The Meaning of our Divine Services, part three: Divine Liturgy, “The Great Litany Continued”
“For our Bishop ______, for the honorable presbytery, the diaconate in Christ, for all the clergy and people, let us pray to the Lord.” St. Ignatius of Antioch (+108), disciple of the Apostle John, Patriarch of Antioch, and early Church Father, wrote: “Let no one do anything that has to do with the Church without the bishop’s approval. You should follow the bishop as Jesus Christ did the Father. Follow, too, the presbytery as you would the apostles. And respect the deacons as you would God’s Law.” After praying for the good estate of all the autocephalous and autonomous Orthodox Churches, it is natural to pray for the local head of our Church, the bishop, and for the clergy who serve with his blessing. The petitions of the Litany are careful to follow each other in order of importance, in this way, the rational order of worship imitates the harmonious and Divinely-structured order of the universe. Within this petition, the order is bishop, the honorable (timos) priesthood (literally presbytery, the ‘elders’ who have rule over the ecclesia or local churches), the deacons (diakonias, or ‘servants’) whose service is in Christ, all the clergy (kleros, from which we get kliros, meaning ‘a lot,’ referring to those who are called to serve the Church by lot, as in the selection of the Apostle Matthias: “And they gave forth their lots; and the lot fell upon Matthias” [Acts 1:26]), and the people (from laos, ‘people’ or ‘crowd’). The Apostle Paul is careful to instruct: “Remember them which have the rule over you, who have spoken unto you the word of God: whose faith follow” (Heb. 13:7). In this petition we take his words to heart.
“For the President of our country, for all civil authorities, and for the armed forces, let us pray to the Lord.” Following the instruction of the Apostle, we pray for those entrusted with the responsibility to lead and defend our nation: “I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men; for kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty” (I Tim. 2:1-2). Naturally, petitions for our secular leaders come after those for our spiritual shepherds.
“For this city, for every city and country, and the faithful dwelling therein, let us pray to the Lord.” Having just prayed for our secular leaders, we then ask for mercy upon our city, for all cities, and for the faithful Christians who live in it; in this way we join Moses who petitions: “destroy not Thy people and thine inheritance” (Deut. 9:26).
“For favorable weather, abundance of the fruits of the earth, and peaceful times, let us pray to the Lord.” Up until this point in the Litany, we have been praying for people, the Church, and the cities wherein we live, not asking for anything other than peace and mercy. Now our petitions become supplications for good things from above. The Apostle and Brother-to-the-Lord, James, reminds us of the power of prayer when he wrote about the Prophet Elias (Elijah), who “prayed again, and the heaven gave rain, and the earth brought forth her fruit” (James 5:18). That prayer for rain and a bountiful yield from our crops continues to this day in the Orthodox Church, as does the prayer for peace, which the Apostle Paul suggests we should make to “follow after the things which make for peace, and things wherewith one may edify another” (Rom. 14:19).
“For travelers by land, sea, and air; for the sick and the suffering; for captives and their salvation, let us pray to the Lord.” Once we have asked for the edifying things that make peace, we pray for the salvation of our brothers and sisters who are not present in this Divine Liturgy: those who are traveling, those who are too sick to attend Divine Liturgy, those who are incapacitated in some other way, and those who are imprisoned or held captive by foreign powers, bandits, or some other authority holding them against their will. In this way, we fulfill the Apostle James’s injunction for the faithful to pray for those who are sick (James 5:14-16).
“For our deliverance from all affliction, wrath, danger, and necessity, let us pray to the Lord:.” The template for the Church’s prayers are the Psalms of King David, the principal theme of which is turning to the Lord in times of affliction: “Turn thee unto me, and have mercy upon me; for I am desolate and afflicted. The troubles of my heart are enlarged: O bring thou me out of my distresses. Look upon mine affliction and my pain; and forgive all my sins” (Ps. 24 : 16-18). We pray that the Lord may bring us out of affliction, but we must be mindful that the patient endurance of all troubles and pains is the path of Christ that leads to a Heavenly reward: “For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory” (II Cor. 4:17). Therefore, St. Paul instructs us to be “patient in tribulation” (“tribulation” here is from the same Greek word that is often rendered as “affliction,” thlipsis) because of the promise that Christ gives us: “In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world” (John: 16:33). So, knowing that affliction produces patience (Rom. 5:3), we pray that we may be delivered from it on account of our weakness, knowing full well that as long as we suffer, we are not separated from the love of Christ (Rom. 8:35). The emphasis in this petition is deliverance from suffering inflicted on us by others: the wrath of tyrants, the danger that accompanies persecution and the necessity that occurs when one is acted on by force. The Greek word rendered here as “necessity” is anagke, which means ‘to be subject to authorities,’ ‘compulsion,’ or even ‘violence,’ ‘torture,’ or ‘bodily pain.’
“Help us, save us, have mercy on us, and protect us, O God, by Thy grace.” This is the single most-common petition, occurring eight times in the Divine Liturgy; therefore, we should carefully examine for what we are asking. First, we ask for God’s help. At the end of the second chapter of his epistle to the Hebrews, St. Paul specifies that Christ is able to succor us because He assumed our nature (Heb. 2:18). Not only having made and fashioned us as our Creator, but having lived as one of us, Christ knows what we suffer, but He also knows how to assuage it in a way conducive to our salvation. Second, we pray that the Lord save us, remembering His role as the Savior of humankind. Third, we ask for mercy from the Lord. This is the most basic prayer in the Christian lexicon: “Lord have mercy.” Fourth, we ask that the Lord protect us. The Greek word, diaphulasso, is literally rendered, ‘through-guard,’ for the Lord guards us and protects us, often through the intercession of our guardian angel. Finally, we ask that the Lord do all of this through the miraculous action of His Divine energies, His grace, which is the gift of God, freely given. God is under no compulsion to assist us, but rather chooses to act out of His love for us: “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8); further, that Grace comes to us through our only intercessor to the Father, Christ: “grace and truth came by Jesus Christ” (John 1:17).
“Calling to remembrance our all-holy holy, most pure, most blessed, glorious Lady Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary with all the saints, let us commend ourselves and each other, and all our life unto Christ our God.” Whereas we have but one intercessor before the Father, we have a host of intercessors⎯the saints⎯to Christ. Foremost among these is the Mother of God. As such, we orient ourselves to God by calling to mind (from Gr. mnemosyne, ‘remembrance’ or ‘giving heed to’) her supreme obedience to God, for the miracle of the Annunciation took place with her consent. In so doing, she gave her life, which she had previously dedicated to God in the Temple, to following the will of God. Remembering her example, and that of all the saints, we dedicate our lives to Christ. The Greek verb parathometha here literally means “attach” and its use suggests that we are to attach our life to Christ. Note here how we do not do this alone, but we all dedicate ourselves to Christ together. Just as we earlier prayed for the “union of all,” here we presume that union and attach ourselves to Christ. The Mother of God is here given her full title in the Church: All-holy (Panagia) because she is the foremost example of cooperation between God and man, most pure (ahrantos or ‘undefiled’) because she did not sin, most blessed and glorious because she is called by Gabriel “blessed art thou among women” (Luke 1:28) and the Prophet Isaiah calls her glorious: “his resting-place shall be glorious: (Is. 11:10), Lady because it is the traditional title for a queen, and as the Mother of the King of All and Bride of Christ, she is both Queen Mother and Queen, Theotokos because she was the birth giver of God, as recognized by Elizabeth when she called her “the mother of my Lord” (Luke 1:43) and formally by the Church (over the title Christokos) at the Third Ecumenical Council in 431 A.D., Ever-Virgin because the Church has universally taught that she was always a virgin (her perpetual virginity was declared at the Fifth Ecumenical Council in 553 A.D.), and Mary, the English rendition of her name, Mariam.
Having called to mind the Mother of God and all the saints, because we are “fellow citizens with the saints” (Eph. 2:19), and renewing our dedication to attach ourselves to Christ like our fellow citizens have done, the deacon concludes his portion of the Great Litany. The people respond, affirming the deacon’s petition that we unite ourselves to Christ, by saying “To Thee O Lord,” for it is to our Lord Christ that we direct and dedicate our spirit during this most sacred Divine Liturgy.
The priest then responds with his exclamation: For unto Thee are due all glory, honor, and worship: to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto the ages of ages. The priest is here proclaiming why we have dedicated ourselves to a life of union and attachment to Christ: because everything that is good, every blessing, every ephemeral moment of inspiration, and every lasting reward comes to us through the Holy Trinity: our Heavenly Father and Creator, Christ, the Son of God, our Redeemer and Savior, and the Holy Spirit our Comforter and Benefactor. If one accepts that “No man can serve two masters” (Matt. 6:24), and that every life represents service to someone or something (whether an ideal or material), even if the person being served is one’s self, then it is only reasonable that we would want to serve the Source of all goodness. Part of that service is to deny ourselves, to flee praise and honor and, instead, to ascribe all glory and honor to that Source of all. “Orthodox” can be translated alternately as “right belief” or “right worship.” It is fitting that both “belief” and “worship” come from the same root word, because, in the Christian understanding, one cannot worship correctly without believing correctly and, conversely, one cannot believe correctly without worshiping correctly. Therefore, as we stand in prayer in the Divine Liturgy⎯the Church’s ultimate manifestation of “right worship”⎯the priest, our shepherd and spiritual guide, proclaims that right worship must be directed to the Holy Trinity. Furthermore, as a representative of the Apostle to the Gentiles, St. Paul, the priest instructs that all glory, honor, and worship should be given to the Holy Trinity in the present moment and throughout all future ages: “Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honour and glory for ever and ever. Amen” (I Tim. 1:17). As their response to the initial blessing by the priest, the people respond with “Amen” (“so let it be,” “verily,” or “truly” in Hebrew). By so responding, all consent in dedicating their lives to glorying, honoring, and worshiping the Holy Trinity.
During the Great Litany, the priest has a silent prayer that he reads in the Altar, called the “Prayer of the First Antiphon:” O Lord our God, Whose dominion is indescribable, and Whose glory is incomprehensible, Whose mercy is infinite, and Whose love for mankind is ineffable: Do Thou Thyself, O Master, according to Thy tender compassion, look upon us and upon this holy temple and deal with us, and them that pray with us, according to Thine abundant mercies and compassions. In this prayer, the priest, in his most import function, calls down the Lord’s mercy upon all those present and those who are absent with good cause (those remembered in the Litany: the sick, suffering, captives, and travelers by land, sea, and air). Recognizing that God’s power is incomparable, for He “hangeth the earth upon nothing” (Job 26:7), the priest appeals to the Lord’s infinite mercy and compassion, that He will deal with us, not according to our works, but according to His mercy. As we read in the eighth of the morning prayers in the Jordanville Prayer Book:
“For if Thou shouldst save me for my works, this would not be grace or a gift, but rather a duty; yea, Thou Who art great in compassion and ineffable in mercy.” God’s mercy is great; St. Paul describes God as “rich in mercy” (Eph. 2:4). Christ Himself testifies to the depth of God’s compassion: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved” (John 3:16-17).
Next: Part Four, “The First Antiphon”