The Meaning of our Divine Services, part four: Divine Liturgy, “The First Antiphon”
The Antiphons, named such because the three Antiphons are usually sung antiphonally (that is by two choirs alternating with the first choir singing the First Antiphon and the second choir singing the Second Antiphon and both alternating during the Beatitude verses of the Third Antiphon) begin with verses from the beautiful Psalm 102 (103), praising the Creation given to us by our Creator Whom we have just supplicated for peace in the Great Litany. St. Jerome (from his Homily 30) notes:
“Bless the Lord, O my soul!” The Prophet bestirs himself to praise God. To bless the Lord, that is, to praise the Lord, brings, moreover, a blessing upon oneself. O Lord, my God, You are great indeed! You, who are God of all, are especially my God, for I am not the slave of sin; I have merited to be called Your servant. “thou hast been magnified exceedingly.” When I behold the sky, the earth, the birds, quadrupeds, serpents, and all of Your creation, I marvel, and I magnify the Creator [. . .]
The Psalm verses of the First Antiphon describe the blessings of the Lord for which we should give thanks; in so doing, they also anticipate the mercies of Christ and the Mystery of His Incarnation, the ultimate expression of which is the Communion of the Gifts that will occur later during the Divine Liturgy. Therefore, it is fitting to remember this supreme act of mercy and compassion at the beginning of Liturgy.
Bless the Lord, O my soul! Blessed art Thou, O Lord! Bless the Lord, O my soul! And all that is within me, bless His Holy Name! St. Jerome asks, “What name of the Lord is the Psalmist thinking of here? If the Lord is called by name Lord, what does ‘and all that is within me, bless His Holy Name’ mean? Simply this, the advent of the Son implies the name of Father. Before the coming of Christ, God was known, but the Father unknown. Furthermore, He says Himself in the Gospel: ‘Father I have manifested Thy name to men’ (Jn. 17:6)” (Homily 29). So, just as the antiphons and beatitudes divided by the small litanies create a three-part structure that honors the Holy Trinity during this early part of Divine Liturgy, here we sing a psalm that anticipates the understanding of two Persons of the Holy Trinity: the Father and the Son.
Bless the Lord, O my soul! And forget not all that He hath done for thee! Who is gracious unto all thine iniquities, Who healeth all thine infirmities! Who redeemeth Thy life from corruption, Who crowneth thee with mercy and compassion! Here, at the beginning of Divine Liturgy, we call to mind “all that He hath done for thee.” The Lord made all the Heavens and the Earth for His creation, for “One does not build a house except for the sake of its occupant” (St. Jerome). But the Lord, through His Incarnation and Resurrection, has healed the infirmities that we inherited as a consequence of our Ancestor’s First Sin; not, importantly, as inherited guilt, but rather due to the change in our nature that occurred after that sin: the introduction of death, decay, sickness, and disease into a world that was originally made to be free of these debilities. The Mystery of Christ’s Incarnation and Resurrection redeems us from such corruptions through “an amending of our nature, and pardon, not of debt, but given through mercy and grace” (St. John Chrysostom, Homily XIV). The Lord’s mercy and compassion is, indeed, the crown of our soul.
Who fulfilleth thy desire with good things! Each time we pray “O Heavenly King,” either at home or at Church, we identify the Holy Spirit as the “treasury of good things.” The Lord knows our needs and desires even before we ask: He sees to our needs, foremost of which is our attainment of the Heavenly Kingdom, with a greater compassion and concern than that of any father.
Thy youth shall be renewed as the eagle’s! The Psalmist here, after promising that the Lord saves us from our infirmities and from corruption itself (here understood to be the corruption of the mortal body), promises that the Lord will restore our youthful vitality. This is possible in this life through the the revifiying power of the Holy Spirit witnessed in the healings wrought by the Apostles in Acts and the Holy Spirit’s activity in the lives of the saints. But, this Psalm, and all of the Divine Liturgy, points to the ultimate renewal that will take place when the present world passes away (Mt. 5:18, Mk. 13:31, I Cor. 7:31, 2 Pt. 3:10-13, 1 Jn. 2:17). This passing, in which “the former things have passed away” (Rev. 21:4) does not mean that all of creation will be irrevocably destroyed. Rather, its form and condition in the present age will pass away and it will then be renewed (Is. 65:17-25, Rom. 8:19-22, 2 Cor. 5:17, 2 Pt. 3:13): “He who sat on the throne said, ‘Behold, I make all things new.’” (Rev. 21:5); also: “I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away” (Rev. 21:1). To the extent that the Divine Liturgy is eschatological, that is pointing toward the establishment of the Lord’s Kingdom, we experience this future Kingdom within the Liturgy, which begins with the Kingdom’s invocation, continues with its representation, and concludes with our participation in the Heavenly Banquet of the Kingdom. In this Kingdom, both body and soul are renewed, as is all of creation. In the Kingdom, all of renewed creation praises God; therefore, our worship in the Divine Liturgy also consists of praise:
God meant Man to lead the creation in its praise of Him. Sin has deprived us of our place at the head of the chorus; it has driven us out and sealed the lips created to praise our Maker. Christ, the Lamb whose death takes away the sin of the world, ends this fathal isolation and opens our lips that our mouth may show forth God’s praise. In Christ we return to join the rest of creation, taking our rightful place as leaders in the choir. The Liturgy begins with this antiphonal praise because our salvation consists of praise. (Fr. Lawrence Farley, Let Us Attned: A Journey Through the Orthodox Liturgy 25)
King David compares our renewed youth to that of an eagle because the vigor and majesty of the eagle, whom the Ancients believed could renew itself like the mythical Phoenix.
Compassionate and merciful is the Lord, long-suffering and plenteous in mercy! What gloss is necessary here for a Christian? We who are about to partake of the Body and Blood of Christ, who hung on a Tree and endured mocking for our sake, even betrayal by those closest to Him, must consider the limitless reaches of compassion, mercy, long-suffering endurance of trials!
The people then glorify (doxologize) the correct understanding of God: the Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The first verse of the Psalm is repeated to emphasize our praise of the Lord. The deacon then raises his orarion and begins the Little Litany…
Next: Part Five, “The Little Litany”