After celebrating the great Feasts of our Lord’s Nativity and Baptism, we return to our sermon series on Worship and the Divine Liturgy. On December 16th we covered the catechumenate including the petitions and prayer for the catechumens—those preparing for baptism and chrismation. This completed our review of the first half of the Divine Liturgy, also known as the Liturgy of the Word. This more didachtic-educational part of the liturgy lays the foundation and preparation for the second half—what we call the Liturgy of the Faithful and the Eucharist.

 The transition from the Word to the Eucharist begins with what we call the Great Entrance. It is contrasted with the earlier Small Entrance of the Gospel book (only on the solea) because it is a longer--going through the entire sanctuary, and more majestic--involving all the clergy, acolytes and sacred instruments. The centerpiece of the Great Entrance is the procession of the holy gifts of bread and wine in the chalice and paten.

 As we mentioned in our earlier discussion of the Proskomide, the gifts of bread and wine are the offering of the people. In the early Church, the gifts were brought to a chapel outside the sanctuary, much like baptisteries were originally located outside the nave. Just like the ancient Small Entrance retrieved the gospel from the narthex, the ancient Great Entrance retrieved the gifts from this outside altar. In recent centuries, probably because of Ottoman-Muslim persecution, this outside Prothesis table was relocated inside the holy altar.

 Before the actual procession, two prayers are read before the chanters and choir begin to sing the Cherubic Hymn. In both the liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, these are called the Prayers of the Faithful.

 First Prayer of the Faithful

 “We give thanks to You O Lord God of the Powers, who has made us worthy to stand even now before Your holy altar and to fall down before Your compassion for our sins and the ignorance of the people. Receive our supplication O God; make us worthy to offer to You prayers and supplications and bloodless sacrifices for all Your people; enable us also, whom you have placed in this Your ministry, by the power of Your Holy Spirit, blamelessly and without offense, in the pure witness of our conscience, to call upon You at all times and in every place; that hearing us, You may show mercy upon us according to the fullness of Your goodness.”

 Like almost all the prayers of the liturgy, it is read by the chief celebrant clergy. As exemplified in this prayer, even though the bishop or priest says the prayer, he is saying it on behalf of the rest of the clergy as well as the laity (the lay people). This prayer in particular, asks God to make all the faithful to be worthy to offer prayers supplications and that God would receive them, and that He would have mercy on the clergy who pray. The second prayer repeats the pattern and adds some more specific, unique requests.

 Second Prayer of the Faithful

 “Again we bow before You and pray to You O good and loving God. Hear our supplication: cleanse our souls and bodies from every defilement of flesh and spirit and grant that we may stand before Your holy altar without blame or condemnation. Grant also, O God, progress in life, faith and spiritual discernment to the faithful who pray with us so that they may always worship You with reverence and love, partake of Your Holy Mysteries without blame or condemnation and become worthy of Your heavenly kingdom.”

 In the last three weeks we have celebrated the Divine Liturgy of St. Basil the Great, who was a fourth century contemporary of Chrysostom. Basil’s liturgy was written first. Then a few years later, Chrysostom slightly modified its petitions and prayers. The Great Entrance prayers of the faithful is where we first encounter the divergence. Basil’s prayers here center more on the clerical celebrants.

 First Prayer of the Faithful (Basil)

 You, Lord, showed us this great mystery of salvation; You have made us worthy, Your humble and unworthy servants, to be ministers of Your holy altar; Enable us, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to do this service; so that without condemnation we may stand before Your glory, we bring before You a sacrifice of praise; for You are the one who works all things in all people. Grant also O Lord, our sacrifice to be acceptable, as well, for our sins and for the ignorance of the people, also to be acceptable before You.

 Second Prayer of the Faithful (Basil)

 O God, the one who visits our humility in mercy and compassion; the One who establishes Your humble, sinful and unworthy servants, to come before Your holy glory. We minister at Your holy altar; You strengthen us, by the power of Your Holy Spirit, in this service and grant us the word in the opening of our mouth, to call the grace of Your Holy Spirit upon the intention of the coming gifts.

 What can we learn from these prayers? First, God is the one who makes us worthy of Him. We do not make ourselves worthy of God. In fact, one of the conditions for becoming worthy is to acknowledge our sinfulness and considering ourselves unworthy. Second, genuine prayer to God is not our own action but the action of God, specifically the Holy Spirit, within us. That is why the main building block of prayer, both personal and communal, the Trisagion Prayers, begin with the Prayer to the Holy Spirit. Thirdly, it is God, not us, that grants progress and growth in life, faith and spiritual discernment.

 Thirdly, three different postures of prayer are mentioned—standing, bowing, and falling down. Along with sitting, kneeling, prostrating and making the sign of the cross, these speak to the integration of the body in the worship of God. Eastern Orthodox Christian spirituality incorporates the whole body and all its senses as we seek to commune with our Creator. The unique beauty and mysticism of God is touched in these postures of prayer, seen in the icons, heard in the hymnology, smelled in the incense and myrrh, and tasted in the Holy Eucharist of His Body and Blood.

 As we draw to a close today, we recall the readings of today’s liturgy on this the Sunday after Theophany. The Epistle from Ephesians 4:7-13, speaks to the action of God’s grace within us that constitutes the ‘Ekklesia’ – the people called out by God to be separate from the world, yet seeking to evangelize and minister to it and its people:

 11And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, 12for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, 13till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.

 The Gospel from Matthew 4:12-17, speaks to the sensory experience of God and our subsequent response to Him.

 16The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, And upon those who sat in the region and shadow of death; Light has dawned.” [Isaiah 9:1-2] 17From that time Jesus began to preach and to say, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Amen!