I have today begun to read a book by Professor Robert Taft, generally recognised as one of the people who knows more about the Byzantine Rite than almost anybody else. (Skufiya tip to Joseph for introducing me to him). The book is The Great Entrance: A History of the Transfer of Gifts and other Pre-Anaphral Rites. I have so far made my way through very little of the book but have been truly fascinated by what I have found. What strikes me most is just how ancient much of what happens from Sunday to Sunday at my little parish actually is, and where it has its roots, but yet more interesting is just how much of what we do in Orthodox churches today has retained the meaning that is either original to it or was attached to it very early on, and has not simply become an empty action divorced from its purpose.
The most humbling revelation for me, though, was the realisation that, contrary to what I have simply assumed for the past few years - and told other people! - the Great Entrance is not the Byzantine equivalent to the Offertory procession in the western rites. Yet, comparing the photographs of a Western Rite Mass and a Byzantine Rite Liturgy, I'm sure you can see how a person could be forgiven for thinking this.
In my Anglican days, I was taught that the mediaeval Offertory procession (pictured left) was just what it says on the tin: a procession during which the Oblations were offered at the altar, and that it was a clericalisation of what had previously been a ceremonial offering by the people of their gifts. Those familiar with the modern Roman Rite will know that this has been restored to the laity, although usually the gifts are no longer the bread that they have baked with wheat from their own fields or wine that they have brought from their own vineyards, (something perhaps difficult in most British climes). This has also been restored after a sort in at least one form of the Orthodox Western Rite. It can be seen on page 34 of this large PDF.
When I became Orthodox, I simply transferred this knowledge to the Great Entrance. After all, they look similar, they happen at equivalent points in the service, and so forth. Why wouldn't I? According to Professor Taft, it is so obvious that many liturgical writers have made the same incorrect assumption, taking knowledge of one rite and assuming it applies to another. Yet it seems that not only is there no evidence to support this but the evidence we have seems to contradict it.
According to Taft, in the Byzantine Rite, there was never a procession of the people bearing gifts during the Liturgy. The offerings of the people were simply handed to the deacon, without ceremony, before the Liturgy. These offerings, including bread and wine for the Eucharist, were prepared by the deacons in a separate room, often a separate building (the skeuphylakion). The names of the people for whom they had been offered would be inscribed on the loaves, and the deacons would etch these into their wax diptychs for commemoration during the Liturgy. As I read this, my thoughts turned immediately to the prosphora that we hand in before the Liturgy with the list of names to be commemorated, which I later read stems from the same unbroken tradition.
So if that is the people's offering, then what is the Great Entrance? Well, very simply, it started life as nothing more than fulfilling the practical necessity of getting the gifts, already offered and prepared, from the place of offering to the Holy Table - nothing more, nothing less - and, contrary to being a clericalisation of a people's procession, it was always done by the deacons, (presumably it is only later that priests started getting in on the action). To this day, it is the deacon who carries the diskos (paten) with the Lamb and commemoration particles in the Great Entrance. Speculating, I wonder whether this explains why the censing happens in the west after the procession, with the Oblations already having been laid on the Holy Table, for they are the offerings now presented, while in the East, the censing of the holy Table, altar, iconostas, and people, happens before the procession, almost as a preparation of the people and the church;
That we may receive the King of all, invisibly upborne in triumph by the ranks of Angels. Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!At different times and in different places, the transfer of the Gifts was done quickly and discreetly, often during the Peace, while people were milling about; or with great solemnity but in complete silence. It is only later, (although still very early), that the symbolism that we have today became attached to it, of Christ's Triumphal Procession into Jerusalem to his Passion, then his funeral procession and burial as the Gifts, already typifying Christ, are carried to the Holy Table, which represents Christ's tomb at this point.
With the development of this symbolism of this being Christ's Passion and Burial, the custom developed of the people praying the prayer of the thief on the Cross as the Gifts passed them by,
'Remember me, O Lord, when Thou comest into thy Kingdom'.Of course, almost any Orthodox Christian will recognise this from the commemorations made by the deacon then the priest at this point, which list those being commemorated, adding,
'...may the Lord God remember in his Kingdom, always, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages.'After the final commemoration, the priest takes the Lamb from the elevated arms of the deacon, symbolising his taking down of Christ's Body from the Cross, and he lays it on the Holy Table, saying the funeral hymns:
The noble Joseph, taking thine immaculate Body down from the tree, wrapped it in pure linen and spices and laid it for burial in a new tomb.Then the Royal Doors are closed and the veil is drawn, symbolising the sealing of the Tomb, which is to burst open at the commemoration of the Resurrection, (mentioned in my previous post).
In the grave bodily; in hades with thy soul though Thou wast God; in paradise with the thief; and on the Throne with the Father and the Spirit wast Thou Who fillest all things, O Christ the Uncircumscribable.
How life-giving! How much more beautiful than paradise, and truly more resplendent than any royal palace proved thy grave, the source of our Resurrection, O Christ!
Those of you who have survived until now are probably bored beyond belief. I find these things intriguing, seeing how our worship of God is one with that offered by those who have gone before us, and the meaning and depth it has for us, but I shall stop now and return to my reading, leaving you with a video that I have shared before, from a Ukrainian Greek Catholic parish, and which is an excellent illustration of the Great Entrance as practised today.