I wrote this post for an online assignment. The purpose of the essay was to justify the prayer of the enarxis in the Byzantine Divine Liturgy, as its historical origin was part of a stational procession en route to the church where the liturgy would be celebrated. Thinking about why we pray what we pray has helped me on my journey. If this is helpful to you, enjoy!
In the Old Covenant economy, the Jewish people would come into the presence of the Creator in a special way through pilgrimages to the temple in Jerusalem for high holy days such as Yom Kippur. To worship at the Temple was the paramount way of worshipping the Creator. The Temple offerings of animal sacrifices, incense, wheat, wine and oil all were given to the Creator, especially on high holy days that celebrated the mystery of the Jews’ salvation, which were accompanied by Jews not native to Jerusalem making a pilgrimage to the Temple. On this pilgrimage from other parts of Jerusalem, special Psalms from among the Psalter (specifically Psalms 119-133, LXX) were especially appropriate for singing along the journey. These songs of ascent speak of a journey up to the mountain of Jerusalem. Incidentally, in the Byzantine Tradition, these same Psalms make up the typical Kathismata for Friday Evenings, which is a fitting parallel to mark the start of the Sabbath.
As Christ came to bring the kingdom of God and fulfill the ancient prophecies, the geographical locus of the kingdom was shown to be ultimately within the hearts of those who call upon His name, and was not dependent upon Jerusalem or any other city, as Christ Himself noted in John 4. Thus, every synaxis of the people of God in every city would culminate in God’s presence that is not bound by location, but is instead made manifest by the sacrifice of Praise which brings the Eucharistic Presence of Christ to His people on Earth.
Despite the lack of strict geographical focus in the Christian age, in the historical and cultural context of the Byzantine Empire, there was a similar journeying, which was exhibited in the stational aspect of the liturgy. Antiphons and troparia would be sung at chapels and churches that people visited as part of a journey, which culminated in arriving at the temple wherein the Eucharist was to be celebrated on the particular day. People would join in this stational procession as the crowds of the clergy and faithful approached their homes. The worship would culminate at the cathedral or parish church with the most relevance to the feast of the day. Along this road, antiphons, litanies and troparia gave the theological and liturgical context to the feast of the day. By singing “Come let us worship and bow before Christ”, the faithful on the journey would realize the reason why they were making this procession. The antiphons were therefore an integral part of the journey to the New Jerusalem, just as was done with the Psalms of Ascent to the Old Jerusalem.
In our day and age, so many distinctions would appear to separate us in our cultural context from these ancient societies described above. Our parish liturgical life begins and ends in the same building on the typical Sunday. There is no corporate journey to worship God that brings the faithful to multiple sites en route to the final destination of the day. Regardless of the lack of physical motivation in a stational liturgy or a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, which justifies the enarxis, there is still the needed spiritual (re)alignment of the heart that shows that the enarxis is needed today. Our hearts need to receive the context and significance of what we are about to do in the liturgy. The enarxis is critically important for our hearts then, because there are so many distractions afforded by the luxury of modern life, and the enarxis calls us to that reality. We are called to realize the presence of the Kingdom of God at the beginning of the Liturgy, when the celebrant proclaims that the Kingdom of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit is blessed. The first litany is that of peace, recalling our need for peace and quiet, as well as opening our hearts to ask God to give ourselves and others his mercy. The antiphons themselves sing of our call to worship God, and can also remind one of the feast that is to be celebrated that day, which flows together with what is sung at the troparia and kontakia. The Trisagion is a pinnacle of realizing our call to celebrate the heavenly reality as well as the feast of the day, as we leave our human songs of praise to God from the Psalter or the inspired hymnographers, which describe our need to come and worship God. As we sing the Trisagion we leave the earthly perspective of praise, and join together with the heavenly choirs by proclaiming, “Holy, Holy, Holy”. To immediately enter the angelic choir without the right perspective would be jarring, for we so often live in neglect of this heavenly reality. Even worse, to observe the Holy Anaphora without aligning our hearts with the invisible realities that escape so many people today, we would but earn our condemnation. By instead preparing to enter into the Holy Presence of God by reminding ourselves of the eternal Truth through the enarxis, we cast aside our distractions and modern worries and receive the same mystical vision which Elisha asked for on behalf of his servant (2 Kings 6:16-17).
The enarxis serves to clam our hearts and open our eyes to the heavenly hosts who are in awe of the Divine Presence, who comes to us mystically through the Holy Eucharist. These are the cultural elements and context that reinforce that the enarxis is not only relevant today, but is if anything more relevant than the previous centuries such as those of the Jewish ascent to Jerusalem and at the peak of the Byzantine Empire. Because of this, the Byzantine Churches must not lose sight of the importance of this liturgical expression of faith. May God grant us eyes to see, as He once did to Elisha’s servant.