The Divine Liturgy:

The Great Entrance

The Great Entrance, the solemn procession in which the gifts of bread and wine are taken to the holy table, is a signal feature of the Divine Liturgy in the Byzantine Rite. This article describes the Great Entrance, as well as the other parts of the liturgy that mark the transition from the introductory and catechetical (teaching) portion of the Liturgy to the Eucharistic sacrifice itself. For the music used in this part of the Divine Liturgy, see Singing the Divine Liturgy: The Cherubikon and Singing the Divine Liturgy: the Symbol of Faith.

The Origin of the Great Entrance

In the early history of the Byzantine Rite, the bread and wine that were to be offered according to Christ's command were brought in procession from a separate building where they were kept and prepared; during this procession, the people chanted Psalm 23, with the refrain, "Let him enter, the King of Glory." Around the year 573, the Patriarch of Constantinople, Eutyches, complained that this was a theological mistake, since the words of the refrain might lead the people to believe that the bread and wine had already been consecrated. So a new hymn was introduced into the liturgy which focused attention on the presence of the angels, encouraged the faithful to recollect themselves and prepare for the sacrifice, in anticipation of receiving Christ in Holy Communion. This hymn is the Cherubic Hymn or Cherubikon, one of the most beautiful and important compositions in the Byzantine tradition.

The Prayers at the Holy Table

After the Litany of Fervent supplication that follows the Gospel, the celebrating priest says two prayers for the faithful, asking God to hear their prayers, accept their sacrifices, and make them worthy to receive Holy Communion. During these prayers, the deacon incenses the gifts of bread and wine in the table of preparation (within the sanctuary) while reciting Psalm 50, the Church's great hymn of repentance. He also incenses the people who will assist in the sacrifice, and the altar on which it will be offered.

Then the celebrant and any concelebrating priests say the Prayer of the Cherubikon. This prayer is unique in the Liturgy in that each priest prays it in his own name (saying "I" and "me" rather than "we" and "us"); it is a personal prayer for worthiness before God, and at the same time clearly expresses the theology of the Eucharistic sacrifice:

No one who is bound by carnal desires and pleasures is worthy to come to you, to approach you, or to minister to you, the King of Glory. For to minister to you is great and awesome even to the heavenly powers themselves. Yet, because of your ineffable and immeasurable love for all of us, you, unchanged and unchangeable, became man, were designated our high priest, and, as Master of all, entrusted us with the priestly service of this liturgical, unbloody sacrifice. You alone, O Lord our God, rule over all things in heaven and on earth and are borne aloft on the cherubic throne. You are the Lord of the Seraphim and the King of Israel who alone are holy and dwell in the holy sanctuary.

Therefore, I beseech you, who alone are good and ready to hear, look favorably upon me, your sinful and unprofitable servant, cleanse my heart and soul of an evil conscience, and by the power of your Holy Spirit, enable me, who have been clothed with the grace of the priesthood, to stand before this your holy table in the priestly service of your sacred and pure body and precious blood. Bowing my head, I approach you and implore: turn not your face away from me, nor exclude me from among your children, but allow these gifts to be offered to you by me, your sinful and unworthy servant.

For you yourself, O Christ our God, offer and are offered, you receive and are distributed; and we give glory to you with your eternal Father and your all-holy, good, and life-creating Spirit, now and ever and forever. Amen.

Notice in particular that the prayer mentions the angels (the cherubim and seraphim). Three times the priest raises his hands in a gesture of openness to God and says quietly:

Let us, who mystically represent the cherubim, and sing the thrice-holy hymn to the life-creating Trinity, now set aside all earthly cares.

And each time, the deacon and concelebrating priests respond by saying:

That we may receive the King of All, invisibly escorted by angelic hosts. Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

The Greek text of this hymn makes it plain that when we set aside "all earthly cares", we are not rejecting the world in which we live; the "earthly cares" we set aside are the ones spoken of in the Parable of the Sower (Luke 8:4-15), the "anxieties of this life" that prevent Christians from bearing good fruit. Also, the word "receive" ("that we may receive the King of All") is the same as the word for receiving Holy Communion. So this hymn, which is said by the clergy and sung by the people, encourages us to put aside all that would distract us from love of God and man, or prevent us from receiving the Body and Blood of Christ.

The Great Entrance

The clergy go to the table of preparation, where the priest incenses the gifts of bread and wine, then gives the diskos to the deacon and takes the chalice in his right hand. Together with the servers, they go in procession out the north door of the sanctuary (either through the whole church, or just across the solea) and stand in front of the holy doors.

During this part of the service (that is, from the end of the litanies until the clergy are making their procession through the church), the people sing the first part of the cherubic hymn as many times as necessary:

Let us, who mystically represent the cherubim, and sing the thrice-holy hymn to the life-creating Trinity, now set aside all earthly cares.

Then the deacon and priest commemorate (mention) all those for whom the sacrifice is being offered. (At one time, the people would ask the priest's prayers and remembrance during the procession; eventually these commemorations were made part of the liturgy itself, breaking the Cherubic Hymn in the middle.) When the commemorations have been completed, the people sing the second part of the Cherubic Hymn as the clergy enter the sanctuary:

That we may receive the King of All, invisibly escorted by angelic hosts. Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

The priest places the gifts of bread and wine on the holy table and covers them with veils, while quietly saying the troparion of Great and Holy Friday:

The noble Joseph took down your most pure body from the cross. He wrapped it in a clean shroud and with fragrant spices laid it in burial in a new tomb.

Then he incenses the gifts and says the conclusion of Psalm 50 (which the deacon said while incensing before the Great Entrance):

In your goodness, O Lord, show favor to Zion; rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. Then you will be pleased with lawful sacrifice, burnt offerings wholly consumed; then you will be offered young bulls on your altar.

This troparion and psalm verse are part of the symbolic "clothing" of the Divine Liturgy. Just as the bringing forth of the Gospel book was associated symbolically with Christ going forth to teach, the procession of the Great Entrance was seen sometimes as Christ's entrance into Jerusalem before his Passion, or as his burial procession; since the Liturgy is in a certain sense outside of time, it can actually have all these meanings incorporated into it. That is why the troparion of Great Friday was added at this point in the service.

As for Psalm 50, this is the psalm which the deacon prayed as he incensed the gifts before the Great Entrance. Here, the priest prays the conclusion of the psalm, which associates the one sacrifice of Christ with the Old Testament sacrifices which it fulfilled and replaced.

The Kiss of Peace

Standing at the holy table, the priest prays aloud a prayer "for the precious gifts placed before us":

Lord God Almighty, who alone are holy and receive the sacrifice of praise from those who call upon you with their whole heart, accept also the prayer of us sinners. Bring us to your holy altar. Enable us to offer you gifts and spiritual sacrifices for our sins and for the people's failings. Make us worthy to find favor in your sight that our sacrifices may be pleasing to you and that the good Spirit of your grace may rest on us, on these gifts here present, and on all your people.

If the Liturgy of Saint Basil is being celebrated, a different prayer is used, which asks God to accept the gifts of bread and wine "as you accepted the gifts of Abel, the sacrifices of Noah, the first-fruits of Abraham, the priesthood of Moses and Aaron, and the peace-offerings of Samuel." This is the first noticeable difference between the Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom and the Liturgy of Saint Basil, which makes greater use of the events of salvation history.

But before we offer this sacrifice, we are reminded of our Lord's command (Matthew 5:23-24): "If you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there at the altar; go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift." So the deacon exclaims:

Let us love one another that with one mind we may profess:

and the people respond:

The Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, the Trinity, one in essence and undivided.

while the clergy exchange a kiss of peace, priests embracing priests and kissing one another on the shoulder, and the deacons (if there are several) doing the same. Notice how the liturgy presents love for one another as a necessary first step in a proper understanding of God, and of the Christian faith. Even though the people do not exchange a kiss (as they did in the early church), we should at this point forgive any who have wronged us, before continuing with the liturgy.

The Symbol of Faith (Creed)

The deacon has called for us to be reconciled, and profess our faith in God, which the people do in an extremely brief form ("The Father, and the Son....") But experience has shown that a number of the divine teachings are critical to a proper understanding of God and of the salvation he offers. So in the seventh century, a statement of faith (the Symbol of Faith, or "Creed" - from the Latin for "I believe") was added to the Divine Liturgy.

In the first centuries after Christ, each church composed its own statement of faith, which those being baptized were required to learn and profess immediately before baptism. That is why the deacon introduces the Symbol of Faith with the words:

[The doors! The doors!] In wisdom let us be attentive!

"The doors! The doors!" is a directive to the minor clergy to ensure that only baptized believers ("the faithful") are present, and to close the doors of the church so that only the baptized take part in the Eucharistic prayers and communion. This also hearkens back to the days of persecution, when those who took part in Christian worship risked execution. Today, the Divine Liturgy is normally open to all, but even now, it may be opportune for catechumens to leave the service at this point, as they await the opportunity to take part in it as fully initiated Christians.

Now the faithful sing or recite the Symbol of Faith. The particular creed we use in the Divine Liturgy is the symbol of faith of the Council of Nicaea (AD 325), as later modified by the Council of Constantinople (AD 381). It is a three-fold affirmation of faith in God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit:

I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible;

and in one Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, the only-begotten, born of the Father before all ages.  Light from light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, one in essence with the Father; through whom all things were made.  For us and for our salvation, he came down from heaven, and was incarnate from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and became man.  He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered and was buried.  He rose on the third day according to the scriptures.  He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father; and he is coming again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end. 

And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Creator of Life, who proceeds from the Father.  Together with the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified; he spoke through the prophets.  In one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.  I profess one baptism for the remission of sins.  I expect the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.  Amen.

The gifts of bread and wine have been brought to the holy table; those present have been reconciled to one another and professed their faith, in order to be "of one mind and one heart." Now the central act of the Divine Liturgy begins: the great Eucharistic prayer or anaphora, in one of two forms, depending on which Divine Liturgy is being celebrated:

Variations on the Great Entrance

On the most solemn occasions, a different hymn is sung at the Great Entrance in place of the Cherubikon.

On Great and Holy Thursday, the Divine Liturgy of Saint Basil the Great is celebrated in the evening, as a commemoration of the institution of the Eucharist. At one time, this is the service at which those who had done public penance for serious sins were re-admitted to Holy Communion, and so at the Great Entrance we sing the troparion of the day, which begs God that we may receive Him worthily:

Accept me today as a partaker of your mystical supper, O Son of God, for I will not reveal your mystery to your enemies, nor will I give you a kiss as did Judas, but like the thief I profess you: Remember me, O Lord, when you come in your kingdom.

On Great and Holy Saturday, the Divine Liturgy of Saint Basil the Great is celebrated as part of the Paschal vigil. At this liturgy, we sing an extremely ancient hymn at the Great Entrance, which comes from the Liturgy of Saint James:

Let all mortal flesh keep silence, and with fear and trembling stand, leaving all earthbound thoughts behind. For the King of Kings and Lord of Lords is coming to be sacrificed, and to give himself as food to the faithful.

The commemorations are chanted, and the hymn continues:

The choirs of angels go before him with every principality and power; the many-eyed Cherubim and the six-winged Seraphim veiling their eyes, they sing the hymn: Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

Like the Cherubic Hymn of the ordinary Divine Liturgy, this Great Entrance hymn emphasizes the role of the angels, and calls us to silence and recollection.

Finally, the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts has its own hymn at the Great Entrance. But this time, what is being carried in procession is not simply bread and wine, but the Body and Blood of Christ, and so we sing:

Now the powers of heaven are serving with us invisibly, for behold, the King of Glory enters. They escort the mystical sacrifice already accomplished.

This time, however, there are no commemorations: this is the one point in Byzantine liturgy at which silence is commanded, as the faithful kneel and the Body of Christ is taken in procession through the church. As the clergy enter the altar, the hymn concludes:

Let us draw near with faith and love that we may become partakers of life everlasting. Alleluia. Alleluia. Alleluia.

Recommended Reading