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Question 97.

Your blessing dear Father Christopher,

It seems there are some liturgical practices and objects that have a jewish origin. For example the curtain and the washing of hands.
Regarding the curtain a friend once told me that historically it should be divided in two representing the curtain of the Temple that was torn during the crucifixion. Do you have any thought about that?
What's the meaning of opening and closing the curtain at specific times? For example, the curtain remains half opened during an interval of the liturgy of the pre sanctified gifts. What's the theological meaning for that?

Akakios

 

Answer to Question 97.

Dear Akakios,
There are indeed many liturgical practices that have a Jewish origin and this is only to be expected because the Christian church is the fulfilment of the Jewish expectation. The first Christians were Jews and continued their worship in the Jewish tradition which they took and adapted to the new Christian faith.
In the Old Testament the veil in the temple was a constant reminder that sin renders humanity unfit for the presence of God. The word “veil” in Hebrew means a screen, divider or separator and its purpose was to separate a Holy God from sinful man. Whoever entered into the Holy of Holies was entering the very presence of God. In fact, anyone except the high priest who entered the Holy of Holies would die. Even the high priest, God’s chosen mediator with His people, could only pass through the veil and enter this sacred dwelling once a year, on a prescribed day called the Day of Atonement. To do this the high-priest had to make some meticulous preparations: He had to wash himself, put on special clothing, bring burning incense to let the smoke cover his eyes from a direct view of God, and bring blood with him to make atonement for sins. ("But only the high priest entered the inner room, and that only once a year, and never without blood, which he offered for himself and for the sins the people had committed in ignorance.") (Hebrews 9:7)
So the presence of God remained shielded from man behind a thick curtain during the history of Israel. However, Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross changed that. When He died, the curtain in the Jerusalem temple was torn in half, from the top to the bottom. Only God could have carried out such an incredible feat because the veil was too high for human hands to have reached it, and too thick to have torn it. The curtain was about 60 feet in height, 30 feet in width and four inches thick. Furthermore, it was torn from top down, meaning this act must have come from above.
We understand by this that with the veil torn in two the Holy of Holies was exposed and God’s presence was now accessible to all. The torn veil symbolises Jesus’ body sacrificed for us, opening the way for us to come to God. As Jesus cried out “It is finished!” on the cross, He was indeed proclaiming that God’s redemptive plan was now complete. The age of animal offerings was over. The ultimate offering had been sacrificed.
The Holy of Holies is a representation of heaven itself, God’s dwelling place, which we now have access to through Christ. St. Paul writes: "Having therefore, brethren, boldness to enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus, By a new and living way, which he hath consecrated for us, through the veil, that is to say, his flesh; And [having] an high priest over the house of God; Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith." (Hebrews 10:19-22)
As for the curtain we have in our churches today, I cannot see why it should be divided in two as it does not have the same purpose as the veil of the Jewish Temple. Probably this is represented by the royal doors which are usually two panels. In the Old Testament the curtain was to keep sinful humans separate from God. The holy Fathers liken the royal doors (properly translated from the Greek –The Beautiful Gate, the curtain and in general all of the Iconostasis as a boundary between two worlds: the Divine and the human, the permanent and the transitory. Although it is a screen dividing the Divine world from the human world, the Iconostasis at the same time unites the two worlds into one whole in an image that reflects a state of the universe where all separation is overcome, where there is achieved a reconciliation between God and the creature. Standing on the boundary line between the Divine and the human are the Icons of Christ, the Mother of God, and the Saints who show us the way to this reconciliation.
As for why the royal doors and curtain are opened and closed, this has some symbolic meanings at certain parts of the liturgy, but I cannot think of any theological reason for this practice. In fact in the Greek churches it has almost been abolished during the liturgy and only observed during the weekday vespers without entrance, compline, the ordinary hours when there is no Gospel reading and during the first part of matins until the reading of the Gospel. During these services there is no practical reason for the royal doors and curtain to be opened. (see reason below)
In the early Church there were two schools of thought that developed around the same time: the Schools of Alexandria and Antioch. Although both Christian they developed different interpretations of scripture and most of the early heresies derived from taking one or the other of these teachings to extremes. The theology that prevailed and what we call Orthodox was a good balance of both schools.
The Christological approaches of the two rival theological schools of Alexandria and Antioch were influential in how writers understood the symbolic and mystical interpretations of the Divine Liturgy. Authors stressed the school of thought of their own time and place and thus we see that writers of the Alexandrian school of thought, which stressed the divinity of Christ to the almost exclusion of his humanity, gave emphasis to the heavenly level and the eschatological aspect of the Liturgy, while writers from the literally minded Antiochian School, which stressed the humanity of Christ, gave emphasis to the historical aspect of the Liturgy; seeing in every action of the Liturgy a dramatic re-enactment of the Passion of Christ.
The closing of the curtain after the Great entrance with the Holy Gifts is one of these re-enactments. With the Priest entering the Sanctuary with the Chalice and Paten, Christ has been Crucified and taken down from the Cross. The Sanctuary becomes the tomb and the Holy Altar the actual stone where Christ’s body was laid. As the Priest sets the Paten and the Chalice upon the Altar and removes the veils, he takes the Aer from his shoulders and covers with it the holy gifts. As he does so, he says the following hymn: "Down from the tree Joseph, a godly man, took Thy most pure Body, and wound it in linen clothes with the spices, and laid and closed it in a new sepulchre." At this moment the Priest represents Joseph of Arimathaea and Nicodemus who took care of Christ’s burial. The Aer which covers the holy gifts has two representations, first it represents the linen sheet with which Joseph wound Christ’s body and secondly it represents the stone which Joseph placed upon the tomb and which was later sealed by the Roman guards. Then taking the censer the Priest will cense the holy gifts. The censing of the Holy Gifts now on the Holy Altar represents the aroma of the myrrh and sweet spices that Joseph and Nicodemus used for the burial. The closing of the curtain also represents the sealing of the tomb with the stone which will later be opened at the time of communion symbolising the Resurrection and the opening of the tomb. Thus with the Antiochian interpretation, the Great Entrance takes us back into time to re-live the events of Christ’s saving Passion and Death and burial as though they are happening now in front of our very eyes.
In general the closed curtain at other times is a monastic custom because the priest during the other services mentioned above does not serve them from the sanctuary, but stands in a pew outside in the nave or the narthex of the church. The only time he enters the Sanctuary is to cense during the Vespers without Entrance.
Some of the monastic customs were adopted by parish churches. One of these is the closing of the Curtain or Royal Doors during the Communion of the Priests at the words «Πρόσχωμεν. Tα Άγια τοις Αγίοις» (Let us attend. The Holy things unto the Holy).
In monasteries, during this time, the Abbot and then the brethren according to their rank, will very quietly and reverently go one by one and kiss the Icons on the Iconostasis then standing in the middle of the Church will bow to all the brethren asking forgiveness. This custom was copied by Parishes, but without the solemn and reverent order of the monks. Like many things in Parishes, the people have no idea of order and would all rush to kiss the Icons before receiving Holy Communion and in many places would sound like a stampede of cattle. With the curtains closed, many people very wrongly and irreverently treat this time similar to an interlude at the theatre and start talking among themselves: all that is missing is the popcorn. Far from being an interlude, this time should be used to recollect our thoughts and pray from the heart that God may find us worthy to partake of the fearful Mysteries without condemnation. In an attempt to bring back some order at this most solemn time, many Parishes have put a ban on kissing the Icons at this time and purposely leave the curtain open so that the people can see that the service is not in an interlude but is still continuing with the preparation for Holy Communion. So whether it is right or wrong to leave the curtain opened, circumstances have forced us to find solutions to teach the people a sense of orderly conduct. Sadly we still have a long way to go. You need only be witness to the communion of the people on the Great feasts. They completely ignore the proclamation “With fear of God, faith and love draw near” and with a disorderly madness everyone pushes to reach the Chalice first, stepping on each other toes in the process.
I do not have a curtain where I serve so I have no problem with symbolisms, but in general I believe that the curtain should remain opened during the entire Liturgy. I know that the Russian and Antiochian Churches have customary times of opening and closing the curtain at various times during the Liturgy, but as I cannot think of any symbolism behind this, I can only put it down to customs which vary between Orthodox churches of different nationalities. But if you hear of any other reasons for this practice I would love to know.

With love in Christ
Fr. Christopher