by Fr. Anthony Cook
Part 8 (first published 11-10-2013)
Last week we discussed what used to be the beginning of the Divine Liturgy, or rather, what used to be the final elements of the procession to the Church in preparation for the beginning of the Liturgy. The 3rd Antiphon, during which the clergy and the people entered the Church, led by the Deacon or Priest carrying the Gospel book, is like the other Antiphons in that it has verses from the Psalms that are sung or intoned by a leader, in alternation with a response by all. These response hymns were originally the full text of the Beatitudes, the famous "Blessed are they" sayings of Christ from Matthew 5, the Sermon on the Mount. These would be well known, and the people would be able to sing along as they found their place inside the Church. Following these, however, would be sung several particular hymns of the feast being celebrated, and in all likelihood the choirs would have taken a more primary role in this, as the people would not necessarily know all those hymns. The service is still celebrated in this way on occasion, with the full text of the Beatitudes and several other hymns of the day, but this is done infrequently, as it is lengthy.
Instead, the hymns of the day are reduced to the Resurrectional Hymn (or Apolytikion), together with the Apolytikion for the Saint of the day, the Apolytikion for the Church, and any other hymns that may be called for (as, for instance, if a Memorial Service is to be celebrated, then the Kontakion hymn for the Departed is also sung at this point). In conclusion is sung the Kontakion for the current festal season in the Church (or, when there is no particular festal Kontakion, the Kontakion to the Theotokos is sung instead).
These hymns are those that are sung by the choir and chanters immediately after the Small Entrance. They are some of the few variable elements remaining in the Divine Liturgy as celebrated in the average parish - the choirs often call them "the changes" to reflect that they are the part of the service that require the most attention in the weekly choir practice. It is important, however, that we remember the pomp and splendour with which these hymns would have been sung in the ancient Church, as all the ranks of the clergy (bishops, priests, and deacons), the Emperor, his courtiers, and all the people gathered for worship proceeded into the Church and took their place there.
Still more importantly, we should remember the purpose for which these hymns are here; they highlight for us the theme of the day, the life of the saint, the events of the feast day, the identity of our own Church, the grief and comfort of those who mourn, and the ongoing intercession on our behalf of the Theotokos and all the saints. These hymns, in short, together with the Trisagion hymn and prayer that immediately follow, remind us who we are, where we come from, where we are going, and how are called to live our lives. They are a summary of our life in Christ.
Part 9 (first published 11-17-2013)
A couple weeks ago we reached the point of the Small Entrance in our examination of the Divine Liturgy, and with that concluded our examination of the Three Antiphons. This portion of the service now comprises the first fifteen minutes of the Divine Liturgy, but originally was the prelude, the preparation for the Divine Liturgy, which began properly at the point of the Trisagion Hymn. Once the hymns for the day (the remainder of the Third Antiphon) have been completed by the Choir, we move directly into the Trisagion Hymn -- we would expect that the prayer which the priest reads during the singing of the hymn should have a profound significance, as it was originally the first full prayer read inside the Church, as the Divine Liturgy gets fully under way.
What we find is indeed significant, a statement of Who God is, who we are, and what we are doing in the Church. The text of the prayer is as follows:
1) Holy God, You dwell among Your saints. You are praised by the Seraphim with the thrice-holy hymn and glorified by the Cherubim and worshiped by all the heavenly powers. 2)You have brought all things out of nothing into being. You have created man and woman in Your image and likeness and adorned them with all the gifts of Your grace. 3) You give wisdom and understanding to the supplicant and do not overlook the sinner, but have established repentance as the way of salvation. 4) You have enabled us, Your lowly and unworthy servants, to stand at this hour before the glory of Your holy altar and to offer to You due worship and praise. Master, accept the thrice-holy hymn also from the lips of us sinners and visit us in Your goodness. Forgive our voluntary and involuntary transgressions, sanctify our souls and bodies, and grant that we may worship and serve You in holiness all the days of our lives, by the intercessions of the holy Theotokos and of all the saints who have pleased You throughout the ages.
The elements of the prayer are broken down by number. It begins, at 1, with an essential description of the Glory of God - as is appropriate for us as we enter the Church to worship Him. Then, at 2, it clarifies who we are - God's creation, made in His image and likeness. At 3, it states how people are to approach God - in repentance. And from 4 through to the end, it establishes what we are doing in the Church - coming, by God's grace, to seek forgiveness, sanctification, and communion with Him.
Since this prayer is read while the Trisagion (Thrice-Holy Hymn) is sung, it should be understood as a description of the intention with which we should come before God to glorify Him as Trinity, Three Persons in One Essence: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal - to ask for mercy and salvation. It is truly a summary of the very point of the Liturgy.