Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov

The Law of God: Foundations of the Orthodox Faith. Lesson 12.

Posted in The Law of God: Foundations of the Orthodox Faith by Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov on 13 December 2010

English-language supplement for the Law of God classes for adults at the Holy New Martyrs of Russia Church in Mulino, OR

Lesson 12


As we are slowly but steadily progressing through the service of the Divine Liturgy, I hope that we can keep one thing in sharp focus: the Liturgy is not an ancient memorial to people and events long gone, it is not an archeological artifact, and it is not a magical rite or a compilation of formulae designed to produce specific results when done properly.  Rather, the Liturgy is one of the most intimate expressions of our relationship with God.  And like any human relationship, our relationship with God requires that not only He shows us His love, but also that we respond in kind.  Therefore, one of the most dangerous things in Christianity is to become a spectator who observes all, but is not willing to participate.  Deacon Andrei Kuraev once likened such people to those who are terminally ill and know which medicine can save them; they know where to get it, they read studies and reports about its benefits, they know all there is to know about this medicine, but they do not take it themselves.  It is easy to see that knowing and partaking are two very different things and lead to two very different outcomes.


In our previous lesson, we talked about the singing of the troparia and kontakia.  During this singing, the priest reads another prayer:

O Holy God, Who restest in the saints, Who art praised with the thrice-holy hymn by the Seraphim, and art glorified by the Cherubim, and art worshipped by all the heavenly hosts, Who from nonbeing hast brought all things into being, Who hast created man according to Thine image and likeness, and hast adorned him with Thine every gift; Who givest wisdom and understanding to him that asketh, and Who disdaineth not him that sinneth, but hast appointed repentance unto salvation; Who hast vouchsafed us, Thy lowly and unworthy servants, to stand even in this hour before the glory of Thy holy altar, and to offer the worship and glory due unto Thee: Do Thou Thyself, O Master, accept even from the lips of us sinners the thrice-holy hymn, and visit us in Thy goodness.  Pardon us every sin, voluntary and involuntary; sanctify our souls and bodies, and grant us to serve Thee in holiness all the days of our life, through the intercessions of the holy Theotokos, and of all the saints, who from ages past have been pleasing unto Thee.[2]

In this very beautiful prayer, we ask the Holy God to sanctify us also and to grant us holiness.  Note that the prayer points not only to what God does to us—our creation in His image, His acceptance of our prayers and of His saints’ intercessions for us, but likewise to our repentance—something that we ourselves must do.

The instructions in the Service Book say that this prayer is being read “while the Trisagion is chanted.”[3] The problem with this is that the ending of this prayer, the exclamation by the priest, is placed before the Trisagion is chanted.  Thus, since logically the prayer’s beginning should precede its ending, the prayer should be said before the Trisagion hymn is chanted.  Additionally, the same Service Book instructs that “both the priest and the deacon themselves say the Trisagion Hymn, making together three bows before the Holy Table”[4]—all while the hymn is chanted.  Thus, in practice, it may be best if the beginning of the prayer is said before its end, that is to say, before the hymn is chanted.

When the priest ends the prayer with the exclamation: “For holy art Thou, O our God, and unto Thee do we send up glory, to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever,” he blesses the deacon with the sign of the cross, and the deacon comes out through the royal doors and exclaims: “Lord, save the pious, and hearken unto us.”  Then he turns toward the people, and pointing at them finishes the prayer: “And unto the ages of ages!” After this exclamation, the singers begin to chant the Trisagion.

The Trisagion, or Thrice-Holy hymn, is said to have been revealed to Christians during an earthquake which happened in Constantinople in the middle of the fifth century.[5] A boy was taken up into heaven, and when he returned, he said he had seen angels singing to the Holy Trinity: “Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal.”  The people also began chanting this hymn and adding: “Have mercy on us!”  While this may indeed be what happened during the earthquake in Constantinople, some scholars think that the hymn is much older than the fifth century and may have been used already in the apostolic era.


The reading of letters or epistles written by the Apostles is certainly one of the most ancient practices of the Church.  When the early Christians gathered together to break bread, they did not read the Gospel, since it had not yet been written.[6] Instead, they read passages from the Old Testament and the letters written to them by the Apostles.[7], [8] This tradition of reading the letters of the Apostles has been preserved within the Divine Liturgy.

Prior to the epistles being read, a reader proclaims and the choir repeats a prokeimenon[9]—a short verse taken from the Psalm.  These prokeimena do not correspond to the remembrances of the day.  Rather, there are eight prokeimena which correspond to the eight-Sunday cycle of tones and alternate in a regular pattern.  Unlike the reading of the epistles of the Apostles which is as ancient as the epistles themselves, the prokeimenon before the reading is a later addition to the service.  The earliest mention of a prokeimenon may come from the sixth century; and before that time, instead of only a short verse, entire Psalms were sung in that place in the service.[10] Sometime between the fourth and sixth centuries, the singing of whole Psalms was replaced by the singing of only certain verses.

The epistle reading also alternates in a regular pattern, but instead of an eight-week cycle, it is a year-long cycle.  In addition to the regular reading, there can also be a second and even a third reading to correspond with the saints or events commemorated on a particular day.  The readings come from the epistles of the Apostles and also from the Acts of the Apostles, but not from the Book of Revelation.

When the writings of the Apostles are read, priests sit down in the altar as a symbol of their apostolic succession.[11] This is a purely ritual act which has nothing to do with whether the priest is tired or lazy.  Lay people must stand for the reading of the epistles of the Apostles.  And it would be most inappropriate to wander around the church lighting candles or doing anything else during the reading.  When the epistles of the Apostles are being read, they are being read to us for our benefit, and so we must stand and listen attentively.

Questions for discussion:

  1. What do we ask of God in the prayer before the Trisagion?
  2. What is the traditional origin of the Trisagion?
  3. What is the origin of the reading of the epistles of the Apostles during the Liturgy?
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[1] From Greek: Τρισάγιον—“trisagion” or “thrice holy”; refers to the hymn which proclaims the holiness of the Trinity: “Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us!”

[3] The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. Jordanville: Holy Trinity Monastery, 1999, p. 41.  This may be a uniquely-Russian peculiarity fount not only in the 1999 Jordanville English-language edition, but also in the 19th-century Russian editions.  The Greek and Ukrainian service books, as well as the most recent Moscow editions seem to present this part of the service in a logical manner (see The Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom published by Holy Cross Orthodox Press in 1985, pages 8 and 9, and Служебник published in Lvov in 1905, pages 285-6, respectively).

[4] The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. Jordanville: Holy Trinity Monastery, 1999, p. 43.

[5] See Menologion under 24 September.

[6] Most scholars agree that the first Gospel, that of Mark, was written no earlier than AD 65—more than three decades after the events described in it took place.

[7] Saint Justin Martyr. First Apology 67

[8] It is very likely that in the first few decades after the resurrection and ascension of Christ, there existed a very strong oral tradition consisting of recollections of events which were later recorded in the Gospels, words of Jesus Himself, and of the oral sermons delivered by the Apostles which created the foundation and guidance of the Early Church.  It is also possible that some of this tradition was recorded in documents which have not survived to our day, such as the Quelle—an early compilation of Jesus’ sayings which may have served as one of the sources for the later canonical Gospels.

[9] Greek: προκείμενον

[10] See Скабалланович, Михаил. Толковый типикон. Москва: Сретенский монастырь, 2004, стр. 562.


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