Try to imagine what the Great Entrance looked like during the time of Chrysostom and of Maximus the Confessor a couple of centuries later. In that time, while the catechumens were being prayed for and dismissed, and then as the prayers of intercession were offered, deacons exited the church through the north door to enter the little building adjacent to it where the holy vessels were kept. There they gathered up the bread and wine, the chalices, cloths, spoons, spears, and everything needed for the Eucharist and came back with them to the altar, where the episcopal celebrant was waiting for them. While they were gone, the bishop and his presbyters were preparing themselves for the Eucharist: they washed their hands and moved to take their places around the altar. Today the priestly celebrant stands at the altar for the entire service, but originally their place during the readings was sitting on their seats in the far east end of the apse, on the synthronon. Thus the transition from the service centered on the Gospel to the service centered on the Eucharist had a distinctly visual component, for one could observe the clergy leave their seats where they had sat throughout the readings to gather around the altar table.
The prayers accompanying this transition express what they are doing, and may be aptly described as prayers of access to the altar. Today these prayers are mistitled the “Prayers of the Faithful,” since they come at the place where the Prayers of the Faithful for the world — i.e. the Great Litany — once stood. But they are clearly not the prayers of the people, but the private devotional prayers of the clergy. Even a quick look at the prayers themselves reveals this: the clergy pray that God Who “have accounted us worthy to stand even now before Your holy altar” may “enable us whom You have placed in this Your service, blamelessly and without offence to call upon You at all times and in every place.” The second prayer asks that God would “grant us to stand blameless and without condemnation before Your holy altar” and would “grant also to those who pray with us [i.e. the laity] growth in life and faith and spiritual understanding.” The silent prayer which the celebrant offers while the Cherubic Hymn is being sung says the same: “Enable me who am endowed with the grace of the priesthood to stand before this, Your holy Table, and perform the sacred mystery of Your holy and pure Body and precious Blood.” Yet another prayer, offered after the Great Entrance has taken place, is yet another prayer of access to the altar: “Accept also the prayer of us sinners, and bring us to Your holy altar, enabling us to offer unto You gifts and spiritual sacrifice for our sins and for the errors of the people.”
Why such a plethora of prayer all begging the same thing? Because it is a great and fearful thing for mortal man to stand before the consuming Fire of the Holy God. We tend to imagine that a church service is simply a matter of us on earth sending up our prayers “upstairs” and of launching our supplications to heaven. It is much scarier than that: it is a matter of inviting the Lord of all, before Whom even the glorious cherubim and the fiery seraphim veil their faces in awe, to come “downstairs” and to dwell in our midst. “Who among us can dwell with the devouring fire?” asked the sinners of Zion with trembling [Isaiah 33:14]. Who indeed? Yet we sinners in the Eucharist invite the devouring Fire into our midst, inviting a collision of sinful man with the Holy God. In this collision (with the clergy in the front seats — hence all those prayers of access to the altar), we take a tremendous risk. Some found this to their cost, as Saint Paul reminded his Corinthian converts who received unworthily [1 Corinthians 11:30]. But if we all approach in penitence, in humility, forgiving others with contrite hearts and asking for our own forgiveness, this collision does not destroy us, but heals us. We are not consumed by the devouring fire, but illumined, warmed, transformed. These prayers of access to the altar reveal that the Eucharist to which we now transition is a daring epiclesis, invoking the fire of God upon us and inviting into our midst both judgment and salvation.
This Eucharist is not only a collision, but also a coalescing, as heaven joins with earth. In the days of Chrysostom and Maximus, the gifts of bread and wine were brought into the church to the accompaniment of a psalm — almost certainly Psalm 24:7-10. It was an obvious choice, since the psalm speaks not only of the Lord of glory coming in (i.e. Christ coming to us in the Eucharist through the chalice), but also of doors and gates. What better psalm could serve for the procession as it re-entered the nave through the doors and gates leading to and from the sacristy outside? And the refrain of the psalm expressed the nature of the Eucharist which followed — originally the refrain was simply a triple “Alleluia,” but later was added to it the words “Let us who mystically represent the cherubim and who sin the thrice-holy hymn to the life-creating Trinity now lay aside all earthly cares, that we may receive the King of all Who comes invisibly upborne by the angelic hosts.” The refrain was sung over and over between the verses of the psalm until the procession reached the altar and placed the gifts upon the table. (Eventually the psalm dropped out, leaving the refrain all by itself, which was later split in half in mid-sentence to allow for intercessions during the procession.)
But however it is now sung, the words of the refrain reveal the true nature of the Eucharist as a joining of heaven and earth, an intersection of time and eternity. It is not simply a matter of us on earth singing like the cherubim while the cherubim themselves sing in heaven. No: Christ comes upborne by those angelic hosts, and we represent the cherubim by giving audible earthly expression to their spiritual songs as they accompany Christ when He comes to us in the Eucharist. Heaven joins with earth, and earth is lifted up to heaven. That is what the celebrant means when he says to the people, “lift up your hearts!” He is not exhorting them to cheer up, but to ascend into heaven. It is easier than it sounds, for in the Eucharist heaven comes down to us on earth. We serve and receive the Eucharist with the angels of heaven, with the saints, and with all the faithful who have gone before. Our Christian dead may indeed be described as “the dearly departed,” but in the Eucharist we find that they have not departed very far. They are with Christ, and so with us as well.
All this is revealed in this original transition to the Liturgy of the Faithful. That Liturgy is a collision and a coalescence, and it brings the potential for both judgment and salvation into our very midst.