The Divine Services Liturgy - 4
We’re continuing today in our exploration of the Divine Liturgy. Last time we spoke about the Litanies of petition to God and the Antiphons sung by the choir in which we recalled the Beatitudes, the New Testament ‘commandments of blessedness’ taught by our Lord Jesus Christ. We will pick up our study here, for this is a significant moment in the progress of the Divine Liturgy.
So far, the priest has remained standing in front of the holy altar, behind the closed Royal Doors. Now, as the choir begins to sing the Beatitudes, the Royal Doors are opened and we prepare for the Small Entry.
The altar servers line up at the back of the Altar with their candles lit, ready to lead the procession. The priest says the following prayer of the Small Entrance: “O Master, Lord our God, Who hast appointed in the heavens the ranks and hosts of Angels and Archangels unto the service of Thy Glory: with our entry do Thou cause the entry of the Holy Angels serving and glorifying Thy goodness with us; for unto Thee is due all glory, honor, and worship; to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit; now and ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.” The priest and deacon cross themselves three times, bowing before the Altar and Holy Gospel. The priest or deacon then bears the Gospel up in honor and reverence and, led by the candlebearers, proceeds around the Altar Table, out the north door and comes around to stand before the opened Royal Doors.
This entrance with the Holy Gospel reminds us of the first appearance of Jesus Christ to the world, when He came to begin His universal preaching. The candle which the altar boy carries at this time in front of the Gospel signifies St. John the Forerunner, who prepared the people to receive the Messiah.
Facing toward the Holy Altar, the priest blesses the Entrance by making the sign of the cross and saying: ‘Blessed is the entry of Thy holy ones, always, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen.’ What ‘holy ones’ are being referred to here? Remember the prayer said by the priest for the Entrance: ‘with our entry do Thou cause the entry of the Holy Angels serving and glorifying Thy goodness with us’. Many saints whose spiritual eyes were open have observed this heavenly procession of angels accompanying the Holy Gospel.
The priest or deacon then takes the Holy Gospel and making the sign of the cross with it proclaims, ‘Wisdom. Aright!’ This exclamation reminds the faithful that we must stand upright and be attentive, keeping our thoughts concentrated. We should look upon the Holy Gospel as upon Jesus Christ Himself, the Word of God Who has come to preach and bring us the good news of salvation.
The clergy then enter the Holy Altar and place the Holy Gospel upon the Altar Table itself. The choir sings, ‘O come let us worship and fall down before Christ, Who didst rise from the dead, save us who sing to Thee: Alleluia.’ With the visible reinforcement of the Small Entrance with the Holy Gospel, we must recognize that Christ is in our midst and our proper response must be one of attention, worship, and reverence.
At this point, the choir now sings the troparia and kontakia, which are short commemorative hymns for Sunday or for the feast being celebrated. While these are being chanted, the priest prays that the Heavenly Father who is hymned by the Cherubim, and glorified by the Seraphim, might receive from us the upcoming angelic hymn (the Trisagion), forgive us our sins, and sanctify and grant us the power rightly to serve Him. The conclusion of this prayer is uttered aloud: ‘For holy art Thou, O our God, and unto Thee do we send up glory: to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.’
Now we come to the chanting of the great prayer known as the Trisagion (which means ‘thrice holy’ in Greek).
The Trisagion prayer is well known to all Orthodox Christians. It is used as an introductory prayer for almost all of the daily prayers, both personal and those prayed in church. ‘Holy God, holy Mighty, holy Immortal, have mercy on us.’ This prayer has a very interesting history, it is a prayer that comes to us directly from heaven.
In the book of Isaiah, Isaiah relates how he was mystically transported to heaven where he witnessed the angelic order of Seraphim crying: “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of Hosts”. In the book or Revelation, the Apostle John relates his vision in which he saw worshipers in Heaven exclaiming: “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, Who was, and is, and is to come!” (Is. 6:3, Rev. 4:8). So, we have this glimpse of the worship of God in heaven from the scriptures. The direct revelation of this prayer, as we use it today, happened some four hundred years after the birth of Christ. In Constantinople, there was a tremendous earthquake that destroyed homes and other buildings. King Theodosius II and all of the people turned to God in prayer. During this public prayer, before the eyes of everyone, a young man was lifted bodily up to heaven and then descended gently back down. Needless to say, everyone was astonished. The young man told the people what he had witnessed and heard in heaven. The angels were surrounding the throne of God and singing: ‘Holy God, holy Mighty, holy Immortal.’ The people, moved to compunction, repeated this prayer and added: ‘have mercy on us’, and the earthquakes stopped.
Let us remember the divine origin of this prayer, never letting it become routine or mechanical, but recalling the vision of the angels in heaven surrounding the throne of God and eternally praising the One Who is worthy of all praise.
During the chanting of the Trisagion, the priest venerates the Altar Table and moves to the back of the Altar. The Reader approaches the priest and gets his blessing to read the Epistle appointed for the day. The Reader stands in the center of the church and first declares the Prokeimenon in the tone of the day. Prokeimenon, as you may recall from our study of the Vespers service, means ‘principle’ or ‘foremost’ - given to the short verses expressing the essence of the feast being celebrated. On Sundays, these verses will be focused on the Resurrection of our Lord.
We now hear the lessons from the Epistle and Gospel readings appointed for the day.
After the Gospel reading, the priest or deacon proclaims, ‘Let us say with our whole soul and with our whole mind…’; thus inviting us once again to a greater level of concentration and participation in our prayers to God. We next have a series of Litanies in which we ask God for his mercy; we pray for the Church hierarchy; for this world and our country and homeland; for our loved ones; for those who serve the Lord; and for all those Christians assembled here in Church. There is a litany for the departed, but on Sundays, being the day of the Resurrection, this is usually not said. The next litany is for the Catechumens, those preparing for baptism. We ask the Lord to have mercy on them and to establish them in the truths of the Holy Faith.
During this litany, the priest opens the Antimens on the Altar. The Antimens is a silk cloth consecrated by a bishop upon which Jesus Christ is depicted being placed in the tomb. Into the other side of the Antimens a fragment of the relics of a saint must be sewn, since in the first centuries of Christianity the Divine Liturgy was always celebrated upon the graves of the martyrs. The Liturgy may not be served without an Antimens… it observes both the continuity of performing the Divine Sacrifice upon the relics of martyrs and assures that the priest and congregation have the blessing of their bishop.
At the conclusion of the Litany of the Catechumens, the catechumens are told to depart. In earlier centuries, the deacons and wardens of the church would see to it that the catechumens left the building and the doors of the church were then locked from the inside. It was understood and expected by all that no-one would be entering or exiting the church from this moment forward. Our Orthodox Christian ancestors understood far better than we do today the meaning and solemnity of what was taking place as we move now into this third and final part of the Liturgy, the Liturgy of the Faithful. It is a shame that we are not more careful to make sure that we are present here in church and that we remain here in attentive and participatory prayer throughout the entire Divine Liturgy. Our bad habits of coming late, of wandering in and out during the services, would be unheard of and not tolerated in earlier centuries. While it is understood that parents of very young children have to make accommodations, the rest of us should do our utmost to arrive on time and to stand in reverence throughout the Divine Liturgy. May this understanding of the meaning of the call for the catechumens to depart help us to remember what a privilege and blessing it is to be present at the Divine Liturgy.
Next time we will move into the third and final part of the Divine Liturgy, the Liturgy of the Faithful, and we will see how the entire focus now shifts from teachings and supplications to the preparation and consecration of the Divine Gifts for Holy Communion. We will be called to ‘lay aside all earthly care that we may receive the King of All’. May God bless us to more deeply understand the wonders of the Divine Liturgy so that we may more fully participate in this most intimate connection between God and mankind.