The Law of God: Foundations of the Orthodox Faith. Lesson 9.
English-language supplement for the Law of God classes for adults at the Holy New Martyrs of Russia Church in Mulino, OR
The first three sacramental prayers that we discussed in the previous lesson showed us some very important things. First, their “secret” is the truth about God that we as Christians are supposed to proclaim from rooftops. Second, we as Christians need to know this truth for our own spiritual benefit and in order that we may proclaim it. What good is a lamp if it is hidden under a bushel? And again, “there is nothing hidden, except to be disclosed; nor is anything secret, except to come to light.” In this lesson, we will continue our discussion of the first part of the Liturgy—the Liturgy of the Catechumens.
Immediately following the great litany, the choir sings the first antiphon. The word “antiphon” comes from the Greek ἀντίφωνον—ἀντί “opposite” and φωνή “voice.” It refers to the psalms at the beginning of the Liturgy which are sung alternately by two choirs. Not all parish churches have two choirs, which means that in those churches the antiphons are sung by only one choir, but in the context of the service of the Liturgy they are still called the first, second, and third antiphons.
On Sundays and lesser feast days, the first two antiphons consist of Psalms 102 and 145. These Psalms compel the faithful to praise and thank God for His love for us which is revealed through His mercy and compassion, especially toward those who are oppressed, needy and afflicted.
1. Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name.
2. Bless the Lord, O my soul, and do not forget all his benefits–
3. who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases,
4. who redeems your life from the Pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
5. who satisfies you with good as long as you live so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.
6. The Lord works vindication and justice for all who are oppressed.
7. He made known his ways to Moses, his acts to the people of Israel.
8. The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
9. He will not always accuse, nor will he keep his anger forever.
10. He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities.
11. For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;
12. as far as the east is from the west, so far he removes our transgressions from us.
13. As a father has compassion for his children, so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him.
14. For he knows how we were made; he remembers that we are dust.
15. As for mortals, their days are like grass; they flourish like a flower of the field;
16. for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more.
17. But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him, and his righteousness to children’s children,
18. to those who keep his covenant and remember to do his commandments.
19. The Lord has established his throne in the heavens, and his kingdom rules over all.
20. Bless the Lord, O you his angels, you mighty ones who do his bidding, obedient to his spoken word.
21. Bless the Lord, all his hosts, his ministers that do his will.
22. Bless the Lord, all his works, in all places of his dominion. Bless the Lord, O my soul.
1. Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord, O my soul!
2. I will praise the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praises to my God all my life long.
3. Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help.
4. When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish.
5. Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God,
6. who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them; who keeps faith forever;
7. who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets the prisoners free;
8. the Lord opens the eyes of the blind. The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down; the Lord loves the righteous.
9. The Lord watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.
10. The Lord will reign forever, your God, O Zion, for all generations. Praise the Lord!
To this Psalm is also added the Christological hymn of Saint Athanasius of Alexandria (ca. 293-373) which he composed after the First Ecumenical Council and distributed to all of the Churches as a concise theological statement to be proclaimed during services:
O only-begotten Son and Word of God, who art immortal, yet didst deign for our salvation to be incarnate of the Theotokos and ever-virgin Mary; and without change didst become man; and wast crucified, O Christ our God, trampling down death by death; who art one of the Holy Trinity, glorified together with the Father and the Holy Spirit: save us.
Remember that the First Ecumenical Council proclaimed the co-essential and co-eternal divinity of God the Father and His only-begotten Son, and it is this doctrine that we find both in the Nicene Creed composed by the Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council and in the first part of St. Athanasius’ hymn. The hymn further proclaims that the Son of God became man “without change”—that is to say, through His incarnation He became fully man, like us, but it did not change the fact that He is fully God, “one of the Holy Trinity.” This concept of uniting things which cannot be united—humanity and divinity—has been a stumbling block and foolishness for the human intellect.
People can much easier understand how God can appear to us as man but not truly be one of us, or how there can be a really good man who, however, is not God. In the Gospels, the disciples had much trouble comprehending Christ’s divinity, but when they finally did, they lost track of His humanity. Christ had to convince them of both. Consider, for example, how after the glorious resurrection, Jesus miraculously appeared among the disciples, and “they were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost,” that is to say, a being that was divine (a spirit), but certainly not human. Then in order to convince them, Jesus said to them:
“Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence.
Touch Me, watch Me eat—I am human!
St. Athanasius’ hymn is trying to preserve the revelation of the Gospel against Arian and other heresies: immortal and incarnate, one of the Trinity and crucified, one who died and trampled death—this short hymn tacked onto the end of the second antiphon is a treasure of Orthodox theological thought and a true reflection of the Orthodox teaching about the Son of God which we proclaim at every Liturgy.
Again and again…
It is worth mentioning again that you should come to church before the beginning of the service and not in the middle of it. Even in secular matters it is not polite to be late, and we usually make sure that we are not late for a movie or a concert. Should God’s house and His service not be treated with much more reverence and punctuality than a concert?
If, due to circumstances outside of your control, you find yourself straggling into church after the service has already begun, and you wish to venerate icons, light candles, or accomplish some other customary task, the best time for this is, perhaps, during the antiphons sung by the choir—not during the litanies when all Christians present—you included—should be praying. To be sure, there is no good time during the service when it is acceptable to distract yourself or others from the common prayer of the Body of Christ; so, be minimalist and discrete when wandering about the church during the service. After the Liturgy has ended, you may stay in the church for as long as you wish to complete your private prayers, commemorations, and venerations.
Questions for discussion:
- What are antiphons?
- Who composed the hymn “O only-begotten Son” and why?
- What doctrinal statements can we find in the hymn?
- Why is it not correct to say private prayers (such as when lighting a candle or venerating an icon) during common and concordant prayers?
 Cf. Matt. 10:27
 Mk. 4:21
 Mk. 4:22
 These are the terms used in the Service Book.
 Psalms 103 and 146 in Masoretic enumeration.
 1 Cor. 1:23
 Lk. 24:37