The altar is the area at the east end of a church, usually behind an iconostasis (altar screen). The word (Hebrew: מזבח - mizbe'ah - altar) means "a place of sacrifice" in Hebrew (Gr. hieron thysiasterion; Sl. prestol). The altar often is also referred to as the sanctuary. An Altar Table is located in the center of the altar as one enters through the Royal Doors in the iconostasis. This table is often referred to as the Holy Table.
Entry to the altar through the iconostasis from the nave is through the centrally placed royal doors or through the deacon's doors to the left and right of the royal doors. Only ordained clergy can pass through the royal doors. The altar may have other entries behind the iconostasis, but these are not used liturgically.
It is the tradition of the Orthodox Church that the laity stand in the nave, and do not enter the sanctuary without reason. Only people whose ministry or responsibilities require them to enter the sanctuary, and who have received a blessing, are permitted to enter.
The altar table is usually a cube with each dimension of about one meter or cubit. The table may be made of wood or stone. The table is usually covered with a brocade covering, the color of which changes with the liturgical season. Atop the altar table is the tabernacle, a miniature shrine sometimes built in the form of a church, inside of which is a small ark containing the reserved Sacrament for use in communing the sick. Also, a multi-branch candle stand, usually with seven candles, is placed near the back of the table as one looks from the nave. Also kept on the altar is the book of the Gospels and the antimension, a silken cloth imprinted with an icon of Christ being prepared for burial, which has a relic sewn into it and bears the signature of the bishop. The Divine Liturgy must be served on an antimension even if the altar has been consecrated and contains relics. When not in use, the antimension is left in place wrapped in the eileton, a cloth of plain silk, linen, or cotton.
The Holy Altar has multiple symbolic meanings. First, it represents the Throne of God because through the sacraments celebrated upon this altar God’s saving and sanctifying grace is bestowed upon all people. It is also Golgotha, the place where Jesus was crucified, because it is upon this altar that we re-enact the Passion of our Lord and Saviour, and finally the Tomb of Christ because it is through Christ’s death that eternal life was granted to all people. This final representation is highlighted in the resurrection Matins service celebrated every Sunday because it is from the right or southern side of the altar table that the morning Gospel is proclaimed, symbolising the angel announcing the risen Christ to the Myrrhbearers.
The altar table may only be touched by subdeacons, deacons, priests or bishops, and nothing which is not itself consecrated or an object of veneration ought to be placed on it. Objects may also be placed on the altar table as part of the process for setting them aside for sacred use. For example, icons are usually blessed by laying them on the altar table for a period of time or for a certain number of Divine Liturgies before blessing them with holy water.
Table of preparation
On left side of the altar is placed the table of preparation (Table of oblation or prothesis) upon which the sacramental offering of the Body and Blood of Christ is prepared in a service called the proskomedia before each liturgy.
Altar Table: St Elijah Chapel - St Barbara Greek Orthodox Church, Sarasota, FL