Questions and answers about our Russian Orthodox Churches

How did we become Orthodox?

In 955 Princess Olga of Russia was converted to Christianity. Her grandson Vladimir of Kiev converted in 988 and he had the greatest impact on Christianity in Russia. Prince Vladimir decided Russia needed an official religion. Wanting to choose the ideal doctrine, he sent delegates on a research endeavor. After researching the various religions the envoys encountered a Christian church in Greece where they felt God was dwelling among men and the ceremonies were fairer than any other. They reported the discoveries to the Prince.

Vladimir went to war against the Byzantine Empire and vowed to accept Christianity if he won the campaign and captured the city of Kherson. When Vladimir returned to Kiev he proclaimed all pagan idols were to be destroyed and the people were to renounce paganism. In 988 the population embraced the Christian Faith and received baptism. This is the official date of Russia's conversion to Christianity.

In 1741, Vitus Bering and Alexei Chirikov claimed Alaska. During the next fifty years the first attempts were made to Christianize the Alaska natives. Many of the Russians married the Alaskan natives and continued to baptize their children. We are the descendants of the early Russian settlers and their native spouses. The roots of the orthodox church of Alaska began with the arrival of the orthodox mission on September 24, 1794.

Why do we use symbolism?

If things always remain the same it is easy to teach our children about worship even if we do not speak the same languages, or have the ability to read or write.

If one visits the Russian Church why is the incense in use? The incense is placed in a censor with burning charcoal. It is swung during the service to represent the prayers of the faithful ascending into heaven. At the beginning of the Divine Liturgy the incense represents the gifts brought by the Magi to the Christ Child.

Why are the bells rung?

They call the faithful to services, remind those who are absent of the various parts of the service, and cause the worshipers to concentrate on the importance of the various parts of the service. On Holy Pascha (Easter) the bells are rung in several different tones and sequences representing different messages of the service. In small Alaskan communities the bells are heard in every household. Many years ago in Alaska the bells were rung for the entire day on Pascha.

Why do the parishioners often use candles?

The candles represent many things. The early Christians used them to light the places of worship. The candles represent Christ, without whose light we would stumble about in the darkness. The candle is a symbol of our burning and grateful love for God. There are many other stories about the meaning of candles but the most important is our undying love for Christ.

Why do the churches have domes?

The Holy Assumption of the Virgin Mary Russian Orthodox Church in Kenai has three cupolas representing the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Holy Transfiguration Russian Orthodox Church in Ninilchik has five domes representing Christ and the four Evangelists. Originally Ninilchik had three domes with two being added later. Some Alaskan churches, such as St. Nicholas Chapel in Kenai, have one dome representing Christ or God as the head of the church. A church with thirteen domes represents Christ as the head of the Church and his twelve Apostles. The representation is different for each amount of cupolas a church may opt to use. Every cupola is topped by a three-bar cross, the symbol of our salvation.

Why do you enter the Church from the east?

Orthodox build churches facing East to represent the light. The sun sets in the west, therefore one enters from the world of darkness into a world of light

Do women ever go behind the Iconastasis?

No. The middle doors are used by the priest or Bishop. The side Deacon's doors are used by the Deacon, Altar boys, and men of the church. The Iconastasis represents the division of the Divine world and the human world. While there is a division it also unites these worlds into one whole world and thus presents reconciliation.

What is the Iconastasis?

The church is divided into three sections: the Porch, the Nave (main body), and the Sanctuary (Altar). The Iconastasis is an Icon screen with three doors. The walls of the Nave are usually decorated with icons and vigil lights.

The interior of the Holy Assumption Church (notice the Iconastasis wall which was made in Russia):

Interior of the Holy Assumption of the Virgin Mary Church
Kenai, Alaska

Why are Orthodox churches usually so ornate?

No matter how poor one is they can always find beauty and joy in their church. Orthodox take great pride in caring for their church.

Why are some churches shaped like boats?

This is a common shape in Alaska because many people were dependent on the sea in order to make a living. It represents a harbor of salvation like Noah's Ark. One thinks of it as a ship of Salvation with Christ as the Helmsman. Kenai church is constructed in the shape of a boat. The world is like the waves of the sea and with Christ as the Navigator we will be safe through all life's storms. Another common shape of Alaskan Churches, such as Ninilchik, is the single bar cross.

What are the Icons for?

There are many reasons but the simplest explanation is they remind us of those who performed wondrous deeds for Christ and Orthodox attempt to pattern their lives after these people. Icons are one of the liturgical parts of the church. They also represent the Orthodox spiritual art. The main Icons are Christ and the Virgin Mary. Why do you use the sign of the cross from right to left? It is a distinguished sign of the Orthodox faithful by which we can be recognized. It represents the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It signifies everything belongs to God and relates to of the power of God.

Why is the dome painted blue inside the church?

The dome is traditionally eight sided. Usually (in Ninilchik but not Kenai) there is a window to let the light enter. The blue painted dome and the light represent the skies and heaven. The eight-sided octagon of the dome is a symbol of the Russian star and reminds us of the four corners of Earth where the four apostles traveled. Our prayers and incense ascent in this dome representing their rising to heaven. (The Altar table is also built with a cube to remind us of the apostles and the four corners of the Earth).

Why do you stand through the long services?

Many churches have changed and sit through parts of the service. We choose to continue the old traditions. If Christ could suffer on the cross can we not stand in his house for several hours? We always stand when the middle doors of the Iconstasis open whether we elect to sit during parts of the service or not. The elderly and other who need to rest are always welcome to do so. Traditionally there were no pews, only a few benches for these people.

Why are the women standing on one side of the Church and the men on the other?

This is an old tradition and not strongly enforced. It is a custom from many years ago when single young girls and boys met only in the church. By separating the men and women one would pay more attention to the service rather than one another. This may also represent a place of honor to the male who stands on the right as head of the household. It also represents the male's authority over his family. (Grooms stand on the right at all Orthodox wedding ceremonies).

Why do many of the women cover their hair while the males remove their hats?

One tradition says men wore wonderful hair pieces and women wore large hair styles with decorations in their hair. In order to stop the distractions the men were asked to remove the hats and the women to cover their hair. Women wore scarves or small caps after marriage. Young unmarried girls wore their hair loose. This tradition is followed by many today.

What is significance of the Red Easter Egg?

The red dye on the outside represents the Blood of Christ. The yolk represents the new life given to us after Christ rose from the dead. In Kenai the Priest hands an egg and an icon to each parishioner after the Pascha service.

What does the three bar cross stand for?

This is my favorite of the several stories of the importance of the three bar cross. The first bar contains the inscription. The second bar is where Christ arms were spread, nailed and bound to the cross. The third bar is the foot rest. (Scientifically one would rapidly suffocate if suspended by your arms and no support for your body weight). The center of the cross is the balance between Heaven and eternal punishment. The bar slants because one sinner asked Christ for forgiveness and received eternal salvation. The sinner on the left without salvation descended into the depths of fire. The significance of this cross shows the Orthodox faithful the balance between Salvation and Sin. There are many symbols of crosses used by the church but the three bar was favored by the Russian people and adopted as their symbol. This unique symbol is still the favorite of the Alaskan Orthodox today and proudly wore close to our hearts reminding us of the fateful event on Mt. Golgotha.

What do the colors in the Orthodox Church represent?

Light blue used in the church to honor the Virgin Mary Gold represents the kingdom of God. Gold being the symbol of a King. Purple is used for lent as is black representing the darkness. White is for Christ and worn by Priests on Easter. Blue represents Heaven. Green represents the Pentecost and is the symbol of the Holy Spirit of Life.

These colors are used in Altar Cloths worn by Priests, Altar boys, and Deacons. They are often used in painting the outside Cupolas of the church.

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Copyright 1997