The Orthodox Pages



Part 4

4th Nov 2010





























































































































































Continuing our series of talks on the various interpretations of the Divine Liturgy, last week we finished with the Little Entrance and the singing of the hymns dedicated to the feast or saint of the day. On the Great feasts we sing just two hymns, but on other days they can be many. During our English Liturgies we normally sing five. The hymn of the saint whose feastday it is, the hymn to St. Barnabas the Patron saint of Cyprus, the hymn to St. Andrew, the hymn to St. John the Baptist and finish with a hymn to the Mother of God. The hymns are called Apolytikia except for the last one which is called a Kontakion. So where did the names of these hymns derive from? The Apolitikion literally means the Dismissal hymn from the Greek word Apolysis meaning dismissal. The name derives from the fact that it is chanted for the first time before the dismissal of Vespers which in the Orthodox Church is the first service of the day.
The Kontakion has a more complex history. Today we only sing one kontakion but originally, the kontakion was an extended homily in verse consisting of many short hymns. The kontakia were so long that the text was rolled up to form a scroll on a pole for use in the services. The word derives from the Greek word for pole which is kontari. The Greek for polevault is Άλμα επί κοντώ and I used to get really confused when I heard Greek sports commentators mention it because konto also means short so I literally translated it as “short jump” It only made sense when I realized that κοντώ means a pole.
Now while the choir sing the hymns, the Priest says the Prayer of the Thriceholy hymn in a low voice:
“O Holy God, who restest in the holies; unto whom the seraphim sing the thriceholy song; whom the cherubim glorify, and all the heavenly hosts adore; who didst bring into being all that exists; who didst create man in Thine image and likeness, and didst adorn him with Thine every gift; who givest wisdom and understanding to him that asketh, and art not wroth with the sinner, but dost grant repentance to salvation; who hast deemed us, Thine humble and unmeritable servants, worthy at this hour to stand before the glory of Thy Holy Altar, to bring unto Thee rightful worship and praise: accept, O Master, from the mouths of us sinners the thriceholy hymn, and visit us with Thy goodness. Pardon our offences, voluntary and involuntary. Sanctify our souls and bodies, and grant us to serve Thee in holiness, all the days of our life. By the prayers of the Mother of God, and of all the saints which have been well pleasing unto Thee since the world began.”
The choir is due to sing the Thriceholy Hymn or we can call it the angelic hymn, thus the Priest prays that grace be sent upon those who are to sing this hymn. He asks that their bodies and souls may be cleansed, that their sins be forgiven, and that they may worship him in holiness all the days of their life. When the choir has finished singing the hymns to the saints, the Priest will then say aloud the doxology to the prayer:
“For Thou our God art holy, and to Thee we ascribe glory, to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, now and for ever: world without end.” The choir will now sing the Thriceholy Hymn: “O Holy God, Holy and Strong, Holy and Immortal, have mercy upon us.”

The hymn was composed from two sources: firstly from the angelic hymn mentioned in the book of Isaiah where in describing the throne of God he says: “Above it stood the seraphims: each one had six wings; with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he did fly. And one cried unto another, and said, Holy, holy, holy, is the LORD of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory. The words Strong and Immortal belong to King David who in Psalm 42 says: “My soul thirsts for the strong and living God.” The Church joining these two sources and adding at the end: “Have mercy upon us” wished to show the harmony of the Old and New Testaments and also that angels and men form one Church, a single choir, because of the coming of Christ who was of both heaven and earth. It is said three times, because the three Holies are proper and fitting for each person of the Holy Trinity. Each Person is Holy, Strong and Immortal. During the singing of the Thriceholy Hymn, the Priest imitates the movements of the seraphim who flying around the throne of God continually cry to one another, with incessant voices, hymns of glory. He goes to the Prothesis glorifying the Lord who has come into the world saying: “Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord.” He then goes to the Throne on High which is invisibly present behind the holy Altar saying: “Blessed art Thou on the glorious throne of Thy kingdom, that sittest upon the cherubim, always, now and for ever: world without end. Amen.”

With the Thriceholy hymn finished, it is now time for the Apostle and Gospel readings. The reader will first read the Prokhimenon for the reading. The word prokhimenon literally means the pre-texts. These are usually verses from the psalms and are used to introduce us to the mystery of the Word. They are prophetic sayings which foretell the presence of Christ and prepare us to hear the Word of God. After the reader says the first verse, the Priest will say aloud: “Let us give heed” in other words Let us pay attention, let us cast away all negligence and inattention and listen carefully to what is being said. After the second verse he says: “Wisdom”. Now he is reminding the faithful that they should call to mind the wisdom with which they should enter into the holy mysteries and attend to them. What is this wisdom? It is the sum of those thoughts which are in accord with the ceremony, which should occupy those full of faith when they behold and listen to the ceremonies and prayers, so that they are concerned with no purely human sentiment. Such is the wisdom of Christians, that is the meaning of the cry “Wisdom” which the priest says many times to the faithful during the Liturgy. It is a reminder to collect our thoughts which are forever wandering on vain imaginings. It is a reminder to set aside all earthly cares and listen carefully so that our attendance is not in vain, so that we may benefit from what we are about to hear.

The reader then announces the reading and again the Priest tells us to pay attention. Then follows the actual reading from the Apostle. But why do we read first from the Apostle and then the Gospel whereas historically the Gospels came first and then the Epistles of the Apostles? Because the Liturgy is a continual manifestation of the Lord. We saw with the Little Entrance His first appearance to the multitude, now with the readings we are about to receive a more perfect manifestation. The readings represent the time when Christ mingled with the crowd and made himself known not only by his own words, but also by that which he taught the Apostles in sending them to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. With the order of the readings, we wish to show the gradualness of his appearance: the Gospels are Christ’s own words and thus reveal his supreme manifestation and so are kept to the end. After the Apostle reading, the Choir sing the Alleluia which means “Praise the Lord”. Many Churches just sing a quick 3 Alleluias, but in times of old the Alleluia were complete Psalms with the Alleluia at the end of each verse sung by all the people.
But why do we sing the Alleluia at this moment. What follows immediately after the Alleluia is the Gospel reading and as we have mentioned before, the Gospel always represents the appearance of Christ in person. Christ with his presence brought joy into the world thus we sing Alleluia which is a joyous greeting to the Lord. The singing of the complete psalm was abolished long ago and was reduced to singing the Alleluia with 2 verses from the psalms. This is also an old observance which many Churches are tying to reintroduce back to the service. At our parish here, we have been following this rule for many years, not only because it is more correct, but also because before the Gospel reading the Priest should offer incense and singing the Alleluia with the verses gives him the time to do it. In Churches where they don’t sing the verses, the Priest either doesn’t bother to offer incense or he censes silently during the reading of the Apostle, which no matter how silently he censes, always disrupts the people’s attention from the reading.

Is it important to cense before the Gospel? Yes! Before the start of the Liturgy the Priest offered incense which was to welcome the faithful into the house of the Lord. Now he offers incense so that we may receive in return spiritual enlightenment to understand the deeper meanings of the Gospel reading. Remember the Prayer at the blessing of the incense: “We offer incense unto thee, O Christ our God, for a sweetsmelling savour of spiritual fragrance, which do thou accept upon Thy most heavenly altar; and send down upon us the grace of Thy most Holy Spirit.” We need spiritual grace to understand the Gospels because we do not interpret the Gospels just literally with the face value of the words, hidden within the words are many meanings which only God reveals to spiritual people. We can read a passage from the Gospels hundreds of times and not see anything new in it, then suddenly God opens our eyes and we see the same passage as though for the first time and with a different meaning and we are puzzled why we didn’t see it before. This is verified by the prayer before the Gospel which is said silently by the Priest: “O Lord and lover of mankind, make the imperishable light of Thy divine knowledge to shine in our hearts; and open the eyes of our understanding that we may apprehend the preaching of Thy Gospel.”
It is dangerous to interpret the Gospels without spiritual understanding, without God first opening our eyes and our heart to apprehend the fuller meanings of his words. That is why today there are so many hundreds of Christian denominations because each founder of these so called Christian churches interpreted the Gospels as he wanted to interpret them without his spiritual eyes being opened. As a safeguard we always interpret Scripture within the Church studying carefully what the enlightened fathers have to say for each word.
The Priest, now ready to read the Gospel will say: “Wisdom. Stand steadfast. Let us hear the Holy Gospel. Peace unto all.” With the cry of Wisdom Stand steadfast, the priest is telling us to be upright and alert, to raise our minds above what is earthly and concentrate all our attention on the Gospel which is full of Divine Wisdom. The Priest blesses the people saying Peace unto all. We mentioned before that without peace in our souls we cannot pray, without calmness of the thoughts we cannot concentrate on the task we have before us. Only inner peace can help us keep our mind and soul on prayer and only Christ can give us this inner peace which will prepare us to receive and understand the spiritual wisdom of the scriptures. During the Little Entrance, the Priest covered his face with the Gospel Book to reveal to the people the face of Christ. Now with the reading of the Gospel, the Priest lends his mouth to Christ the Word so that the faithful can hear his voice.

St. German (Herman) of Constantinople writes: The Gospel is the presence of the Son of God which has appeared to us. Through the Gospel we see Christ in our midst. We hear him calling us to his kingdom. And because we see him and hear him with the senses of faith, for this very reason we see him clearer than those who saw him in the flesh but without faith. St John Chrysostom speaking on Christ’s saying: “Blessed are your eyes, for they see: and your ears, for they hear. For verily I say unto you, That many prophets and righteous men have desired to see those things which ye see, and have not seen them; and to hear those things which ye hear, and have not heard them” (St Matthew 13:16-18”) says that Christ is not speaking of the external senses but of the inner senses: the spiritual eyes and ears of the soul. The Jews saw a blind man made whole and said: It is him, it is not him, it is someone like him, let us call his parents to see if it is him. They doubted what they saw. But we, who were not present, do not say it is him, it is not him, but that it is him. Do you understand that absence does no harm when there are eyes of faith and that there is no benefit being present when there are no eyes of faith. The Jews saw and heard Christ but what did they benefit by seeing and hearing with their external senses? Absolutely nothing. We who did not see him in the flesh actually see clearer than them. The faithful especially during the Divine Liturgy, hear Christ and follow him for as Christ said concerning the Shepherd and his flock: “the sheep follow him: for they know his voice. And a stranger will they not follow, but will flee from him: for they know not the voice of strangers. St John 10:4-5
After the reading of the Gospel the Priest says the Great litany prayers which are also called the Common prayers. They are called Common because they are the last prayers said for both the faithful and the catechumen and at the end of these the catechumen are asked to depart from the Church. The prayers begin with:
“Let us all say with our whole soul, and with our whole mind, let us say.
O Almighty Lord, God of our fathers, we pray Thee, hear us and have mercy.
Have mercy upon us, O God, after Thy great goodness. We pray Thee, hear us and have mercy.”
The prayers continue mentioning the Archbishop and all the priesthood, for mercy, life, peace, health, salvation, visitation, forgiveness and remission of the sins of the servants of God, and here we mention the names of those who have asked to be commemorated for the feast-day and all Orthodox Christians, the parishioners, the Church committee, those who give help and those who have dedicated gifts to the temple. We pray for the blessed and ever-memorable founders of the Church and for all our departed fathers, brethren, and Orthodox Christians everywhere who have fallen asleep. We pray for them that help and work in the church, for them that serve, and them that sing; and for all the people.
Immediately after the Common prayers we have the special prayers for the Catechumen. The Priest will say:
“Catechumens, pray ye unto the Lord.
Let us, the faithful, pray for the catechumens.
That the Lord may have mercy upon them.
That He may instruct them in the word of truth.
That He may reveal unto them the gospel of righteousness.
That He may unite them to His Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.
Save, have mercy, help and preserve them, O God, by Thy grace.
Catechumens, bow your heads unto the Lord.”

And then this prayer:
“O Lord our God who dwellest on high, and dost look upon the lowly; who for the salvation of mankind didst send forth Thine Only-begotten Son and God, our Lord Jesus Christ: look upon Thy servants, the catechumens, who bow down their necks before Thee; and deem them worthy, at the appropriate time, of the washing of regeneration, of the remission of sins, of the garment of incorruption. Unite them to Thy Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church; and number them among Thy chosen flock.”
In our times, because we don’t have Catechumen like they did in times of old, and to save time, we rarely say these prayers. We only say them during Great Lent in the service of the Presanctified Liturgy and I sometimes add them to the Liturgy when I have adults preparing for Baptism, but maybe we should reinsert them back into every Liturgy. Just because the order of catechumen has become obsolete we should not be ready to discard these prayers from the Church as being irrelevant. There are those who say that we should look at these prayers as a renewal of our own experience in the Lord, but this would not make sense because the prayer is specifically for the unbaptized and that they may be deemed worthy of baptism which will unite them and make them members of the Church. There is though a far more essential reason why the prayers should be reintroduced to our contemporary Liturgy. They express the fundamental calling of the Church. Her mission in the world is to “Go into all the world and preach the Gospel to every person.” (Mk. 16:15)

Historically the prayers for the catechumen were introduced not only when the church had catechumen, but also at a time when the church considered the world as an object of her mission and as the known world at that time was the Roman Empire it even seemed that she succeeded in her mission because the whole of the Roman Empire had become Christian. Today we live in a world that has turned away from Christianity or has never heard of the gospel truth as preached by the Orthodox Church. The consciousness of the Church should once again be centred on this mission to preach to the world and unite them to the one holy catholic and apostolic Church. Thus the prayers of the catechumen can be directed and applied to the world at large who are potentially catechumen. What we could leave out is the dismissal of the catechumen which would not apply to the world because we would be praying for the people of the world as catechumen without them actually being present and even if some non Orthodox were present at the Liturgy today we allow them to remain until the end. Thus the dismissal “As many as are catechumens depart. Catechumens depart. As many as are catechumens depart. Let not any of the catechumens remain” would be pointless unless the Church was once again full of catechumen.
At this point the Liturgy of the Catechumen comes to an end and the third part of the Liturgy begins called the Liturgy of the faithful. The Priest unfolds the antiminsion. The antiminsion is a piece of cloth which has imprinted on it the Icon of Christ lying dead in the tomb similar to the epitaphios. It is consecrated and signed by the Bishop during the Consecration service of the Church and is in a way a portable Holy Table and with this we can serve the Liturgy in other places other than the permanent Holy Altar. It is kept folded on the Holy Altar under the Gospel Book and is unfolded as this time of the Liturgy. The Divine Eucharist is always served on this cloth even if the Holy Altar is consecrated. A practical reason for this is because it safeguards any particles of the holy body should they fall from the paten. The particles fall directly onto the antiminsion and are easily retrieved by the Priest. But this is not the main reason for its use. In the early Church the bishop was the normal celebrant of the Eucharist and even today the Priest serves the Liturgy on the bishop’s behalf and as his representative. The bishop’s signature on the antiminsion signifies the bishop’s permission to the priest to serve the Liturgy on his behalf.
With the Antiminsion unfolded the Priest calls the faithful to pray:
“As many as are faithful,
Again and again in peace, let us pray unto the Lord.
Succour, save, have mercy and preserve us, O God, by Thy grace.

And the Priest will read the first of two prayers for the faithful
“We give thanks unto Thee, O Lord God of hosts, who hast accounted us worthy also now to stand before Thy Holy Altar and to bow down and beseech Thy compassions for our sins and the errors of the people. Accept, O God, our prayer; make us to become worthy to offer unto Thee prayers and supplications, and the bloodless sacrifice for all Thy people: and enable us, whom Thou hast appointed to this Thy ministry, by the power of Thy Holy Spirit, to call upon Thee, at all times and in every place, without impediment and without condemnation, with a clear testimony of our conscience, so that hearing us Thou mayest be gracious unto us in the multitude of Thy goodness.”
The Priest thanks the Lord for accounting him worthy to stand before him and pray for his sins and for sins of the people and then prays that the Lord make him worthy to offer the Bloodless Sacrifice. This first prayer of the faithful is in fact more for the Priest than for the faithful. It is to prepare him for the awesome mystery of the Divine Eucharist that is to follow, but the faithful are called to share in this preparation and pray with the Priest that God may account him worthy for his sacred ministry.
The Priest will again say:
“Again and again in peace, let us pray unto the Lord.
Succour, save, have mercy and preserve us, O God, by Thy grace. Wisdom.”
And then recites the Second Prayer of the Faithful:
“Again and many times, we bow down before Thee and pray to Thee, who art good and lovest mankind, that Thou wouldst look upon our prayer and cleanse our souls and bodies from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit; and grant us to stand guiltless and without condemnation before Thy Holy Altar. Grant also, O God, to them that pray with us, an increase of life, and of faith, and of spiritual understanding. Grant unto them that for evermore worshipping Thee in fear and love, to partake, without guilt and without condemnation, of Thy Holy Mysteries, and to be accounted worthy of Thy heavenly kingdom.”
As we approach closer to the time of the consecration and Holy Communion, we feel that we must be spotless so that we can receive Christ. Humbly we acknowledge that we cannot by our own efforts cleanse ourselves, thus we beseech God to cleanse our souls and bodies from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, but this is not enough to approach the Holy Mysteries without condemnation, we must approach worshipping God with faith, fear and love for when we have these things we approach in an orderly fashion showing that we are conscious of the great gift of life we are about to freely receive.
The prayer ends with the doxology:
“That being ever guarded by Thy might we may give glory to Thee, to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, now and for ever: world without end.”
The Choir now begin singing the Cherubic Hymn while the Priest prepares for the Great Entrance. The Cherubic Hymn is sung slowly and solemnly:
“Let us who mystically represent the cherubim and chant the Thriceholy hymn to the life-giving Trinity, now lay aside all earthly care. That we may receive the King of all, invisibly attended by the angelic hosts. Alleluia.”
From this moment onwards we can see clearly two interpretations to the hymn and the Great Entrance. We have the Alexandrian influence which gives everything an eschatological interpretation and at the same time the Antiochian influence which centres on the historical actions of Christ’s Passion and sacrifice. From the eschatological point of view the whole Liturgy is our ascent to the kingdom of heaven and the hymn refers to Christ the King who will now manifest himself with the glory and power of the Kingdom. He will appear with the angelic powers at the end of time and all the faithful will enter with him into his kingdom. The second interpretation, the historical aspect has us preparing to receive the King of glory who is now to enter the holy City of the earthly Jerusalem. We are asked to prepare to walk with him the road to Golgotha and stand near him by his Cross together with the Mother of God and the Disciple whom he loved. We are told to prepare ourselves by laying aside all earthly care and to mystically identify ourselves with the angels in heaven and with them to chant the Thrice holy hymn to the Life-giving Trinity. But even this interpretation calls us to leave behind everything that is earthly and to lift our minds to heaven because only there can we be free of worldly troubles without the running and rushing of our daily lives, and only there can there be complete calmness and love, joy and peace, meekness and many other good things which replace the earthly cares.
While the choir sing the Cherubic hymn the Priest says silently the prayer of the Cherubicon:
“None is worthy among them that are held fast in fleshly desires and pleasures to approach, or to draw nigh, or to minister unto Thee, O King of glory, for to minister unto Thee is a great and fearful thing, even for the heavenly powers themselves. Notwithstanding, through Thine ineffable and immeasurable love for mankind, Thou didst become man suffering no change or altering, and art become our High Priest and hast Thyself bestowed upon us the ministry of this divine office and Bloodless sacrifice as Master of all. For Thou only, O Lord our God, hast dominion over all things in heaven and on earth, who art borne upon a throne of cherubim, who art Lord of the seraphim and king of Israel; who alone art holy and dost rest in the holies. Therefore, I beseech Thee, who alone art good and ready to hear, look down upon me Thy sinful and unprofitable servant, and cleanse my soul and my heart from an evil conscience. And by the power of the Holy Spirit, enable me, who am invested with the grace of priesthood, to stand before this Thy Holy Table, and to administer Thy most pure and sacred Body and Thy precious Blood. For unto Thee I come, to Thee I bow my head, and I beseech Thee: turn not Thy face from me, neither reject me from among Thy servants, but account it meet that these gifts be offered unto Thee by me, Thy sinful and unworthy servant. For Thou art He that offereth and He that is offered, and He who dost receive and art given, O Christ our God, and to Thee we ascribe glory, together with Thine eternal Father, and Thine all-holy, good and life-giving Spirit, now and for ever: world without end. Amen.”
This prayer he says on behalf of himself, recognising and confessing his unworthiness at the greatness of the mystery which he is called to serve. But he proceeds, precisely because he doesn’t rely on his own worthiness or strength, but on the divine mercy. He finds support in the unfathomable depth of God’s compassion and love for mankind. For it was because of his love for mankind that God became man and it was for this same love that he gave us the Mystery of the Bloodless Sacrifice. And not only did Christ come once and offered himself, but he comes continually to every Liturgy and is at the same time He that offers and He that is offered, and He who receives the offering and who is given to the faithful. Christ Himself performs and completes the Mystery of our salvation. This fact is the foundation on which the mystery of the Divine Liturgy is based. Christ is the Priest who offers, He is the Lamb that is offered, He is God who accepts the offering and the gift that is given. Christ is both the nourisher and the nourishment, the feeder and the food.
After the prayer the Priest says the Cherubic Hymn three times and then takes the censer to cense the holy Altar, the Prothesis, the Iconostasis and all the people. During the censing he will say silently the 50th Psalm (51 in King James). The Psalm is called the penitential Psalm and was written by King David after he committed Adultery with Bathsheba, the wife of his commander Uriah and then committed murder by sending Uriah to the frontline of battle so that he would be killed. The Psalm expresses the very meaning and depth of repentance and humility and so the Priest says this Psalm in recognition of his own sins. The Priest, to hold in his hands the precious gifts, must go through a stage of repentance and everything he now does until the Great Entrance outwardly show his feelings of repentance. With his example he is also showing the faithful the road to repentance, so in a way he represents St. John the Baptist who began preaching before the showing of Christ saying: Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. The Priest as the image of the Baptist is exhorting us to prepare the way of the Lord and the way is repentance. Thus as we prepare for the Great Entrance, both people and minister wait in expectation of the Lord in repentance.
Having finished censing, the priest makes three prostrations before the holy Altar saying the penitent verses:
“O Saviour, I have sinned before Thee as the Prodigal Son, accept me, O Father, as a penitent, and have mercy upon me, O God.”
“With the voice of the Publican I cry unto Thee, O Christ Saviour. Be gracious unto me, as Thou wast with him, and have mercy upon me, O God.”
And kissing the antiminsion he will turn and bow humbly to the people asking their forgiveness, but at the same time praying for them saying in a low voice:
“May God forgive them that hate us and them that love us.”
Then going to the Prothesis he takes up the aer and first censing it he will say as he lays it upon his shoulders:
“Lift up your hands in the sanctuary, and bless the Lord.”
Then censing his hands he will take up the paten and the chalice saying:
“God is gone up with a shout, the Lord with the sound of a trumpet.”
Then preceded by lighted candles and the six-winged fans, the Priest will go out of the sanctuary by the north side holding the holy gifts head high walking in slow and solemn procession through the nave of the Church saying in a loud voice:
“May the Lord God remember all of you in his kingdom, always, now and for ever: world without end.”
With the first talk we had on the various interpretations of the Liturgy we saw how the Alexandrian and Antiochian schools of thought influenced how the fathers gave their interpretations of the Liturgy. As the main example of the two very different approaches I used the interpretations for the Great Entrance because here the differences are more strikingly obvious as is heaven and earth. So although you have already heard of the interpretations assigned to the Great Entrance, it would do no harm to hear them again.
The practical reason for the Great Entrance is basically to transfer the Holy Gifts from the Prothesis to the Holy Altar. I mentioned in the first talk that in times past the Prothesis was not in the Sanctuary as it is today but rather in a room at the back of the Church so of necessity they had to be transferred to the Holy Altar for the Eucharistic rite. Then it was the duty of the Deacons to bring the Gifts to the Priest, but today both the Deacon and Priest take part in the Procession. The Procession became the high-spot of the Liturgy, but even from the earliest times it was a moment in the Liturgy which was given various interpretations. The Antiochian approach follows the historical events of Christ’s life as found in the Gospels. The procession of the Great Entrance signifies the last manifestation of Christ, which aroused the hatred of the Jews, when he embarked from Bethany to Jerusalem where he was to be sacrificed. Then he rode into the Holy City on the back of an ass, escorted by a cheering crowd. The King of kings enters the Holy City. The Minister becomes the ass that no man has sat on and therefore worthy to carry the King of Glory. As the Gifts pass by us we bow down asking like the good thief: Remember me, O Lord, in thy Kingdom. With the Priest entering the Sanctuary, Christ has already been Crucified and taken down from the Cross. The Sanctuary becomes the tomb and the Holy Altar the actual stone where Christ’s body was laid. As the Priest sets the Paten and the Chalice upon the Altar and removes the veils, he takes the Aer from his shoulders and covers with it the holy gifts. As he does so, he says the following hymn:
“Down from the tree Joseph, a godly man, took Thy most pure Body, and wound it in linen clothes with the spices, and laid and closed it in a new sepulchre.”
At this moment the Priest represents Joseph of Arimathaea and Nicodemus who took care of Christ’s burial. The Aer which covers the holy gifts has two representations, first it represents the linen sheet with which Joseph wound Christ’s body and secondly it represents the stone which Joseph placed upon the tomb and which was later sealed by the Roman guards. Then taking the censer the Priest will cense the holy gifts. The censing of the Holy Gifts now on the Holy Altar represents the aroma of the myrrh and sweet spices that Joseph and Nicodemus used for the burial. Thus with the Antiochian interpretation, the Great Entrance takes us back into time to relive the events of Christ’s saving Passion and Death as though they are happening now in front of our very eyes.
The Alexandrian approach perceives the entire Liturgy as an ascent from the material to the spiritual; from the lower existence to the unity of the divine. In contrast to the Antiochian approach which takes us back into time, the Alexandrian approach takes us forward in time to an age where the faithful will find themselves after the Second Coming of Christ. From the interpretation of the preparation rite – the Proskomede – we saw that the offering of bread and wine represent an offering of our lives: both the bread and wine are man’s special offering to God because although the raw materials all come from God the end product is the outcome of man’s labour and love, thus they represent our life that we offer to God. On the Paten we placed the Lamb which is Christ and particles for the Mother of God, the various ranks of the saints, and particles for the living and the departed, in other words, we placed on the Paten a representation of the whole Church. During the Great Entrance the Priest representing Christ holds in his hands man and the whole body of the Church. With the Alexandrian approach, the procession of the Great Entrance is the journey to heaven, the ascension of the Church to heaven, the return of man to Paradise, the return of man to God. Christ himself takes all of us and our whole life back to God where we will partake of the heavenly banquet with Christ in the Kingdom of God after the Second Coming.
As the Priests proceeds through the nave, he exclaims in a loud voice: “May the Lord God remember all of you in his kingdom, always, now and for ever: world without end.” With the Antiochian interpretation this is the prayer of the Good Thief who on the cross asked Christ to remember him when he comes into his kingdom and Christ responded with “Today you will be with me in my kingdom”. The Alexandrian interpretation contains nothing of the biblical events and always gives a higher and spiritual explanation for every word and action, so here the remembrance is an act of love. God remembers us and his remembrance, his love, is the foundation of the world. In Christ, we remember. We become again beings of love, and we remember. The Church in its separation from this world on its journey to heaven remembers the world, she remembers all men, she remembers the whole of creation, and takes it in love to God. The Eucharist is the sacrament of cosmic remembrance.
As the Priest enters the Sanctuary the ascension of the Church becomes a reality for the Sanctuary is an image of Paradise and the Holy Altar represents the throne of God which is borne by the Cherubim. The Great Entrance comes to a close with the prayer of the Prothesis which is said silently by the Priest while the choir complete the singing of the Cherubic Hymn:
“O Lord God Almighty, who alone art holy, who dost accept the sacrifice of praise from such as call upon Thee with their whole heart; accept and receive also unto Thy Holy Altar the supplication of us sinners; and enable us to offer unto Thee both gifts and spiritual sacrifices for our sins and for the errors of the people. And account us worthy to find grace in Thy sight that our sacrifice may be well-pleasing to Thee, and the good Spirit of Thy grace may dwell in us, and in these gifts here set forth, and in all Thy people.”
Here the Priest is asking the Lord to make him worthy to offer the holy gifts for his sins and the errors of the people. Special attention should be given to the two words for sin. The priest calls his own transgressions sins, but the people’s transgressions as errors: in other words sins they have done unwittingly in ignorance. And this is because Priests are more responsible before God than the laity. They have received the grace of priesthood and supposedly lead a spiritual life which should make them more conscious of transgressing the divine will.