The Meaning of our Divine Services, part eleven: Divine Liturgy, “The Litanies”
A series of litanies immediately follows the homily: the Litany of Fervent Supplication, which consists of petitions made directly to the Lord, most of which only occur during this part of the Divine Liturgy, the Litany for the Departed, which is not done on Sunday (the Day of Resurrection), the Litany for the Catechumens, and the first and second Litanies of the Faithful, which commence the Liturgy of the Faithful.
The litany developed in the fourth century (Taft, Beyond East and West, 195). As we mentioned earlier, the deacon is not articulating the prayers of the community, but rather leading the community in prayer with what are recommendations; the prayer occurs silently within each person. This is an extension of the Liturgy in the days before the litany: “For a litany does no more than fill in with a series of expressed diaconal petitions what in the older system was a period of silent prayer” (Taft, 195). Early on, for example in the time of St. John Chrysostom, people knelt during the litany. In other words, during most of the litanies, the deacon’s petitions are directed to the people, not to the Lord (Farley 46).
That being said, the Litany of Fervent Supplication stands out because it is a petition directly to the Lord, as is evident by its direct adaptation of the first verse of Psalm 50(51) for the third petition: “Have mercy on us, O God, according to Thy great mercy, we pray Thee, hearken and have mercy.” In this Psalm, which the Church uses throughout Her services and which most Orthodox Christians commit to memory, King David directly appeals to the Lord (It also echoes Psalm 122:3, “Have mercy on us, O Lord, have mercy on us”). It is because this Litany is a prayer directly addressed to the Lord that the deacon begins it with the call: “Let us say with our whole soul and with our whole mind, let us say,” echoing the Apostle Paul, who tells the Corinthians, “I will pray with the spirit, and I will pray with the understanding also; I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also” (I Cor. 14:15). The second petition also echoes St. Paul, who instructs the Romans, “Whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Rom. 10:13), with its call: “O Lord Almighty, the God of our fathers, we pray Thee, hearken and have mercy.”
The reason this Litany stands out for its supplicatory quality can be traced back to its origin. Before the Litany of Fervent Supplication was part of the Divine Liturgy, it would be offered up to God during processions for special occasions. In the event of a flood, plague, famine, or military threat, the people would process around the city, singing hymns, which would be punctuated with Gospel readings followed by this litany beseeching God for deliverance from the specific threat (Farley, 45). In this way, the Church followed the example of the early Church praying for the Apostle Peter when he was imprisoned, “prayer was made earnestly of the church unto God for him” (Acts 12:5) and even of the earnest (which is, in Greek, ectenia) prayer of the Lord in the Garden: “being in agony he prayed more earnestly” (Luke 22:44). After each petition, the people would chant “Lord, have mercy” many times. A remnant of these many “Lord, have mercies” can be found during the Litya in Great Vespers, wherein the people chant “Lord, have mercy” forty times after some petitions (during the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross it is 100 times). By the eighth century, this litany was inserted into the Divine Liturgy after the Gospel reading, just as it came after the Gospel reading during the processions. The number of “Lord, have mercies” was reduced to three, but because there are three instead of one (as with most litanies), and because they are prayed with great fervor, not “blandly, but with sustained warmth” (Metropolitan Augoustinos, On the Divine Liturgy vol. 1, 236), this litany is also referred to as the “Augmented Litany.”
Again we pray for our Bishop _____, and all our brethren in Christ: The Church always remembers to pray for its overseers, the bishops responsible for rightly dividing the word of Truth. The efficacy of this intercessory prayer is demonstrated in Acts, when the Apostle Peter is released from prison after the fervent prayer offered to God for him by the Church in the passage quoted above. In some churches, the clergy (both priests and deacons) and monastics are also prayed for here.
During this commemoration of the local hierarch, the priest picks up the Gospel and holds it vertical as he makes the sign of the cross over the antimension. He then stands it up so it rests in a vertical position above the antimension on the Altar Table, creating room for the priest to unfold the bottom portion only of the antimension, which is bestowed upon the Altar Table by that hierarch. The antimension, meaning ‘in place [or instead] of table,’ is the silk or linen rectangular cloth upon which the Gifts are placed for the Anaphora later in the Liturgy. Into every antimension is sewn the relic of a martyr (“under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of God” [Rev. 6:9]). In the early Church, the antimension was only used for portable Altars when the Liturgy was celebrated on an Altar Table that, for whatever reason, could not be (or had not yet been) permanently consecrated. At the time, it functioned, literally, as a tablecloth. Today, it is required for every Divine Liturgy, even if the Altar is consecrated and has its own relics sealed within, and is associated with the linens that wrapped the precious Body of our Lord after His crucifixion, depicting the image of the Body of our Lord on it. Each antimins bears the signature of the hierarch who is responsible for it. During the Liturgy of the Catechumens, the antimension lies under the Gospel; for it is the Word of Truth that rests upon the reality of the crucified and resurrected Christ. In preparation for the imminent sacrifice to occur during the Anaphora, the Gospel must be moved and the antimension opened so that the Gifts can be placed upon it.
Again we pray for the President of our country, for all civil authorities, and for the armed forces, let us pray to the Lord: Our fervent supplication to the Lord continues with an appeal for our secular leaders (I Tim. 2:2).
Again we pray for the blessed and ever-memorable, holy Orthodox patriarchs; and for the founders of this holy house, and for our fathers and brethren gone to their rest before us, and the Orthodox here and everywhere laid to rest: Here we pray for those tillers of the missionary fields who are alive in Christ in the Church Triumphant, “for whether we live therefore, or die, we are the Lord’s [. . .] Lord of both the dead and the living” (Rom. 14:8-9); or, as the Lord Himself admonishes the Sadducees who fail to comprehend that their father Abraham is still alive in God though his body is decayed: “He is not the God of the dead, but of the living: for all live unto him” (Luke 20:38). The workers of the Lord include the patriarchs who have shepherded their flocks from their patriarchal thrones in the most ancient of the Christian communities, the founders—both clergy and lay—of the local church in which the Liturgy is celebrated—those who established the community, donated the funds, and labored to erect the house of God—and also our faithful brethren who are asleep in the Lord awaiting His Second Coming and the General Resurrection.
Again we pray for mercy, life, peace, health, salvation, and visitation for the servants of God _____, and for the pardon and remission of their sins: Here we ask the Lord for those vital elements that He bestows: His mercy, His life (so that we might live in Him), His peace for which we continually supplicate Him through His Divine service, health from Him Who healed the blind, lame, and those suffering from disease throughout His earthly ministry, salvation for which purpose He became man and suffered for our sake, and Divine visitation from the Comforter: “If ye ask anything in my name, that will I do [. . .] And I will pray the Father, and He shall give you another Comforter, that He may be with you for ever, even the Spirit of truth: whom the world cannot receive” (John 14:14-17). At this point, special petitions can and should be inserted into the litany for the particular needs of those in the community—for the sick (by name), women with child, soldiers in war—and for special needs of the community itself.
Again we pray for those who bring offerings and do good works in this holy and all-venerable temple; for those who minister and those who chant; and for all the people here present, who await of Thee great and abundant mercy: The Apostle Paul tells the Ephesians that “whatsoever good thing each one doeth, the same shall he receive again from the Lord” (Eph. 6:8) and models for us a Christian life of prayer “without ceasing” for the faithful, whose “work of faith and labor of love and patience of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ” is the foremost ministry of us all (Thes. 1:3). Here we conclude the Litany of Fervent Supplication with a common statement of our steadfast patience in waiting for Lord’s “great and abundant mercy.” For, importantly, if we are to supplicate the Lord with fervency, we must have a correspondingly steadfast patience to wait on the Lord to do His good work in our lives.
While the faithful petition the Lord, the priest supplicates the Lord at the Altar Table, fulfilling the foremost purpose of the priest: to call down the Lord’s grace upon all:
O Lord our God, accept this fervent supplication from Thy servants, and have mercy on us according to the multitude of Thy mercies, and send down Thy compassions upon us, and upon all Thy people that await of Thee abundant mercy.
This prayer again alludes to the omnipresent Psalm 50 (51) (“Have mercy on us, O God, according to Thy great mercy”) and affirms that the Lord rules by mercy and love: “God, being rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us” (Eph. 2:4).
Immediately following the Litany of Fervent Supplication is the Litany for the Departed, where we remember those who have fallen asleep in the Lord. This litany is neither done on Sundays nor on Feasts because memorials for the departed are not in keeping with the festal celebration of the Resurrection, therefore we will not examine it here.
The Liturgy of the Catechumens then concludes with the Litany of the Catechumens, which is for the catechumens of the local parish and not for all catechumens everywhere, as is made clear by the direction for those catechumens present to pray to the Lord: Pray to the Lord, you catechumens. As such, the litany should not be said if there are no catechumens present. But, in the United States where only one-half of one percent of the population is Orthodox Christian, each of us should question if we are fulfilling our obligation to proclaim the Good News if we do not have catechumens among us, for whom the faithful are asked to pray that God will have mercy on them: Let us, the faithful, pray for the catechumens, that the Lord may have mercy on them. This petition for us to pray for the catechumens is important for us to consider. Those in the catechumenate, which during the time of St. John Chrysostom would last three or more years, are in a wonderful, but precarious, situation. Having made the first step to enter Christ’s Church, they are drawing near to grace but have not yet tasted the Cup of Salvation. Our Adversary, the Devil, who prowls around as a lion “seeking whom he may devour” (I Peter 5:8), of course will intensify his attacks against catechumens as he does against all those who seek refuge in Christ; however, unlike those already in the salvific Ark of the Church, catechumens do not have access to those Holy Mysteries essential to the spiritual life: Christ’s Body and Blood, through which we participate in the life of Christ, and Holy Confession, through which confessed sins are forgiven. We then should pray fervently for them because we know our Lord is merciful and is working in each person’s life and desires that we all partake of His life by being grafted onto His Body, the Church, through baptism, which is our personal experience of Christ’s Death and Resurrection (the three immersions representing the three days that Christ was in the tomb) and chrismation, which is our personal experience of Pentecost as we receive the Holy Spirit. It is for this utter transformation of the very being of the catechumen that the priest prays while the deacon utters the petitions:
O Lord our God, Who dwellest on high and lookest down on things that are lowly, Who unto the human race has sent forth salvation, Thine Only-begotten Son and God, our Lord Jesus Christ: Look upon Thy servants, the catechumens, who have bowed their necks before Thee; and vouchsafe unto them at a seasonable time the laver of regeneration, the remission of sins, and the garment of incorruption; unite them to Thy Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, and number them among Thy chosen flock.
The Scriptural allusions of this prayer address the hope of all Christians (Who unto the human race has sent forth salvation). We understand this salvation through Jesus Christ to be a process of purification, illumination, and, ultimately deification or sanctification (such state the saints have attainted). The Apostle Paul likens this process to becoming children of God through adoption: “But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, that he might redeem them that were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons” (Gal. 4:4-5). We cannot become children of God by nature because we share a human nature that is wholly distinct from God’s unknowable and impenetrable Divine nature. But, through God’s grace received in chrismation, we can participate in God and, thereby, become “partakers of the Divine Nature” (II Peter 1:4) as adopted sons and daughters, putting on the garment of incorruption. This process is at work in every Orthodox Christian who repents, experiences the Mysteries, and participates in the life of the Church, which is the life of “the Lord our God, that hath His seat on high” (Ps. 112 :5), Who “hath sent his only-begotten Son into the world that we might live through him” (I John 4:9) and proclaim “how excellent is thy name in all the earth” (Ps. 8:1).
Those petitions that follow are for specific aspects of this life in Christ. That the Lord may teach them the word of Truth, That He may reveal to them the Gospel of righteousness, That He may unite them to His Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.
The priest, after reading the Prayer for the Catechumens, finishes opening up the antimension by unfolding the top portion when the deacon leads the people to pray That He may reveal to them the Gospel of righteousness. Inside the folded antimension is a small sponge that is used later in the Liturgy to wipe the discos so that no precious particles of the Eucharist remain on it after it has been emptied into the chalice.
The faithful continue to pray for the catechumens, asking the Lord to Help them, save them, have mercy on them, and keep them, O God, by Thy grace. Before the dismissal, the priest prays a final prayer for them while they are directed: Bow your heads unto the Lord, you catechumens. In this prayer, the priest asks: That with us they may glorify Thine all-honorable and majestic name: of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages. While he says “… of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit…” the priest makes the sign of the cross over the antimension with the sponge, kisses it, and lays it on the right side of the open antimension where it will be used later. The catechumens should follow the deacon’s instruction and bow down in prayer for the priest’s Prayer for the Catechumens asks the Lord to Look upon Thy servants, the catechumens, who have bowed their necks before Thee.
The catechumens are then dismissed from the remainder of the service, which is called the Liturgy of the Faithful: As many as are catechumens, depart. Catechumens depart. As many as are catechumens, depart. Let no catechumen remain. The dismissal of the catechumens, which was in use by the fourth century and is referred to by St. John Chrysostom, was discontinued by the eighth century. We no longer expect the catechumens to depart from the Liturgy because the Liturgy of the Faithful is no longer a secret Mystery that can only be beheld by the Faithful.
However, the catechumens are not dismissed at this point because they cannot receive the Holy Mysteries, as is commonly repeated. Of course, it is true that they cannot receive the Mysteries; that is not in question because one must be spiritually born through baptism before being able to eat the spiritual food offered on the Altar Table. But, if the catechumens were dismissed for this reason alone, the dismissal would take place immediately before the Anaphora, not as early as it does in the service, before even the singing of the Symbol of Faith (Creed). Rather, the reason for the dismissal of the catechumens reaches deep into an aspect of the Church’s consciousness that has ramifications for our relations with Christians of different professions. “Common prayer” with catechumens, notes Robert Taft, “with their participation was excluded, which is why they were first dismissed, and not because they mustn’t receive communion, as is often thought” (Beyond East and West, 216). In the early Church, it was forbidden for Christians to pray with those of different confessions or even with those preparing to be illumined but not yet baptized. Note that in the Litany of the Catechumens, it is the faithful who pray for the catechumens, we do not pray with them yet. Catechumens, even, were dismissed from non-Eucharistic services: “They were also dismissed at non-Eucharistic services, where there was no risk of them going to communion” (216). At this point of the service, the faithful are about to shift from Psalmody (the singing of the antiphons) and reading the Gospel, to the most mystical prayers of the Church. In fact, the Cherubic hymn, which is about to be sung, identifies the faithful with the angelic choir hymning God: Let us who mystically represent the Cherubim. If catechumens (and non-Christians and penitents, who would also be dismissed at this point) have not actually left the church since the late seventh century, we can at least learn how strongly the Church has valued the importance of right-belief among those who pray together.
The Church does not forbid praying with those of other confessions out of meanness or some antisocial compulsion. Rather, it does so out of love for Christ and devotion to preserving the healing capacity of the Church to minister to our fallen nature. We understand right worship and right belief to go hand-in-hand. Any deviation from right belief imperils the right means of practicing the faith that has, as an unbroken line of saints from the Apostles to today witnesses, been given to us for the salvation of our souls. This is not an abstract concern but a real danger. We can see how the confusion of dogma in the Protestant world has led to a rejection, in many cases, of the necessity of the Body and Blood of Christ for the healing of our fallen nature. Furthermore, we can see where the very idea of salvation is perilously distorted, so that it is misunderstood as a one-time event (at an altar call), rather than a process that does not cease until our last breath. The question “are you saved?” is foreign to Orthodoxy. Christ does not say, “be saved;” He says, “be perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). We are perfected through participation in the life of Christ and it is for full access to this saving process that we pray for those catechumens who patiently wait at the porches until they can enter into the full experience of Christ’s Church.
The Liturgy of the Faithful now commences. In the early Church of the fourth century, when the Divine Liturgy began while the people entered the temple with the bishop (Little Entrance), it was at this point that the deacon proclaimed the Great Litany because the Catechumens were now dismissed and the faithful could now pray together as One Body. During those petitions, the priest would pray ancient prayers of entrance into the Altar, humbly thanking God to be found worthy to celebrate His service, offering “bloodless sacrifices for all Thy people.” As the Liturgy of the Catechumens expanded to include the First, Second, and Third Antiphons, the Great Litany was moved to the beginning of the Liturgy of the Catechumens and the corresponding priest’s Prayers of the First, Second, and Third Antiphon were introduced; however, the priest’s prayers of entrance remained here. Therefore, because those prayers are solely for the priest, the deacon repeats select petitions from the Great Litany in order to direct the faithful in prayer, thereby providing time for the priest to pray.
In effect, the two Litanies of the Faithful highlight the Great and Little Litanies from earlier. The First Litany of the Faithful is a Little Litany with the designation that it is As many as are of the faithful who are now praying together. Also, instead of calling to remembrance the Theotokos and the saints, the deacon concludes with Wisdom!, echoing the words of King Solomon: “attend unto my wisdom; incline thine ear to my understanding” (Proverbs 5:1). The Second Litany of the Faithful recapitulates the Great Litany: Again and again, in peace let us pray to the lord, For the peace from above and the salvation of our souls, let us pray to the Lord, For the peace of the whole world, the good estate of the holy churches of God, and the union of all, let us pray to the Lord, For this holy house, and those that with faith, reverence, and the fear of God enter herin, let us pray to the Lord, For our deliverance from all affliction, wrath, danger, and necessity, let us pray to the Lord, Help us, save us, have mercy on us, and keep us, O God, by Thy grace, Wisdom! It is entirely fitting to turn to the Great Litany, which announces the beginning of the Liturgy of the Catechumens, for the beginning of the Liturgy of the Faithful. Note, however, that the petitions repeated from the Great Litany are selected carefully. In the Great Litany, we commemorate our local hierarch, the clergy, the president, and armed forces. Here, there is no need to repeat these important commemorations because they were just prayed for in the Litany of Fervent Supplication. The petitions for the city, travelers, the sick, and captives are omitted because the priest will pray for precisely these during his commemorations after the consecration of the Gifts while the choir sings “It is Truly Meet” and again while all have their heads bowed after the Lord’s Prayer. We begin, instead, the Liturgy of the Faithful with petitions asking, again, for the gift of peace and deliverance from affliction; for freedom from wrath and passionate disruption is necessary in order for the Holy Mysteries to be for our healing instead of for our judgment or condemnation.
While the deacon intones the first and second litanies of the faithful, the priest quietly prays the first and second prayers for the faithful. These prayers are not made by the faithful but are made on behalf of the faithful (hence their designation for the faithful) by the priest. As mentioned earlier, they are ancient prayers of entrance into the Altar. Remember, in the earliest centuries of our Christian faith and liturgical worship, the Divine Liturgy would actually commence with all of the faithful entering the church with the bishop as the Gospel is brought in during the Little Entrance. Fr. Lawrence Farley notes: “We can see that the priest is praying for himself as a part of his spiritual preparation for approaching the eucharistic altar. The ‘we’ mentioned in the prayers is the clergy” whereas the ‘them’ consists of the faithful (50).
The first prayer gives thanks to God for the priest to be able to serve before the Altar of God in the presence of His Bodiless Hosts. This prayer of thanksgiving is truly eucharistic (‘thanksgiving’) in character and indicates the turning of our attention to Christ’s imminent self-sacrifice by containing the first mention of “Holy Altar” and “bloodless sacrifice,” both of which are so important for the Liturgy of the Faithful. However, even though we approach the awesome Mystery of the Eucharist and leave behind the Liturgy of the Gospel, we do not leave behind Scripture itself. Rather, as it does all the Divine Liturgy, Scripture structures all prayers and exclamations. The Scriptural references and allusions of the first and second prayers for the faithful are indicated below in the appropriate passage in brackets.
We thank Thee [Heb. 13:15 & Col. 3:17], O Lord God of Hosts [Rev. 11:17], Who hast vouchsafed us to stand even now before Thy Holy Altar, and to fall down [I Cor. 14:25] before Thy compassion [Luke 8:47] for our sins, and for the errors of the people [Heb. 9:7]. Receive, O God, our supplication [Acts 1:14]; make us to be worthy to offer unto Thee supplications [Eph. 6:18] and entreaties and bloodless sacrifices [Heb.13:15] for all Thy people. And enable us whom Thou hast placed in this Thy ministry [II Cor. 4:1], by the power of Thy Holy Spirit, without condemnation or faltering [Phil. 2:15], with the clear witness of our conscience [Acts 24:16 & I Tim. 3:9], to call upon Thee at all times and in every place, that, hearkening unto us [Luke 1:13], Thou mayest be gracious unto us in the multitude of Thy goodness [Ex. 34:6].
To which, the priest concludes with the exclamation: That with us they may glorify [I Tim. 1:17] Thine all-honorable and majestic name: of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages.
The second prayer emphasizes purification, asking that the priest may be cleansed of his impurity. No man deserves mercy from God; even less would any man deserve the privilege to serve before His Holy Altar. We can only pray, as the Bishop when ordaining a priest or deacon, that the Holy Spirit may supply that which is lacking in us and cleanse us from every stain.
Again and oftimes we fall down [I Cor. 14:25] before Thee, and we pray Thee, O Good One and Lover of mankind [Rev. 19:10], that, regarding our supplication, Thou wilt cleanse [Rev. 1:5 & John 15:3] our souls and bodies [II Cor. 7:1 & II Thes. 5:23] of all defilement of flesh and spirit [Ps. 50 (51):2], and grant us to stand guiltless and uncondemned before Thy Holy Altar. Grant also, O God, to them that pray with us, advancement in life and faith [Luke 17:5], and spiritual understanding [Rom. 8:1, I Cor. 2:14, & Col. 1:9]. Grant them ever [John 5:24] to serve Thee with fear and love, and to partake, guiltless and uncondemned, of Thy Holy Mysteries [Heb. 12:10], and to be vouchsafed Thy Heavenly Kingdom [I Thes. 1:5].
Concluding with, That guarded always by Thy might [I Chron. 29:12] we may send up glory [Ps. 23 (24):8] unto Thee: to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages.
Next: Part Twelve, “The Great Entrance”