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Question 91.

Father Christopher, greetings
I hope You are well.
I was just wondering if You would be able to explain why we conduct the εγκαίνια service of a church and what significance this has.
I ask this because I know of churches which are fully furnished --with altar, templon, iconography and all-- having been used for holy services prior to their εγκαίνια. Also, today in Melbourne were the θυρανοίξια of a newly built church, but not the εγκαίνια, and services are conducted in this church.
Kissing Your right hand,

Answer to Question 91.

Dear Evangelos,
The Εγκαίνια is the service whereby a temple is dedicated and consecrated to God and from being just a common building is transformed into a house of worship and prayer and the table is transformed into a sacrificial Holy Altar. The word itself (Εγκαίνια) reveals that something from being old becomes new and in this case from common becomes holy and sacred. The consecration of places of worship has a history that goes back to the Old Testament and the consecration of the Tabernacle of the Covenant and was consecrated by Moses according to God's instructions. Before its official use everything from the tent and furnishings had to be sanctified with the anointing oil. The same was done with Solomon's Temple. In fact the Jews have till this day a feast called the Dedication also known as Hannukah. It was instituted in the year 165 B.C. by Judas Maccabeus, his brothers, and the elders of the congregation of Israel in commemoration of the reconsecration of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, and especially of the altar of burnt offerings, after they had been desecrated during the persecution under Antiochus Epiphanes (168 BC). The feast of Dedication is observed for eight days from the 25th of Kislev (usually in December, but occasionally late November, due to the lunisolar calendar). The Feast of Dedication is also mentioned in John 10:22 where it mentions Jesus being at the Jerusalem Temple during "the Feast of Dedication" and further notes "and it was winter." The Greek term used in John is "the renewals" (Greek – ta Εγκαίνια).
We do not know if the Apostles had similar dedication services for places of worship but during the persecution years the Christians resorted to the catacombs and performed the Divine Liturgy on the tombs of the martyrs. After the persecutions they began building churches and according to the historian Eusebius, these were dedicated with great and splendid services. From that time to the present day the consecration services for churches have always been a spiritual Panegyric supported by the people's faith and the living tradition of the church. The Εγκαίνια service is without a doubt associated with the importance the church gives to the temple as a liturgical place and house of prayer for its people and to the importance it gives to man who as a liturgical being has as his purpose in life sanctification and theosis.
In fact everything the church does has as her main focus the salvation of man. For an Orthodox Christian salvation is union with Christ. This union with Christ is called the "Life in Christ". The centre of this "Life in Christ" is the Holy Altar, as well as the services which are related to it (the Sacraments). Because the Holy Altar is so important in the life of an Orthodox Christian, the service of Consecration centres around the Holy Altar Table.
In theory no service is possible before the Holy Altar is first consecrated. We can compare this to a person's baptism and Chrismation. A person cannot partake of the church's Mysteries before he is first baptised and chrismated to receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit; likewise the Altar cannot be used before it is first baptized and Chrismated. During the consecration service the altar is first washed which is the baptism and then chrismated with the Holy Myron. Also in the centre of the altar are, placed and sealed, small fragments of relics from three saints so that just like in the days of the catacombs the Divine Liturgy is performed on the tombs of the martyrs.
But as you have noted there are churches that are fully furnished and offer all the services without having first been consecrated. This is because of the use of the antimension. This is a rectangular piece of cloth with the icon of the Epitaphion of Christ printed on it and small particles of relics sown into the border. During the consecration service of a church many antimensia are also consecrated and are used today as portable Holy Altars. The use of the antimension goes back to the very early centuries.
In the early Church the bishop was the normal celebrant of the Eucharist and the priests were only his helpers similarly as deacons are today to priests. A priest could not offer the Liturgy on his own. As the Church grew and more churches were built, priests were appointed to serve the Liturgy on behalf of the bishop and as his representative. But there was a danger that deposed or heretical priests could also offer the Liturgy on their own, so a system giving authority to the canonical priest had to be invented. This is where the antimension came into use. It was consecrated and signed by the Bishop during the Consecration service of a Church and given to the priest as a letter of authority. The bishop’s signature on the antiminsion signified the bishop’s permission to the priest to serve the Liturgy on his behalf. This is why even today we do not serve the Liturgy directly on the holy altar, even if it has been consecrated, but first unfold the antimension kept on the altar and serve the Liturgy on this. Before the Great Entrance with the Holy Gifts, the priest kisses the icon of the Epitaphion printed on the antimension, but also the bishop's signature, signifying his recognition that he serves the Liturgy only as the bishop's representative. When a Metropolitan bishop dies, the new bishop must consecrate many new antimensia so that all the churches under his jurisdiction can obtain a new antimension signed with the new bishop's name. The antimension also has a practical use because it safeguards any particles of the holy body should they fall from the paten. The particles fall directly onto the antiminsion and are easily retrieved by the Priest. Today the meaning of the antimension as the bishop's authority to the priest has been forgotten and is just considered as a portable holy table where we can take and use to serve the Liturgy in other places other than the permanent holy altar.
There are many reasons why a church delays having a consecration service. Firstly there is a large cost involved and this is taken up by sponsors (Godparents) if they can be found. Many things are needed for the Εγκαίνια and some of the materials like rose oil and vestments for the Altar and for the priest are very expensive so churches wait until they find the sponsors who can afford to take up the cost. Sometimes the church will wait until the feastday of the saint to whom the church will be dedicated to have the Εγκαίνια, but this has also to coincide with the bishop's program, so if he has prior engagements the Εγκαίνια will have to wait until the next year. In older times before we had cars, it was very difficult for bishop's to reach certain villages. In our village the church was built in 1850 (according to the Icons that we have). The nearest town is Limassol but in those days there was no bishop of Limassol and it came under the jurisdiction of the bishop of Kitiou (Larnaca). For the bishop to travel by donkey from Larnaca to our village it would have taken him many days and the Εγκαίνια of our church was actually performed approx. twenty five years later. If the use of the antimensia was not possible, the villagers would have gone without services during all those years.
Sometimes small churches with small sanctuaries do not allow for the Εγκαίνια service. A certain amount of space is needed for the Εγκαίνια because a lot of things have to be laid out and if there is no room or running water then things become very difficult. In such cases the bishop will probably just perform the θυρανοίξια service. The θυρανοίξια, literally meaning the opening of the doors, is not supposed to take the place of the Εγκαίνια service. It is basically the service of the blessing of Waters (Αγιασμός) performed outside in front of the closed western doors with troparia, readings and a prayer taken from the Εγκαίνια service with the intention of giving the church an official opening of being offered to the worship of God. We can say that the θυρανοίξια service is an econimia until the actual Εγκαίνια service can be performed.

Fr. Christopher