Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov

The Law of God: Foundations of the Orthodox Faith. Lesson 11.

Posted in The Law of God: Foundations of the Orthodox Faith by Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov on 4 December 2010

English-language supplement for the Law of God classes for adults at the Holy New Martyrs of Russia Church in Mulino, OR

Lesson 11

The Small Entry, continued

The Holy Table

When the royal doors are opened for the Small Entry, the faithful are able to see into the altar.[1] The most prominent item in the altar is the holy table[2].  The modern holy table has much stylized beauty about it—glittery vestments, ornate crosses and Gospels, etc.—but its original simple purpose and meaning are still preserved in the Liturgy.  The holy table is just that—a table.  If we recall an icon of the Last Supper, we will remember that Jesus and His disciples are sitting or reclining at a table.  The earliest Christian catacomb frescoes also depict Christians sitting or reclining around a table during the Eucharist.[3] Thus, the modern holy table is the heir of that ancient table in the Upper Room[4] or a Roman Catacomb which bore the Food of Life, the Holy Gifts of the Eucharist.  In the course of the Divine Liturgy, the Holy Gifts are placed onto the holy table, consecrated, and then distributed to the faithful in Holy Communion.  Often, the Eucharist of the Early Church was served on the sarcophagi containing the relics of Christian martyrs, or at their burial sites.  Today, we also serve our Liturgy on the relics of Christian martyrs—they are placed inside the holy table or sewn into a cloth called the antimins[5] which is then placed onto the holy table.

The Eucharist is a meal, and if we look at the holy table, we will see that it is set for a sacramental supper.  The “main dish” is in the middle of the table.  At the Liturgy of the catechumens, the “main dish” is the word of God, and so we see the Gospel placed in the middle of the holy table.  At the Liturgy of the faithful, which is the second part of the Divine Liturgy, the “main dish” is the Body and Blood of Christ, and we see these Holy Gifts placed in the middle of the holy table at the beginning of the Liturgy of the faithful in the rite which is called the Great Entry.  On each side of the “main dish,” we see the “utensils” which allow us to partake of it—we see the Cross of Christ.[6] The way to the resurrection lies through the cross, and those who wish to partake of the wisdom contained in the words of the Gospel and of the life which is in the Body and Blood of Christ, must take up their cross and follow Him.[7] In some churches, there is a cross placed on the left and the right sides of the holy table.  In other churches, a cross is placed only on the right, and the priest’s Service Book is placed on the left.  In our local tradition, we do not place the Service Book on the holy table at all.

Another prominent feature of the holy table is the container for the reserved Gifts—portions of Holy Communion which are always available for emergency situations.  This container is often made in the form of a small church, but could also look like an ornate box.  Finally, any number of sacred objects might sometimes be temporarily placed on the holy table due to special events or circumstances.  But it is hardly appropriate to keep anything on the holy table which does not directly relate to the sacrament of the Eucharist.  It is also completely inappropriate to place anything on the holy table which does not serve a sacred function, but is a profane object, much as it is unacceptable to take a sacred object and use it for a profane purpose.

Wisdom!  Aright!

When the Small Entry procession—the candles, the deacon carrying the Gospel, and the priest—stop before the open royal doors, the deacon points to the east and says to the priest: “Bless, Master, the holy entry!”  And the priest blesses it with the words: “Blessed is the entry of Thy holy ones, always, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages.”  This shows to us once again that the Small Entry symbolically depicts the entry of the faithful into the kingdom of God.

Most Orthodox churches have three clearly separate sections: the narthex or the lobby, the sanctuary or the nave, and the altar.  To understand their significance, we must look back to the very creation of man: “And the LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed.”[8] Thus, we can see Eden, a garden within Eden, and the rest of the earth outside of Eden.  The first man was formed outside of Eden and then brought into Eden and its garden by God.[9] And the man was given a commandment to labor “in order to bring to God most perfect fruits of likeness and righteousness.”[10], [11] In the Old Testament, the Temple had the outer court to represent the world, the inner court to represent Eden, and the Holy of Holies to represent the presence of God or direct communion with Him, which was veiled from humankind.[12] In the New Testament, the narthex symbolically represents the world, the sanctuary represents the Church—the presence of Christ in the midst of the faithful,[13] and the altar represents a “more perfect” communion with God in the “unwaining day of His kingdom”[14] to which the faithful are called.

After the priest blesses the entry of the faithful into the kingdom of God, the deacon raises the Gospel and says in a loud voice: “Wisdom!  Aright!”  The word “wisdom” here refers to the Gospel, which is the word of God, and to Christ, Who is the Word of God and God’s Wisdom.  If we recall the secondary meaning of the Small Entry—Christ’s entry into His earthly ministry and preaching—then “wisdom” refers to His words once preached to the crowds in the Holy Land and given to us in the Gospel.  “Aright” is a reminder for us to literally stand aright, compose ourselves, and pay attention to the wisdom of God.[15] It is immediately after these words of the deacon that the clergy and choir sing: “O come let us worship and fall down before Christ…” and the processions enters into the altar.

Troparia and Kontakia

When the Small Entry is concluded, the choir begins to sing a series of hymns called the troparia and kontakia.  These hymns convey the significance of the day, the saints and events being commemorated, and the patron saint of the church in which the service is being held.  This part of the Liturgy is most closely associated with the commemorations of the day, but it is also one of the very few parts of the Liturgy which actually reflect the daily or seasonal commemorations.  The closer we get to the most solemn part of the Liturgy, the anaphora, the less flexible the Liturgy becomes, and the anaphora itself is never changed for any reason—commemoration of a saint, a feast, a fast, or anything else.

Again and again…

After our discussion of the importance and significance of the Small Entry, we should not have to mention that Christians should stand attentively and prayerfully participate in the service.  The Entry is their entry, not just the clergy’s.  Due to the pervasive nature of the problem, however, we must return to this topic again and again.

When the royal doors are open, it is most inappropriate to wander around the church lighting candles or to come in and out of the church, unless there is a very good and urgent reason for this.  Sometimes people who are ill or elderly sit during the singing of the first and second antiphons.  When the royal doors are open and the holy Gospel is brought out, those who are able to stand should stand up.  If they are unable to stand for very long, they could sit down again after the Small Entry is concluded.  Of course, those who cannot stand at all should remain seated.

Those who come in late should very quietly and discretely find a place in the sanctuary where they can join the service without disrupting others.  In churches that have a large narthex, it may be appropriate to pause there and enter into the sanctuary after the Small Entry, praying that God might grant us entrance into His kingdom.  In churches where the narthex is very small, it is necessary to carefully move forward into the sanctuary right away in order not to cause a “traffic jam” in the narthex.

Questions for discussion:

  1. What is the function of the holy table?
  2. What is the meaning of the three sections of a church?
  3. Why isn’t everyone allowed to enter into the altar any time they wish?
  4. When the deacon says “Wisdom!  Aright!”—what is he talking about?

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[1] Some churches are deliberately built with large gaps in the iconostasis and the royal doors which allow the lay Christians to see into the altar during the entire service.  In the Russian tradition, however, most often the only way to see in is when the doors are open.

[2] Greek: τράπεζα

[3] See, for examples, the relevant frescoes in the Roman catacombs of Saint Callixtus, Saint Priscilla, and Saints Marcellinus and Peter.

[4] Mk. 14:15, Lk. 22:12

[5] Also, antimension or antimensium—Greek: “instead of the table.”

[6] A spear, which is used to cut the consecrated Lamb into smaller portions, and a spoon, which is used to distribute the Holy Communion to the faithful, are also placed onto the cross on the holy table.

[7] Matt. 16:24

[8] Gen. 2:8

[9] Святитель Филарет Московский. Толкование на Книгу Бытия. Москва: Лепта-Пресс, 2004, стр. 85; cf. Theophilus of Antioch. To Autolycus 24.

[10] Свят. Филарет, ibid.

[11] In order to understand this, let us look at Gen. 1:26-7: “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness…’  So God created humankind in his image…”  Communion with God is a sacrament, and as we discussed in previous lessons, a sacrament is always synergetic—it requires a free action of God and an equally free action of man.  Thus, God created the man in His image, but the man must labor to become God’s likeness.

[12] Theophilus of Antioch referred to the earth, Garden of Eden or Paradise, and heaven which is above Paradise—To Autolycus 24.

[13] Matt. 18:20

[14] From the Resurrection Hymns at the Divine Liturgy: “Grant us more perfectly to partake of Thee, in the unwaining day of Thy kingdom” (emphasis—mine).

[15] Таушев, Архиепископ Аверкий. Литургика. Jordanville: Holy Trinity Monastery, 2000, p. 250.


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