Knocking 3 times on the Holy Door

Pope knocking on Holy Door/Amenhotep III striking doorpost with mace

Pope knocking on Holy Door/Amenhotep III striking doorpost with mace

One of the more interesting rites that has been practiced throughout time is one where a high priest knocks on a holy door or gate three times with a hammer, mallet, or mace before opening and entering.

The Catholic Rite

Matthew B. Brown explains this practice in the Roman Catholic tradition as seen in the photo on the left:

On Jubilee years [every 25 years], the Pope carries out a . . . rite when he knocks three times with a golden hammer on the Holy Door, or Holy Gate, of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome (several other basilicas in Rome also have Holy Doors). A medieval medal struck to commemorate this occasion shows the people on one side of the door and the Lord on the other side . . . The words spoken along with this rite make it clear that the ceremony represents entry into God’s temple . . . [the image on the left is] this rite being performed, see Francesco Papafava, ed., The Vatican (New York: Harper and Row, 1984), 19. The tradition of the Holy Door is also found in the Russian Orthodox Church. These Christians view this door as “The entrance into the Holy of Holies—the Sanctuary; only the clergy may enter through it, and only at definite moments.” (The Gate of Heaven, 105)

Some notes from the Vatican for the occasion of the Jubilee of the year 2000 call the the “opening of the Holy Door” a rite, a ritual, a sign, and a mystery. Since the initiation of this rite in the fifteenth century, the pope used a hammer to strike the wall covering the Holy Door, always with three strikes. Originally the hammer was a mason’s hammer, but later was made into a work of art—of gold, silver, and an ivory handle (as seen in the image above). In 1975, the wall that was originally on the outside of the door was rebuilt on the inside, presumably because of the falling pieces of cement that nearly hit Pope Paul VI when the door was opened in 1974, as can be seen in a short portion of this video. In 2000, the hammer was not deemed necessary anymore since there was “no longer a wall to be removed but only a door to be opened.” Apparently the hammer was viewed in association with removing the wall and not knocking on the door, although this interpretation is doubtful from the above image where Pope John Paul II is striking the door directly with the hammer, and there is no wall. Although this detail was seemingly planned for removal, it appears that the hammer was, indeed, still used in the 2000 event, as can be seen in the photograph.

In 2000, the rite was to proceed following this plan. The pope approaches the door and in Latin sings, “This gate of the Lord”, with all responding “into which the righteous shall enter” (Ps. 117:20). The pope continues, “I will come into thy house Lord”, with all responding “I will worship towards thy holy temple” (Ps. 5:7). The pope concludes, “Open to me the gates of righteousness,” with all responding “I will go into them, and I will praise the Lord” (Ps. 118:19). After the hammer strikes (which were not originally planned for the 2000 event), the door is opened, the pope enters, and the interior of the Basilica is fully illuminated.

Pope John Paul II wrote in his Bull of Indiction of the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000 about the symbolism behind this rite which he called the “sign of the holy door”:

It evokes the passage from sin to grace which every Christian is called to accomplish. Jesus said: “I am the door” (Jn 10:7), in order to make it clear that no one can come to the Father except through him . . . There is only one way that opens wide the entrance into the life of communion with God: this is Jesus, the one and absolute way to salvation. To him alone can the words of the Psalmist be applied in full truth: “This is the door of the Lord where the just may enter” (Ps 118:20).

To focus upon the door is to recall the responsibility of every believer to cross its threshold. To pass through that door means to confess that Jesus Christ is Lord; it is to strengthen faith in him in order to live the new life which he has given us. It is a decision which presumes freedom to choose and also the courage to leave something behind, in the knowledge that what is gained is divine life (cf. Mt 13:44-46) . . . In this way we see how rich in meaning are the words of the Apostle Peter when he writes that, united to Christ, we too are built, like living stones, “into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God” (1 Pt 2:5).

The Egyptian Rite

A similar form of this practice can be seen in other cultures and times. The Egyptians practiced something very akin to the Catholics and Eastern Orthodox. Dr. Hugh Nibley calls to our attention:

When the king enters the sanctuary for the first time, at the completion of the temple, he performs an act exactly resembling what is done at the door of the church at Easter in the Eastern Orthodox rites, namely, he knocks three times on the door with his white mace, enters, illuminates the shrine with sacred fire, and performs a series of lustrations and circumambulations. (The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri: An Egyptian Endowment, 448)

In the Egyptian image on the right we see this occurring as:

Amenhotep III strikes the doorpost of one of sixteen city gates with his white-headed mace; the privilege is also extended to his vizier . . . Reconstructed from drawings and photographs of the temple at Soleb, Nubia, ca. 1360 B.C. (ibid., 272)

Since it is clear that the door was seen an entryway into the presence of God, and thus the illumination, could not the knocking on the door be just what it appears to be, calling the attention of the occupant on the inside? As Cassuto notes, “it is unseemly to enter the royal palace suddenly; propriety demands that the entry should be preceded by an announcement” (A Commentary on the Book of Exodus, 383, quoted in Matthew B. Brown, The Gate of Heaven, 105).

Update (1/25/08): See a later post with a video of a matriculation ceremony from the beginning of the movie Mona Lisa Smile, with the same familiar symbolism of 3-4 knocks on the “holy” door.


  1. Reed Russell
    Posted January 24, 2008 at 10:58 am | Permalink

    Hey Bryce – good looking site!

    John Welch has identified The Sermon at the Temple in 3 Nephi as a temple text.

    He’s identified two triadic elements from that text:

    A thrice-repeated announcement from above. The Sermon at the Temple begins with a soft, small, piercing voice speaking out of heaven (see 3 Nephi 11:3–5). At first the people could not understand it, but the voice repeated exactly the same announcement three times, and the words were better comprehended each time they were repeated. At first, this small piercing voice may have sounded faint and broken; something like this perhaps: “Behold . . . Son, . . . well pleased, in whom I have glorified . . . hear . . .” (3 Nephi 11:7), but the words increased in clarity each time they were repeated . . .

    A three-fold petition. Finally, the listeners are ready to approach the Father. They are told that if they will one at a time ask, seek, and knock (in other words, when a threefold petition is made), “it shall be opened unto you” (3 Nephi 14:7). This offer is open to all people (cf. Alma 12:9–11). Everyone that asks, having been brought to this point of entry, will receive and be received (see 3 Nephi 14:8). In my mind, it makes the best sense of Matthew 7:7 to understand it in a ceremonial context. Actual experience among Christians generally shows that the promise articulated here should not be understood as an absolute one: Many people ask, and seek, and knock; yet, in fact many of them do not find. Moreover, there is reason to believe that Jesus expected his true followers to seek for something out of the ordinary: An early saying from Oxyrhynchus attributed to Jesus reads, “Let him who seeks not cease seeking until he finds, and when he finds, he will be astounded, and having been astounded, he will reign, and having reigned, he will rest.” It is crucial that a person come to the Father correctly (see 3 Nephi 14:21), and for all who seek and ask at this point in their progression—after believing and accepting the requirements in the Sermon that precede this invitation—for them it will be opened.

  2. Posted January 24, 2008 at 11:29 am | Permalink

    Thanks. Excellent commentary! I have been wanting to read John Welch’s book The Sermon at the Temple and the Sermon on the Mount. It looks like these quotes come from chapter 3 of that book, “Toward an Understanding of the Sermon as a Temple Text.” This book is even available for reading online at The Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship website.

    I’m sure there are many more good temple insights from Welch’s book. The temple symbolism spreads much deeper in the text of the Book of Mormon than we initially think.

  3. tiredmormon
    Posted March 13, 2008 at 8:28 am | Permalink

    You should include knocking in the Masonic rites…since that is where the temple ordinances came from.

  4. Posted March 13, 2008 at 10:26 am | Permalink

    Yes, and that would explain where the ancient Egyptians and Catholics also got the knocking practice. It was clearly from the Masons. ;)

    That reminds me of something Hugh Nibley once said:

    Off-hand, one may say that Joseph Smith could have gotten his ideas from any or many of a great number of sources, ancient and modern. Here is an illustration. On Easter Day in 1954 at about noon, the writer was standing with Brother Virgil Bushman, that doughty missionary to the Hopis, before the house of the celebrated Tewaquetewa in Old Oraibi, when a small delegation of leading men from the village came up and informed us that they had just learned from the local Protestant missionaries how the Mormons got a lot of their stuff. It seems that when the famous chief Tuba became a Mormon, Jacob Hamblin took him to Salt Lake City to marry his wives in the temple there. While the chief was in town, Joseph Smith, none other, got him aside and interrogated him very closely, prying the tribal secrets out of him; from what Chief Tuba told Smith, he proceeded to write the Book of Mormon, establish the temple ordinances, and found the Church. And that, sir, is why the Hopi traditions are so much like the Mormon.

    The point is, that would be quite a plausible explanation had the two men been contemporary, or had either ever been in Salt Lake; Joseph Smith just might have gotten his knowledge that way. There are in fact countless tribes, sects, societies, and orders from which he might have picked up this and that, had he known of their existence. The Near East in particular is littered with the archaeological and living survivals of practices and teachings which an observant Mormon may find suggestively familiar. The Druzes would have been a goldmine for Smith. He has actually been charged with plundering some of the baggage brought to the West by certain fraternal orders during the Middle Ages—as if the Prophet must rummage in a magpie’s nest to stock a king’s treasury! There are countless parallels, many of them very instructive, among the customs and religious of mankind, to what the Mormons do. But there is a world of difference between Ginzberg’s Legends of the Jews and the book of Isaiah, or between the Infancy Gospels and the real Gospels, no matter how many points of contact one may detect between them. The LDS endowment was not built up of elements brought together by chance, custom, or long research; it is a single, perfectly consistent organic whole, conveying its message without the aid of rationalizing, spiritualizing, allegorizing, or moralizing interpretations. (The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri: An Egyptian Endowment, intro)

  5. Amanda
    Posted May 26, 2008 at 10:15 am | Permalink

    John Welch also gives a talk about the Sermon on the Mount and the Sermon at the Temple in the Our Savior collection of CDs, available from Deseret Book. In this talk he ties many features of the Sermon at the Temple to the Endowment.

  6. Steve
    Posted March 24, 2009 at 10:32 am | Permalink

    I know that it is joked about sometimes, but it would be interesting to know about the idea that Peter stands at the ‘pearly gates’ and where that line of though originated and if it is doctrine. It’s interesting that most people already have an idea that there are gates to heaven and you must past a ‘sentinel’ to gain entrance. The fact that the Mormons believe that they have information about that process from God and the ability to disseminate that information to all who prepare themselves to receive them in the temple, should be of great interest to general Christianity instead of something to be snubbed off; especially when there is so much evidence in early Christian history that these things were taught.

  7. Posted March 24, 2009 at 11:05 am | Permalink

    It’s a great question Steve. I’ll see if I can find out more about the Peter tradition.

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  1. [...] 01/25/08 – 1512 MST] You might also want to read this article (”Knocking Three Times on the Holy Door“) over at the Temple Study blog. ..bruce.. Leave a [...]

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