The Cherubic Hymn and the Great Entrance
After two very brief ektenias in which the celebrant prays for worthiness and the proper spiritual disposition to celebrate the Eucharist, the Cherubic Hymn is sung, very slowly with great ornamentation and beauty. This hymn is an expression of our emulation of the holy angels who accompany the Lord in glory. The image is actually drawn from the ancient Roman military ritual of acclaiming a new emperor. The soldiers would hoist the newly chosen leader on a shield and all would point their spears straight up, and utter their oath of loyalty, thus the words in the cherubic hymn, “the King of all, Who comes invisibly up-borne (“carried with raised spears”) by the orders of angels.” Thus, we present ourselves in an angelic state, bearing the Lord Himself as we utter the thrice-holy hymn (which is about to be sung in its oldest form, in the anaphora, discussed below). Most importantly, we now put aside (actually, apothometha, ‘let us reserve for later use,’ as in our expression, “put by,” or “save for later”) the cares of daily life. These cares are not bad or sinful, merely mundane and transitory. We ought, then, to leave them for later action, as we place our attention fully on the holy oblation. God does not want us to shirk our daily and mundane responsibilities; however, He does want us to put them in proper perspective. Right now, all else is secondary to the Eucharist.
While the choirs are singing the cherubic hymn, the priest says a prayer beseeching God for the grace to serve Him without offence in the coming Eucharist. There, we learn that Christ Himself is both the Chief celebrant and the Victim: “for Thou Thyself art He that offereth and is offered.” There is a special censing, showing the solemnity of the moment. After this censing, during which the celebrating priest prays Psalm 50 (LXX), the most profound expression of repentance in the entire Bible, he makes a reverence toward the people. This is the expression of reconciliation and forgiveness we must extend to each other, if we are to “bring our gift to the altar” in a worthy manner. We ought never to liturgize, clergy or laity, if we bear ill-will against another human being.
The procession leading to the Great Entrance divides the cherubic hymn in the middle. Whereas in the Little Entrance, the Gospel-book is borne, symbolizing Christ’s appearance in His public ministry, so now in this Great Entrance, the diskos and chalice are borne, symbolizing Christ’s willing self-oblation in His holy passion (suffering), death, and burial for our salvation. The deacon bears the diskos, and the priest the chalice, and they are preceded by candle-bearers and cross. In antiquity, there was a separate building or side-chapel where the bread and wine were prepared and lodged. As this part of the liturgy approached, the deacons would take up the gifts and bring them in a procession to the bishop who awaited them in front of the altar. Now, we keep the gifts on the prothesis, for there were they prepared in the proskomidia, earlier. The procession from the prothesis to the Holy Table marks the formal beginning of the anaphora or holy oblation (offering). In the procession, special commemoration is made for all Orthodox Christians, including the chief hierarch of the local church and the diocesan bishop. In addition, we remember the civil authorities. It is always important to bear in mind that the Orthodox Catholic and Apostolic Church does not subscribe to any political party or specific political system. We do, however, pray for the welfare of the civil authority, recognizing that all authority comes from God (see Romans 13: 1). After remembering both the living and the dead, the procession is concluded by the completion of the cherubic hymn and the deposition of the bread and wine on the Holy Table. These are placed upon the antiminsion, a special cloth bearing the ikon of the repose of Our Lord Jesus Christ. This cloth is signed by the metropolitan archbishop of the local church over whose synod of bishops he presides, or by the diocesan bishop himself. The antiminsion is the authorization from the hierarch for the Divine Liturgy to be served at the specific church temple where it is placed. It is always protected, when folded up, by a red cloth called the eiliton.
There is also an interesting custom in my particular patriarchate (Antioch): while the procession bearing the bread and wine to be offered is taking place through the nave, the people reach forward and touch the phelonion (the large, outer vestment worn by the priests). In this way, they demonstrate the fact that the offering is indeed from THEM; i.e., the whole kosmos brings its gift to the Lord for His blessing.
While the Great Entrance is taking place, there is a dramatic shift in the tenor of the Divine Liturgy. There are no more readings and very little variable hymnody. The cherubic hymn now being sung is very ornate and reflective, even mystical in ethos. We are leaving the world and all transitory cares behind in order to complete the mystical sacrifice, bringing our whole life unto Christ our God for His holy blessing. Indeed, if the Great Entrance has been completed, the priest may not break off the Divine Liturgy for any reason, even if someone comes into the church requesting an emergency baptism for a dying person! In such a case, the priest must complete the Eucharist. Only then may he leave the Lord’s Presence.