Father Schmemann begins the third chapter of The Eucharist. Sacrament of the Kingdom by arguing that it is important to understand that the Liturgy originally began with the entrance of the celebrant – something that is preserved in the pontifical liturgy – not because of archeological pedantry, but because
the idea of entrance has a truly decisive significance for the understanding of the eucharist. And in the end, the purpose of our investigation is to show that the meaning of the eucharist is contained in the entry of the Church into the kingdom of God; that in a sense the eucharist is entirely entrance; and that the lifting up, the [anaphora], is related not only to the holy gifts (“that we may offer the Holy Oblation in peace…”) but to the Church herself, to the very assembly. For – and I shall repeat this again and again – the eucharist is the sacrament of the kingdom, accomplished by the ascent and entry of the Church into the heavenly sanctuary. (50)
It is this original entrance that is preserved in what is now called the “Little Entrance.” That which precedes the Little Entrance, namely the Great Litany, the three antiphons and three prayers, originally had another function. The Great Litany was originally sung after the entrance and the singing of the Trisagion and was transferred to its present place when the antiphons were added to the beginning of the liturgy. These were originally processional hymns that were sung outside the church and which were completed at the doors of the church with the reading of the prayer of entrance. Hence the diversity of antiphons and their variability depending on particular feasts and churches. Moreover, we see a remnant of this practice in the present pontifical liturgy in which the bishop does not take part in the service until the Little Entrance.
It is important to understand the dynamic character of this entering, for it underlines the nature of the eucharist as movement. It is also important to understand that this arose out of a particular relationship with the surrounding society which is no longer apparent to us but in which there was a correlation between Church and world.
If “assembling as the Church” presupposes separation from the world (Christ appears “the doors being shut”), this exodus from the world is accomplished in the name of the world, for the sake of its salvation. For we are flesh of the flesh and blood of the blood of this world. We are a part of it, and only by us and through us does it ascend to its Creator, Savior and Lord, to its goal and fulfilment. We separate ourselves from the world in order to bring it, in order to lift it up to the kingdom, to make it once again the way to God and participation in his eternal kingdom. In this is the task of the Church; for this she was left in the world, as part of it, as a symbol of its salvation. And this symbol we fulfil, we “make real” in the eucharist. (53)
Turning to the Great Litany then, we offer the “common supplications.” This is not simply the prayer of a man or of a group of people, but is “the prayer of Christ himself to his Father, which has been granted to us” and this gift of Christ’s mediation is “the first and greatest gift of the Church.” (54)
We can add nothing to his prayer, but according to his will, according to his love, we have become the members of his body, we are one with him and have participation in his protection and intercession for the world. (54)
After the Great Litany come the three antiphons which are accompanied by the three prayers. The practice of the celebrant reciting these prayers silently is relatively recent and they are really prayers of the entire assembly or, more accurately, of the Church herself. The “prayer of the first antiphon” expresses the Christian experience of the absolute transcendence of God and the apophatic foundations of Christian faith. The “prayer of the second antiphon” expresses the Church’s conviction that God has revealed Himself and has united her to Himself. And the “prayer of the third antiphon” expresses her hope that the truth granted to her in this age will also lead to life everlasting.
Whereas the Little Entrance was originally the beginning of the liturgy, in contemporary practice its significance has become linked to the carrying out of the gospels. It can thus be traced to two diverse rites and themes, namely, the entrance and the ceremonies connected with the reading of the word of God, the latter of which will be dealt with in the following chapter.
Despite this complexity, the Little Entrance preserves the character of an entrance. In the prayer of the entrance, which was formerly read during the entrance of the celebrant and people and which in the consecration of a temple is still read at the outer doors, “we see the heavenly character of the entrance: in it the heavenly powers and hosts, i.e., the angels, are “serving with us.” (59) This symbolism has been somewhat weakened by the transferral “of the idea of the sanctuary from the temple as a whole to the altar, i.e., to that part of the temple that contains the altar table” with the related contraposition of the initiated and the uninitiated, so that the entrance is seen as happening at the doors of the iconostasis. (59)
And this development certainly weakened the perception and experience of the “assembly as the Church” itself as the entrance and ascent of the Church, the people of God, to the heavenly sanctuary. For “Christ has entered, not into a sanctuary made with hands, a copy of the true one, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf” (Heb 9:24). (59-60)
However, this does not affect the main thing, which is that the entrance consists in drawing near to the altar which was the focus of the temple from the beginning, for
according to the witness of all tradition, the altar is a symbol of Christ and Christ’s kingdom. It is the table at which Christ gathers us, and it is the sacrificial table that unites the high priest and the sacrifice. It is the throne of the King and Lord. It is heaven, that Kingdom in which “God is all in all.” And it is precisely from this experience of the altar as the focus of the eucharistic mystery of the Church that all the “mystique” of the altar developed – as heaven, as the eschatological pole of the liturgy, as that sacramental presence that converts the entire temple into “heaven on earth.” And therefore the entrance, the drawing near to the altar, is always an ascent. In it Church ascends to the place where her genuine “life is hid with Christ in God.” She ascends to heaven, where the eucharist is celebrated. (60)
It is important to emphasise this because, under western influence, we have come to think in terms of descent rather than of ascent, of Christ descending onto our altars, whereas the original understanding, which is preserved in the ordo, is that we ascend to the place where Christ ascended so that the eucharist is always a going out from “this world” and the altar is the symbol of the reality of this ascent.
In “this world” there is not and cannot be an altar, for the kingdom of God is “not of this world.” And that is why it is so important to understand that we regard the altar with reverence – we kiss it, we bow before it, etc. – not because it is “sanctified” and has become, so to speak, a “sacred object,” but because its very sanctification consists in its referral to the reality of the kingdom, in its conversion into a symbol of the kingdom. Our reverence, our veneration is never related to “matter,” but always to that which it reveals, of which it is an epiphany, i.e., a manifestation and presence. Any consecration in the Church is not a creation of “sacred objects,” by their sanctity contraposed to the “profane,” i.e., the unconsecrated, but their referral to their original and at the same time ultimate meaning – God’s conception of them. For the entire world was created as an “altar of God,” as a temple, as a symbol of the kingdom. (61)
In Christian terms,
sanctification consists in the restoration to everything in the world of its symbolic nature, its “sacramentality,” in referring everything to the ultimate aim of being. All our worship services therefore are an ascent to the altar and a return back to “this world” for witness to “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Co 2:9). (61)
This eschatological meaning of the entrance is best expressed in the prayer and singing of the Trisagion with which the entrance is concluded, and in which we both acknowledge the holiness of God and pray to be sanctified so as to participate in it.
No discursive thought, no logic is capable of explaining this, yet meanwhile it is precisely this sensation of the holiness of God, this feeling for the holy that is the foundation and source of religion. And here, arriving at this moment, we perhaps more powerfully than ever comprehend that the services, while not explaining to us what the holiness of God is, reveal it to us, and that in this manifestation is the age-old essence of cult – those rites that are as fundamental and ancient as man himself and whose meaning is almost indistinguishable from the gestures, the blessings, the lifting up of hands, prostrations, to which it gave rise. For the cult also was born from necessity, from the thirst of man for partaking of the holy, which he sensed before he could “think” about it. (62)
Having entered, we now stand before the holy.
We are sanctified by his presence, we are illumined by his light. And the trembling and the sweet feeling of the presence of God, the joy and peace, which has no equal on earth, is all expressed in the threefold, slow singing of the Trisagion: “Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal” – the heavenly hymn, which is sung on earth but testifies to the accomplished reconciliation of earth and heaven, to the fact that God revealed himself to men and that it is given to us to “share his holiness” (Heb 12:10).
With this singing the celebrant ascends still higher, to the very heart of the temple, to the “high place,” to the holy of holies. And in this rhythm of ascent – from “this world” to the gates of the temple, from the gates of the temple to the altar, from the altar to the high place – he witnesses to the accomplished unification, to the heights to which the Son of God has lifted us. And, after ascending to the “high place” – from there, but turning his face to the gathering, as one of the gathered but also as the image of the Lord, vested in power and authority – the celebrant grants us peace for listening to the word of God. (63)