THE PURPOSE OF THE ICONOSTASIS
By The Right Reverend Father Michael D. Jordan
One of the most striking features of the Eastern Orthodox Christian Church is the Icon Screen, commonly called the Iconostasis. Just as the Narthex is separated from the Nave, so is the Sanctuary of the Eastern Orthodox Christian Church separated from the Nave by the Icon Screen. The three divisions are representative of the Holy Trinity, and each section has its own distinct meaning.
The Icon Screen represents the Veil of the Temple which separated the congregation of the Jews from the Holy of Holies. The Holy of Holies was the area of the Temple that contained the Ark of the Covenant, or the "Essence of God".
31 "And thou shalt make a veil of blue, and purple, and scarlet, and fine twined linen of cunning work: with Cherubims shall it be made:
32 And thou shalt hang it upon four pillars of fine wood overlaid with gold: their hooks shall be of gold, upon the four sockets of silver.
33 And thou shalt hang up the veil under the taches, that thou mayest bring in thither within the veil the ark of the testimony: and the veil shall divide unto you between the holy place and the most holy.
34 And thou shalt put the mercy seat upon the ark of the testimony in the most holy place.
35 And thou shalt set the table without the veil, and the candlestick over against the table on the side of the tabernacle toward the south: and thou shalt put the table on the north side.
36 And thou shalt make an hanging for the door of the tent, of blue, and purple, and scarlet, and fine twined linen, wrought with needlework."
15 "And when Aaron and his sons have made an end of covering the sanctuary, as the camp is to set forward; after that, the sons of Kohath shall come to bear it: but they shall not touch any holy thing, lest they die. These things are the burden of the sons of Kohath in the tabernacle of the congregation."
As you can determine from the Old Testament Scripture, God was very specific about the Sanctuary. He wanted it to be made a certain way, and out of specific materials. Access was restricted to the Altar area by command of God.
Only select people were allowed into the Holy of Holies. This is still true today in the Christian version of the Holy of Holies. The Altar area is reserved for only Clergy and Altar servers to enter. The Holy Tabernacle, Altar Table, and any contents on the Altar Table are only to be touched by the Clergy of the Church. In the Jewish Faith the penalty for touching any holy thing was much more severe than it is today, usually it meant death, as is indicated in the Old Testament reference above from Numbers.
There are many parallels between the Jewish Faith and the Eastern Orthodox Christian Faith. These parallels are largely because the Apostles of Christ were accustomed to the Jewish Faith; therefore, when they established the Christian Church, naturally, some of the traditions of the Jewish Faith were used.
According to tradition, the Jewish people used to pin notes and drawings of loved ones on the veil so that when the Priest would pass through the veil, he would remember to pray for their loved ones. These prayer reminders were replaced in the Christian Church with Icons, "Images" of the loved ones of the Christian Church, Jesus Christ and the Saints.
You will always find Jesus Christ to the "Right" of the Royal Entrance, and Mary (The Theotokos) on the Left of the Royal Entrance. Beside Christ you will always find John the Baptist, because John the Baptist was the forerunner. Jesus Christ said of John the Baptist, "No man born of woman is greater than John the Baptist".
To the Left of the Icon of the Theotokos, you will usually find the Icon of the Name of the Church. Traditionally, Eastern Orthodox Churches are named after a Saint or a major event in the Christian Church. On either side of the Icon screen you will find Deaconís doors, which are doors used in Liturgical Processions.
The area of the Church that we receive Holy Communion is reminiscent of the Mercy Seat where God would commune with the High Priest.
22 "And there I will meet with thee, and I will commune with thee from above the mercy seat, from between the two Cherubim which are upon the ark of the testimony, of all things which I will give thee in commandment unto the children of Israel."
We have a direct opportunity every Sunday to meet with Jesus Christ, and commune with God through the Holy Communion. Now mankind can approach God, touch Him, and actually commune with Him on a very personal level. This area where we commune with God is now called the Soleas, which is the area just in front of the Icon Screen, before the Royal Doors.
As Eastern Orthodox Christians, we are asked to respect the Christian Holy of Holies, which is the Sanctuary area. We reverence it because not only is it the resting place of the Relics of the Saints, but also the area containing the Reserved Sacrament of Holy Communion in the Tabernacle. To violate the Sanctuary area behind the Icon Screen would make a person guilty of showing disrespect for Jesus Christ.
By The Right Reverend Father Michael D. Jordan
O Almighty God, Heavenly King, Savior of our souls, we ask You to be with us today. Manifest Your Mighty Presence in our souls, that we may worship You in spirit and in Truth.
Make us to be thankful for Your bountiful mercy and the blessings which You continue to bestow us with each passing day.
Lead us in the path that You would have us take, be a lamp unto our feet, and the Light of truth which follows us on our journey of life.
Fill our hearts with exceeding joy and praise for Your Holy Son, and our Savior, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
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