and teachings of the Saints. Even before entering the Church itself we look to the entrance prayers to discover that the Church is not an ordinary place. The Prayer on Entering a Church reads:


I will come into thy house in the multitude of thy mercy: and in thy fear I will worship toward thy holy temple. Lead me, O Lord, in thy righteousness because of mine enemies; make thy way straight before me, that with a clear mind I may glorify thee forever, One Divine Power worshipped in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen. [4]


In the entrance prayer of the priest as he stands before God and his royal gates before entering the holy altar he prays:


O Lord, stretch forth thy hand from thy holy dwelling place on high, and strengthen me for this thine appointed service, that standing uncondemned before thy dread throne, I may offer the bloodless sacrifice. For thine is the power and the glory unto the ages of ages. Amen. [5]


What is the mystical reality that is taking place during these holy services, especially the Divine Liturgy, that make it such an extraordinary place and literally heaven on earth? Hieromonk Gregorios, Geronda (Elder) of the Cell of St. John the Theologian, Koutloumousiou Monastery, Mount Athos in his book The Divine Liturgy: Commentaries in Light of the Fathers explains the Divine Liturgy saying:


At Christ’s Incarnation, the mystery of the triune God was revealed to man. ‘Because the rites performed in the Divine Liturgy are a sacramental initiation into the Incarnation of the of the Lord, it is necessary for the Holy Trinity to shine forth and be proclaimed from the very beginning of the liturgy’ […] it is the actual presence of Christ that is celebrated in the Divine Liturgy. Throughout the Liturgy, Christ ‘appears in the Mysteries themselves’ […] By his Incarnation Christ opened the door of the Kingdom, and by means of the Divine Liturgy we go through that door. In the Divine Liturgy, we have a foretaste of the good things of the Kingdom, for the Divine Liturgy is the Banquet of the Kingdom and those who partake of it are transported by death ‘from one Banquet to another Banquet, from that which is still veiled to that which is already revealed.’ Those who partake in the Liturgy are journeying towards the Kingdom which is beginning to be revealed. [6]


In another story, one holy Staretz (Russian Elder) goes into great detail and describes the very real mystical reality that occurs during the Divine Liturgy in a vision given to a complacent monk saying:


Once, in a certain Russian monastery, as Staretz Sampson tells us, during the Divine Liturgy, a monk remembered that he was told to sweep the entrance of the Monastery’s Katholikon very well. ‘I might as well do it now, he thought, since this part of the Divine Liturgy is not as important.’ Therefore, the monk took the broom and started sweeping. He was saying the Jesus Prayer silently and in a noetic way, and from time to time, he would watch that which was being served. Not even five minutes had gone by when he turned to look up to see the domes of the Church (like the ones in Russia) suddenly opening and the Triumphant Church appearing with all its majesty before him! […] In the center, there was a Holy Table as big as the sky. In front of it, three Archpriests were on their knees. […] A multitude of Priest and Deacons surrounded the former. On the right and left sides Angelic choirs were standing in indescribable and glistening beauty.


There was inexpressible glory and light. Moreover, the thousands of honey-flowing, inconceivable melodies of the heavenly Commanders who were present filled him with divine blessedness and joy. A heavenly Divine Worship was being ministered! Nevertheless, it was being ministered in a strange way, which resembled the Divine Liturgy on earth. It was ministered by Holy Hierarchs, such as, Saint Basil the Great, Saint Gregory the Theologian, and Saint John Chrysostom […] Saint Athanasius the Great, Saint Photius the Great, and Saint Gregory Palamas […] Saint Nicholas, Saint Spyridon and Saint Nektarios. Yet there, in the heavenly Triumphant Church of Jerusalem above, they received Holy Communion. He saw that they were partaking, in a never-ending way, of the glory and uncreated triune Light, of the ‘ambrosia’ of divine blessedness, of the Cup of God’s ineffable Mysteries. [7]


In the book, Orthodox House of Worship, by Metropolitan Augustinos (Kantiotes) of Florina, in speaking of serving in the holy altar says:


The Holy Altar is an awesome place. The clergy alone should enter it, and even they only after preparing themselves spiritually. Entrance is not allowed to women, not even to men, except for readers and custodians. At the time of the Byzantine Empire even kings and emperors stood outside of the Holy Altar in the main part of the church, in a place called the solea. They only entered into the altar area on certain prescribed holy days. They carried candles and the censer, and censing they escorted the Patriarch during the great entrance, just as small boys do today (altar boys). Where are the great and powerful of today to carry candles to escort the holy personages and to honor the King of all, our Lord Jesus Christ?


The priests, whom God enables to liturgize at the Holy Altar, have to be very careful. The Altar should glow with cleanliness. Everything should be in its place. Not just anyone should be allowed to enter it. Only two or three boys who are distinguished for their piety should be allowed in, to put on the special robes of the Altar boys, to help in Divine Liturgy. Woe unto those clerics and laymen who have little regard for the Holy Altar, who come and go into it as though it were their home! [8]


When we are participating in the Divine Liturgy we are simultaneously participating in the Liturgy that is occurring in heaven. We are surrounded by the Saints, the Cherubim and Seraphim, and Christ himself. Saint Nektarios of Aegina in his homily On Our Duty to the Holy Altar writes, “Our duty to the holy altar is the sanctification of the altar; and we sanctify the altar, first, if we offer to it, as a sacrifice of life, holy and pleasing to God, our rational worship, and second, if, coming to partake of the divine body and of the blood of our Saviour, of the blood shed on him for our salvation, we have full awareness that we come worthily, because any other offering and unworthy approach is considered as contempt of the divine and desecration of the altar; the Lord punishes those who come unworthily.” [9]


The Holy Fathers of the Church again and again teach us that the holy altar is literally the experience of heaven on earth, our personal experience of the incarnation of the Son of God, Christ our Savior. These very real, mystical realities need to be at the forefront of everyone’s mind who dares to step foot in the Holy of Holies or who dares to send their children into the Holy of Holies, with the blessing of the bishop or priest through their discerning exercise of economia.


Now that we have described exactly how important serving in the altar actually is and having examined the mystical realities taking place therein, we need to examine how one is to conduct himself while serving or in the case of parents whose children are serving, they need to be thoroughly aware of what is expected of their children and impress upon them the extreme responsibility of preparation and reverent conduct while in the altar.


One of the first and most important acts of conduct that all those in the altar must maintain is that of silent reverence, for they are standing at the throne of the Holy Trinity. Saint Seraphim of Sarov says, “Never, God forbid, for the sake of anyone or anything, converse in the altar, other than by making silent signs of agreement or denial, the altar being the place where the Lord Himself and his Hosts are present. Do now allow anyone to do this, even if it were necessary to suffer because of it. ‘The Lord Himself is present here, and all the Cherubim and Seraphim and all the Hosts of God stand trembling before Him!’ For who will dare to speak before the face of God?” [10] Father Felipe (Balingit), the Dean of Missions to the Philippines and a recent graduate of Holy Trinity Seminary, Master of Divinity School in Jordanville, New York, said the following during a catechetical lecture that expanded on the topic of reverent silence before the Divine Liturgy and says that “if I talk to you before talking [prayer] to God then doubt my priesthood.” [11]

“Vladyka John would not allow any words to be spoken in the altar, in other words zero conversation.” - His Grace + Bishop Luke of Syracuse.

Moreover, Saint John of Shanghai and San Francisco was famously known for his complete prohibition on any talking inside the altar and would only use slight hand gestures to convey any message that he needed. His Grace Bishop Luke of Syracuse relays a story of Saint John of San Francisco in which he says, “Vladyka John would not allow any words to be spoken in the altar, in other words zero conversation.” [12] As can be seen with this cursory examination of the holy canons, liturgical texts of the Church, the writings and sayings of the Saints as well as our contemporary Fathers of the Church, serving in the Holy of Holies is something that must not be taken lightly by any person who dares to enter. Parents whose children have been blessed to do so by the local clergy, in an act of economia, in light of the holy canons, must impress upon their children the very real mystical reality that is taking place during these Divine Services and if parents must do this, how much more the clergy? May these texts be a constant reminder to all of us who are blessed to serve in the holy altar that we are truly standing with the Cherubim and Seraphim worshiping before the throne of God.

 

References

[1]. Council of Trullo, “Canons of the Council in Trullo: Often Called the Quinisext Council, Canon LXIX” in The Seven Ecumenical Councils, Volume 14, ed. Philip Schaff & Henry Wace (Peabody: Hendrickson Publications, 1999), 369.


[2]. Zeger Bernhard van Espen, “Commentary on the Canons of the Council in Trullo: Often Called the Quinisext Council, Canon LXIX” in The Seven Ecumenical Councils, Volume 14, ed. Philip Schaff & Henry Wace (Peabody: Hendrickson Publications, 1999), 369.


[3]. Synod of Laodicea, “Canons of the Synod held in the City of Laodicea, in Phrygia Pacatiana, Canon XLIV,” in The Seven Ecumenical Councils, Volume 14, ed. Philip Schaff & Henry Wace (Peabody: Hendrickson Publications, 1999), 153.


[4]. Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America. A Pocket Prayer Book for Orthodox Christians. Englewood: Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese, 2000.


[5]. St Tikhon’s Monastery Press. “Entrance Prayers.” Hieratikon: Liturgy Book for Priest & Deacon, Volume II, edited by Hieromonk Herman (Majkrzak) and Vitaly Permiakov. South Canaan: St Tikhon’s Monastery Press, 2017.


[6]. Hieromonk Gregorios. The Divine Liturgy: A Commentary in the Light of the Fathers (Columbia: Newrome Press, 2000), 106-107.


[7]. Protopresbyter Stephanos K. Anagnostopoulos, Experiences During the Divine Liturgy (Piraeus: G. Gelbesis Publications, 2010), 454-455.


[8]. Augoustinos N. Kantiotes, Orthodox House of Worship, trans. Fr. Asterios Gerostergios (Belmont: Institute for Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, 1994), 133.


[9].Orthodox March: Orthodox Association of Blind Greeks. “On Our Duty to the Holy Altar.” Accessed, October 20th, 2022. https://www.orp.gr/wordpress/?p=25919


[10]. Father Deacon Joseph Sirko, photographer. “Saint Seraphim of Sarov on Speaking in the Altar” Photograph. Jordanville, New York. From Holy Trinity Monastery, Jordanville, New York, accessed November 28th, 2022.


[11]. Saint Herman of Alaska Orthodox Church. “On The Divine Liturgy. Hieromonk Felipe Balingit.” YouTube, August 1st, 2020. https://youtu.be/WYrCnx03iSk?t=3077


[12]. His Grace + Bishop Luke of Syracuse: Uncut Mountain Press Conference 2022. “The Ethos of the Russian Monastics of Holy Trinity Monastery, Jordanville, NY. Minute 0:4:00” OrthodoxEthos.com, October 30, 2022. https://www.orthodoxethos.com/oe-video-library


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