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The Cave And Christmas

Traditional Eastern Orthodox icon of the Nativity (Ted/Flickr [1])

Merry Christmas, everybody. Yesterday morning we had Sunday liturgy. One of the lovely things about the Orthodox liturgy on the Sunday before Christmas is how the readings focus on the genealogy of Jesus. As our priest said in his homily, it’s interesting to observe how God used the messy, even scandalous, lives of people who were Jesus Christ’s ancestors to prepare the way for Him. It tells us something about the nature of God. One is reminded of the well-known phrase, “God writes straight with crooked lines.”

If you’ve ever been to an Orthodox liturgy, you know that the entire thing is sung and chanted, and that there is lots of incense, signs of the Cross, bowing, Psalms, and other ancient prayers. Standing there on Sunday morning, I thought about how God swaddles us in the liturgy. It is complex, but that complexity somehow brings about a feeling of warmth, protection, and nearness to God. Everything in the Orthodox liturgy and inside an Orthodox Church is pregnant with meaning. For 11 Christmases now I have heard that liturgy. After communion, I thought about what a marvelous and extremely unlikely thing it is that God used an obscure Near Eastern tribe to make Himself manifest to the world, most of all in the birth of the Messiah, and how the stories of the Hebrew people, in the Bible, is the story of all believers in that Messiah.

This morning, Father preached about the traditional Orthodox icon of the Nativity (see above), which depicts the Virgin and the Christ Child in a cave. The Baby is swaddled in wrapping meant to call to mind the funeral shroud He will one day wear when He is returned to the cave that will be His tomb — and the site of his resurrection. This icon depicting the birth of the Messiah also calls to mind His death. Father said that in both cases, we see that God brings forth new life from deep in the Earth.

When the liturgy continued, it occurred to me that the iconostasis [2] — the screen between the altar and the rest of the church — is a kind of cave too. When the “royal doors” — the passageway at the center of the altar, through which only the priest in vestments may pass — open, it’s as if the Messiah comes forth from the cave in the form of the Eucharist, bringing us new life.

One of the gifts I gave to my wife was a collection of Hymns of St. Symeon the New Theologian [3], a Byzantine monk who lived from the years 949 to 1021. His 20th hymn begins like this:

For my sake You were seen on earth, born of a virgin,
You Who are invisible before the ages,
and You became flesh, and You were manifested as a human being,
You Who are wrapped in unapproachable light.
Everyone supposed that You were limited,
You Who cannot be contained by anything,
all speech is not able to tell of You,
and a mind that is compelled tries to grasp with yearning,
yet is not able to seize You when it is humbled by fear,
and again, burning within, it searches for You.

The saint continues in the hymn, saying that we find Him in the Holy Eucharist. He Who fills the entire universe came to us as a baby in Palestine, and comes to us today in bread and wine. Miracle of miracles!

Today we celebrated not the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, which is customary, but rather the Divine Liturgy of St. Basil the Great. Here is an excerpt from the communion prayers:


Together with these blessed powers, loving Master we sinners also cry out and say: Truly You are holy and most holy, and there are no bounds to the majesty of Your holiness. You are holy in all Your works, for with righteousness and true judgment You have ordered all things for us. For having made man by taking dust from the earth, and having honored him with Your own image, O God, You placed him in a garden of delight, promising him eternal life and the enjoyment of everlasting blessings in the observance of Your commandments. But when he disobeyed You, the true God who had created him, and was led astray by the deception of the serpent becoming subject to death through his own transgressions, You, O God, in Your righteous judgment, expelled him from paradise into this world, returning him to the earth from which he was taken, yet providing for him the salvation of regeneration in Your Christ. For You did not forever reject Your creature whom You made, O Good One, nor did You forget the work of Your hands, but because of Your tender compassion, You visited him in various ways: You sent forth prophets; You performed mighty works by Your saints who in every generation have pleased You. You spoke to us by the mouth of Your servants the prophets, announcing to us the salvation which was to come; You gave us the law to help us; You appointed angels as guardians. And when the fullness of time had come, You spoke to us through Your Son Himself, through whom You created the ages. He, being the splendor of Your glory and the image of Your being, upholding all things by the word of His power, thought it not robbery to be equal with You, God and Father. But, being God before all ages, He appeared on earth and lived with humankind. Becoming incarnate from a holy Virgin, He emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant, conforming to the body of our lowliness, that He might change us in the likeness of the image of His glory. For, since through man sin came into the world and through sin death, it pleased Your only begotten Son, who is in Your bosom, God and Father, born of a woman, the holy Theotokos [“God-bearer”] and ever virgin Mary; born under the law, to condemn sin in His flesh, so that those who died in Adam may be brought to life in Him, Your Christ. He lived in this world, and gave us precepts of salvation. Releasing us from the delusions of idolatry, He guided us to the sure knowledge of You, the true God and Father. He acquired us for Himself, as His chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation. Having cleansed us by water and sanctified us with the Holy Spirit, He gave Himself as ransom to death in which we were held captive, sold under sin. Descending into Hades through the cross, that He might fill all things with Himself, He loosed the bonds of death. He rose on the third day, having opened a path for all flesh to the resurrection from the dead, since it was not possible that the Author of life would be dominated by corruption. So He became the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep, the first born of the dead, that He might be Himself the first in all things. Ascending into heaven, He sat at the right hand of Your majesty on high and He will come to render to each according to His works. As memorials of His saving passion, He has left us these gifts which we have set forth before You according to His commands.

This is our story, we Christians. This is the story that tells us who we are — and Whose we are. Happy are those that are called to His supper.

38 Comments (Open | Close)

38 Comments To "The Cave And Christmas"

#1 Comment By Liam On December 25, 2017 @ 2:24 pm

A blessed Nativity to you and yours, Rod.

Herbert McCabe, O.P., years ago wrote a memorable piece on the genealogy of Christ according to St Matthew, published in his collection, God Matters (1991):


#2 Comment By JonF On December 25, 2017 @ 2:24 pm

Merry Christmas to all! Christ is born! Glorify him!

I will be candid and note (without detail) that this has been a difficult Christmas time for me. But we had church yesterday, followed by the Nativity Compline, and Church again today followed by a luncheon. Which has made things somewhat more serene for me.
I hope all here have had a blessed day.

#3 Comment By Eric Todd On December 25, 2017 @ 3:05 pm

Christ is born. Glorify Him!

Happy Christmas to all!

#4 Comment By Alastair Roberts On December 25, 2017 @ 6:38 pm

The birth/death connection is so important, yet seldom reflected upon. I wrote a piece on it recently: [5].

#5 Comment By charles cosimano On December 25, 2017 @ 6:46 pm

Merry Christmas, Rod.

[NFR: Thank you, dear Uncle. May God bless and keep you. — RD]

#6 Comment By Bernie On December 25, 2017 @ 6:54 pm

JonF, peace be with you.

#7 Comment By Potato On December 25, 2017 @ 8:34 pm

Obviously I have no idea what the problem is JonF, but I would say that Christmas is often a difficult time, and that I hope you find comfort.

#8 Comment By Turmarion On December 25, 2017 @ 10:05 pm

Merry Christmas, peace, happiness, and love to all, especially JonF!

#9 Comment By charles cosimano On December 25, 2017 @ 10:16 pm

[NFR: Thank you, dear Uncle. May God bless and keep you. — RD

Thank you, Rod. When you say this, I know that you mean it. If only all Christians were like you. Then there would be no need for men like me.

#10 Comment By Hal On December 25, 2017 @ 11:12 pm

The Eucharist is hidden behind a screen in Orthodox churches? What’s the theology behind that?

[NFR: It is confected on the altar, which is behind the iconostasis, though some in the congregation can see it when the royal doors open periodically during the liturgy. The priest brings the Eucharist from the altar, through the royal doors, at communion. The idea is that the altar area corresponds to the Holy of Holies in the Jewish Temple. The royal doors — or, as in the case of our little mission church, a curtain — represent the veil in the Temple that separated the Holy of Holies from the rest of the Temple. As Scripture tells us, the veil was torn by the Resurrection; this is behind the symbolism of the Eucharistic Christ coming to the people from the altar through the veil/royal doors. I’m sure there’s more to it than that, but that is what is going on to the best of my knowledge. — RD]

#11 Comment By EngineerScotty On December 25, 2017 @ 11:35 pm

Merry Christmas! (And Happy Holidays, too).

Oldie but goodie from The Onion:


#12 Comment By stephen cooper On December 26, 2017 @ 1:58 am

JonF – welcome to the club. (that is, I have not had many Christmases where someone I cared about did not have real problems). (actually, none). I guess that is what we signed up for in this world.

I will pray for you, and I will ask the suffering souls I have been fortunate enough to meet in this world to pray for you and those you love, as well.

#13 Comment By dfb On December 26, 2017 @ 8:24 am

“came to us as a baby in Palestine”

If you are going to promote the Christian story, is not this assertion an anachronism? Your own Orthodox Church in America correctly translates Matthew 2:1:

“Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem”


#14 Comment By Philly guy On December 26, 2017 @ 8:47 am

It’s Boxing Day, So: This is our story, We are Christians. We celebrated Christmas by pointing out the shortcomings of the Jewish Family, that our savior descended from.Merry Christmas!

#15 Comment By William Tighe On December 26, 2017 @ 10:55 am

“came to us as a baby in Palestine … is not this assertion an anachronism?”

Probably so, at least as regards the name “Palestine.” While the word goes back, in one form or another to the ancient Egyptians and the Assyrians, and is probably related to the Philistines – by origin possibly an Indo-European people, maybe even Mycenaean Greeks, who settled on that is today the coast of Israel in the 12th century B.C. – it was first employed to designate that portion of Syria between Phoenicia and Egypt by Herodotus ca. 435 B.C., and, in the form Syria Palaestina , was applied by the Romans in 135 A.D. to the whole area corresponding to modern Israel and Jordan after their crushing of the Bar-Kochba Revolt of 132-135 A.D.

#16 Comment By JonF On December 26, 2017 @ 12:17 pm

Re: It is confected on the altar, which is behind the iconostasis, though some in the congregation can see it when the royal doors open periodically during the liturgy

I will add to this the there is a tabernacle on the altar which contains some pieces of reserved Eucharist, though Eucharistic adoration is not a thing done in the Orthodox Church as it is in the Catholic Church. Also, traditions differ as to when the curtain is open or closed. In my own church the curtain remains open throughout the Liturgy, until after the Lord’s Prayer when it is closed while the clergy commune and prepare the chalice(s) to take out, and then it is opened again. I have been to churches where the curtain is closed and opened at various other times, e.g, before the Great Entrance and during the Consecration.

#17 Comment By Anna On December 26, 2017 @ 12:27 pm

Your paraphrase of St. Symeon, “He Who fills the entire universe came to us as a baby in Palestine, and comes to us today in bread and wine,” closely echoes this from John Betjeman’s poem, “Christmas”:

“No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare –
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.”

I wonder, did you hear the poem once and unconsciously echo its phrasing, or was St. Symeon’s hymn a source for Betjeman?

[NFR: I’m not aware of having read the Betjeman poem. — RD]

#18 Comment By Brian in Brooklyn On December 26, 2017 @ 12:47 pm

Marry Christmas, Happy Boxing Day and Best Wishes to All.

To JonF: I offer you prayers from my tradition for blessedness and peace.

#19 Comment By Hector_St_Clare On December 26, 2017 @ 1:14 pm

Best wishes and prayers, JonF. I’ve been dealing with some health issues for the past three and a half months, so I can identifying with looking forward to Christmas this year as a time of healing. I’ll keep you in my prayers.

#20 Comment By Suburbanp On December 26, 2017 @ 1:47 pm

Merry Christmas! We’re out in the sticks with (evangelical) family and haven’t been to Church in a week. Yesterday evening I missed the liturgy more than ever. 10 years in and its finally starting to work…

#21 Comment By Rob G On December 26, 2017 @ 1:58 pm

“The Eucharist is hidden behind a screen in Orthodox churches? What’s the theology behind that?”

Rod’s description is accurate, but it’s vital to note that Orthodoxy doesn’t liturgize according to its theology, but instead does the opposite. So in a very real sense it’s the Liturgy that’s “behind” the theology.

#22 Comment By mrscracker On December 26, 2017 @ 2:13 pm

JonF ,
I sincerely hope things go better for you in the coming days & that your New Year is full of blessings.
Prayers & best wishes!

#23 Comment By Hilda Mary On December 26, 2017 @ 3:56 pm

dfb — I’m not sure what you think the anachronism or contradiction is. Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Judea were all located in the region of Palestine, just as Rod stated.

[NFR: I wasn’t trying to make a political statement with the word. I was just trying to refer to a region. — RD]

#24 Comment By Nancy E. Head On December 26, 2017 @ 4:23 pm

At my son’s Catholic church on Christmas Eve, the priest said, “Christ was born in a stable because that’s where the sacrifices were kept.”

A cave as a stable and a cave as a tomb–Chesterton discussed those brilliantly.

Merry Christmas to all. God bless JonF, especially!

#25 Comment By Rombald On December 26, 2017 @ 6:20 pm

“It is confected on the altar, which is behind the iconostasis, though some in the congregation can see it when the royal doors open periodically during the liturgy.”

Rod: You might already know, in which case I’m sorry, but there is actually an English word for “iconostasis” – “roodscreen”. Until some point in mediaeval times, Catholic churches had them too, and they are still present in quite a number of English Anglican churches.

#26 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On December 26, 2017 @ 9:02 pm

Boxing Day! The day for the ancient Tradition of the Hunting of the Wren! On this day, the Nativity and rising up of the oppressed classes unite in one beautiful pageant!

Incidentally, the lineage from King David to Jesus of Nazareth runs through Joseph’s line, a fact Matthew covers for with the phrase “as was then supposed” (i.e., supposed that Jesus was Joseph’s son). Someone eventually got hip to the contradiction and tried to concoct a similar lineage for Mary, but it really won’t do.

#27 Comment By David44 On December 27, 2017 @ 10:10 am

dfb wrote:

“came to us as a baby in Palestine”

If you are going to promote the Christian story, is not this assertion an anachronism?”

No, it isn’t anachronistic. While “Judea” was the official name for the kingdom of Herod, and then of the Roman province that succeeded it at the time of Jesus (hence its use in Matthew), “Palestine” was commonly used at the time as a more informal name for the same area. For example, the land of the Jews is called “Palestine” by Ovid, Ars Amatoria 1.416 – a work written around the time of Jesus’ birth – and by Jesus’ Jewish contemporary Philo, Life of Moses 1.163.

#28 Comment By Hound of Ulster On December 27, 2017 @ 11:52 am

Merry Christmas everyone! Christ is born, glorify Him!

#29 Comment By JonF On December 27, 2017 @ 1:30 pm

Thanks to everyone for their well-wishing and prayers. I have emailed Rod a brief account of what is going on in my life, but I prefer it remain private (= not posted on a public website). But if anyone wants to corner me at the next Walker Percy Weekend I attend I may be willing to talk more in person.

#30 Comment By Franklin Evans On December 27, 2017 @ 2:47 pm

[8], Russian kolyadka.

I found a pop lyrics version, so y’all are on your own to find one for the traditional lyrics.

I sang this with a Russian choir. Always gave me goose bumps.

#31 Comment By David Palmer On December 27, 2017 @ 3:15 pm

Thank you Rod for the Communion Prayer of St Basil of Caesarea a Protestant has no trouble praying with one slight amendment (Mark 6:3) – a beautiful prayer.
I have just returned from a visit to important archaeological sites associated with early Christianity in Turkey – great sadness in observing how everywhere mosques and minarets had replaced the churches first established all those centuries ago.
Here is an interesting fact: in Ephesus, to date only one church has been discovered, whilst in the much more recently excavated Laodicea (Rev 3:14-22), already 20 churches have been located, including a very large 5th C basilica.

#32 Comment By William Tighe On December 27, 2017 @ 4:05 pm

Rombald wrote:

“Rod: You might already know, in which case I’m sorry, but there is actually an English word for “iconostasis” – “roodscreen”. Until some point in mediaeval times, Catholic churches had them too, and they are still present in quite a number of English Anglican churches.”

Iconostases and roodscreens, although very similar in appearance, have totally different origins. The former is the result of a long process of “solidification,” in churches in the sphere of Byzantine Christianity, of the space between the low chancel barrier (with openings for the ingress and egress of officiating clergy) and the beam supported by columns arising from that barrier, the better to hang icons on it, or affix them to it (see “The Chancel Barrier, Solea, and Ambo of Haghia Sophia,” by Stephen G. Xydis, The Art Bulletin 29 (1947), pp. 1-24); the latter, primarily a phenomenon of transalpine Latin Christianity which was never fully adopted in Italy, originated as a way of isolating, or at least clearly demarcating, the “clergy section” of a church or cathedral from that open to all comers. “Iconostasis” means “icon stand,” which is a good description of its original purpose; “roodscreen” refers to its position in English churches directly below, and offering access to (cf. the “roodloft”) the great Crucifix which normally was suspended from the chancel arch above it.

#33 Comment By Rombald On December 27, 2017 @ 6:54 pm

William Tighe:
Thanks for the correction. I have seen ikonostases in Orthodox churches, and just assumed that they were the same as the roodscreens that I’d seen in a handful of English churches.

I prefer people to use an English word when there is one available.

#34 Comment By MichaelLF On December 28, 2017 @ 3:30 pm

The depiction of Jesus in a cave derives from the Protoevangelium of James, apparently written not too many years after the Gospel of John. The book is far more interested in Mary than it is Jesus, betraying the irresistible itch to tinker with the story of Jesus, elaborate it, distract us in the name of devotion from the hard truths of the actual narrative of Jesus’s teachings, death, and resurrection.

James’s gospel gives names to Mary’s parents, Joachim and Anna; describes Joseph as elderly, with children from a previous marriage; and insists that Mary was the purest woman ever born. In scene after scene, Mary is shown to be pure: never eating impure food, consorting only with the pure, and passing a test by the high priest when she is suspected of impurity. In a strange echo of the doubting Thomas story, James describes a doubting Salome who does not believe the midwife’s tale that Mary gave birth without breaking her hymen. Salome tests the claim with her own fingers. Mary is that pure.

When the Church in the second century finally got around to deciding on a canon of scripture, church leaders (wisely) left James’s gospel out as well as many other gospels, epistles, and acts narratives, but the effects of these apocrypha linger in the way the apocrypha inform canonical works, art, and even the identity of such saints as Thecla, who surely never existed.

Little of this kind of devotional and cultural elaboration is present in the letters of Paul. He didn’t have time. He expected the second coming at any moment, and so he got busy converting souls. Like Jesus, he wasn’t interested in the kind of ritual purity that obsesses James’s gospel. Like Jesus, he wanted purity of heart. Don’t marry unless you must. Don’t fight with your brothers. Don’t elevate one brother over another. Accept women and slaves as equals. Repent and obey God.

Paul was wrong about the imminence of the second coming, and so inevitably Christian cultures were born, and with them, liturgies, devotional practices, and hierarchies that could enforce orthodoxies.

Personally, I’m a sucker for Christian cultural expressions: the ancient pomp of a high Latin mass, ornate stained-glass windows, the airy lightness and plain whitewashed walls of mainline Protestant churches, the stomps and shouts of Pentecostal churches, the dark closeness of Eastern Orthodox churches. They’re all good. The words of all these liturgies, homilies, sermons, prayers, and songs, are also good.

And they’re all distractions. They are only culture, not faith itself. Not the hard deeds of charity, forgiveness, and sacrifice Jesus called for repeatedly.

My frustration with so much of Rod’s thinking is that he cares first and foremost about culture, frequently eliding culture and politics. He looks around and sees a post-Christian culture that no longer upholds long-held Christian moral teachings around marriage, divorce, and sexuality. And so he creates the Benedict Option, a way of creating a Christian culture again. He collects stories about monks and intentional communities that engage in cultural practices, devotional practices.

Jesus, however, calls us more strongly to faith practices, acts of charity, forgiveness, and sacrifice. We need to hear more stories about soup kitchens and hospitals, peacemaking and rescue work within our own communities. Whenever Jesus explains how we will be judged, he never asks whether we participated in Christian culture. In such passages as Matthew 25:35 and the Sermon on the Mount, he makes very clear that God will judge our actions, not our participation in Christian culture. God tests our faithfulness every time we meet the poor and outcast.

The test of every Christian community is whether the community restores and empowers these acts of faithfulness in its members. The rest is all very nice.

#35 Comment By Old West On December 28, 2017 @ 3:51 pm

Rombald and William Tighe —

It is very true that the roodscreen has some similarities with the iconostasis — both demarcate a separation between sections of a Christian temple, but they are definitely not the same thing, nor are they related.

The biggest difference for me between the two is where they are placed. There is the altar proper, where the Holy Table is, farthest to the east in both western and eastern architecture. Immediately to the west of that is what in the western church is known as the choir, and what in the Orthodox tradition is often known as the kliros — both represent places where the singers are, and in the Orthodox tradition, strictly speaking, any clergy or altar server who isn’t engaged in some sort of active work in the altar should be there singing.

I would note that with the advent of choir lofts in the back of Orthodox churches, many churches do not have a functioning kliros in the front of the church (there should be two groups of singers up front — one on the north and one on the south — to sing antiphonally). And even in churches where there is an active kliros, not all clergy and servers come out to sing when they aren’t otherwise occupied.

In the Orthodox tradition, the iconostasis divides the altar area from the kliros/choir — and there is, in many traditional Russian churches in particular, a second, partial barrier with icons on it between the nave and where the singers stand. I’m not aware that this barrier even has a name, but it serves a practical purpose of keeping the singers hidden so they won’t be visually distracting to the people. Most churches use the kliros area for priests to hear confessions, and often use it readers to chant certain parts of the service even if there isn’t an actual group of singers.

Note that the roodscreen in old English churches is between the nave and the choir, not between the choir and the altar. This means that the roodscreen actually stands where the nameless second barrier is in many Orthdoox churches — not where the iconostasis is, so for that reason alone, “roodscreen” would not be a proper translation of iconostasis. It is in a liturgically very different place.

Finally, remember that “rood” quite literally means “cross,” and in English churches, every roodscreen that I’ve seen has a cross or crucifix as the central feature of that screen — right in the middle on top. An iconostasis sometimes has a cross or icon of the crucifixion in that position above the Holy Doors, but I doubt that even the majority of iconostases has one — and it is certainly not a central or eye-catching feature. So for that additional reason, I don’t think that roodscreen would be a proper translation for iconostasis.

That said, in general I tend to agree with you that plain English words, when possible, should be used rather than transliterated jargon. My biggest pet peeve is the pretentious practice among some of saying that we “write” icons. This of course comes from the Greek root word “graph” in iconography — the same word is used in Greek for “write” and “draw.” But not in English — it is preposterous to say that we “paint” or “draw” ordinary pictures but “write” icons. How silly. That would make sense only if we “write” photographs rather than “take” them, or say that recording artists “write” what is on a phonograph record, or that scientists who use chromotography are somehow “writing.’

We of course “paint” icons, after the artist has “drawn” the initial sketch. Sometimes there really are English words, and we should use them.

#36 Comment By Potato On December 29, 2017 @ 3:41 pm

JonF, we don’t need to know the details, of course, to wish you well.

Thank you MichaelLF!! This is too often forgotten.

I think many if not most who think themselves Christians will be surprised and dismayed when we meet the Lord. He will not ask, I think, which variety of Christian church we attended, or even whether we attended one at all. He will not evaluate the beauty of our liturgies, for He made the universe, which surpasses anything we can create. He will not be interested in our doctrinal quarrels with each other, or in the precise formulation of the requirements for salvation. He will not cross examine anyone about whether they “cooperated” with a same sex wedding by making a cake. Actually, in His life here he did not exhibit a lot of interest in our sex lives at all, whether regular or irregular, and I doubt that He will have changed His mind.

In the parable of the Last Judgment He lays it all out, the hard test, the one we try at all costs to evade. How did we treat Him in the person of our suffering brothers and sisters? Did we offer aid and comfort? Did we clothe the naked, feed the hungry? Did we love our neighbors as ourselves, and demonstrate that love in action?

Many will call Him “Lord, Lord” but be found wanting.

We may all well tremble at such reflections. I know I do. If we have an eye to our own hearts we will have less attention to spend on the flaws, real and imagined, of other people.

#37 Comment By William Tighe On December 29, 2017 @ 5:45 pm

Old West,

Thank you for your comprehensive and accurate comment, to which I will add two little “footnotes.”

First, one can see the survival of a kliros or choir, separate from the main body of the church and separate, also, from the altar, or, in Western terminology, the sanctuary or chancel, in certain old churches in Rome, such as San Clemente and Santa Maria in Cosmedin, the latter now and for some 40 years past handed over to the use of the Melkite Catholics, and perhaps – I have not, alas, been in Rome since 1985 – elsewhere in Rome and in Italy.

Secondly, it is perhaps not best to describe the Rood as “the central feature of that screen,” meaning the roodscreen, as the rood (usually a large-ish structure, flanked by Our Lady and St. John the Baptist) always hung from the top of the chancel arch, often, but not always, attached to the roodscreen at its bottom. The top part of the roodscreen, the roodloft, unlike any iconostases of which I am aware, was accessible from staircases on one or both of its sides, and was sufficiently spacious that a small choir could sing antiphons or whatnot on certain feasts – hence the French name for the roodloft, the Jube from the versicle “Iube, Domine, benedicere.” As the English Reformation descended into Protestant iconoclasm, both in Edward VI’s reign and again in Elizabeth I’s, roods were ordered to be removed – none survive that I know of – and then roodlofts – of which a few survive (St. Margaret’s, Herefordshire, for example) – but many roodscreens survive throughout England.

#38 Comment By JonF On December 30, 2017 @ 5:29 pm

Re: Immediately to the west of that is what in the western church is known as the choir, and what in the Orthodox tradition is often known as the kliros — both represent places where the singers are, and in the Orthodox tradition, strictly speaking, any clergy or altar server who isn’t engaged in some sort of active work in the altar should be there singing.

This is interesting. I have never been in an Orthodox church in North America where the choir is up front (although cantors may be). Generally the choir is in the back, or upstairs in a loft in the back.