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An Explanation for the Practice of Drawing the Altar Curtain and of Veiling off the Altar during

The Great Lenten Fast as Observed in the Church of the Armenians

Rev. Dr. George A. Leylegian, 2014

I must begin this article with a personal disclosure. I have always appreciated the majesty of the simplicity and the openness of the Church of the Armenians. Whenever I walk into an Armenian church, I am immediately cleansed in the focus of my mind because unlike other denominations, we do not have an over-abundance of ornamental “clutter”. From the far back of the western door, I can see the altar without obstruction. As all of you know, I am a staunch Apostolic, and my objection to the practice of closing the altar curtain during Lent is not the result of my longstanding academic and ecumenical association with non-Apostolics. Instead, it is borne out of a respect for pre-Nicene theology and liturgical practice, and particularly in the case of the Church of the Armenians, the influence of the Johannine Tradition during the first three centuries of Christian formation in Armenia.

In this article, I wish to offer AN explanation for the current practice. My respected mentor and dear friend, the Very Reverend Father, Dr. Daniel Michael Findikyan, and I have exchanged many pleasant hours of correspondence and communication on this very subject, and I wholeheartedly support his on-going research into this matter. My article is prepared with the highest respect for Dr. Findikyan’s study-in-progress, and therefore my focus is a presentation of general material on the subject.

The renowned scholar, Dr. Daniel M. Gurtner, has prepared several articles and recently published a book on the specific study and correlation of the veils in Hebrew and Judaic tradition, beginning with Mosaic observance and progressing through the Second Temple period.[1] There are many proposed configurations for the number and the placement of the veils, but most concur that the function of the veils was to prevent all but a few people to see the Holy of Holies. The Synoptic Gospels (Matthew 27:51a; Mark 15:38; Luke 23:45) indicate that during the course of the Crucifixion “the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom”[2], and the Letter to the Hebrews develops the Christological position (Hebrews 7:1 – 10:22), first showing that Jesus Christ comes as High Priest, enters the Most Holy Place, and by His own Blood, He passes through the second veil (Hebrews 9:12). “Having therefore, brethren, boldness to enter into the holiest by the Blood of Jesus, by a new and living way, which He hath consecrated for us, through the veil, that is to say, His Flesh: and having a high priest over the House of God: let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience, and our bodies washed with pure water” (Hebrews 10:19-22).

Of notable exception is the Fourth Gospel. John does not mention the veil of the Temple, although in John 2:19-21, Jesus answers the Jews and says, “’Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up’ … But He spoke of the temple of His body.” It may be inferred that the veils hanging inside the temple would be destroyed along with the rest of the building, although the statement by Jesus is made perhaps two Passovers before His Crucifixion.

Let us begin the discussion by determining whether a New Testament Christian ought to include a single-piece curtain to veil and to conceal the Glory of the Resurrected Savior. The answer is a simple No. The Synoptic Gospels indicate that in the course of being crucified for the salvation of the world, our Lord Jesus Christ fulfilled the typology of the physical veil needed by the Old Testament Law to conceal the physical Holy of Holies in the old Temple of Jerusalem. It is important to note that the Synoptic accounts of the Baptism of Jesus (that is, the commencement of His journey to the Crucifixion and thence to the Resurrection) state that “the heavens were opened” (Matthew 3:16; Mark 1:10; Luke 4:21), thus portending the splitting of the veil of the Temple.

The ornamentation of Christian places of worship developed gradually over the centuries, and I can appreciate the liturgical dramatics of hanging TWO pieces of the same curtain, one on the right and one on the left of the altar area, to signify the New Testament split of the Old Testament curtain. We see caricatures of such split curtains in Armenian manuscripts, and very often, the two pieces of material are bound to columns with ropes.

In the current Armenian Eucharist, a form of liturgical drama includes an exclamation of the celebrant which might be considered in the context of the splitting of the veil. After the recitation of the “Our Father”, and following the bowing down of the clergy and the congregation, the deacon commands (in Greek) “Proschomen!” which may be translated, “Let us be attentive!” The celebrant, raising the consecrated Body of Jesus Christ (in the physicality of the unleavened bread), points to the east, and seemingly directs it “Into the Holy of Holies!”. In this liturgical act, the celebrant dramatizes the entrance of Jesus Christ AND of all of us believers, into the Holy of Holies, once reserved behind a closed veil only to the high priest of the Old Testament worship, but now opened to all through the offering of Jesus Christ, once and for all, as testified in the Letter to the Hebrews.

New Testament Christians are worshipping anew “in spirit and in truth” (John4:23), therefore the physical curtain inside the physical (and now destroyed) Temple in Jerusalem is relegated to historical typology. “There is only One who is Holy. There is only One who is the Lord: It is Jesus Christ! In the Glory of GOD the Father! Amen!” (Philippians 2:11) The heavens have been opened, the veil of the temple has been split from top to bottom, and Jesus Christ, who is both “high priest and sacrifice”[3]enters into the Holy of Holies, once and for all.

Again, the Synoptics proclaim the distinction between the Old Testament and even cultic polytheistic practices of concealing what is purported to be sacred from the very people who venerate that which is holy. “And He [Jesus] said unto them, ‘Is a candle brought to be put under a bushel, or under a bed? and not to be set on a candlestick? For there is nothing hid, which shall not be manifested: neither was anything kept secret, but that it should come abroad” (Mark 4:21-22; Matthew 10:26; Luke 8:16-17). Jesus Himself declares about His doctrine: “I spoke openly to the world, I ever taught in the synagogue, and in the temple, whither the Jews always resort, and in secret have I said nothing” (John 18:20).

While Christianity does require a particular Rite of Initiation (Baptism and Sealing with Chrism), it is abundantly true that once someone is an initiated Christian, nothing should be concealed as a secret from that person regarding the Faith and Worship of the Church.

How, then, did the altar curtain come into use, and what function does it serve within both the theology and the liturgy of the Church of the Armenians?

Until the beginning of the fourth century, Christianity was a persecuted religion throughout the Roman and Persian Empires. A person who wished to become a Christian did so at great peril, and the process could take years of study. We should therefore not be surprised that Christians were counted by individual households for the first several centuries.[4] We know precious little about the liturgical practices within those individual households, but it is fair to assume that while the doors and windows may have been closed out of fear of repercussion and persecution, it is also fair to assume that within the relative safety of that house, everything was done in the open amongst the small but dedicated group of believers assembled therein.[5] The ornamentation to which all of us have become accustomed was largely developed after the end of the persecutions, and it is fair to assume that most of the liturgical functions held inside the private households were beautiful in their simplicity of form and presentation. I hasten to add that there is no evidence that within those households the worship included using a curtain to conceal any part of the ceremony from the group of assembled Christians.

After the declaration of Christianity as the preferred religion of the state during the first quarter of the fourth century, a phenomenon occurred for which the household churches were not totally prepared: suddenly, whole cities and towns wished to become Christian, and the fact is that the local house-churches neither had the physical space nor the ability to instruct vast crowds of potential converts. New buildings had to be erected which would accommodate both the baptized and the throngs who wished to be baptized.

Seemingly utilitarian forms of architecture were applied to this rush. Let us imagine a rectangle, built upon an east-west axis, and divided at the midpoint to create two adjoining squares. On the eastern side is the place for the baptized, who are called the faithful; that area is referred to as the nave of the church building, and in the eastern apse of the nave is located the bema and the altar-table. On the western side of the rectangle is the place reserved for those who wish to become Christians, and who are effectively enrolled in a course of study regarding Christianity. These students have the Greek name of “catechumen”, and occupy what is referred to as the narthex of the church building. In Armenian, the word for catechumen is “eraxay / yerakhah”.

The duration of instruction for the catechumens varied from century to century and from place to place. For some, the process was akin to today’s four-year college studies, and in each subsequent year, the catechumen was graduated up to the next level of teaching and instruction. When the trickle of candidates turned into a flood, the luxury of studying for several years was discarded, and “classes” of catechumens were then processed over the course of weeks rather than months. It is quite possible that our own Saint Gregory the Illuminator preached for 70 days to the Armenians who wished to convert to Christianity.[6] It is likely that Gregory relied upon earlier catechetical lectures such as the second century Irenaeus of Lyons “On the Apostolic Preaching”[7]. During the fourth century, Cyril of Jerusalem prepared a series of 19 “Catechetical Lectures”[8]which were delivered during the weekdays of Lent. The Scriptural resources cited by Cyril remain the cornerstone of both the Catechism of the Church of the Armenians and the lectionary cycle for the weekdays of Lent in our Church.

The catechumens were assembled in the narthex of the building, together with their sponsors who were already baptized. The baptized faithful would also be assembled inside the narthex in order to hear all of the Holy Scriptures of the day, and then to listen to the sermon and homily on the readings. This service is often called the “Liturgy of the Word” because the primary emphasis is upon hearing the Words of Holy Scripture and upon teaching and preaching the meaning of the Word. It is also often referred to as the “Liturgy of the Catechumens”.

At the conclusion of this service, the faithful (that is, those who were already baptized) were invited to pass through the doors which separate the western narthex from the eastern nave. In many of the older buildings, the narthex was constructed at a lower elevation, and so the faithful would ascend several steps before entering through the doors into the nave. Once all of the faithful entered through the doors into the eastern nave, the doors would be closed and guarded by a specific ministry called the “door-keepers”.

Many of those older doors had intricate carvings, especially of crosses. The catechumens would remain inside the western narthex for further instruction, and it is presumed, could hear the service which was being celebrated inside the eastern nave. That service was the offering of the Holy Eucharist by and for the faithful which culminates in the administration of Holy Communion to all who are baptized Christians. Naturally, because the catechumens were under instruction and had not yet been baptized, they could not participate in the offering of the Holy Eucharist or in the reception of Holy Communion.

To this day in our Church, at the conclusion of the Liturgy of the Word, the Deacon still issues the directive: “Let none of the catechumens, let none of those who are not true believers, and let none who are penitent and unclean approach the Divine Mystery.”[9]

Eventually, as most of the population was baptized, the position of the catechumen fell into disuse. Catechism was adjusted from being a course of instruction to those who wished to become Christians into a course of continuous education for those who (in many cases) had been baptized as infants. In modern usage, the function of the catechumenate has been supplanted by the organized Sunday School programs in most of our active parishes.

As the catechumenate disappeared, the architecture of the church building was again adjusted. It was no longer necessary to have a large western narthex. Indeed, most Armenian churches today are constructed with a small vestibule at the western porch of the building. The faithful enter from the vestibule from the street, usually purchase their candles and leave their donations in the vestibule, and then passing through the main doors, enter into the larger nave of the church itself.

In the course of this architectural metamorphosis, it would appear that the previous function of opening and closing the doors between the narthex and the nave was now replaced by a similar action of opening and closing the altar curtain.[10]

[A note. When I refer to the altar curtain, I should clarify that I am describing the large curtain which, when closed, extends across the entire length of the bema. This altar curtain is usually suspended from a straight rod which is bolted into the northern and southern portions of the archway over the bema. When I was younger, I recall that our parish church also had a second, small, semicircular altar curtain which enclosed just the altar-table. This was drawn closed when the priest was partaking of his Holy Communion. Sometime during the 1960s, the smaller, semicircular curtain was removed. There were also altar curtains to enclose the two side altars, but these were only closed during Lent. During Lent, all of the altar curtains were changed, and all of the altars were closed off with solid black curtains with white crosses. In contrast, for the 50 days of Easter, all of the altar curtains were again changed, but were white with gold crosses. In our Sister Churches (Syrian, Coptic, Ethiopian, Indian), they also use altar curtains. In the Byzantine churches, they utilize doors and a curtain to veil off the altar-table.]

How, then, did the practice of closing the altar curtain during Lent develop?

We are all familiar with the typologies which are offered as explanations for the practice, such as the representation of the Cherubim guarding the door to the Garden of Paradise after Adam and Eve were expelled (Genesis 3:22-24), and the gulf fixed between father Abraham holding poor Lazarus in his bosom and the rich man clothed in purple (Luke 16:19-31; esp. v. 26), as well as other examples. But, all of these examples emphasize expulsion, rejection, and isolation. Is it truly the mission and the ministry of the New Testament Church to expel, to reject, and to isolate the baptized faithful? Our Lord Jesus Christ would probably bristle at such a notion, particularly in light of His universal invitation: “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).

Some liturgical practices arise out of practical experience, but every so often, they are the consequence of misinterpretation. As many of you know, there is a tradition that when a man is ordained into the presbyterate in our Church, he is asked to spend 40 days in seclusion. During those 40 days, he is encouraged to remain inside the church building, but in some fashion, out of public sight. It has often happened that several men have been ordained on the same day in the same church (or monastery). Is it possible that in order to give them “cover” during their seclusion that someone suggested that the newly ordained stand behind a closed curtain during the church services? For 40 days, then, the altar curtain would remain closed to accommodate the seclusion. Did someone misinterpret the extraordinary circumstance, and imitate the practice elsewhere?

Did the practice arise out of the possibility that in some monastery, in preparation for Easter, it was decided that major renovations must be done in the altar area (new tiles, new beams, new paint, etc.)? In order to reduce the dust and dirt, did someone close the altar curtain for the several weeks that it took to complete the work before Easter? And, as a consequence of this action, did a pilgrim visitor return to his home parish and say, “Well, I just visited the monastery, and they keep the altar curtain closed during Lent.”

There are, of course, many other possibilities which may have given rise to a one-time event which was misinterpreted and then imitated in perpetuity.

I would like to suggest that during the course of history, a local Armenian bishop lamented the fact that the educational level of most of the baptized faithful was mediocre at best. In an effort to raise that level of education, perhaps the bishop issued a call for the faithful to “assume the position of a catechumen” and to “submit to a course of Christian instruction”. Certainly the sentiment was justified – and I am sad to say that even today, the vast majority of baptized Armenians have a woeful understanding of Holy Scripture and their own liturgy. Relying soundly upon the earlier directives of the Church-fathers, the bishop relegated the faithful to a period of instruction lasting for several weeks; in all probability, the easiest period of the year to reinstate such instruction would be during the weekdays of Lent.[11]

Perhaps to further emphasize the catechetical status of the faithful under instruction, the bishop dramatized the lecture series by reformatting the sanctuary of the church to reflect the older architecture of western narthex and eastern nave. Naturally the bishop could not move the walls, but he could close the altar curtain, and ask the people to imagine that they were now in the western narthex – even though they were physically inside the nave of the church. As I mentioned earlier, between the narthex and the nave there was often a set of steps, and the doors which separated the two spaces had carvings of crosses. Perhaps, then, to remind the people about the old steps and the carved crosses on the doors, a model of a set of steps was placed in front of the closed altar curtain, and likewise, a cross (or later, a painting of Christ crucified) was placed on top of the model of the stairway.

Whoever this bishop may have been, we can appreciate his commitment to raising the level of education amongst the sheep of the flock entrusted to his care (First Peter 5:1-4). We can appreciate the fact that the bishop relied upon historic precedent with regard to the catechumenate, the use of the western narthex, and the separation between the narthex and the nave using the stairway and the cross-doors. It is a lovely attempt to recreate the historic space of the western narthex by adjusting the existing space in the eastern nave. But, the unintended consequences of this admirable commitment to raise the level of education have wreaked havoc upon the liturgical experience of the Church of the Armenians ever since.

I have combed through many Armenian books, and it is quite frustrating to report to all of you that I cannot pinpoint either the geographic origin or the name of the person who closed the altar curtain for a second year and thereafter. In his monumental research, Patriarch Malachia Ormanian indicates that it was not until the year 1775 that Catholicos Simeon of Yerevan revised and reformed the liturgical observances during Lent.[12] Ormanian indicates that among the many controversial changes imposed upon the Church, Simeon of Yerevan suppressed the expressions of the Resurrection during the Sundays of Lent.

Simeon replaced the wording of the Trisagion from “Holy God, Holy and mighty, Holy and immortal, who didst rise from the dead, have mercy upon us” to “who was crucified for our sake”. Simeon replaced the Sunday Introit “O Only-begotten Son and Word of God” with the Introit of the Holy Cross “Before thine honorable and invincible Cross”. Simeon also promoted other forms of penitential observances during Lent, such as the black curtains and the veiling of the Gospel-book, and may have been influenced by the traditions which were observed in various parts of Europe at the time.

Gregor Kollmorgen provides a detailed history of the European traditions within the Roman Catholic jurisdictions which encouraged the veiling of crucifixes, chandeliers, statues, and shrines.[13] It is not improbable that some Armenian clergy who were impressed by European culture (particularly when compared with the situation of the Armenians under the Ottomans at the same time) may have wished to imitate these European practices, and borrowed the concept of Lenten Veils as used by the Roman Catholics. It must be emphasized, however, that even in the western tradition, the veils were not intended to conceal the Eucharistic altar-table from public view. It is unclear how and why the Armenians misinterpreted the European practice by drawing the main altar curtain closed during Lent.

Please allow me to cite one of the regional, fourth-century synods. It was convened in Laodicea, the metropolis of Pacatic Phrygia [in contrast with Laodicea which is located on the Mediterranean coast in Syria] circa 364 AD. In paragraph 49, the synod decrees that “in Great Lent bread must not be offered, except on Saturday and Sunday only”.[14] By “bread” it is understood that the synod is prohibiting the offering of the Holy Eucharist during the weekdays of Lent. It would appear that the Church of the Armenians accepted the decrees of this regional synod,[15]although the Armenian version of the text cites the decree as paragraph 46 instead. Indeed, to this day, Monday through Friday during the Great Lenten Fast, the Church of the Armenians does not commemorate the memorial of any saint, and the offering of the Holy Eucharist remains suppressed during the weekdays.[16] For us, saints are commemorated on Saturdays during Lent, and of course, Sunday remains sacred as the First Day of the Week. It would be worthwhile for a synod of 21stcentury bishops to analyze the findings of that regional synod, and decide whether such decrees merit maintenance today in our Church.

Very importantly, Sunday remains the weekly celebration of the Joy of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Even the 4thcentury bishops at Laodicea confirm that the Holy Eucharist must be celebrated on Sundays and Saturdays.

Thus far, we can see the awkward evolution of the tradition of closing the altar curtain. First we understand the development of the catechumenate, and the physical relegation of the catechumens to the western narthex. Second we understand the subsequent decline in the Christian knowledge of the baptized in general, and the commitment on the part of the Church to elevate that level of education.

Third we understand the dramatization of the closed doorway separating the narthex from the nave, and the subsequent replication of this separation using the closed altar curtain and the portable altar-stairs and the portrayal of the Crucifixion.

Fourth, we note that the Holy Eucharist is not offered during the weekdays of Lent. It would follow that since the altar area is not used Monday through Friday then it would be considered appropriate to keep the altar area closed and out of sight. So, we can see the development of a tradition of keeping the altar curtain closed Monday through Friday.

Thus far, we can understand the progression of the tradition and the evolution of the practice BUT we are still unable to justify the insistence of keeping the altar curtain closed when the Holy Eucharist is celebrated.

Let us examine two important points. Even if we accept the regional synod of Laodicea and even if we wish to promote the education of catechumens, neither of these historic precedents ever included Sunday and Saturday. The proscription against offering the Holy Eucharist refers strictly to the weekdays of Lent, and the usual presentation of catechism as evidenced by the early Church-fathers was assigned likewise to the weekdays of Lent. By definition, everyone who is baptized and chrismated may fully participate in the liturgies of the Church. Those who volunteer to participate in a course of continuous Christian education are not ipso factoprohibited from all of the rights and privileges of the baptized.

Of course, if someone is having a particularly challenging time emotionally and spiritually, and wishes to spend time in personal isolation and reflection, then the Church ought to do everything possible to assist that person through the period of fasting and prayer. But, draping the sanctuary in black brocade and denying Holy Communion to the masses during the preparatory period preceding Easter do not constitute a valid means of restoring the penitent or refreshing the spirituality the faithful.

Sunday has always been the weekly celebration of the Resurrection in our Church (and indeed, throughout all of Christendom). The assembly of the faithful on the Lord’s Day and the celebration of the Holy Eucharist on the First Day of the Week should remain joyous. It is irrational for the deacon to give a solid command to the entire congregation, “Greet ye one another with an holy kiss”, and then NOT permit the people to exchange the Kiss of Peace. It is irrational for the celebrant to give the invitation, “Take! Eat!” and “Drink from this all of you!”, and then NOT distribute the Holy Communion. Oddly, most churches continue to distribute the blessed “Mas” bread which is often intended to be sent to those who could not come to receive Holy Communion.

We read in the Gospel of John 20:19-23 that the disciples locked themselves inside of the house out of fear, but the Risen Jesus was able to penetrate right through the closed doors, and showing Himself clearly to them, said “Peace be unto you”. Why, then, during Lent is the greeting from the celebrant, “Peace be unto all” sent from behind a closed curtain?

To complicate matters, the use of a closed curtain during Lent has the unintended consequence of the fabrication of irreconcilable liturgical traditions, some of which vary from region to region. Again, I posit that we should NOT have a closed curtain for any Eucharist. On the first Sunday of Lent, which is called the Sunday of Good Living (= “Poun Paregentan”), there is a difference of local traditions with regard to the use of the curtain. In some places, they close the curtain on Saturday evening, while in other places they close the curtain on Sunday evening. I am constantly asked, “George, which is the correct tradition?” And my response is always the same: NEITHER is correct!

In some traditions, if the church is named after a saint whose memorial is observed on one of the Saturdays during Lent, they “make an exception”, and open the curtain that day for the Eucharist. In those places which neglect the offering of the Eucharist on Saturdays, they insist on erroneously observing the saint’s memorial on the Lord’s Day, Sunday, and ceremoniously open the altar curtain for a festival Eucharist.

In some traditions, owing to the closed curtain, they dispense with the procession for the Offertory of the Gifts. The Gifts are prepared upon the altar-table, and remain there for the entire service. In some traditions, they suppress the use of the altar-fans (= “k’shots”) and in other traditions, they suppress the use of the organ.

There are constant arguments about whether the celebrant ought to wear a crown during Lent. Should all of the candles on the altar be lighted? Should there be flowers? Should the Eucharistic Bread (= “n’shkhar”) be deliberately smaller in size so that the celebrant alone may consume the Communion? I recall that for many years on the East Coast, there were pew-books which were color-coded, and during Lent, certain parts of the Badarak were to be recited in a plain voice, while other parts were still to be sung.

The lists are endless – and respectfully, pointless.

The reason that there is so much confusion regarding rubrics is precisely because the imposition of the closed curtain is liturgically unnatural and theologically irrational. Consequently, people are inventing reasons to justify fallacious liturgy. The celebration of the Holy Eucharist is always joyful for us. Sundays are “of the Resurrection” throughout the entire year. How and why we shifted our liturgical observance to reflect the suffering and death of Christ on the Sundays of Lent remain a mystery – and as such, warrant serious examination to determine their perpetuation.

Please allow me to add one more thought on the subject. Why, in fact, do we EVER close the altar-curtain? I can appreciate the artistic placement of two curtains hanging in place on either side of the bema, representing the split Veil of the Temple. But, what is the basis for having a wall-to-wall curtain which is opened and closed on several occasions during the current offering of the Holy Eucharist?

Going back to the phenomenon of the rush of thousands of people to become Christian during the fourth century, we are reminded that the dowager Queen Helena visited the Holy Land in the first half of the fourth century, and in the course of excavations, fomented the eventual construction of the imperially-financed Martyrium-Anastasis complex surrounding what we now call the Holy Sepulcher. Ever since that time, countless pilgrims have visited Jerusalem, and have returned to their native countries to describe the architectural design of the Tomb of Christ. Consequently, in many liturgical traditions, the local parish church altar-table has become equated to the representation of the Tomb of Christ – and hence, the focus of the liturgical dramatization of all of the events associated with the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.[17]

In the earlier centuries of Christianity, and especially in those areas which were influenced by the Johannine Tradition (including Armenia), the Eucharistic celebration emphasized the Bread of Life coming down from heaven (John 6). The word “eucharist” means “thanksgiving”, and even the Armenian word “badarak” means “offering”. We should be vigilant NOT to refer to this service as “the sacrifice”. Armenian theology is based solidly upon the offering up of thanksgiving, and it is only in later centuries that some of our clergy (like Simeon of Yerevan) chose to only concentrate upon the Passion of Christ rather than the Glory of the Resurrection and Life Eternal.

A peculiar ritual was introduced into our Eucharist which reflects the memorial around the Tomb of Christ. The celebrant takes hold of the consecrated Body and Blood, having intincted the Body into the Blood, and turning away from the altar-table, processes out to the edge of the bema. He intones “Of the holy, holy honorable Body and Blood of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ let us taste in holiness” etc. As he concludes, he turns and heads back toward the altar-table, and as he approaches, the altar-curtain is drawn closed.


Beginning in the fourth century, in the Martyrium-Anastasis complex of Jerusalem, the manual acts of the Holy Eucharist were offered at the single altar-table which had been erected immediately in front of the Rock of Golgotha. However, the Holy Communion was not administered from that place. Instead, a procession was formed (hence the invitation to “Sing a Psalm with a sweet voice and with spiritual songs”), and the consecrated Elements were transported from the altar-table in front of the place where Jesus was crucified, and taken inside the Holy Sepulcher. Then, all of the faithful would line up on the (south) side and approach the entrance to the place from which Jesus was resurrected so that they too would receive “Life, Hope of the Resurrection, Expiation and Remission of Sins”.

What do we know about the events between the actual Crucifixion and the Burial inside the Tomb? We know that after the bloodied body of Jesus was taken down off the Cross, He was carried by Joseph of Arimathea to the tomb nearby (Matthew 27:57-61; Mark 15:42-47; Luke 23:50-56; John 19:38-42). After the body was placed inside the tomb, the opening of the tomb was sealed shut. When the women visited the tomb, they discovered that the stone which had been rolled in front of the door to the tomb had been rolled aside, thus opening the entrance to the tomb (Matthew 28:1-2; Mark 16:2-4; Luke 24:1-2; John 20:1).

The opening and the closing of the altar curtain, therefore, is a liturgical dramatization of the rolling of the stone in front of the entrance to the tomb.

Now, this is a beautiful tradition, and explains many of the liturgical details of our current celebration. However, the Holy Eucharist of the Church of the Armenians is NOT merely a dramatic re-presentation of the historic events of the death and burial of Jesus Christ. Our offering is the present preparation for the Eucharist which shall be celebrated in the world yet to come!

And I heard a great voice out of heaven, saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself shall be with them, and be their God. And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes: and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.” (Revelation 21:3-4)

Our Sunday Holy Eucharist, both during Lent and throughout the year, is not only a commemoration of all of the historic events in the life of Jesus Christ, but it is the opportunity for all of us to prepare ourselves to celebrate the joy of the Resurrection anew when our Lord comes again. The altar curtains of the Old Testament were made obsolete on the first Good Friday, and in the New Jerusalem to come, there is no need for any curtain because we shall see “no temple therein: for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are the temple of it” (Revelation 21:22).

In summary, I am not convinced of the theological, Eucharistic, or liturgical benefits of closing the altar-curtain throughout the celebration of the Holy Eucharist during the Great Lenten Fast. I can appreciate howsuch an expression of piety slowly evolved into the current practice, but I question the validity of an 18thcentury rubric, and I object its continued imposition upon our Church. In the absence of Scriptural evidence to support the validity of such an awkward practice in our Church, I respectfully suggest that the rubric be examined and eventually stricken so that all of us may rejoice in the Resurrection every Sunday, especially during Lent. Let me remind all of us who enjoy the hymns of our Church that on “Poun Paregentan”, the “Der hergnits Sharagan” commences: “Glory to thy Resurrection, O Lord!” How can we sing these words while staring at a closed, black curtain? It is time to resume “open” Eucharist during Lent.

[2]The Latin expression “velum templi scissum est” is the base for many classic musical renditions portraying the Crucifixion.

[3]See the text of the Anaphora of the Armenian Eucharist: “kahanayabed yev badarak”

[4]House-churches are mentioned frequently in the Acts of the Apostles and the various Epistles. Paul the Apostle regularly salutes individual householders. It is presumed that the early Christians in Armenia also met privately in houses.

[5]See for instance the liturgy in the household in Troas, Acts 20:7-12.

[6]Robert W. Thomson. The Teaching of Saint Gregory: an early Armenian Catechism. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1970.

[7]John Behr, trans. St. Irenaeus of Lyons, On the Apostolic Preaching. Crestwood, New York: Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1997.

[8]Edwin Hamilton Gifford. The Catechetical Lectures of Saint Cyril, Archbishop of Jerusalem. American Edition, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers. First published 1894. Reprinted by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, Editors. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers. Second Series. Volume 7: Cyril of Jerusalem and Gregory Nazianzen. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 4thprinting, 2004.

[9]“Mi vok herakhayits, mi vok ‘i terahavadits, yev mi vok habashkharoghats yev hanmakrits mertzes’tsi hasdvadzayin khorhourt’s.”

[10]We see a similar procedure on Palm Sunday. Originally, and still to this day in all of the printed editions, the service of the “Opening of the Doors” literally refers to the front door of the church (that is, the outside door on the western side of the building). Following the great procession which commences at 3 PM in the afternoon, all of the clergy and the faithful assemble outside of the entrance of the church. The knocking on the doors refers to the outside portal. Today, for various – and often trite – reasons, we awkwardly reposition this Evening Hour service to the end of the Eucharist, and instead of going to the door of the church, we close the altar curtain. But the plea is appropriate: “Open to us, O Lord! Open to us, O Lord! Open to us, O Lord, the door of mercy!”

[11]Cyril of Jerusalem. Catechetical Lectures. Ibid. Most scholars believe that Cyril delivered the 19 lectures over the course of the weekdays of Lent. Today, the Church of the Armenians apportions the Scriptures which Cyril cited using a cycle of Monday-Tuesday-Thursday during the weeks of Lent.

[12]Malachia Ormanian. Azgapatowm [The National History], in Armenian. Volume 2. Echmiadzin: Printing Press of the Mother See, 2001; pp. 3584-3592.

[14]The Rudder (Pedalion) of the Orthodox Christians, or All the Sacred and Divine Canons. Reprinted edition. New York: Luna Printing, 1983; p. 571.

[15]Vazgen Hakobyan, editor. Kanonagirk’ Hayoc [The Canon-books of the Armenians], in Armenian. Volume 1. Erevan, Armenian SSR: Armenian Academy of Science Publications, 1964; pp.224-242, esp. p. 239.

[16]Amongst the Byzantines, there is a liturgical tradition of celebrating the Pre-Sanctified Liturgy on the weekdays during Lent, in observance of this same decree. There is no evidence that such a liturgical practice was ever adopted by the Armenians.

[17]Martin Biddle. The Tomb of Christ. Stroud: Sutton Publishing, 1999.


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