WORSHIP & THE DIVINE LITURGY: 9
SMALL ENTRANCE & TRISAGION HYMN
How many of you drove through the snowstorm yesterday? In the increasing darkness of night and the multitude of snowflakes driven by the gusting wind, it was difficult to see. We needed headlights to see clearly the safe path of the road in front of us as we proceeded carefully to our home or destination. This image is very much like what we will discuss today, the ninth in our series on worship and liturgy.
Last week we talked about the first two Antiphons which were originally whole psalms interpolated by brief hymns to the Theotokos and Jesus Christ. Now, these brief hymns are preceded by short psalm verses depending on the day or feast being celebrated. The third and final Antiphon contained the main hymn of the day or feast and it’s called in an Apolytikion, because it was first sung at the Apolysis or Dismissal of the Vespers service the evening before. On Sundays, one of the resurrectional apolytikia is sung according to the order of the eight tones or melodies.
During the third antiphon a significant movement or action takes place called the Small Entrance. The priest, preceded by the acolytes carrying candles, exits the sanctuary carrying the Gospel book and proceeds to the Holy or Beautiful Gate (Oraia Pule). A few Fathers of the Church say the Small Entrance symbolizes the beginning of Christ’s earthly ministry. This would make sense because Jesus’ Incarnation and Birth are already commemorated during the Proskomide service in which the bread and wine are prepared on the table of the Prothesis. When we use the word ‘symbol’ we remember that it means to bring together two things—what you see and what it represents.
The Gospel book is often seen as symbolizing Christ Himself. This book is not just a bigger ornate version of the Bible. Rather, it contains only the four Gospel books and these passages are arranged not sequentially, but according to the lectionary or system of readings for the Church year. The Gospel book is often richly adorned with gilded metal and sparkling jewels to demonstrate the priceless value of our Savior’s life and words. The Greek word for gospel is ‘euaggelion’ which means ‘good message.’
On both sides of the book are five small icons. In the middle, on one side is the Resurrection of Christ and on the other side is the Crucifixion. On Sundays, the Lord’s Day (Kyriake), the Day of Resurrection that icon is facing up or outwards. On weekdays, the Crucifixion icon is facing up/outwards. The Resurrection icon is surrounded by four smaller icons of the Evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke & John), each with their respective symbol (man, lion, ox & eagle). The Crucifixion icon is also surrounded by four smaller icons of the major prophets: Daniel, Ezekiel, Isaiah & Jeremiah.
According to St. Jerome’s rationale given for this scheme is how each Gospel narrative begins. Matthew is the man because he begins with a genealogy; Mark is the lion, roaring in the desert with prophetic power; Luke is the ox, because he begins with temple sacrifice; and John is the eagle, flying heavenwards like the divine Word.
The processional candles and lamps represent the light of Christ, that is the Holy Spirit which illuminates the path towards Christ. The Prophets of the Old Testament were illumined by the Holy Spirit to proclaim God’s word and their words declared the coming Messiah. The Holy Spirit, in the form of candle/lamp light is just like the headlights of an automobile, especially when it’s dark and stormy. We can’t get to our destination without it.
The Prayer of the Entrance read by the priest also reveals its meaning: “O Sovereign Lord our God, Who appointed in heaven the orders and armies of angels and archangels for the service or your glory, grant that the holy angels may enter with us, to serve and glorify your goodness with us…” The prayer actualizes the Orthodox understanding of the communion of the saints; that we indeed all worship together in the dimension of the kingdom.
Next, the clergy and the faithful sing together: “Come let us bow down to Christ and worship Him; Save us O Son of God (on Sundays- “who rose from the dead”; on weekdays- “among the saints glorified”); We sing to You, Alleluia!”
During the Entrance, all the faithful stand at the very threshold of the Kingdom. The priest, upon entering through the Holy/Beautiful Gate, leads the people over the threshold of the Kingdom, literally stepping from this world to the next.
In the early Church, the Entrance (Greek = Enarxis) happened after all the people had gathered (Synaxis) outside the temple. Many Church Fathers equate the Synaxis to the Prophecy of the coming Messiah, the Incarnation of Christ and the ministry of John the Baptist. After the singing of the litanies and the antiphons the clergy would vest outside the sanctuary and at this point would make entry with the Gospel book into the sanctuary, towards the altar that before the throne of Christ in the Kingdom.
The remnant of this early practice is the placing of the Gospel book before the Royal Doors in the narthex during the chanting of the 50th Psalm in the Orthros service. This symbolizes the risen Christ leaving the tomb to greet the Myrrhbearing Women and those who rise early in the morning. That’s why you see the Gospel book on the stand when you enter the narthex every Sunday. This ancient practice is still followed during hierarchical liturgies because the Bishop enters the sanctuary at this time—the true beginning of the Liturgy of the Word inaugurated by the chief shepherd of the flock of Christ.
After all the clergy enter the Holy Altar, the chanters and choir sing repeat the Apolytikon and continue with other Apolytikia dedicated to the feast or saint being commemorated, the patron saint or feast of the parish community and the Kontakion, another hymn based on the season of the ecclesiastical year. As we said last week, the combination of these hymns will change every week provided a unique variety from one Sunday to the next. The likelihood of celebrating the exact same liturgy on any given Sunday might occur only once every six to eight years. We also remember that the hymns of our Church not only tell a story but more importantly, reveal Christian theology—what we believe about God, creation and mankind. The familiar melodies help implant and cement these beliefs deep within our body, mind and soul.
In conclusion, when the blind man of Jericho in today’s Gospel reading from 14th Sunday of Luke (18:35-43) heard that Christ was passing by, he cried out: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” (v.38). Jesus, stopped and asked him, “What do you want Me to do for you?” The blindman replied, “Receive my sight” (v.41). When we come to church, into the temple, and the Gospel book passes in front of us during the Small Entrance, we should imitate the blindman begging for Christ to open the eyes of our heart, mind and soul so that we can see Him more clearly working miracles in our life each and every day. Amen!