The Divine Liturgy, Part Twelve: The Prayer of the Cherubikon; or, Do You Prefer Your Priest "Nice" or Good"?.
Gal. 6:11-18; John 3:13-17.
The Sunday Before the Exaltation of the Holy Cross.
A Postfestive Day of the Nativity of the Theotokos; also, Our Venerable Mother Theodora of Alexandria.
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8:58 PM 9/11/2011 —
No one who is bound by carnal desires and pleasures is worthy to come to you, to approach you, or to minister to you, the King of Glory. For to minister to you is great and awesome even to the heavenly powers themselves. Yet, because of your ineffable and immeasurable love for all of us, you, unchanged and unchangeable, became man, were designated our high priest, and, as Master of all, entrusted us with the priestly service of this liturgical, unbloody sacrifice. You alone, O Lord our God, rule over all things in heaven and on earth and are borne aloft on the cherubic throne. You are the Lord of the Seraphim and the King of Israel who alone are holy and dwell in the holy Sanctuary. Therefore, I beseech you, who alone are good and ready to hear, look favorably upon me, your sinful and unprofitable servant, cleanse my heart and soul of an evil conscience, and by the power of your Holy Spirit, enable me, who have been clothed with the grace of the priesthood, to stand before this your holy table in the priestly service of your sacred and pure body and precious blood. Bowing my head, I approach you and implore: turn not your face away from me, nor exclude me from among your children, but allow these gifts to be offered to you by me, your sinful and unworthy servant. For you yourself, O Christ our God, offer and are offered, you receive and are distributed; and we give glory to you with your eternal Father and your all-holy, good, and life-creating Spirit, now and ever and forever. Amen.
That prayer, which I just read to you, is called the “Prayer of the Cherubikon,” and, as the name suggests, it is recited silently by the priest during the singing of the Cherubic Hymn with which you are all familiar: “Let us who mystically represent the cherubim and sing the thrice-holy hymn to the life-creating Trinity, now set aside all earthly cares.” The Cherubim, of course, are one of the choirs of angels mentioned in Scripture; and, since they are mentioned in the hymn, the hymn takes it’s name from them. The hymn is typically repeated by the people while the priest prays the prayer I just read with his hands upraised, and then performs the incensation.
Now, there are a lot of silent prayers recited by the priest during the course of the Divine Liturgy. What makes this particular prayer unique is that it is a strictly personal prayer recited by the priest on behalf of himself. It’s the only prayer of it’s kind in the Liturgy. All the other prayers said by the priest, either silently or out loud, are all prayers which he says on behalf of the people. This one is in the first person singular, with the priest addressing Christ directly on his own behalf.
The composition of this prayer has been attributed to St. Basil, though there is some disagreement about that. It certainly appears in the Liturgy of St. Basil before its first appearance in the Liturgy of John Chrysostom. But, whoever wrote it, it is a masterpiece of composition, and expresses the true essence of the priesthood very beautifully.
What the prayer essentially says is, “Lord, I, your humble priest, am unworthy to perform this great sacrifice of the Eucharist; but I must perform it because it is my duty and my obligation to the people here present; so, I beg you, Lord, to overlook my sins, and accept my sacrifice even though it comes from the hands of someone who is not worthy.” It expresses an important truth about the priesthood which is crucial to remember: the priest is the only one who can offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Eucharist, not because he, himself, is holier than everyone else—far from it; he may very well be the most vile sinner in the parish—but because he is a priest and has been given, by Christ through the Church, the power to stand in the place of Christ at the Holy Table and change bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Jesus. This is an important point to remember especially today when the news has been filled with stories of so many priests who have committed so many vile and sinful acts. If we fall into the trap of thinking that the priest does what he does—celebrates the Eucharist, forgives sins, blesses marriages, anoints the sick—because he’s holier and better than everyone else, we miss the point of the priesthood. It is Christ who does all of these things; the priest is nothing more than an instrument; and Christ can use any instrument he wants, even a tainted one.
Now, certainly that’s not the ideal; and Christ wants his priests to be holy and worthy of the great gift that has been given them; but it is comforting to know that, even when the priest fails to live up to the high standards of his vocation, his ability to function sacramentally as a priest remains unaffected. His preaching may not be edifying and his manner may not give good example; but his Liturgy still makes Jesus present to us, and his absolution still forgives our sins. All of this, of course, you know. And I’m sure that many of you have known, over the years, priests who were good and holy, and priests who were not so good and not so holy. But even the ones who were not holy you tolerated as long as you had to because, at least, they were priests; and a parish without a priest is not a parish at all.
And then, of course, there are all the priests in between: the ones who may be very good and very holy but who don’t have a lot in the way of what we call “people skills.” Priests, for the most part, live alone; and when a man lives alone most of his life it’s very easy to become a grumpy old man, even if he’s only 40 or 50 years old. Then you have the really dangerous ones who are just the opposite: the ones who are very nice and kind on the surface, polished and cultured, and who are very popular with everyone, but whose private lives hide some terrible and dark secret. The sex abuse scandal of recent years has made us all aware of this sort of priest. The good effect of all of that, if there is one, may be that people are beginning to realize that it isn’t necessarily a nice priest that is the best priest for a parish. It’s easy to be nice; it’s not often easy to be good, and there is a big difference.
All of this is why I think the Prayer of the Cherubikon is an important part of the Divine Liturgy, in spite of the fact that you, the people, do not hear it. The priest, in praying this prayer, acknowledges to God that he is a sinner. That’s important for everyone, but even more so for a priest. And he asks God to overlook his unworthiness so that he can offer the Holy Sacrifice for the people anyway, in spite of his sins. Hopefully, it will inspire the priest to address his sins and confess them and overcome them with God’s help. But even if he should fail to do that, God works through him anyway; and that’s a good thing because we need our priests—good or bad, we need them—because without them there would be no Eucharist to nourish us, no absolution to take away our sins, no blessing to crown our marriages, no one to baptize our children, no anointing to heal us or welcome us into paradise.
So, when we are at the Divine Liturgy and we begin to sing the Cherubic Hymn which we all know so well, it would be a good thing to offer a silent prayer thanking God for the priest who’s decision to follow Christ has made that Liturgy possible for you.
Father Michael Venditti