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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”
Up until the eighth century, the daily readings commenced with Old Testament readings, both from the Torah (first five books of the Bible) and from the Prophets. The Church, in creating a liturgical calendar of readings from Scripture, followed the Jewish Temple practice. We can witness Christ participating in this liturgical cycle of readings in the Gospel of Luke: “And He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up: and He entered, as his custom was, into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and stood up to read. And there was delivered unto Him the book of the prophet Isaiah” (Luke 3:16-17). When Christ simultaneously read and fulfilled this prophecy of Isaiah, He was reading the Prophecy that was appointed for the day. As the Church came to recognize the four different Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, as well as the Apostolic epistles also as Scripture, those readings were integrated into the cycle of readings, with the exception of The Revelation (or Apocalypse) of St. John, which was finally accepted into the New Testament canon only after the cycle of what we now call the New Testament readings was established.
We no longer read the Old Testament in the Divine Liturgy, except for in Holy Week and in Presanctified Liturgies in Great Lent, but a remnant of that reading remains in the antiphonal chanting and singing of the Prokeimenon, which consists of selections from King David’s Psalms that previously followed the Old Testament readings. The reader, one of the ranks of minor clergy of the Church, follows the Prokeimenon with the reading of the Epistle, during which the deacon censes the Altar, the clergy, the reader, and the faithful. The worship of the Lord is prophesied by Malachi (“in every place incense shall be offered unto my name, and a pure offering: for my name shall be great among the Gentiles, saith Jehovah of hosts” [1:11]) and, in the future Kingdom, by St. John (“And another angel came and stood over the altar, having a golden censer; and there was given unto him much incense, that he should add it unto the prayers of all the saints upon the golden altar which was before the throne” [Rev. 8:3]). As a Liturgical action, the censing of the Altar and the people before the Gospel reading, the priest’s bestowal of Christ’s peace on all, and the deacon’s call to attention all purify and prepare the church and the faithful in a complimentary fashion so that God’s Word may be received. In the Greek practice, only the Gospel, resting on the Altar Table, is censed. As the deacon concludes his censing, the reader finishes his reading and leads the faithful in the singing of the Alleluia verses, also drawn from the Psalms. Alleluia is Hebrew for ‘praise God’: “For in Hebrew AL means ‘He comes, He appears;’ EL means ‘God;’ and OUIA means ‘Praise and sing hymns,’ to the Living God” (St. Germanos’s Ecclesiastical History qtd. in Hatzidakis 140).
While the deacon is censing the Altar and the faithful in preparation for the reading of the Holy Gospel, the priest prays the following prayer that entered into the Liturgy sometime between the tenth and twelfth centuries: Shine forth within our hearts the incorruptible light of Thy knowledge, O Master, Lover of mankind, and open the eyes of our mind to the understanding of the preaching of Thy Gospel teachings [. . .] Note that the priest prays that our mind may be opened so that we can understand the Gospel. This understanding is no understanding if it is strictly cognitive: only by following the Lord’s teachings will we demonstrate our understanding. In fact, it is understanding within the hearts of the Ephesians for which the Apostle Paul prays: “having the eyes of your heart enlightened” (Eph. 1:18). The priestly prayer continues:
[. . .] instill in us also the fear of Thy blessed commandments, that trampling down all lusts of the flesh, we may pursue a spiritual way of life, being mindful of and doing all that is well-pleasing unto Thee. For Thou art the enlightenment of our souls and bodies, O Christ our God, and unto Thee do we send up glory, together with Thine unoriginate Father, and Thy Most-Holy and good and life-creating Spirit, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen.
Christ, revealed to us in the Gospel that we are about to hear, is our enlightenment, an illumination of the heart about which St. Paul reminds the Corinthians: “Seeing it is God, that said, Light shall shine out of darkness, who shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (II Cor. 4:6).
The deacon, who is about to proclaim the words that transmit this light, stands before and to the side of the Altar Table ready to receive the Holy Gospel from the priest, asking the priest, Bless, Master, him who proclaims the Good Tidings of the holy Apostle and Evangelist (Matthew, Mark, Luke or John the Theologian). The priest blesses the deacon as he hands him the Gospel, the deacon kissing the priest’s hand and the Holy Book as he receives it: May God, through the intercessions of the holy, glorious, all-praised Apostle and Evangelist ______, give speech with great power unto thee that bringest good tidings, unto the fulfillment of the Gospel of His beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.
The reading of the Holy Gospel from the Ambo is preceded by the blessing of Christ’s peace upon all from the priest and the deacon’s command, Let us attend. It is important to take seriously this call to attention, for the Gospels reveal that Christ Himself clearly takes it seriously. Fr. Emmanuel Hatzidakis notes that the command to ‘obey’ in Greek (ypakouein) has at its root the command to ‘hear’ (akouein) (145). Throughout the Gospel, we can see where the Lord likens listening to Him with obeying Him. (Mt. 17:5, Lk. 11:28, & Lk. 16:31); He concludes His instruction to those who listen to His parables, for example, with, “Who hath ears to hear, let him hear” (Mark 4:9). The 4th century pilgrim to Jerusalem, Egeria, observes how moved the faithful in Jerusalem were during the reading of the Lord’s Passion: “At the beginning of the reading [of the Gospel] the whole assembly groans and laments at all the Lord underwent for us [. . .] it is impressive to see the way all the people are moved by these readings, and how they mourn. You could hardly believe how every single one of them weeps” (qtd. in Taft 76). During the reading of the Gospel, remember that all are standing, as there were no pews or chairs in the ancient Church.
After chanting the Holy Words of the Lord, the priest blesses the deacon and receives the Gospel back from him as the people doxologize God, singing Glory to Thee, O Lord, glory to Thee as they bow. The priest or deacon then begins a homily on the Scripture.
After the reading of the Holy Gospel, the priest teaches the faithful the Church’s understanding of the passage just read. This is a daunting task for which the teacher will receive a strict judgment, according to St. James, the brother of the Lord and first Patriarch of Jerusalem: “Be not many of you teachers, my brethren, knowing that we shall receive heavier judgment” (James 3:1). The bishop, usually seated (the customary position for teachers in the Jewish tradition) on his throne behind the Altar Table, always delivered the homily in the ancient Church before the fourth century. But, by the fourth century, priests began assuming the responsibility of delivering the homily, often with multiple homilies delivered by all serving priests with the final one given by the seated bishop should he be present. In the late fourth century, Egeria notes that the purpose of the homily is so “that the people will continually be learning about the Bible and the love of God” (Egeria’s Travels, 125). To Egeria’s observation, we can add that the bishop or priest delivers the homily so that the people can be learning about the Bible and the love of God in the Godly-inspired manner that represents the Mind of the Church. This, in fact, is one of the principal responsibilities of the bishop and it is for this reason that the consecration of a bishop takes place in the Divine Liturgy immediately before the reading of the Holy Scripture. Furthermore, this consecration takes place with the candidate kneeling before the Holy Altar, the open Gospel placed upon his neck as a yoke. The method of his consecration indicates his responsibility to teach the people. This responsibility is delegated to his priests who deliver the homilies in the parishes under his guidance. To this day, the bishop’s homily on Pascha and Nativity are read in local parishes even when he is not present.
The homily is a task for which ordination is required because to properly understand Holy Scripture, we must be Divinely inspired. This is not to say that every word that proceeds from the mouth of a priest is Divinely inspired, but the priest is educated in how the Divinely-inspired Fathers of the Church understood Scripture. Fr. John Romanides observes, “those who correctly read and interpret this experience of the deified be those who belong to the community of those deified in Christ” (Dogmatic and Symbolic Theology of the Orthodox Catholic Church, 175). The Fathers are those saints who understand the Scripture in spirit, not only with the mind but also with their heart. They provide the context within which our Church comprehends the Divine sayings and actions of Christ. St. Symeon the New Theologian notes how “a person may read the Scriptures and commit them all to memory and carry them with him as if they were but one Psalm, and yet be ignorant of the gift of the Holy Spirit hidden within them” (Discourses XXIV, 261). Fr. John Romanides, again, reiterates the importance of a correct understanding of Holy Scripture:
The Bible itself is not the uncreated glory of God in Christ nor His glorified humanity and therefore the Bible is not revelation. The Bible is not, for example, Pentecost, but about Pentecost [. . .] Pentecost is for man the final form of glorification in Christ, but not only a past experience, but rather a continuing experience within the Church which includes words and images and at the same time transcends words and images. (“Critical Examination of the Applications of Theology,” 42)
Within the context of the Divine Liturgy, the homily serves to prepare the hearts of all to receive the fullness of Christ in the Eucharist: “For only with transformed hearts made tender by feeding on divine truth can the people take the next step—to advance to the altar of God and receive the life-giving Mysteries” (Farley, 44). It is through this Mystery that we approach the true revelation of Christ by communing with Him. The largely Russian practice of moving the homily to after the Eucharist disrupts both this process of preparation and the coherence of the Liturgy of the Word that includes both the reading and the teaching that accompanies it.
Next: Part Eleven, “The Litanies”
During the singing of the final Kontakion, the priest quietly prays the Prayer of the Thrice-Holy Hymn, which precedes the singing of that ancient hymn. The prayer is a rich theological utterance filled with scriptural allusions as indicated below:
O holy God, who restest in thy Holy Place; who art hymned by the Seraphim [Is. 57:15] with thrice-holy cry [Is. 6:2-3], and glorified by the Cherubim [Ps. 80:1], and worshipped by every heavenly Power; Who out of nothing [Gen. 1:26] hast brought all things into being; who hast created man after thine own image and likeness and has adorned him with thine every gift; who givest to him that askest wisdom and understanding [II Chrn. 1:10, Prov. 2:6]; who despisest not the sinner, but hast appointed repentance unto salvation; who hast vouchsafed unto us, thy humble and unworthy servants, even in this hour to stand before the glory of thy holy Altar and to offer the worship and praise which are due unto thee: Thyself, O Master, accept even from the mouth of us sinners the Hymn of the Trisagion, and visit us in thy goodness. Forgive us every transgression both voluntary and involuntary [Eph. 1:7]; sanctify our souls and bodies [I Cor. 6:11]; and grant us to serve thee in holiness all the days of our life [Luke 1:74-75]: through the intercessions of the holy Theotokos and of all the Saints who from the beginning of the world have been well-pleasing unto thee.
The deacon quietly asks the priest to “Bless the time of the Thrice-Holy Hymn.” The priest obliges by attributing all-holiness to God: “For holy art Thou, O Our God, and unto Thee we ascribe glory: to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto the ages of ages.”
The people then sing the Trisagion, or “Thrice-Holy Hymn,” which was widely used liturgically at least by the fifth century and was actually the entrance hymn used in sixth-century Constantinople as the faithful would process into the Church and the bishop and clergy would enter the Altar. At this time, the chanter would sing parts of Psalm 79 (80), which would then be followed by the Trisagion refrain (Farley 30 and Hatzidakis 132-33). Eventually, the chanting of Psalm 79 (80) was discontinued and the Trisagion came to follow the Entrance with the Gospel. We can see the Trisagion survive as entrance hymn today in funerals, during which this hymn is chanted as those present process into and out of the Church. On those occasions, the Trisagion is sung slowly and solemnly; however, during the Divine Liturgy the hymn should be sung more briskly, without losing the air of mystery that surrounds this ancient hymn to the Holy Trinity evoking the vision of the Prophet Isaiah, who beheld seraphim before the Lord’s throne (“And one cried unto another, and said, Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory” [Is. 6:3]) and St. John the Theologian, who saw a vision of four creatures glorifying God (“Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord / God, the Almighty, who was and / who is and who is to come” [Rev. 4:8]).
Importantly, the qualities of God that are hymned in the Trisagion, (He is God, He is mighty, and He is immortal) are qualities shared by all Three Persons of the Trinity. Therefore, this hymn, because of its three-part structure, celebrates the Three Persons while simultaneously affirming God’s oneness.
During the Trisagion, the deacon initiates the clergy’s movement to the high place behind the Altar, called the synthronon, to the Bishop’s throne. This throne (or cathedra, from whence we get the word ‘cathedral’ in English—a church where a bishop is enthroned) represents God’s throne in Heaven, whereas the bishop’s cathedra in the nave of the church, which is where the Emperor used to be enthroned, is an earthly throne (Hatzidakis 134). Asking the priest to Command, Master, the deacon leads the clergy to the synthronon as the priest proclaims, Blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord, not only the exclamation with which the Lord was greeted upon His entrance into Jerusalem (Luke 19:38), but King David’s prophetic anticipation of that entrance as recounted in Psalm 117 (118): 26. Standing before the bishop’s cathedra (throne), the deacon asks the priest to Bless, Master, the High Place. The association of the cathedra at the high place with the seat of the Lord derives from the prophecy of Isaiah: “For thus saith the high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity, whose name is Holy: I dwell in the high and holy place” (57:15). The priest then blesses the bishop’s cathedra: Blessed art Thou on the Throne of the glory of Thy Kingdom, Thou that sittest on the Cherubim, always, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages. The understanding of the Lord enthroned upon cherubim comes from both King David: “Thou that sittest on the cherubim [. . .] stir up Thy might and come to save us” (Ps. 79 1:1-2) and Christ: “When the Son of man shall come in His glory, and all the angels with him, then shall He sit on the throne of His glory” (Matt. 25:31).
Fr. Lawrence Farley, in Let Us Attend: A Journey through the Orthodox Divine Liturgy, notes: “This procession” as the clergy approaches the synthronon “is a survival from the time of St. John Chrysostom in the fourth century. In those days, the service began when the bishop entered the Altar area, blessed the thrones on which he and his clergy were to sit, greeted the assembled faithful with a greeting of peace, and then sat down for the readings of Scripture” (33). Fr. Lawrence goes on to note that the deacon’s command to Let us attend! immediately following the singing of the Trisagion and the clergy’s procession to the High Place originates from these early days when, because the people had just entered the Church, there was still much talking and restlessness. To settle everyone down in preparation for the reading of Holy Scripture, the deacon calls for attention. St. John himself foregrounds the importance of this call in one of his homilies: “There [. . .] stands the deacon crying loud and saying, “Let us attend to the reading” [. . .] and yet none pays attention” (Act. Ap., Hom. XIX, 5).
There is, however, a deeper resonance in the command Let us attend (Proskomen in Greek). Whereas the call to attention certainly has practical relevance, in The Synaxarion Hiermonk Makarios of Simonos Petra Monastery on Mt. Athos notes it also refers to a profound spiritual event of universal significance. According to “a very ancient tradition,” immediately after the fall of Lucifer, the Archangel Michael summoned those hosts who remained faithful to the Triune God with Let us attend! Hiermonk Makarios explains that by this the Archangel Michael means “Let us be on guard! Let us be vigilant; for we, who have been raised up to stand before God, are of His making! Let us remember that we are servants! Let us strive for self-knowledge, seeing what a fall those who wanted to be equal to God have had” (66). The Archangel’s call to vigilance is repeated a number of times in the Divine Liturgy, here for to the first time. Each time it is not only a call to attention, but also a call that all the faithful be vigilant, not only attending to the Words of Sacred Scripture, but also guarding our thoughts so that we will not follow them away from Christ, but rather closer to Him and, thereby, in unity with our brethren.
This command is then immediately followed by the priest’s blessing upon all: Peace be unto all. Just as Christ bestowed His peace upon His apostles as his first action when appearing to them after the Resurrection (John 20:19) and St. Paul began his epistles by evoking Christ’s grace and peace (see Rom. 1:7, I Cor. 1:3, II Cor. 1:2, Gal. 1:3, Eph. 1:2, Phil. 1:2, Col. 1:2, I Thes. 1:1, II Thes. 1:2, I. Tim. 1:2, II Tim. 1:2, Titus 1:4, Phil. 1:3), here the priest invokes Christ’s peace upon the people: “In the Divine Liturgy, Christ is truly in our midst, and this presence transforms us. In the world, we know only turmoil, fear, and anxiety” (Farley 35). Fr. Lawrence goes on to note: “The timing of this blessing is important, for, having assembled, we receive the Lord’s peace as the preparation for hearing His Word. We cannot absorb the Word of God with distracted hearts” (Farley 35). The hearing of the Word, the culmination of the Liturgy of the Word (or Catechumens), immediately follows the bestowal of peace and it is to the Reading of Scripture that we now turn.
Next: Part Ten, “The Epistle and Gospel Readings”
O Master, Lord our God, Who hast appointed in Heaven the ranks and hosts of angels and archangels unto the service of Thy glory: With our entry do Thou cause the entry of the holy angels, serving and glorifying Thy goodness with us. 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. Amen.
Thus the priest prays as the clergy depart from the Altar and stand before the Royal Doors. In acknowledging the Heavenly bodiless hosts that serve the Lord, the priest affirms the vision of Prophet Micah, who saw the Lord “sitting on his throne, and all the host of heaven standing by him on his right hand and on his left” (I Kings 22:19) and that of the Prophet King David, who prayed that “Ye ministers” of the Lord “that do his pleasure” (Ps. 102 :21) would bless the Lord. The procession is led by an Altar server carrying a candle, representing “the Word of God is light to our spirit, that the Law of God consecrates the path of our life, and that, we are expected to harbor the light of faith and the warmth of love” (Sokolof, 68). The deacon follows, holding the Gospel “precisely as the Scrolls of the Torah were and are held in synagogue worship” (Hatzidakis, 126), with the icon of the resurrection on the Gospel facing forwards, covering the deacon’s face, “to show that not he, but only Christ exists” (Archimandrite Eimilianos, 44).
The deacon then asks the priest: Bless, Master, the Holy Entrance and the priest blesses: Blessed is the entry of Thy holy ones, always, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages. Note that the Greek for “holy ones” (agion) can be translated “holy ones,” “saints,” or “the holy.” All meanings are relevant here, for the Royal Doors through which the clergy are about to pass open into the Altar, the Holy sanctuary where the Gifts are consecrated and where angels and saints alike (the Church Triumphant) behold the wonder of Christ’s Incarnation, represented, according to St. Maximus the Confessor, in the Small Entrance, “the first coming into the world of the Son of God, Christ our Savior, in the flesh” (qtd. in Hatzidakis, 126). St. Maximus says that this appearance is “at the beginning of his life” is “obscure and imperfect,” whereas after His Resurrection it is “the perfect and supreme manifestation” (A Commentary on the Divine Liturgy, 28).
The entrance as we do it today is really more of a procession, given that we process in a circuit from the Altar to the Altar. The meaning of the entrance is preserved in a Hierarchical Liturgy, when the Bishop will enter into the Altar for the first time at this point. It was also preserved in the Byzantine Church:
The meaning of this entrance appeared more readily in the days of St. John Chrysostom, when it actually was the initial entrance of all the clergy and faithful into the church building. In those days, the celebrant would come before the main outer doors of the church and pray the prayer of the entrance. Then he and his fellow clergy would enter the church and proceed straight into the altar as all the faithful entered the nave. (Fr. Lawrence Farley, Let Us Attend, 27)
In the fifth century Church that Fr. Lawrence describes, the clergy would actually be arriving from an entirely separate building that held the sacred vessels and Gospel; this building, Archpriest D. Sokolof notes, “was in a secret place” (A Manual of The Orthodox Church’s Divine Services, 68).
As the deacon stands before the Holy Entrance, he exclaims Wisdom! Aright (or Let us attend)! He then enters the Altar, followed by the remaining clergy. The Wisdom (Gr. Sophia) refers to the wisdom of God contained in the Gospel held by the deacon, who is about to proclaim its Holy words from the Ambo; it is wisdom that is encapsulated, St. Paul instructs, in the crucifixion of Christ: “hath not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For seeing that in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom knew not God, it was God’s good pleasure through the foolishness of the preaching to save them that believe. Seeing that Jews ask for signs, and Greeks seek after wisdom: but we preach Christ crucified, unto Jews a stumbling block, and unto Gentiles foolishness; but unto them that are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men (I Cor. 1:20-25).
The command Aright (or Let us attend)! is an instruction to all the people to arise and stand and to listen attentively to the forthcoming words; words that are penned by men but written by God. In standing, we acknowledge that we are students in this Holy curriculum of Christ’s Church. The traditional posture for Jewish teachers (before the Second Temple’s destruction in 70 AD) was to sit while those who listened to them stood. This can be seen in the Gospel, where Christ sat while those who listened to him stood, listening attentively (e.g. the Sermon on the Mount, Matt. 5:1).
When the priest enters the Altar, the deacon hands him the Gospel and he places it upon the Altar Table. All the clergy and people sing “O Come, let us worship and fall down before Christ. O Son of God, Who didst rise from the dead, save us who chant unto Thee. Alleluia.” When we compare this to the Psalm from which it comes (Psalm 95 ), we can see that it explicitly refers to hearing God’s voice: “Oh come, let us worship and bow down; Let us kneel before the Lord our Maker: For he is our God, And we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand. Today, oh that ye would hear his voice!” Furthermore, the Lord is Yahweh, Whom the Church identifies with Christ in this verse. Interestingly, King David’s conjunction of “worship” and “bow down” is a literary use of repetition because the two words are nearly identical in Hebrew: “Worship,’ shachah in Hebrew, literally means to prostrate or fall down in a sign of respect and karah means ‘to bow over’ or ‘cause to bow over.’
The people then sing the troparia (called apolytikia when used at the end of Vespers) and kontakia commemorating the saint(s) or feast of the day. Which ones are sung depend upon the rank of the service and the day in question. Almost all ranks begin with the troparion of the resurrection in the tone of the week. By so beginning, we first emphasize the wisdom and mercy of Christ’s resurrection; it also returns us, no matter the season, to the Paschal season, when we so joyously celebrate the Lord’s Resurrection. The other hymns similarly glorify Christ by glorifying how he works through the lives of the saints.
Next: Part Nine, “The Thrice Holy Hymn”
As the deacon intones the second and final small litany of the Liturgy, the priest prays the Prayer of the Third Antiphon: O Thou who hast bestowed upon us these common and concordant prayers, and Who hast promised that when two or three are agreed in Thy Name Thou wouldst grant their requests: Do Thou Thyself now fulfill the requests of Thy servants to their profit, granting us in this present age the knowledge of Thy truth, and in that to come, life everlasting.
The priest, on behalf of all the people gathered, prays that we may acquire knowledge of the Truth and eternal life. Importantly, this prayer reveals that eternal life is a quality of the coming age, of the next eonian. Commonly rendered “eternal,” eonian certainly has that connotation, such as when we read in the Apostle Paul’s epistle to the Romans: “But now being made free from sin and become servants to God, ye have your fruit unto sanctification, and the end eternal life” (Rom. 6:22). But the eon, the longest period of time in the Holy Bible, can actually be divided into seven distinct divisions: pre-eternal time (see II Tim. 1:9: “before times eternal”), five eons (The eon in Paradise, the eon between the expulsion from the Garden until Noah (antediluvian), the present eon, and two future eons, these are the “ages of ages”: “and he made us to be a kingdom, to be priests unto his God and Father; to him be the glory and the dominion for the eons of the eons. Amen” [Rev. 1:6].), and the eternity that reigns at the end of the eons (“but now once at the end of the ages hath he been manifested to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself” [Heb. 9:26]). Life everlasting is rooted in the present⎯Christ has already been victorious over the Devil⎯but it will acquire its full meaning with the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven. Christians are to always have their attention directed to this Kingdom, which Christ describes in many of His parables. But, since it is not possible to understand the goodness that God has set aside for us in the Eternal Kingdom, we also pray for knowledge of the Truth: knowledge of He Who has promised “life everlasting”: Jesus Christ. “And for their sakes I sanctify myself, that they themselves also may be sanctified in truth. Neither for these only do I pray, but for them also that believe on me through their word; that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us” (John 17:19-21), so prays Christ to His Father on behalf of His Apostles. To know the Truth is to know Christ; to know Christ is to be in God “who would have all men to be saved, and come to the knowledge of the truth” (I Tim. 2:4). Importantly, this Knowledge of Truth is inter-personal as well as personal, for we are directed to gather together and where there are two or more gathered in Christ’s name, there He is (Matt. 18:19-20). This is the meaning of the Divine Liturgy as a gathering of the faithful.
It is significant of the Third Antiphon’s importance that the Small Entrance occurs during its conclusion. The Third Antiphon may consist of different hymns, but in contemporary practice, with some variation according to the liturgical season, it is usually the Beatitudes. As we consider the meaning of these Beatitudes, therefore, we should consider the high regard the Church has for them in using them as the “entrance hymn” for the Holy Gospel. It cannot be overstressed that, as the Son of God, Christ is so much more than teacher; those who attempt to limit Him by characterizing Him as a mere instructor of ethics attack His salvific role in our life. Once we acknowledge the danger of such a misunderstanding, though, we can acknowledge Christ’s Sermon on the Mount as the most important of His ethical teachings about how we
should live even as we strive for union with Him through participation in Holy Communion. The entirety of the Sermon of the Mount, of which the Church only gives us the Beatitudes during this point of the Liturgy, was so important to the Apostle and Evangelist Matthew who depicted it that he parallels Christ’s teaching the New Law with Moses’s teaching the Law to the Hebrews after receiving it on Mount Sinai. The branch that has been grafted onto the living vine is bound to it with lessons in humility and godliness. When we sing these words during Divine Liturgy, let us hear not only with our ears, but let us attend with our hearts, lest we turn, instead, to the golden calves in our lives and cause our redeemer to shatter His lessons for us against our hardened hearts.
Before the first Beatitude, we sing the repentant thief’s prayer to the Lord: “And he said, Jesus, remember me when thou comest in thy kingdom” (Luke 23:42). Like the thief, whose meekness and humility as he hangs upon a cross beside our Lord exemplifies the virtues of the Beatitudes, we ask that the Lord remember us in His coming Kingdom. In doing so, we affirm the forward-pointing, or eschatological, dimension of Divine Liturgy. The Kingdom of Heaven has already begun; we know this because the saints experience glimpses of It while still in the flesh. However, the Kingdom will be
experienced more fully in the future, both after our individual deaths and, for all who escape the judgment of God, after the Second Coming of Christ. The entire Divine Liturgy is structured around expectation of this Kingdom wherein we hope to be received; this is why every Church Altar faces East, in expectation of Christ’s Second Coming and the fullness of the Kingdom of Heaven.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. The word rendered “blessed” here is makari, which means ‘joyousness springing from within.’ The word “beatitude” itself is Latin in origin (beatus) and means ‘happy, fortunate, or blissful.’ Some translations render makari as “happy,” but, as Jim Forest points out: “‘Happy’ in some respects makes for an unhappy translation. Its root is hap, the Middle English word for ‘luck.’ [. . .] But [. . .] the word blessed [. . .] was [. . .] chosen by translators in the seventeenth century. Blessed meant ‘something consecrated to or belonging to God’” (The Ladder of the Beatitudes, 18). In beginning his teaching with makari (Berakah in Hebrew, a variation of which begins many Jewish Prayers, such as Psalm 113:2: “Blessed be the Name of the Lord from henceforth and for evermore.”), Christ echoes the Psalms, 35 different verses of which begin with Blessed. In fact, the first word in the Psalms is berakah: “Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the wicked” (Ps. 1:1). The Psalms, however, emphasize uprightness and keeping apart from the wicked as in Psalm 118’s “Blessed are they that are perfect in the way, who walk in the law of the Lord” (Ps. 118:1); St. Hilary of Poitiers calls this probity: “The primary condition is to enter into the way of truth with experienced moral conduct and oriented towards the seeking of a life without fault by the practice of the virtue normally known as probity” (Commentary on Psalm 118). Christ, on the other hand, calls blessed lowly qualities that would, heretofore, have been considered defects of character or spirit. What the world despises, God raises up. St. Symeon the New Theologian describes such ones as being “insulted, reproached, and in dire traits because of His righteous commandment” (The Discourses, 53). The Greek word for “poor” here is ptochos, which does not mean someone who has a very modest life, but “someone who is destitute. There is a different word⎯penes⎯for a person who has the basic necessities [. . .] a destitute person has been reduced to begging” (Forest 24). Importantly, Christ uses such an adjective to describe the blessed one’s spirit. Those whose spirits are so destitute that they are reduced to begging for spiritual satisfaction are promised the ultimate spiritual boon: access to the Kingdom of Heaven. What is the mark of those so blessed? St. Symeon calls it “everflowing tears that purify the soul” (53). St. John Chrysostom links poverty of spirit to “the humble and contrite mind” (Homily 15, 185) and St. Gregory of Nyssa tells us “who it is that is poor in spirit” by identifying such a person as one “who is given the riches of the soul in exchange for material wealth, who is poor for the sake of the spirit. He has shaken off earthly riches like a burden, so that he may be lightly lifted into the air and be borne upwards” (The Beatitudes, Sermon 1, 89). St. Gregory claims that the one who attains the Kingdom of Heaven gives up material wealth for spiritual wealth. Although Christ says that it is poverty of spirit that is rewarded, St. Gregory clarifies that the path to a destitute spirit is freedom from enslavement to material concerns. When one is free of this attachment and when tears continually flow, God makes up for what is lacking in the spiritually destitute person. And what better real estate agent could we ask for than the Architect of Heaven? He who houses his spirit in destitution will exchange a hovel for the Kingdom.
Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted. When discussing the kind of sorrow to which Christ here refers, St. Gregory of Nyssa marks the Apostle Paul’s distinction between godly sorrow that “worketh out repentance to salvation” and ungodly or worldly sorrow that “worketh out to death” (2 Cor. 7:10): “We should not think it a loss to be deprived of some of the pleasant things of this life, but rather to lose the better things for the sake of enjoying the others” (Sermon 3, 116). Christ promises us the enjoyment of comfort; however, just as godly sorrow can be contrasted with ungodly sorrow, the Divine consolation here promised should be contrasted with “the pleasant things of this life.” The Evangelist Matthew uses parakaleo to render ‘comforted.’ It is the same root from which we derive parakletos, used by Christ to name the Paraclete, or Holy Spirit, that
He asks the Father to send His apostles: “And I will ask 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; for it beholdeth him not, neither knoweth him: ye know him; for he abideth with you, and shall be in you” (Jn. 14:26-27). The promise of the Holy Spirit, Whose descent upon the Apostles during Pentecost marks the beginning of the Church, animates, guides, and comforts those who willingly indenture their life to Christ, sorrow over their sins, and actively work for the salvation of their souls. It is the Holy Spirit that replenishes our spirit from His abundance of spiritual joy, for His is the “treasury of good gifts” and He is the “giver of joy.” This is our reward: not the comfort of a temporary condolence, but the promise of what St. John Chrysostom calls “abundant consolation” (Patrologia Graeca 57:188). It is with profundity that the Church gives us this promise in the midst of the Divine Liturgy, which itself is an icon of the future Kingdom when God will be “all in all” (1 Cor. 15:28); as we sing of that comfort that will be, we experience a foretaste of it now through right worship and our imminent communion of the Divine and Holy Gifts.
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. The Lord here reminds us of Psalm 36 (37): “Cease from anger, and forsake wrath: Fret not thyself, it tendeth only to evil-doing. For evil-doers shall be cut off; But those that wait for the Lord, they shall inherit the land. For yet a little while, and the wicked shall not be: Yea, thou shalt diligently consider his place, and he shall not be. But the meek shall inherit the land, And shall delight themselves in the abundance of peace” (8-11). The earth that is to be inherited is the new Promised Land, the new earth (Rev. 21:1). The meek have as their foremost example Christ, Who is “meek and lowly in heart” (Matt. 11:29). St. Gregory of Nyssa notes that “He calls meekness a standard attainable in the life of the flesh [. . .] He does not set up complete absence of passion as a
law for human nature; for a just lawgiver could not in fairness command things that nature does not permit” (The Beatitudes, Sermon 2, 104). Rather, meekness can be acquired by subjugating one’s passions to properly-directed reason: “For the reasoning power restrains the desires like a rein and does not suffer the soul to be carried away to unruliness” (103). Acknowledging our self rule, God declares us heirs of a superior estate.
Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled. St. Paisius Velichokovski closely connects the desire for righteousness with tears of repentance: “With the passing of time and to the degree of effort, tears, and weeping will come forth, along with a slight hope for the soul’s comfort. Hunger and thirst after righteousness shall appear, that is, a fiery effort to behave in everything according to His commandments and to achieve humility, patience, mercy, and love for everyone” (Starets Paisii Velichokovskii, 153). St. Paisius here emphasizes that the hunger and thirst for righteousness is a profound longing for the Truth that comes from God, not ourselves. Righteousness in English can sometimes be confused with self-righteousness, which refers to someone who is convinced of his own correctness. However, the Greek word diakaoisune refers to the quality or state of being justified by another, in this case God, not one’s self. The very first Psalm clarifies that the state of righteousness is bestowed by God: “Therefore the wicked shall not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous. For the Lord knoweth the way of the righteous; but the way of the wicked shall perish” (Ps. 1:5-6). The Lord knows the ways of those who are righteous because He can see into each and every heart. What we feel about ourselves is inconsequential at best and, when it comes to self-righteousness, damning. To those, though, who hunger and thirst for God’s justification, that is who pursue righteousness with the relentlessness of one starving, God will meet out to them every kind of spiritual blessing: “For thou wilt bless the righteous; O Lord, thou wilt compass him with favor as with a shield” (Ps. 5:12). “Therefore,” writes St. Gregory of Nyssa, “God the Logos promises to those who hunger for these things that they shall be filled” (Sermon 4, 18:127). Occurring in the context of the Divine Liturgy, the Lord’s promise of our imminent satisfaction by being filled suggests the spiritual consolation of the Divine Eucharist.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy. The prayer for the Lord’s mercy is the most common one in the Church. Mercy refers to a moderation of the severity of justice, but St. Gregory of Nyssa here suggests that it also includes an empathic quality: “Mercy is a voluntary sorrow that joins itself to the sufferings of others. It is a loving disposition to those who suffer distress.” In emphasizing the inner disposition, St. Gregory notes: “if a man only wills the good, but is prevented from accomplishing it by lack of means, he is not inferior, as regards his state of soul, to the person who shows his intentions by works” (Sermon 5, 18:133). Mercy, then, is a quality that first occurs within our heart. In fact, the prayer “Lord Jesus Christ Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner” is called “the prayer of the heart.” Fittingly, then, this Beattitude is followed by one that calls a blessing on the pure in heart.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. The Holy Apostle Paul describes Christians as distinct members of the Body of Christ and also as united in Christ, whose Body is both whole and one. When speaking of the various callings that the members of the Body receive, he makes distinctions: “Now ye are the body of Christ, and severally members thereof. And God hath set some in the Church, first apostles, secondly prophets, thirdly teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, governments, divers kinds of tongues” (I. Cor. 12:27-28). In a similarly diverse fashion, the Beatitudes distinguish between those who cultivate the different Godly virtues; those who so do receive the promise of Heavenly compensation. Although some Fathers emphasize how the Beatitudes are related, for example St. Symeon the New Theologian and Blessed Theophylact, whose commentary on the Gospel of Matthew suggests that the virtues associated with the Beatitudes are cumulative, every saint does not always exhibit
every Godly virtue. The Beatitude that is rewarded the most handsomely is purity of heart, for it is the pure in heart who behold God Himself. “For there is nothing more needful to see God,” writes St. John Chrysostom (Patrologia Graeca 57:189) as purity of heart, which St. Isaac the Syrian describes as “a heart full of compassion for the whole of created nature [. . .] a heart which burns for all creation, for the birds, for the beasts [. . .] for every creature. When he thinks about them, when he looks at them, his eyes fill with tears. So strong, so violent is his compassion [. . .] that his heart breaks when he sees the pain and suffering of the humblest creature. That is why he prays with tears at every moment” (Ascetic Treatises 81). St. Basil the Great describes the experience of seeing God as “the genuine contemplation of realities”: “Now we behold ‘as in a glass’ (I Cor. 13:12) the shadows of things, the archetypes of which we shall behold later, when we are set free from this earthly body and have put on an incorruptible and immortal body. Then we shall see, that is, if we steer our life’s course towards the right, and if we take heed of the right faith, for otherwise no one will see the Lord” (Letters 8:12). Purity of heart and the contemplation of God are not achieved by all saints in this life, but all will so behold Him in the Kingdom of Heaven.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the sons of God. Those who acquire the inward peace of Christ ⎯ the Prince of peace (Is. 9:6) ⎯ are truly “peacemakers.” Peace between nations is important, but any peace without Christ is false. The antonym of “peace” is “war,” and the war that a Christian fights is spiritual; our warfare being unseen. Therefore, let us fight for the spoils of spiritual warfare: inner peace. St. Gregory of Nyssa ponders, “I think a man is called a peacemaker who pacifies perfectly the discord between flesh and spirit in himself and the war that is inherent in nature, so that the law of the body no longer wars against the law of the mind, but is subjected to [. . .] divine ordinance” (Sermon 7, 18:165). Under this ordinance, we will be able to make peace in wholeness instead of falling to pieces in the face of adversity; under this ordinance we receive “adoption as sons through Jesus Christ” (Eph. 1:5).
Blessed are they that are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.
Blessed are ye when men shall revile you and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely for my sake.
Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is you reward in the Heaven.
As the clergy process from the north deacon door of the Altar to stand before the Royal Doors, the choir concludes the Third Antiphon with the final Beatitudes. The Liturgy of the Word is mounting to its culmination with the Gospel Reading, but first we witness humanity’s
entrance into the Kingdom of Heaven, represented by the clergy entering into the Altar through the Royal Doors, only after hearing our Lord’s teaching that those persecuted for righteousness’ sake ⎯ martyrs suffering for Christ ⎯ will enter Heaven’s Kingdom.
St. John of Kronstadt writes: “In His last two pronouncements on beatitude, the Lord blesses his followers for the persecution they have already undergone and will continue to undergo for their faith and virtue” (Ten Homilies on the Beatitudes, 87). The Church gives us this teaching now to remind us that there is no reward of Heaven without the suffering of the Cross. Christ thus instructed his Apostles before His own crucifixion:
If the world hateth you, ye know that it hath hated me before you. If ye were of the world, the world would love its own: but because ye are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you. Remember the word that I said unto you, A servant is not greater than his lord. If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you; if they kept my word, they will keep yours also. (John 15:18-20)
Between the world and the Kingdom of God there is enmity. This is not how God, the Creator of Paradise, would have it. Rather, our Adversary stalks this world (I Peter 5:8), mastering the minds of those of the world and inciting them to persecute those who conform to Heavenly, rather than worldly, principals.
But to suffer for the Lord is no cause for sorrow, rather the Lord commands us to “rejoice,” literally to “leap exceedingly with joy” as did Peter and the Apostles who went “rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the Name” (Acts 5:40-41). In fact, suffering can help prepare our souls for Heaven, as St. Gregory of Nyssa observes when he writes: “For a man who suffers cannot enjoy pleasure. Hence, as sin entered through pleasure, it is exterminated by the opposite (Sermon 8, 18:172).
Next: Part Eight, “The Small Entrance”
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
The two small litanies divide the three antiphons into a three-part structure honoring the Holy Trinity. These litanies are a condensed summation of the petitions from the Great Litany: the second and third of these petitions are the last two petitions from the Great Litany and the first repeats the Great Litany’s first petition, “in peace let us pray to the Lord,” with the addition, “again and again.” The meaning of “again and again” is usually misunderstood to only refer to the frequency with which the petition is said. However, this understanding comes from an imperfect translation of the Greek eti kai eti, which should more accurately be translated “to an even greater extent” (Hatzidakis, The Heavenly Banquet, 113). The result is that the call is less for a superficial repetition of prayer, but that we plumb deeper into our continued prayer. We are called to pray without ceasing, but our prayer is to increasingly delve spiritually to “an even greater extent.” The other two petitions ask the Lord for help, salvation (“That thy beloved may be delivered: save with thy right hand, and answer me,” Ps. 107 :6), mercy, and protection before concluding by calling to mind the Theotokos and all the saints so that we may attach the entirety of our life to Christ through His Holy Church just as they have done.
Next: Part Six, “The Second 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”
“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”
The Liturgy of the Catechumens begins with the announcement of the Kingdom of Heaven and ends before the Passion [. . .] We find the death of Christ twice: first in the Proskomedia (with the entombment after the Great Entrance), and secondly after the Consecration [. . .] The Liturgy of the Catechumens, which is Christ’s ministry on earth, thus falls between His death during the Proskomedia and His entombment after the Great Entrance.
+Mother Maria, “The Experience of the Liturgy” in An Introduction to the Divine Liturgy
This Liturgy of the Catechumens is the second of the three-part Divine Liturgy. Bishop Alexander (Mileant) of Buenos Aires and South America (=2005) describes it as the point where “the faithful are prepared for the Mystery.” This preparation takes place by emphasizing the teachings of Christ during His earthly ministry, which are available not only to the faithful but to those who are preparing to be received into the Church (Gr. katechoumenos ‘one being taught orally’), hence: “Liturgy of the Catechumens.” Although only the second of three parts, we begin our study with the Liturgy of the Catechumens because it is the first part most people experience, the proskomedia taking place exclusively within the Altar.
The service begins with the deacon asking the priest, who represents the Bishop’s authority, to bless. Note that in the Church, everything follows a correct order: just as nine ranks of angels serve the Lord, so too do the lower orders of clergy serve the bishop. Deacon literally means “servant” and his orarion (the distinctive stole he wears either on his shoulder or crossed about his chest) represents the wings of the angels. The priest responds not with his own blessing, but with the exclamation that the Heavenly Kingdom is blessed. In so doing, he follows in the footsteps of Christ, who proclaimed the Kingdom at hand (Mark 1:15) and St. Paul who expounded on the Kingdom (Acts 28:23). The priest’s exclamation signals that during the Liturgy, we experience the very same Kingdom Christ proclaimed. The Royal Doors are open, signaling that the veil separating the earthly from the spiritual has been pulled back and we now have access to the Kingdom of Heaven through our mediator, Christ. While exclaiming “Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto the ages of ages,” the priest makes the sign of the cross with the Gospel over the Altar Table, signifying that this is the part of the Divine Liturgy where the Word will be proclaimed and, in the homily, expounded. For this reason, the Liturgy of the Catechumens is sometimes called the Liturgy of the Word. The people respond with “Amen,” which means “so let it be,” “verily,” and “truly” in Hebrew. By so responding, all consent to the unfolding of the Kingdom.
The deacon, standing before the Royal Doors, is outside the Altar with the faithful. He begins the petitions that we all pray, supplicating our Lord in Heaven to have mercy on us who have been, since the Fall, exiled from Paradise where Adam and Eve freely walked with God in spiritual concord. These petitions are called the “Great Litany” or “Great Ectenia.” Litany derives from the Greek litanos, which means ‘entreating’; ectenia means ‘extended’ or ‘protracted,’ meaning that these petitions are a protracted list of supplications. Because the Great Litany begins with petitions for peace (Gr. irini), this litany is also known as the irenicon, or ‘peace-making message’ or ‘proposition for peace.’ The deacon is leading the people in prayer, intoning the supplications that all are praying in the heart. It is important to emphasize here that the mystical action of prayer takes place silently within the hearts of all present. The deacon’s supplications are not meant to replace this necessary spiritual and interior movement, but rather to provide direction.
The first three supplications are for the peace that is necessary before we can enter the Kingdom: “If thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee; leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift” (Matt. 5:23-24). St. Paul begins most of his epistles by evoking this peace from above: “Grace to you, and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:2). It is for this reason the priest begs forgiveness from the clergy and people before beginning the service. In like manner should we ask forgiveness of our brother and sister before Liturgy begins.
In peace let us pray to the Lord: Always remembering that prayer is more than the words we speak – it is the internal action of our spirit inclining toward the Lord – we must be careful to cultivate an inner peace when we pray. To this purpose, St. John Cassian (=435) recommends that the faithful come to church services well before they begin, so that the layers of the world, its thoughts and its cares, can be shed and the proper spirit of peace may be the beginning, and not the end, of prayer.
For the peace from above and the salvation of our souls, let us pray to the Lord: There is a greater peace than that achieved by shedding the cares of the world. There is the peace of the grace of God, bestowed on us by our Creator and Savior: “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you” (John 14:27). In the second of the three litanies asking for peace, we ask for this peace and that our souls be saved.
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: Having asked for peace and salvation for our souls, we immediately supplicate the Lord for peace for all, the health (literally, the ‘good stability,’ eustatheias, from the stem stathmos, meaning ‘the weight-bearing pillar of a structure’) of Christ’s Church, and that all may be united in Christ, which is the purpose of His Body, the Church. Our salvation is not a solitary enterprise; it takes place in the context of our participation in the Church Militant (that of the faithful here on earth) and the Church Triumphant (that of the saints and bodiless powers). That the spiritual life is shared is the deep theological truth behind the supplicatory prayer to the Mother of God: “Most Holy Theotokos save us.” We ask that we be saved together because, in being united together through Christ, our salvation is bound up with one another; therefore, after asking for peace and salvation for one’s self, it is natural and right to immediately ask the same for the world. Of course, the chief means by which God provides for the salvation of the world is through participation in His Church. Therefore, we follow our prayer for the world with a prayer for His holy churches. It is important to understand this litany correctly. By “churches” we do not mean the many and varied confessions of faiths and doctrines that proliferate; neither do we mean the brick and mortar buildings. Rather, we mean the local churches of the One Church, the Orthodox Church. Within our One, Holy, Apostolic Church there are 15 autocephalous churches and another seven autonomous churches. In this supplication, we pray for their good keeping and welfare. We conclude this petition with the request that we all be united in the Lord, remembering that this is the purpose of the Church: to provide for our salvation and deliverance from the world by grafting us onto Christ, the Living and True Vine (John 15:1-8).
For this holy house, and for those who with faith, reverence, and fear of God enter herein, let us pray to the Lord: After praying for the self-governing Orthodox Churches, it is then natural that we pray for our home parish, consisting of the faithful who are uniting themselves to Christ. We pray for the temple, literally “holy house,” which is a consecrated place of worship – a sacred space set aside wherein people experience the Divine Mysteries. Once the Altar Table of a Church is consecrated, it is to be an Altar until the Second Coming of Christ. There is no “retiring” or “closing” an Orthodox temple, or “house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth” (I Tim. 3:15). We honor the holiness of God, experienced in the Divine Mysteries, by entering the church with faith and in reverence and fear of God: “let us have grace, whereby we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear” (Heb. 12:28). We place our faith in God that He will compensate for our insufficiencies and weaknesses with His grace. We approach in reverence, never having idle conversation (remembering how Christ threw out the money changers from the Temple [Mark 11:15–33, Matt. 21:12–27, Luke 19:45-20:8, & John 2:12–25]) or inappropriate transactions in church, especially in the nave (or body) of the church. And we draw near in fear of God, ever mindful of the dread and awe-inspiring reality of God and the account we must make before His Throne during the Last Judgment.
So, in the Great Litany, the first three petitions are for peace and the fourth petition is for the temple wherein peace is to be acquired and for the faithful who are seeking it.
Next: Part Three, “The Great Litany Continued”