We continue now with a more detailed look at the Divine Liturgy. After the opening blessing and great litany:
After the great ektenia, we begin to chant a series of antiphons, or short repetitions of refrains, interspersed with verses from the Psalter, the great prayer-book of the church. These refrains help us to ascend from the affairs of this world to a vibrant and sober realization of the presence of God in our midst. In the first antiphon we ask the Mother of God to intercede for us. Here, our Orthodox understanding of the role of the Mother of God (Theotokos, God-bearer) is clarified. She is, above all, our great intercessor. She is not an apostle who teaches; rather, she is a mother who entreats for us. In the second antiphon, we implore the Son of God Himself to save us; and in the third, we take up the apolytikion (“dismissal hymn,” since we heard it first near the dismissal from the vespers on the evening just past) of the day as the refrain, celebrating the Kingdom within and among us. As a unit, the antiphons prepare us for the solemnities ahead. We are still in the beginning stage of the Liturgy. There are some alternatives during this portion of the Liturgy, depending on the parish and the practice of each diocese. Sometimes, the older practice of chanting the so-called “typical psalms” (Psalms 102 and 145, LXX) is followed by the chanting of the Beatitudes with interspersed hymnody taken from the Matins service just past.
Each antiphon (or typical psalm) is completed by the intonation of a little ektenia. We use the little litanies so often that the question is often posed, “why do Orthodox services repeat so much material constantly?” Indeed, the little ektenia begins, “Again and again, let us pray to the Lord.” There is a basic tenet of pedagogy: repetition is the mother of learning. Every school teacher knows that new things to be learned must be presented, drilled, practiced, and re-presented, re-drilled, and re-practiced, many times before learning takes place. The wisdom of the church Fathers is present here: we are imprinted at the liturgy, so that the holy words we hear there will self-actualize in our memory later on. The many repetitions impress us deeply, even before we have come to think about the meaning contained in these words.
Through the three antiphons the priest offers specific prayers which dedicate the liturgy to God and underscore the divine promises which make the liturgy possible, including the word of Our Lord, “wherever two or three are gathered in My Name , there am I in the midst.”
During the third antiphon (or toward the end of the singing of the Beatitudes), the deacon carries the Gospel-book aloft in a liturgical procession, preceded by candle-bearers and processional cross. Following him comes the presiding cleric who will give the blessing to make the Little (or Gospel) Entrance. The deacon cries out the first of several utterances to come: “Wisdom!” This cry always precedes some very important utterance or action and exhorts us to pay special attention at the deepest level of our being. Let us now be aware of Christ, along with the ministering angels in our midst! “Stand aright!” At this point, any of the faithful who were sitting now arise to join all who have been standing, ready to make a bow as the Entrance is made. Standing is the basic posture for prayer, not sitting. “Bless ye the Lord, all ye servants … that stand in the house of the Lord,” (Ps 133: 1-2). Now the great recognition of Christ in our midst occurs as the entrance hymn is intoned by the clergy and choirs, “O come let us worship and fall down before Christ…” On Sunday, all make a bow from the waist; but on weekdays (except during the 40 days following Great and Holy Pascha), it is a good and very traditional thing to make a great bow, a prostration, all the way to the floor, to honor the manifestation of Christ in His public ministry which this Entrance symbolizes. The Gospel-book is the image of Jesus Christ, the living and abiding Word of the Father. “The words which I speak to you are spirit and they are life” (John 6: 63).
When the Bishop presides at the Liturgy, only at this point does he enter the altar to begin actively celebrating there. Up to this point, there is no difference between a liturgy presided over by bishop or priest. But now, when the bishop enters the altar, we see the fullest display of our apostolic heritage. When the priest serves alone, it is not easy to see the apostolic nature of the Church. But when the bishop presides, a living apostle is before us. All this shows us that the beginning part, the enarxis, is passed and now the liturgy of the Word enters its most important stage.