The Divine Liturgy, Part Eight: "Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy and Immortal One, Have Mercy on Us."

1 Cor. 1:10-18; Matt. 14:14-22.

The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, known as the Eighth Sunday of Matthew.

A Postfestive Day of the Transfiguration.

A Sunday within the Dormition Fast.

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11:02 AM 8/7/2011 — Today our journey through the Divine Liturgy takes us to what is arguably the most recognizable part of the service. We call it the Trisagion, and it’s the one prayer of the Liturgy that everyone knows by heart: “Holy God, holy and mighty, holy and immortal, have mercy on us.” Even the way it’s done in our Liturgy will alert you to how important this prayer is. Why, of course, is something we must explore.
     This prayer—Holy God—is actually the conclusion to a much longer prayer, most of which is recited by the priest silently to himself while the Troparia and Kontakia are being sung—or, in the case of Vespers, during the singing of the stichera and the “O, joyful light....” And it’s instructive that you should hear the whole prayer. I goes like this...

O Holy God who rests among the saints, whose praises are sung by the Seraphim with the threefold hymn, who is glorified by the Cherubim and adored by all the powers of heaven: you brought all things into being out of nothingness, created man according to your image and likeness and adorned him with your every gift. To whomever asks for them you give wisdom and understanding. You do not despise the sinner but offer him repentance for his salvation. You allow us, your lowly and unworthy servants, to stand even at this moment before the glory of your holy altar and offer the worship and honor which is your due. Accept, O selfsame Lord, even from the mouths of us sinners, this threefold hymn; and, in your goodness, look down upon us. Forgive us every offense, whether voluntary or involuntary; sanctify our souls and bodies; and grant that we may serve you in holiness all the days of our lives, through the prayers of the holy Mother of God and all the saints who have pleased you throughout the ages. For you are holy, our God, and to you we give glory, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, now and ever and forever, as we cry out: Holy God, holy and mighty, holy and immortal, have mercy on us...*

...and so forth. You may have already deduced that the very word, Trisagion, by which we identify this prayer, means “the threefold hymn” because we then sing it three times.
     There are a number of different stories connected with the origin of the Trisagion, some of which you may remember from your childhood catechism. One talks about an apparition during an earthquake in Constantinople; another talks about a vision given to a priest. Take them for what they are worth. No one knows for sure exactly when or where the prayer came from; but it is significant that all the different versions of its origins all agree on the one point that the Trisagion was divinely inspired.
     Like other parts of the Liturgy we’ve looked at, it answers certain heresies that were present in the Church at the time—and are still present today in some form. The declaration that God is both mighty and immortal is certainly a swipe at both the Monophysite and Arian heresies which we’ve already talked about. The Latin Church uses it, too, though the form of it they use—which is found only in the services for Holy Week—adds words to it to make sure everyone knows it’s about Christ: they say, “...holy and immortal one, who was crucified for us, have mercy on us.” This isn’t altogether improper given that the hymn, even though it doesn’t mention Christ by name, is clearly about him.
     I would ask you, today, to reflect not so much on the words of the hymn—which are obvious—but on the profound bow that we should make when singing it. Even from the end of the forth century, which is when this prayer first appeared in the Liturgy, it was accompanied by this dramatic gesture on the part of the people. In fact, in Eastern Europe, when Christianity was first preached there and the faith of Byzantium was brought there, we have written testimony of priests and bishops exhorting their people not only to bow when they sung it, but to actually get down on their knees and touch their foreheads to the floor, in the very same way that we do today when we venerate the Holy Cross. And these gestures make sense, because the prayer, which is addressed to Christ, acknowledges him as the master of our lives. When you address your master, you bow before him. The symbolism may seem strained for us, as we live in a supposedly classless society; but our ancestors certainly understood what it meant. All the more reason for us not to omit this gesture or make it in a lazy or haphazard manner.
     When we sing “Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy and Immortal, have mercy on us,” we are reminding ourselves that we are not masters of our own fate; Christ is. That’s why this prayer occurs near the beginning of the Divine Liturgy: because, in order to worship God properly—in order to dispose ourselves properly to receive his true Body and Blood—we must first set aside our own selfish concerns and acknowledge that Christ is the boss of our lives.
     When a priest looks out into the congregation during that last verse of the Holy God which he says from his chair behind the altar, and he sees so many people not bothering to bow, or trying to get away with a simple nod of the head instead of the deep bow at the waist that is called for, or not doing anything at all, he wonders: is it just laziness and carelessness? or, is it something more ominous? Could it be the subconscious rejection of the rule of Christ over one’s life?
     Only you can answer that for yourself. And you should think about it every time we sing, “Holy God....”

Father Michael Venditti

* This is not the translation of the prayer that occurs in the Liturgikon currently in force in the Ruthenian Church. Father Michael provides his own translation here simply to supply power to certain phrases which he personally feels could have been translated better. In actual celebration, he uses the translation required.