For an Orthodox priest, the services of the Church involve many “comings and goings.” Part of any service takes place within the altar area, which is usually enclosed by an iconostasis, a wall on which icons are hung. The wall does not truly separate one area of the Church from another so much as it marks one area off from another – the space of the Church is itself an icon. But within these spaces, the priest (and deacon) move back and forth. Going out from the altar and entering back in to the altar. Each exit and entrance has its own meaning within the context of the service. I often think of the Psalm verse, “May the Lord bless your going and your coming in…” With this action, for me, has come an increased awareness of doors and entrances within Scripture. For the doors of the altar bear a relationship with the various “doors” in Scripture.
I have often thought about the meditation attached to the closed doors of the altar early in the service of Vespers. The priest stands before them, head bowed, and prays. I have been told that the closed doors represent the closed doors of paradise, with the priest standing outside them, like Adam, weeping for his sins. It is always a poignant thought.
The gates of paradise always have a strange double quality to them. When they are open the world becomes heaven. When they are closed all becomes Hades. It is the gates of Hades that Christ promises will not prevail against the Church.
I have also noted over the years that most people seem to concern themselves with the “larger” gates of Hades. They want to know who goes there, who stays there and why, and how they can avoid the entire thing. Some people seem to be experts on Hades and Hell.
There is a far more intimate and immediate question concerning Hades’ gates. This is the question of its gates within the heart. For the human heart is like a microcosm of all things. There we can find both the gate of paradise and the gate of Hades. I’m convinced that if we do not first find paradise within our heart then we will never know it otherwise. Salvation may be eternal, but it is also immediate.
To stand before the closed gates of paradise within the heart and weep is to begin to pray.
Tonight I served the Vigil for the Feast of Theophany (Christ’s Baptism). The richness of the feast is beyond description. The texts that are sung are among the most theologically profound that I know. It is difficult to serve the feast and not insist that the service stop at points – that we might stand in silent wonder.
Christ at the Jordan is Christ before the gates of paradise (and Hades). In many icons of Christ’s Baptism, the gates of Hades lie beneath His feet (it almost looks like He is surfing), with snakes sticking their heads out from beneath. These snakes are the “dragons who lurked there,” mentioned in Psalm 74.
The Lord refashions broken Adam in the streams of the Jordan.
And He smashes the heads of dragons lurking there.
The Lord does this, the King of the ages;
for He has been glorified.
From the St. Cosmas’ Canon of Matins for the feast
St. John of Damascus offers a dazzling array of images on Christ’s Baptism in his Canon for the feast. In the seventh ode he compares Christ’s Baptism with His salvation of the Three Young Men in the fiery furnace:
He stilled the furnace’s towering flame
when it encircled the pious Youths,
and He burned the heads of the dragons in the waters.
With the dew of the Spirit He washes away
all the blindness born of sin.
By changing the fierce Assyrian flame to dew,
You stilled the fire that prefigured You;
For now You have clothed Yourself in water, O Christ,
as a flame that burns the evil trickster hidden in its depths,
who entices us to the path of destruction.
For a variety of reasons, Theophany is perhaps my favorite feast (excluding Pascha itself). Years ago I did not know what to make of Christ’s Baptism. Now, I hardly know what it does not include. It is a feast of doors – the smashing of one set and the opening of another. I pray that the doors in my heart are opened – or smashed – whatever seems best and most needed.