Speaking of the Sepulcher

Christos anesti! Christ is risen!

Today, as I continued preparations for taking a cohort of 30 students and six faculty members to Greece in June, I read through an Athens guidebook, hoping to learn a bit about some of the Athens neighborhoods I don't yet know very well.

As I flipped through the pages -- noting with selfish chagrin that some of my favorite "secret" tavernas were no longer all that secret -- I came upon a section regarding "The Eastern Orthodox Church." There were, of course, a number of observations that I would have phrased differently than Rick Steves had done, but one particular bit caught my eye, not because it was mistaken, but because the facts alone seemed to miss the point.

Mr. Steves, in fact, was surely correct in observing that those entering an Orthodox church for the first time might puzzle about the location of the altar. "Where is it?" they might wonder. And he is, in terms of practicalities, also correct in saying that the altar is hidden behind a wall of icons we call the iconostasis. In fact, he is technically accurate in nearly everything he writes about the matter:

"The iconostasis divides the lay community from the priests--the material world from the spiritual one. Following Old Testament Judeo-Christian tradition the bible is kept on the altar behind the iconostasis. The spiritual heavy lifting takes place behind the iconostasis, where the priests symbolically turn bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus. Then they open the doors or curtains and serve the Eucharist to their faithful flock, spooning the wine from the chalice while holding a cloth under each chin so as not to drop any on the floor."

Pretty close. The spiritual world behind the curtain is actually understood to infuse the material one with significance. The book on the altar is the book of the Gospels alone, the narrative texts of Christ's work in the world. And while the bread and wine can be said to symbolically become the body and blood of Jesus, you'll only catch the essential drift of that utterance if you know the difference between a symbol and a sign. A sign simply points to what it represents; a symbol partakes of it.

What strikes me as most lacking in the above description -- most missing the point -- is the bit about the iconostasis dividing "the lay community from the priest." I don't blame anyone for missing the central matter here; even many practicing Orthodox can forget or neglect the point.

The point is this: the iconostasis represents the tomb itself, the sepulcher in which Christ was buried. The "Great Entrance" -- that powerful moment in the Divine Liturgy when the priest processes with the wine and bread, encircling the people of the parish and entering the central, "royal doors" of the iconostasis -- is itself a remembrance of Christ's funeral procession. He is being carried to His tomb. And yes, the doors (or the curtains) are closed behind him, leaving us outside that tomb as He is interred within.

But then, the doors are opened, the stone is rolled away, and we are invited to approach: "With the fear of God, with faith and with love," we are beckoned, "draw near."

The Greek word for "thank you" is efkaristo, and in Greek letters that word is spelled ευχαριστώ. Take a close look at those letters, and glimpse, if you can, the deeper sense of Eucharist.

Alithos anesti! Truly He is risen!