The Meaning of our Divine Services, part six: Divine Liturgy, “The Second Antiphon”
While the deacon intones the small litany, the priest prays the Prayers of the Second Antiphon in the Altar: O Lord our God, save Thy people and bless Thine inheritance. Preserve the fullness of Thy Church. Sanctify them that love the beauty of Thy house: do Thou glorify them by Thy divine power, and forsake not us who put our hope in Thee.
This prayer is an adaptation and Christian update of Psalm 27 (28): “Blessed is the Lord, because He hath heard the voice of my supplication. The Lord is my helper and my defender; my heart hath hoped in Him, and I am helped and my flesh hath flourished again, and out of my desire will I confess Him. The Lord is the strength of His people, and the champion of salvation for His anointed one. Save Thy people and bless Thine inheritance; shepherd them and bear them up unto eternity” (Ps. 27 : 6-9). The priest’s prayer is a Christianization of King David’s prayer because, whereas the “people” to whom the Psalmist refers are the Jewish people, we now understand the people to be right-believing Christians: those who are part of the Body of Christ, grafted onto the living vine after Christ “came unto his own, and they that were His own received Him not” (John 1:11). After His rejection by His people, God opened the way for all the nations to receive His “inheritance,” which is a place in the Kingdom of Heaven for eternity, victory over death, disease, and suffering, and communion with God in His saints: “But as many as received Him, to them gave he the right to become children of God” (John 1:12). When commenting on this new meaning of “inheritance,” St. Symeon the New Theologian (+1022) writes: “All those who believe in Christ become akin to Him in the Spirit of God and form a single body” before emphasizing the true purpose of the Christian life by challenging us: “If you want to know whether I am speaking the truth, become a saint by practicing the commandments of God and then partake of the holy Mysteries. Then you will understand the full import of this statement” (from Ethical Chapters). As part of the one Body of Christ, Christians participate in “the fullness of him that filleth all in all” (Eph. 1:23), a fullness the priest prays the Lord will preserve.
Importantly, this prayer reveals the necessity of participation in the life of Christ’s Body — His Church — for entering into this inheritance “unto eternity.” The priest asks that those who love the beauty of the holy temple where He dwells to be sanctified and glorified by His Divine energies. Unlike the art on display in museums and coffee shops, this prayer reveals that the art that beautifies God’s house can work to our salvation by instilling within us a love leading to repentance and, ultimately, sanctification.
However, there is a deeper meaning to this prayer. The prayer alludes to Psalm 25 (26):8, a verse that the Orthodox understand as referring to the Mother of God: “Lord, I love the habitation of thy house, And the place where thy glory dwelleth.” The Lord’s house is “the place where thy glory dwelleth,” the womb of the Mother of God. In praying that the Lord sanctify those who love the beauty of Thy house, the priest is praying for those who love the virtue and noetic beauty of the Mother of God. In being equated with the Church itself–the Body of Christ–we understand that the Theotokos, who shares our mortal fallen nature, through her sinlessness and obedience, prepares the way for the Savior of all mankind. As such, we are to remember her beauty and, in all ways, emulate it. This is why it is typical for Orthodox Churches to have the domed ceiling above the Altar adorned with an image of the Theotokos¾the container of the uncontainable God. The priest concludes his prayer asking that we not be forsaken, thereby echoing King David: “Cast me not off, neither forsake me, O God of my salvation” (in Psalm 26 :9).
After the small litany, the people sing the Second Antiphon. Whereas the first antiphon is a thanksgiving for God’s mercy, ending with Glory…Both now; the second antiphon begins with only “Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit,” thereby emphasizing that the joyful praise of Psalm 145 (146) that follows is directed to the Trinity. We celebrate both the compassion of our Triune God and His inerrant judgment, wherein we learn that those who put their trust in important people are deluded: “Trust ye not in princes, in sons of men, in whom there is no salvation. His spirit shall go forth, and he shall return unto his earth. In that day all his thoughts shall perish.” About this verse, St. Jerome writes, “All the self-reliance of princes vanishes; all their plans perish [. . .] today, he is; tomorrow, he is no more” (Homily 55 on Psalm 145). This Psalm also anticipates Christ and His ministry, both His earthly ministry and that continued by His Church after His ascension. This ministry is one of mercy and charity, for mercifulness “is dear to God, and ever stands near Him, readily asking favour for whomsoever it will [. . .] God would have her rather than sacrifices” (St. John Chrysostom, Homily 32 on Hebrews 12). This ministry — consisting of illuminating the blind, setting aright those who are fallen, adopting and caring for orphans and widows, and feeding the hungry — will continue for as long as He is King, which is for eternity: “The Lord shall be king unto eternity; Thy God, O Zion, unto generation and generation.” As if to emphasize that the Lord reigns from now until His coming Kingdom, the people conclude Psalm 145 (146) with “Both now and ever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen.” The Psalm that begins with “Glory” concludes with “Both now,” thereby emphasizing the exclamation of God’s compassion that comes in between as essential to the Christian life.
The people then sing an important theological hymn written by St. Justinian, Byzantine Emperor (+565). St. Justinian was the author of important theological texts, most of which are concerned with efforts to clarify the Church’s teaching about Christ’s Nature while attempting (and failing) to reconcile the Church with the Monophysites (those who believe Christ has one nature). The hymn that concludes the Second Antiphon is sometimes called a “short creed” because it encapsulates our understanding of Christ and the Trinity: “O Only-begotten Son and Word of God, Who art immortal, yet didst deign for our salvation to be incarnate of the Holy Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary, and without change didst become man, and wast crucified, O Christ God, trampling down death by death, Thou Who art one of the Holy Trinity, glorified with the Father and the Holy Spirit, save us!” The “short creed” deftly encapsulates John 1:1, 14 (“And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us”), 18 and John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth on him should not perish, but have eternal life,” as well as the role of the Mother of God (Matt. 1:20-21) in the Incarnation and Christ’s Oneness with the Father and the Spirit: “And Jesus when he was baptized, went up straightway from the water: and lo, the heavens were opened unto him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove, and coming upon him; and lo, a voice out of the heavens, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Matt. 3:16-17). It also ends with what Mother Maria describes as “the cry to be saved, the cry so often repeated in our liturgical texts with the echo of St. Peter drowning in the waves” (An Introduction to the Divine Liturgy, 5) from Matthew 14:22-33.
Next: Part Seven, "The Beatitudes