“Blessed is the Kingdom…” and the enarxis, or beginning, of the Liturgy
The opening of the Beautiful Gate symbolizes the act of God drawing near to us in this world. God takes the initiative in coming into our darkened space. Remember, in the ancient Israelite temple, this curtain was permanently closed. No one could ever open it! The evangelist St Matthew reports, however, that when the Lord died on the Cross, “the veil in the Temple was torn into two, from top to bottom” (Mt 27:51). So the first words of the common liturgy now sound forth with a great voice from the priest, “Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages.” The Liturgy begins with the exclamation of God’s awesome Kingdom breaking into human affairs. “Blessed is…” not “Blessed be…” It is truly an exclamation, not a wish. Now He enters our world again, right now, through us!
All the people sing “Amen.” This simple prayer, “Amen,” is very powerful. The laity should learn to pray it with great intention. It basically means that the one saying the Amen takes up the prayer or exclamation which has just been uttered as if it were his or her very own. St Jerome of Bethlehem said that the Divine Liturgy as it was celebrated in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, right at the Empty Tomb itself, was so robust that the laity said “Amen” with the force of a thunderclap! Reach for this prayer and use it often. Consider it your responsibility as a layperson to say the Amen properly, in order to mark your active prayer in concert with the presiding minister and the rest of the community.
The Great Ektenia
Now the deacon utters the ektenia, a chain of biddings, in response to which all the people sing the simple and deep prayer, “Lord have mercy.” The deacon does this, standing on the solea, the area in front of the Beautiful Gate, raised up a bit from the rest of the nave. St Sophronius, Patriarch of Jerusalem in the 7th century, says that spiritually the solea represents “the river of fire separating the sinners from the righteous” (see Dan 7:10). Later, the faithful will approach the solea to receive Holy Communion, thus crossing this symbolic barrier.
Perhaps you have heard of the Jesus Prayer. When we pray, “Lord have mercy,” this is a very short version of it which is very often used in the Liturgy. Some people are confused in thinking that God is stingy and hesitant to give mercy; therefore, so they think, the prayer insists that He do so. This is a worldly and false way of viewing it. God grants mercy, “He causes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust” (Matthew 5: 45). The place where the blockage occurs is on our part. When we pray this prayer with constancy and faith, we are purifying our own hearts which are crowded with the corrupt desires of this world. We do not know mercy, only because we ourselves are merciless to others. We are invited to discover the rich mercy of God which already abounds toward us: “And the Lord passed by Moses and proclaimed, ‘The LORD, the LORD GOD, merciful and gracious, longsuffering and abundant in goodness and truth’” (Exodus 34: 6).
The choir leads the singing of “Lord have mercy.” All of the people should take it up in concert and pray it with meaning. The choirs (properly two, one on the right and one on the left) exist in the churches in order to lift up all of the laity in their prayers and hymnody to God. There is a beautiful synergy of worship between clergy, choirs, and people. The laity benefit by becoming “caught up” in this triad. Those with fine voices ought to join the choir in order to put their talent to good use for the Master. Choir-singers comprise a ministerial rank in the holy church and benefit from certain prayers in their behalf: “for those who serve (clergy and their assistants) and for those who sing…”
The great ektenia, also called the great litany, is a school of prayer unto itself. Notice the progression of biddings and reflect upon the course of prayer as it unfolds from a simple plea for peace to an encompassing of the whole world and everyone in it in the loving and merciful embrace of the Lord. Notice the beginning: first, the proper atmosphere of true prayer is peace. Without peace, we cannot pray at all: “In peace, let us pray to the Lord.” Then, with peace, we pray for the highest kind of peace: “the peace from above…” Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you. My peace I give to you; not as the world giveth, do I give unto you” (John 14: 27). Only then, having this “peace which passeth understanding,” do we pray for “the peace of the whole world.” Sometimes our priorities are askew. The great ektenia helps us organize our prayer, so that first things come first. We pray for the most important persons first, our spiritual fathers who care for our immortal souls, then the civil authorities who govern our temporal lives. After that, we pray for all humanity, in its various states and conditions, and lastly, for ourselves with a final prayer from the deacon, “help us, save us…,” to which we add our “Lord have mercy.”
The deacon, like an angel, intones these biddings in a fulsome voice. If there be no deacon, the ektenias (and some other diaconal parts) are assumed by the priest. Happy are the parishes where the diaconate is active, since they see a beautiful “ministering angel” holding his orarion (the long, fluttering element of his vestment which draws our attention to where it should go) aloft, carrying the prayers of the people from the nave to the altar and the Holy Gospel from the altar to the nave. Since the deacon moves so often to and fro, between altar and solea, we call the north and south doors (on either side of the Beautiful Gate) through which he so often passes the “deacon’s doors.”