I recently came across a blog post which questioned the relevance of the veil after the New testament. It mentioned how it was initially created to separate man from the Holy of Holies, but Christ through his crucifixion had destroyed this distance between man and God and hence the veil was no longer needed. That man did not need anyone to come between him and God now and he could reach him directly. But we still keep the old covenant and create a distance between us and God. We don’t allow ourselves to freely walk towards Him and partake in the new blessing He has left us with. Why do we still hold on to the veil? I need something concrete with respect to the New Testament specifically.
“Then behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom” (Matthew 27:52)
The real God of Israel was revealed the moment Jesus yielded up His spirit on the cross. While those who had their way, accomplishing their task to punish our Lord Jesus for the audacity of defying their rejection of His messiahship, hurling at Him the false accusation that He had claimed to destroy and rebuild the temple in three days, the temple veil was torn in two. The holy of holies was exposed, because the chosen people were incapable of recognizing Jesus Christ as the long-awaited Messiah; therefore, at the moment of His death on the cross, the heavenly Father sent a sign that the greatest of all mysteries, the presence of His only-begotten Son fulfilled His mission on earth even if those who had been nurtured to realize and respond to Him lost their moment in history for which they had been prepared from the time of Abraham. The splitting of the temple veil is a sign of that reality.
Those who demanded from Pilate that He be crucified as a false Messiah were made to realize they were tragically wrong. Jesus was shown to be the genuine Messiah in the holiest site of all Jerusalem. To comprehend the meaning of that revelation requires the understanding of what a veil signifies.
- The first and most obvious meaning is separation. The chasm dividing God from humanity—nothing greater can be conceived. Only the high priest was entitled to pass beyond the veil shutting off the outside world from the holy of holies, the sacred cube of space containing the Ark of the Covenant.
And only that chosen person was permitted once a year on the holiest of days, only if he understood his purpose of being there, only if he wore a rope tied to his leg and bells on his vestments that would ring while he was moving about performing his assigned tasks. If the bells stopped ringing, those outside could pull him out without entering the sacred space themselves.
- The veil closing off the sanctuary from the nave has meaning. When closed, it is a reminder of the holiness of the temple of Jerusalem, and when opened is the evidence that Christ is the Source of all holiness, being Himself the Son of God. The curtain is shut other than the time of sacraments/prayers so that it will be opened to only the friends, sisters and brothers of Christ Jesus.
The architecture of an Orthodox church is expressed as heaven on earth. It is a model of the spiritual world—of the Heavenly Kingdom—which the Lord opened to us through the holy prophet Moses on Mt. Sinai. Then God commanded to build the Old Testament Tabernacle according to the precise pattern given by Him to Moses, down to the smallest detail.
New Testament Orthodox churches have the same arrangement as that of the Old Testament, but with the difference that our Lord Jesus Christ became Incarnate and completed the work of the salvation of mankind. It is namely from this monumental event that there are changes to New Testament temples in relation to that of the Old Testament.
A church building is an expression of the covenantal experience of ‘God being with us’. The Holy Eucharist is also celebrating the same nuance. The book of revelation rhetorically affirms the same expression that the dwelling place of God is within men [Rev 21:3]. It is true that God is with men in Christ through the Holy Spirit. We know that God does not dwell in house made with hands. It was conviction of Solomon [1 Kings 8:27] and we see St. Stephen [Acts 7:48] repeating the same as well. But Solomon realizes the presence of God in the temple and dedicated it as the center for worship. At the same time New Testament teaches that the human kind is the temple of the living God [Eph 2:21-22, 1Pt 2:4-5, 2Cor 6:16]. Through this architecture, the Church wishes to convey to us the immanence of Christ and the fact that each of us is the dwelling place of God. The Church building is not mere gathering place. Its architecture proclaims the unity of all things in God. The emphasis is laid on celebrating the Eucharist in the context of worship as a corporate act. According to the holy prophet Moses it includes the courtyard, the sanctuary, and the Holy of Holies. In the New Testament church it is the Portico or Narthex [a place for the Catechumens], Haikala or Nave [main hall], Kesthrumo [part inside the rails] and Altar/Sanctuary or Madbaho.
The Narthex symbolizes this world [Rev 11:2] and Nave is the place of church understood as the assembly and people of God. Any believing Orthodox Christian can be in these parts. The nave correspond to the Old Testament sanctuary. Earlier no one but priests could be found there, but today, because the Lord with His most-pure blood cleansed us all and united us in His Mystery of Baptism, the nave—the New Testament sanctuary—is open to all Orthodox Christians. Kesthrumo is the place between Altar and Haikala where deacons are to stand. So according to Syriac Church Father Mar Yuhanon of Dara [+825 AD] the main three section inside the church building Nave, Kesthrumo and Madbaho allegorically symbolize three special gifts of the Holy Spirit: perfection, illumination and purity.
The Holy of Holies of the Mosaic Temple corresponds to the altar in the New Testament Church. It symbolizes the Heavenly Kingdom. It is not without reason that it is elevated in relation to the nave and narthex. The very word “altus” in translation from Latin means “high.” The center of the altar is the altar table. It is this throne on which God Himself sits invisibly in the church. In Syriac, the term Madbaho denotes the places for sacrifice. Usually Madbaho is situated in the eastern side of the church. East is of Biblical importance as it is mentioned to be location of the Garden of Eden [Gen 2:8]. Considering all such interpretations, the Holy place is a symbol of heaven or paradise. In heaven Jesus the Son of Man continuing His priestly mediation in the midst of saints and angels along with the heavenly glory of light. Likewise in Madbaho the Holy Mysteries of our Lord are offered by the priest who is the sacramental presence of Christ, together with deacons and candle light. Madbaho is a shadow of Paradise with the fruit of the tree of life.
Thronos symbolically and mystically represents the heavenly throne and the table of the kingdom of God [Isa 6:1]. In the context of Holy Qurbana as the sacrifice Thronos is called Altar. It is called the Table of life where we find the Bread of life. So Thronos is the seat of Christ, the word of God, the Lamb and the King of the everlasting life [Rev 4:5; Rev 7:9-11]. According to Syriac Church Father, Moses Bar Kepa [+903] Thronos is Christ Himself and it is source from where the grace is flowing. St. John Chrysostom says that Thronos indicates the holy Tomb of our Lord. The bread and wine offered upon it are transformed in to the Mystical Body of glorified Christ. It recalls the worldly death of Jesus on the Cross and the burial of his earthly body in the tomb which resulted in the triumphant resurrection of His glorified body.
The Veil of the Madbaho, as we perceive in the Jerusalem temple, separates the Holy place and the Holy of Holies. Generally the Veil which closes the Madbaho stands as the sky which hides the heaven above. Hence during Holy Qurbana, the Veil is opened when Christ is reveled to us from His birth in Bethlehem, Baptism at Jordan, Ministry and up to His death on Cross. After this, The Madbaho is closed by the Veil now, which denotes the absence of sunlight was the very characteristic mark of the creator’s suffering and the death in Golgotha, the place of His sacrifice. Hence Veiling during this time depicts the meaning of His suffering and death in the absence of the temporal light made for creation. After this the Veil is opened, symbolizing the resurrection of Christ and the appearance of the Lord to His Apostles. After this Veil is pulled to close the Madbaho, this time it represents disappearance of the Lord thereafter on the ascension. After this the removal of Veil shows the opening of heaven and the second coming of Christ [Mat 24: 30-31, Dan 7:13, 1 Cor15:52, 1Thess 4:16]. The Veil closes the Madbaho again after the Holy Qurbana, indicating us to the present situation of sky which hides the heaven above…
According to the Church Tradition the first to order the closing of the altar by a curtain was the Holy Hierarch Basil the Great in the second half of the fourth century. But even earlier there were well-known partitions between the altar and nave was already a part of the church, for example in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
The modern appearance of the iconostasis, which we see in Eastern Orthodox Churches was basically developed in Church art by the beginning of the fifteenth century. As you see in the below picture, the curtain still remains in the middle…
The visual separation of the altar from the nave by the Veil should motivate us to strive in that direction—to the heavenly, and this aspiration is the core of the life of every Orthodox Christian. We believe that the merciful Lord will once open to us the door to Paradise and lead us in, as a loving Father His children…
It all speaks to us about that in our Orthodox services and in the structure of the churches there is nothing superfluous, but everything is coherent, harmonious and intended to guide Orthodox Christians into the Heavenly realm.
Mostly the color of the curtain is Red. Red has come to signify victory and resurrection, as it symbolizes the Blood of Christ that was willingly shed for us. It also brings to mind the blood of the countless martyrs for Christ throughout the ages. That is why the main color used to adorn most of the Madbaho is red (along with green, white), and why many churches (especially on Mount Athos) are also painted red.
A bit more about what happens inside the Madbaho, when the Veil is closed…
… 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).
In the Old testament Church, 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 a 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.
“But Christ came as High Priest of the good things to come, with the greater and more perfect tabernacle not made with hands, that is, not of this creation. Not with the blood of goats and calves, but with His own blood He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption” (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 (bread and wine) with Christ’s entering “the Presence behind the Veil” (Hebrews 6:19), “by a new and living way which He consecrated for us through the Veil, that is, His flesh” (Hebrews 10:20). [This is where the New Testament speaks of the Veil, and we will know how the Orthodox Church has implemented this verse with a detail study of what happens during the Holy Qurbana]
St. Athanasius of Alexandria says, [The Lord Jesus entered heavens for our sake, though He is the Lord of heavens, and its founder. It is written that He was glorified for our sake. He Himself said, “And for their sakes, I sanctify Myself, that they also may be sanctified by the truth” (John 17:19) This does not mean that He becomes sanctified, but He sanctifies us in Him. We understand the phrase “glorify Himself,” not that He needs to be glorified, for He is above all, but that He is Righteous and we are glorified in Him, and can enter the doors of heaven which He has opened for us. Therefore, it was written, “Lift up your heads, O you gates! And be lifted up, you everlasting doors!” And the King of glory shall come in” (Ps. 24:7). The doors were never closed in front of Him, for He is the Lord and Creator of all, but this was written for us, whom the doors of Paradise were closed in front of us” [Against Arians, Discourse 1:41].
In each Liturgy we unite ourselves with our Lord’s sacrifice and we enter heaven with Him. On the people’s behalf the priest prays over the gifts which are the bread and wine, kept on the Thronos, behind the closed curtain, in similarity to the Old Testament priest symbolizing the Passion and rising of the incarnate Christ.
But, once we are there, these symbolic gifts offered for sacrifice becomes reality (Body and Blood of Christ) 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 Madbaho 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. Mat 26:28.’ This word, instead of hyssop, having been dipped in the blood, sprinkles all.
There in the Old Testament 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 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.
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 the 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.”
Now another thing that we need to understand is that, there is no New Testament without the Old Testament. Christ did not ignore the Old Testament, in fact He taught at the synagogues and spoke to His disciples and others always quoting from the Old Testament. New Testament is only the fulfillment of what was promised in Old Testament. This means that New Testament can be understood in fullness only through study of Old Testament. Apostles also spoke using the Old Testament to prove to people how in Christ everything is fulfilled. Hence the Church also in its architecture, function and purpose does not radically change from how it was in the Old Testament and this is the very reason of Orthodox Churches, as established by Apostles are still having a similarity with the Old Testament Church. We could also experience this in our Holy Qurbana – Old Testament is read first in order to testify that the New Testament is true. Then the New Testament is read in order to indicate that it is new and that which was said in the Old has been fulfilled in it.
There are a lot of symbolic representations in the Orthodox Church. In an Orthodox church there is no thing or action which does not carry meaning of spiritual weight and for sure all of these are based on Holy Scriptures and Holy Tradition. According to Orthodox theology, symbols reveal the fact that something is hidden to us. However the devotee keeps a meaningful silence against the mystery that, at the end of time all will be exposed from the hideout. This is because we, as is, are incapable of knowing the reality in full measure. This is a fundamental method of Orthodox theology in order to interpret the concept of mystery. The symbols of the Church penetrate into our senses and reveal the presence of God.
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2 thoughts on “What is the significance of Veil/Curtain in an Orthodox Church?”
What is the reason or significance that the veil (curtain) is always opened from right side to the left and never from left to the right side (of the congregation)
Thank you for the question.
Opening the veil from the right to left is traditional. The reason is that since women stand at the right side inside the Church, It is considered as their ‘right’ to see the Risen Lord first as in the case of Mary Magdalene. (Mark 16:9, John 20:14). One could also find other ways of opening the veil in some of our churches, in such as case it is exceptional and due to practical reasons only.