Having considered the relationship between word and sacrament, Father Schmemann continues this fourth chapter of The Eucharist Sacrament of the Kingdom: Sacrament of the Kingdom by returning to the Little Entrance which in contemporary practice has become identified with the entrance with the gospels.

While the altar has become the central focus for both the liturgy of the word and the liturgy of the faithful, this was not the case in ancient times. Rather access to the altar was restricted to the strictly eucharistic part of the liturgy, and before that the clergy would take their places on the bema, among the people, which was the place for listening to the Word of God – and we see a remnant of this practice in the place of the bishop’s throne. Even today, the most important parts of the non-eucharistic services, such as the polyeleion, are performed in the middle of the church and not in the altar. This historical detail is important because it shows that the liturgy involved an ascent to the altar, which is also the ascent to the kingdom. The Little Entrance marks a stage in this ascent in which the clergy and people, having entered the temple, take their places for listening to the Word of God.

This entrance with the gospels also forms a parallel to the entrance with the Gifts,

in which the consecration of the gifts is preceded by the offering. It is appropriate here to recall that the gospels are part of the Orthodox liturgical tradition not only in their reading, but precisely as a book. This book is rendered the same reference as an icon or the altar. … for the Church, the gospel book is a verbal icon of Christ’s manifestation to and presence among us. Above all, it is an icon of his resurrection. The entrance with the gospels is therefore not a “representation,” a sacred dramatization of events of the past – e.g., Christ’s going out to preach (in which case it would be not the deacon, but the celebrant, as the image of Christ in the ecclesial assembly, who should carry the gospel book). It is the image of the appearance of the risen Lord in fulfilment of his promise: “where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Mt 18:20). (71)

We are reminded of this reality of Christ’s presence in the midst of the assembly when the celebrant proclaims: “Peace be unto all!” for peace is the name of Christ himself. To understand the prokeimenon we should realise that these verses of psalmody that it now comprises used to be an entire psalm that preceded the reading of scripture and, for the early Church, the psalms were the prayer of Christ Himself which become also the prayer of His Body the Church.

The prokeimenon – “the psalm that precedes” – introduces us to the sacrament of the word. For the word of God is addressed not to the reason alone, but to the whole man – to his depths or, in the language of the holy fathers, to his heart, which is an organ of religious knowledge, in contrast to the imperfect, discursive and rational knowledge of “this world.” The “opening of the mind” precedes the hearing and understanding of the word… (73)

The prokeimenon is followed by the reading of the epistle, although there is reason to believe that the ancient Church included passages from the Old Testament and the evolution and possible reform of the lectionary is a topic that requires serious attention if the scriptures are to be perceived “as the chief, incomparable and truly saving source of faith and life.” (74)

After the epistle comes the gospel which is preceded by the singing of the alleluia
and the censing. The alleluia verses held an important place in early Christian worship belong to the type of singing called melismatic which means that the melody takes preference over the word, unlike in psalmodic singing. This

expressed the experience of worship as a real contact with the transcendent, an entry into the supernatural reality of the kingdom. … The alleluia is a greeting in the most profound sense of the term. … It presupposes a manifestation and is a reaction to this manifestation. (75)

The alleluia is accompanied by the sensing of the gospel book and of the assembly and is followed by the prayer before the gospel.

This prayer, which is now read silently, occupies the same place in the sacrament of the word that the epiklesis, the supplication for the Father to send down his Holy Spirit, occupies in the eucharistic prayer. Like the consecration of the gifts, understanding and acceptance of the word depend not on us, not only on our desire, but above all on the sacramental transformation of the “eyes of our mind,” on the coming to us of the Holy Spirit. (76)

The homily which follows the reading of the gospel is a witness to the hearing of the word of God and its reception and is organically connected to it. The contemporary crisis of preaching in the Church is not simply due to a lack of technical skill on the part of the preacher, for

The homily can be, and often is even today, intelligent, interesting, instructive and comforting, but these are not the criteria by which we can distinguish a “good” homily from a “bad” one – these are not its real essence. Its essence lies in its living link to the gospel that was read in the church assembly. (77)

All theology and all tradition grows out of the “assembly as the Church” which is the sacrament of the proclamation of the good news and this is what it means to say that only the Church is given custody of the scriptures and their interpretation.

The Church alone knows and keeps the meaning of scripture, because in the sacrament of the word, accomplished in the church assembly, the Holy Spirit eternally gives life to the “flesh” of scripture, transforming it into “spirit and life.” Any genuine theology is rooted in this sacrament of the word, in the church assembly, in which the Spirit of God exhorts the Church herself – and not simply her individual members – into all truth.

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