Archbishop Lazar writes in his book The Ikon As Scripture, "Notice that on the north side of the royal gates, we see the ikon depicting the Theotokos with Christ, while on the south side is the ikon of Christ alone, usually shown with the Gospel book. We are not looking at pictures of "a virgin and child" and "Jesus," for these are theological ikons of the First and Second coming of Christ. Let us look at the significance of this for a moment. We know that the sanctuary is a type of paradise, and the royal gates thus "open into paradise." In the Divine Liturgy, the Gospel is taught, read and preached from the royal gates; all the liturgical revelation about the path and means of salvation is given in, or in front of, the royal gates. Thus, the ikon of the First and of the Second Coming of Christ are placed on either side of these gates, because the time of salvation, the "age of redemption," takes place between the First and Second Coming of Jesus Christ. There, the arrangement of these ikons on either side of the royal gates preaches to us the scriptural message that, "behold, now is the accepted time; behold now is the day of salvation" (2 Cor 6:2). (emphasis his, not mine)
I've been pondering this truth for quite some time now and it has had a profound impact on how I see the royal gates of the Orthodox church. I have wavered between finding them just plain an annoyance when trying to see the action on the altar and finding them a wonderful picture of the incompleteness of what we can see of the heavenly mysteries from our earthly perspective. Not until I read this, did I consider a third perspective - that of the royal doors as the sanctifying now. The doors then become the working out of our salvation at this very moment - the place in which the business of theosis occurs during our earthly sojourn.
When I get frustrated with the sinfulness in myself and the world I can peer into the face of Jesus on the icon to the right and I can almost hear him say to me, "It's because this is the Not Yet. But my Kindgom Comes and My Will will be done. " And if I look to the left I see the infant Jesus - the Incarnation at His Birth into this world and I see God's mercy in the midst of the sinfulness of this world. Then I bring my focus back to the Royal Gates - back to the altar where I can receive the Eucharist, back to the icons of the saints surrounding us where I can remember those who came before, back to the podium in the corner where I can exercise the Rite of Confession, back to the people standing all around me who are in the same boat as me.