The Prayer of the Veil
There is a little prayer prayed silently by the priest each liturgy that goes all but unnoticed by the congregation. It is indeed a very personal and intimate prayer, but it is one that the congregation can share, at least in spirit. It is called the Prayer of the Veil, for it is prayed at the Royal Door, the entrance to the sanctuary, which represents Heaven, the place where the Veil was split in two at the time of Christ’s crucifixion. That sign was the indication that we are now able to enter the Holy of Holies, previously an honour reserved only for the Jewish High Priest. But the Christian priest of today does not take this honour lightly! It must never be taken for granted, and thus the tradition of the Church teaches us that none is to enter or exit through the Royal Door except when necessary for the service, and that one should bow and offer reverence to God whenever passing through that Door.
But before he enters the sanctuary to begin the Liturgy of the Faithful, the priest must first pray this prayer. When the reading of the Gospel is finished, the priest, who had been standing next to the lectern and offering incense, must now return to the sanctuary to begin the prayers at the altar once more. But he comes to a stop at the Royal Door and prays the following prayer* :
“O God, who, in Your unspeakable love toward mankind, sent Your Only Begotten Son into the world, that He might bring the lost sheep home unto You; we ask You, O our Lord, thrust us not behind You when we offer this awesome and bloodless sacrifice. For we put no trust in our righteousness but in Your mercy, whereby You have given life to our race. We pray and entreat Your goodness, O Lover of Mankind, that this mystery which You have appointed unto us for salvation may not be unto condemnation unto us or unto any of Your people, but unto the washing away of our sins and the forgiveness of our negligence and unto the glory and honour of Your Holy Name, O Father, Son and Holy Spirit, now and unto the age of all ages, amen.”
Basically, the priest stands outside the Royal Door and prays, “As You came out of heaven, and in Your holiness came out us sinners in the world – so now please allow me the sinner to enter into Heaven to be with You, and sanctify me that I may do so.”
He comes out of heaven to pray for his brothers and sisters in the world before the Word, the Logos. But having carried the burdens of the world, having prayed for those who are distressed, in captivity, sick, and so on, he stops before re-entering Heaven to seek ‘cleansing’ of his thoughts. For he will now enter the sanctuary to take part in the calling down of heaven to come and fill the Church, he will stand before the Throne of God, upon which sits the Lamb of God, slain for the life of the whole world, he will be in the presence of the cherubim and seraphim and the angels that surround God’s heavenly throne. He does not dare to enter into such a service without first asking permission, and seeking the acceptance of God, and the forgiveness of his own, many sins.
The priest confesses that he is one of those lost sheep for whom the Shepherd came out to search. He pauses, awkwardly, uncertain, “sheepishly”, outside the door, wondering if he is welcome, pondering whether he will be allowed back in. For he knows that he is not worthy; “For we put no trust in our righteousness…” he complains, since before God, “There is none righteous, no, not one … There is none who understands … There is none who does good, no, not one.” (Romans 3:11-13) If he were treated with justice, he would deserve to be cast out, “thrust behind” God, and not allowed to enter the Holy places, like St Mary the Egyptian of old. All he can hope for is that God will accept him, unworthy as he is, in His great mercy, for He came to seek the Lost Sheep like him.
The priest knows full well that if he approaches this Mystery in an unworthy manner, not only will he forfeit the blessings it bestows, but it will become a curse to him, for “he who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body” (1 Corinthians 11:29) Thus he entreats God “that this mystery which You have appointed unto us for salvation may not be unto condemnation unto us or unto any of Your people, but unto the washing away of our sins and the forgiveness of our negligence and unto the glory and honour of Your Holy Name”.
This is God’s “unspeakable love”, the love that no words can describe, no mind can comprehend. The love that transforms the lowly, the confused, the uncertain and the spiritually orphaned into true adopted Children of the Lord of Heaven and Earth. Before he can begin the Liturgy of the Faithful, the priest pauses at the door to experience this intimate moment of surrender to God and to be flooded with the warmth of His all-consuming love.
During this moment, the congregation are singing the appropriate Gospel Response. The general response is “Truly blessed are they indeed, the saints of this day, each one, each one by his name, the beloved of Christ”. Through this hymn they share in this intimate moment with the priest and with the saints who have lived before us over the past 2000 years and grew to know well the love of Christ. We dare to proceed to the Liturgy of the Faithful because they dared … and were not turned away! Rather, Christ accepted them to Himself and even named them “His beloved”. Can we possibly receive this same immense grace? Let us step forward boldly and find out – the priest completes his prayer and steps boldly into the sanctuary through the royal door, and the grand adventure of the Eucharist begins…
* In order to save time, the priest will often pray this prayer while he is still standing at the lectern, during the reading of the Gospel.