The Holy Doors

This week we installed new icons on our holy doors. Below is an essay about the icons and the doors by the iconographer, which can be downloaded as a pamphlet here for personal or parish use.

Windows and Doors
The iconostasis is an unusual feature in Orthodox churches. The wall of icons stands between the people and the altar so that we only see glimpses of the movements behind the screen. But the iconostasis isn’t there to hide things from us. It reminds me of the way a mother hides her face behind her hands, and then opens them to delight her child. In the same way, the church puts the holy doors in front of the altar only to open them to us. A small child doesn’t yet understand that his mother is still there even when he can’t see her. We are often like a child in this way, forgetting that God is always with us because we do not perceive Him. So our Mother the Church opens windows and doors to help us see the heavenly reality of Christ’s presence in our midst. We have often heard icons called “windows to heaven.” The icons on the holy doors are such windows, for even when the doors themselves are closed the icons express how God opens Heaven to us.

The Annunciation
The top tier of icons on the doors is the Annunciation, when the angel Gabriel told the virgin Mary that she would bear the Son of God. In Greek, this icon is called the Evangelismos because he announced the good news of the incarnation of Christ and of his eternal Kingdom. The incarnation is nothing other than Christ’s entrance into the world, and so it is a fitting subject for the holy doors. At the beginning of each Divine Liturgy, the priest opens wide the holy doors, and, like Gabriel, announces the blessing of the Kingdom. As we enter into the divine worship, we are shown that this is the entrance to the Kingdom. So let us receive Christ, welcoming Him as did the most holy Theotokos, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38)

The Evangelists 
The second tier of icons on the doors show Ss. Mark, Matthew, Luke and John, the four Evangelists who wrote the Gospels in order that the good news of Christ might be carried into all the world. The placement of the Evangelists on the holy doors brings to mind the Little Entrance, when the priest processes with the Gospel book through the holy doors to the altar. This practice began in ancient times, when the Gospel Book was a precious object, so it was carried with great care from its storage place, leading the people into the Church. Today, we are still led into the Kingdom by the riches of the Gospel. The pages of the Gospel are opened to us from the threshold of the open doors.  So, let us truly stand and pay attention, as we are called to do in the Liturgy, that our minds might be opened to understand the Gospel of Christ who promises us, “Behold, I am with you always, to the close of the age.” (Matthew 28:20)

The Communion
The opening of the doors throughout the Liturgy has prepared us for our most intimate meeting with Christ in the Holy Eucharist. The priest carries the Eucharist out of the altar, through the Holy Doors, to the people, revealing Christ’s continual coming to us: his coming in the incarnation, his words of life opened to us in the Gospel, and his coming forth to us in the Eucharist. He comes to us and we respond in faith, drawing near to the doors to receive the Eucharist and enter into communion with Christ. Like Jacob awaking from his dream, we cry, “Surely the Lord is in this place; and I did not know it. How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” (Gen 28:16-17)

The Open Door
Lest you think the closing of the doors bears the same significance as each opening, remember the mother with her child who is hidden for a moment but always present. The way to the kingdom is always opened to us,  but like children we often feel Christ is hidden from us. On Pascha, we see a glimpse of this eternal presence when the doors of the altar are left open all day, just as the veil in the Temple was rent in two, Christ’s empty tomb is opened, and the gates of Hades are burst asunder.  Let these holy doors and their icons serve as both the revelation and the gift of Christ’s coming and presence among us. Let us serve the Lord in humility like the Theotokos. Let us open the Scriptures and find Christ the Word within. Let us approach in faith, “for every one who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened.” (Luke 11:10)

- Laura Wilson
St. Nicholas Orthodox Church
Antiochian House of Studies