Nothing compares with a drive through the Rocky Mountains on a beautiful day. The highway meanders past steep cliffs under impossibly blue skies, and in autumn, aspen trees lick the mountainsides in tongues of yellow flame. In summer, silver ribbons of waterfalls flow among boulders flanked by pine and fir trees.
The driver can see only glimpses of all this beauty, especially on winding stretches of road with sheer drop-offs and minimal guardrails. Traffic is too slow or too fast, and always too much.
But where the terrain permits, travelers can park at a scenic byway to rest and truly experience, with all of their senses, the scenery that had been flying past the car windows. By taking a break and stepping off the road, we discover new mysteries—the music of birdsong, the breeze moaning through the Ponderosa pines, the bone-numbing cold of a tumbling creek, and the delicate pink primroses blooming along an earthen path.
The Liturgy of the Faithful
In her ancient wisdom, the Church has provided a spiritual rest area, a place to pause and slow down after we complete the first part of our journey, the Liturgy of the Word. A palpable shift occurs in the music as we ascend toward the Eucharist on the next part of the road, the Liturgy of the Faithful.
At this point in the liturgy we have internalized the written Word with the Gospel reading and homily, and as we prepare to receive the living Word in the chalice, the deacon no longer addresses the people (“For [this and that], let us pray to the Lord…”). Instead, in the Litany of Fervent Supplication he cries out directly to God with petitions such as, “Have mercy on us, O God, according to Your great goodness; we pray You, hearken and have mercy!” We respond with triple repetitions of “Lord have mercy,” showing a sense of urgency and expectancy.
Next the Church prays for catechumens, those being instructed in the Faith as they prepare for baptism. Nowadays some parishes cut out this section of the liturgy entirely. But in ancient times, inquirers required up to three years of preparation before being received into the Church. (When torture and martyrdom are real possibilities, “church membership” is not taken lightly.) They gathered for a special prayer before being dismissed from the service with, “Catechumens depart!” This command was not meant to be rude but to protect the holiness of the Mysteries. This level of secrecy is not necessary today, but it’s a small reminder of sacredness in our relentlessly secular world.
The Cherubic Hymn
As the choir begins to sing, the meditative pace of the Cherubic Hymn, like a scenic byway, invites us to rest, to return our thoughts to Christ, to anticipate the Eucharist. This invitation to quiet, expectant worship is for me a highlight of the service. The song has few words, sung slowly and with much repetition of phrases, allowing us to contemplate God’s incredible gift of Himself to us:
We who mystically represent the cherubim;
We sing to the life-giving Trinity
The thrice-holy hymn.
Let us lay aside all the cares of this life
That we may receive the King of all.
During the hymn the priest prays and censes the altar, the icon screen, and the congregation. While the smoke of the incense rises along with our prayers to heaven (Rev. 5:8, 8:3-4), clergy and laity together praise God on earth and join the cherubim in song. We also “mystically represent” them: the Lord dwells between the cherubim (2 Sam. 6:2), and in Christ, His Spirit dwells among us too.
The Great Entrance
Preceded by attendants, the priest and deacon chant, “May the Lord, our God, remember us all in His kingdom, both now and for ever and to the ages of ages.” They then process through the nave, among the people. Usually an altar server leads leads this procession, carrying the cross, while other attendants bear candles and liturgical fans. The clergy carry the diskos, a footed plate carrying the bread for Communion, and the Chalice of mixed water and wine, both of them covered with beautiful embroidered cloths.
You may notice during the procession that some of the faithful extend their arms to touch the priest’s cape, or phelonion. This custom is an acknowledgment that the grace of the Holy Spirit infuses the physical world, not just the world of the spirit. In Jesus’ time, a woman with a flow of blood touched the hem of His garment and found instant healing; Jesus remarked that He felt power go out from Him to the woman through his clothing (Matthew 9, Mark 5, Luke 8). Other sick people also begged to touch His hem (Matt. 14:36, Mark 6:56), and after the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, Peter was so filled with the grace of God that the sick were laid on the streets so that his shadow might fall across them and bring healing (Acts 5:15).
With the grace of apostolic succession and the priest’s role as an icon (image) of Christ on earth, this New Testament custom continues to this day. As the priest walks by, believers reach for his phelonion for a mystical blessing, adding their personal prayers to his. I try to sit on an outside seat so that I can do the same. Hey—I’ll take all the blessings I can get.
A Close-up View: The Holy Doors and the Deacon’s Doors
As we take stock on this scenic byway, anticipating the “heavenly and awesome Mysteries” to come, note the entrances and exits located within the iconostasis (icon screen). Altar servers, including deacons, don’t just pop in and out through the nearest available opening. They always use the “deacon’s doors.”
The door used as the exit from the altar to the solea (the raised platform in front of the icon screen) often depicts Archangel Michael; because the altar is often interpreted mystically as heaven, he is guarding the door. But the entrance to the altar on the other side features Archangel Gabriel, whose announcement of the Incarnation to the Virgin Mary marks humanity’s entrance to the heavenly realm.
The main opening in front of the altar whose two gates usually form a diptych of the Annunciation—and often feature the icons of the four evangelists, Sts. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—are known as the Holy Doors (sometimes also called the Beautiful Gate or the Royal Doors). These doors are reserved for the use of the bishop or the priest when he is carrying either the Gospel book or the chalice containing the holy Eucharist.
The Prayer of Access
After the procession returns to the altar, the Cherubic Hymn continues at a more jubilant pace, reminding us once again that our worship takes place simultaneously on earth and in heaven:
By angelic hosts invisibly,
Escorted by angelic hosts,
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.
The gifts are deposited on the altar table, where the priest prays the prayer of access, that he would be “made worthy to find grace in God’s sight.” This epiclesis (“calling upon”), invoking the Holy Spirit upon the bread and the wine, is significant in that it asks not just for Him to change the elements into the Body and Blood of Christ, but to be poured out upon the clergy and laity. It is a request that we may all be transformed: “For it is not just the gifts of bread and wine, brought in at the great entrance and offered at the anaphora, which are changed into the Body and Blood of Christ. We are changed too; we also become the Body of Christ” (Fr. Lawrence Farley, Let Us Attend! A Journey through the Orthodox Divine Liturgy, 56).
As St. Augustine wrote in the fourth century, “The Lord will impart His Body and His Blood which are shed for the remission of sins. If you have received well, you are that which you have received” (Sermon 227). Fr. Lawrence continues, “For when Christians receive the transformed gifts in Holy Communion, they receive Christ, the King of all. He enters them, transforming them, incorporating them into Himself, so that the assembled multitude becomes again His Body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all (1 Cor. 10:17; Eph. 1:23)” (Farley, 56).
The honor given to the bread and the wine in the Orthodox Church is radically different from my experiences of communion in various Protestant churches—a simple passing of trays of plastic cups and bits of cracker. In the Eucharist, we do not merely participate in a casual periodic remembrance of Christ’s commands. Instead, we proclaim together at every Divine Liturgy that the King of kings and the Lord of lords is among us, and by His grace we mystically partake of His Body and Blood in Holy Communion. He is escorted by angelic hosts, and as the Body of Christ, we set aside all of our earthly concerns and worries, making serious preparations in order to receive Him.
And yet—we are still not ready. First we must seek peace with one another, affirm our beliefs through reciting the Creed, and pray a prayer of repentance together. Before we examine these preparations, next time we will consider our traveling companions, seen and unseen, on this journey of worship.