The Curtain of the Temple
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- Written by Fr. Dimitri Cozby
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The Curtain of the Temple
by V. Rev. Fr. Dimitri Cozby
… but into the second tent only the high priest goes, and he but once a year, and not without taking blood which he offers for himself and for the errors of the people (Hebrews 9:7).
At the Great Entrance of the Divine Liturgy, the bread and wine are carried to the altar table.
Thus we begin our offering of the Eucharist.
This sacrifice reaches its climax in our invocation of the Holy Spirit upon the Gifts and culminates in our partaking of them, now transfigured by the Spirit's grace and power into the crucified and risen Body and Blood our Lord Jesus Christ.
Immediately after the bread and wine are placed on the altar table, the royal doors are closed and the curtain is drawn across the opening.
The altar remains shut off until the Creed.
The significance of this simple action is made clear in a phrase from the prayer the priest reads while the curtain is closed.
He asks God to "accept also the prayer of us sinners, and bear it to Thy holy altar, enabling us to offer unto Thee gifts and spiritual sacrifices for our sins and for the errors of the people."
The last words echo those of the Apostle cited above and link our offering of the Gifts to his discussion of the Jewish ritual of atonement.
The Apostle is recalling the special ceremony held in the Temple of the Jews in Jerusalem on Yom Kippur, "the Day of Atonement."
The Temple was laid out in three sections, as are Orthodox churches still.
The first was the narthex or vestibule.
Next came the largest area, the Holy Place.
Beyond, separated from the Holy Place by a curtain, was the Holy of Holies, corresponding to our altar.
There rested the Ark of the Covenant containing the tablets of the Law given to Moses at Sinai.
Thus this inmost area symbolized God's particular presence among and relationship with His chosen people.
Priests entered the other rooms daily to perform their duties, but only one person, the high priest, could enter the Holy of Holies and that only once each year, on the Day of Atonement.
After offering special sacrifices, the high priest collected some of the blood from the animal victims in a bowl and carried it behind the curtain, into the Holy of Holies.
Using a branch of hyssop, he sprinkled the blood about the chamber.
The purpose of the ritual was to symbolize the people's repentance for the sins of the previous year and to entreat God's forgiveness.
The Apostle tells us that this ritual was a prophecy of the incarnation, death and resurrection of our Lord.
The Old Testament high priest, because he was mere man, had to offer the expiatory sacrifice for his own sins, and he had to offer the sacrifice year after year because he continued to sin.
He could bring only the blood of animal sacrifices, and he offered these sacrifices in an earthly Temple.
Our Lord's offering was superior to the old sacrifice in every respect.
He is the eternal Word of God become man; although He took to Himself everything which is human, even the consequences of sin, He is sinless Himself.
By His crucifixion and resurrection, He offers the supreme and perfect sacrifice, His pure and unstained Self.
His sacrifice is complete — thoroughly purging the sins of mankind - because He does not need to offer it first for His own sin.
He presents this offering, not on a mundane altar, but in heaven itself, before the Throne of the Father, which He Himself shares, together with the Holy Spirit (Hebrews 9:11-12).
Also, unlike the Jewish high priest, Christ does not complete the atonement alone.
As He enters the heavenly Temple our Lord bears with Him His humanity, which He shares with us.
Thus we enter the Holy of Holies with Him, borne into the glory and peace of the Kingdom by His purity and love.
Our Lord's great sacrifice brings us remission of sins and, moreover, sanctification by the power of the Holy Spirit and entrance into the Kingdom.
The words of the prayer link our offering of the Gifts with Christ's entering "into the inner shrine behind the curtain" (Hebrews 6:19), "by the new and living way which he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through His flesh" (Hebrews 10:20).
In each Liturgy we unite ourselves with our Lord's sacrifice and we enter heaven with Him.
On the people's behalf the priest carries bread and wine into the altar, behind the closed curtain of the royal doors, like the Old Testament priest symbolizing the Passion and rising of the incarnate Christ.
But, once there, symbol becomes reality by the grace of the Holy Spirit.
It was through the Spirit that Christ offered Himself (Hebrews 9:14); it is in and through the Spirit that we participate in that sacrifice in our Baptism (Romans 6:4-5).
And now, in the awesome solemnity of the Liturgy, we await the Holy Spirit, to fill our Gifts with the Savior's power and glory.
Behind the curtain, the Old Testament priest used a sprig of hyssop to sprinkle the blood of a slaughtered creature.
With the curtain of our temple closed, we prepare to receive the Body and Blood of the living Christ.
Saint John Chrysostom declares, "With this Blood not Moses but Christ sprinkled us, through the word which was spoken; 'This is the Blood of the New Testament, for the remission of sins.'
This word, instead of hyssop, having been dipped in the blood, sprinkles all.
There indeed the body was cleansed outwardly, for the purifying was bodily; but here, since the purifying is spiritual, it enters the soul and cleanses it, for it is not being simply sprinkled over, but it gushes forth in our souls … And in their case indeed one sprinkled just the surface … But in the case of the soul it is not so, but the Blood is mixed with its very substance, making it vigorous and pure, and leading it to the very unapproachable beauty."
Closing the curtain of the royal doors reminds us of the ultimate sacrifice of the King of glory.
We do not perform a new sacrifice, like the Jewish high priest did year by year.
Rather, each Sunday and each feast day, we renew our communion in the one great Sacrifice.
The heart of the Liturgy begins with our placing the Gifts on the altar table.
The service mounts to our invocation of the Spirit.
As we pray, He transfigures earthly, physical food and drink into the Food of eternal life, the Vintage of immortality.
The Liturgy reaches its climax as the doors and curtain are closed briefly, one last time.
When they are thrown open, we hear that wondrous invitation, "In the fear of God, with faith and love, draw near."
We come forward to receive the spotless Body and precious Blood of Him who is "the One who offers and who is offered, the One who receives and is received."
As once Christ entered heaven, so now He enters us, transfusing us with the Kingdom.
He does not seek to become one with us, but He makes us one with Him.
He does not enter us in order to remain in the world: He comes to purge us of the sin which binds us to this age.
He comes to cleanse, so that He may bear us up with Him, to dwell where He dwells, in eternal light with His Father and Holy Spirit.
Saint John Chrysostom exhorts us, "Let us no longer continue on the earth; for even now it is possible for him that wishes it, not to be on the earth."
Let us then make our Communion with the Lord truly a "spiritual sacrifice for our sins and the errors of the people."
Let us shed our sins and overflow with holiness.
Let us receive the Body and Blood of the living Savior and allow Him to lead us, through them, to "the unapproachable beauty" of the age to come.
- V. Rev. Fr. Dimitri Cozby - St. Anthony the Great Orthodox Church - San Antonio, TX
From The Dawn Publication of the Diocese of the South
Orthodox Church in America - June 1998