Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Sing the Thrice-Holy Hymn

Shortly before the Great Entrance in the Divine Liturgy (during which the bread and wine to be consecrated are brought to the altar), we sing what is aptly called the Cherubic Hymn: “Let us, who mystically represent the Cherubim and sing the thrice-holy hymn to the life-giving Trinity, now lay aside all earthly cares, that we may receive the King of all, escorted invisibly by ranks of angels. Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!”

First of all, we receive quite a high promotion when we participate in the Divine Liturgy, for suddenly we earthen vessels “mystically represent the Cherubim,” who are among the highest and most glorious of all the heavenly incorporeal powers. But there’s something else I noticed, which perhaps does not take us to quite the same dizzying heights, but which nevertheless expresses something of the profound richness of the Christian vocation. We “sing the thrice-holy hymn to the life-giving Trinity.”

That is a kind of mission statement, or even an expression of our very identity as Christians. Who are Christians? “Oh, they are the ones who sing the thrice-holy hymn to the life-giving Trinity.” It’s what we do, and so it expresses who we are. You might ask precisely what is the thrice-holy hymn. Well, you have two choices, and as Christians you might as well sing them both (you already do if you are a Byzantine Christian). The first is: “Holy God, Holy Mighty One, Holy Immortal One, have mercy on us.” This is aptly named the trisagion, which in Greek means (you guessed it) “thrice-holy.” This seems to be what is indicated in the Liturgy, because in the prayer that the priest prays immediately before the trisagion, he says: “Accept, O Master, from the lips of us sinners the thrice-holy hymn…” But it can also refer to the “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord of hosts…” which precedes the Eucharistic canon, for those three holies equal “thrice-holy.” In the Scriptures (Rev. 4:8) and in the Liturgy (“Cherubim and Seraphim, six-winged and many-eyed”), it is the heavenly powers who sing this hymn. It is therefore appropriate that the Cherubic Hymn is situated between these two thrice-holies and in a sense refers to both of them.

The awareness of our identity as those who sing this hymn to the Holy Trinity ought to influence the way we conduct ourselves when we’re not explicitly singing in church. One who has the awesome task and privilege to mystically represent the Cherubim and sing the thrice-holy hymn to the life-giving Trinity cannot behave in the same manner as those who do not. In time of temptation or decision, we ought to ask ourselves which is the course that one who sings to the Trinity would take, and what are the priorities of one who lays aside earthly cares in order to receive the King of All, who comes with angelic escorts.

If the Liturgy doesn’t follow us out of the church, the practical good it does in our lives is quite limited. Of course, nothing is more noble and sanctifying than to receive the Holy Eucharist, but if this divine “seed” falls on rocky or weed-infested soil, it bears no fruit. The world of liturgical worship should not be considered a radically different—and hence more or less disconnected—world than the one in which we daily live and work and recreate. That lofty cherub-inhabited world has to penetrate this world, communicate divine grace to it, make it possible to welcome the Lord and sing thrice-holy hymns to Him in our hearts even as we go about our daily labors. If this is not so, then our liturgical worship is little more than a kind of sacred diversion, a discontinuity with the mundane—without the mundane ever being transformed by it.

Christ said He would give the Bread from Heaven, his flesh, for the life of the world (Jn. 6:51), not merely to satisfy the spiritual/aesthetic tastes of those who go in for things like the rituals of liturgy. So then, let us, who mystically represent the Cherubim and sing the thrice-holy hymn to the life-giving Trinity, conduct ourselves in this world as carriers of the Mystery, as lights in the darkness, as those who have seen the Lord transfigured and who are now called to go forth and witness to his glory. We must leave the Liturgy changed. If we lay aside earthly cares in order to receive Him sacramentally, then we must return to those cares and infuse them with his wisdom, love, and healing power, bringing his life to the world. It’s not a small thing to be a singer of the glory of the life-giving Trinity. The Cherubim and Seraphim have been doing it for countless millennia, and they still stand in awe…