Above, the hosts of angels sing praise; below, men form choirs in the churches and imitate them by singing the same doxology. Above, the seraphim cry out in the thrice-holy hymn; below, the human throng sends up the same cry. The inhabitants of heaven and earth are brought together in a common assembly; there is one thanksgiving, one shout of delight, one joyful chorus. – St. John Chrysostom
When we Orthodox gather together as the Church of God we truly believe that not only is Christ present in the midst of us, but so is the whole Church, including all those who have passed on, our parents, grandparents, relatives, friends, and, especially the saints and the angels. Our worship here on earth is joined with the heavenly worship, as described by the Prophet Isaiah, where the angels stand before the throne of God, singing eternally the thrice holy hymn: "holy, holy, holy, the whole earth is full of His glory" (Isaiah 6:1-4); by the Prophet Ezekiel, when the heavens were opened to him and he saw the glory of the Lord (Ezekiel 3:12), and by the Apostle John, in the book of Revelation, where the four living creatures also eternally say the thrice holy hymn (Revelation 4:8). St John Chrysostom described earthly worship as a joining together of earth and heaven where the faithful form choirs in the churches and join the hosts of angels as they sing the thrice-holy hymn around the throne of God. He wrote:
Above, the hosts of angels sing praise; below, men form choirs in the churches and imitate them by singing the same doxology. Above, the seraphim cry out in the thrice holy hymn; below, the human throng sends up the same cry. The inhabitants of heaven and earth are brought together in a common assembly; there is one thanksgiving, one shout of delight, one joyful chorus. 1
The Orthodox understand that worship is done not so much as an act of imitating the heavenly worship—as in a theatrical drama or Broadway play—but rather as an active participation in that heavenly worship as described in Isaiah 6:3 and Revelation 4:8. This is clearly expressed in the prayer that accompanies the Little Entrance:
0 Master, Lord our God, Who hast appointed in heaven orders and hosts of angels and archangels for the service of Thy glory: Grant that with our entrance there may be an entrance of holy angels, serving with us and glorifying Thy goodness.
In St John Chrysostom's time, the Divine Liturgy began with the entrance of the clergy as the verses of the Entrance Psalm were chanted with the Trisagion sung as the refrain. The words of the troparion, “Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us”, suggest that the text is made up of the song of the cherubim found in Isaiah (6:1). The prayer of the Trisagion, now said silently by the priest, testifies to this interpretation:
0 holy God, Who rest in the saints, Who are hymned by the Seraphim with the thrice-holy cry, and glorified by the Cherubim, and worshipped by every heavenly power.
Our hierarchical liturgy of today preserves this early form of the entrance of the bishop. He does not enter the sanctuary as soon as he enters the church but remains standing in the center of the church during the singing of the antiphons. Only when the antiphons are concluded does his ascent to the altar take place. The altar is a symbol of the throne of God; it is the symbol of heaven where the King and Lord sits and is praised eternally by the angels. With the bishop standing at the throne of God, the hymn of the angels—the Trisagion—is sung,2 and the Liturgy now takes on its "heavenly dimension" being revealed as already the Kingdom of God, which we acknowledged at the very beginning of the service with its opening exclamation: "Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit!"
Then during the transfer of the bread and wine to the Altar for the Eucharistic offering, we sing the hymn of the Cherubim: "Let us who mystically represent the Cherubim... " This hymn not only likens us to the angels who eternally chant the thrice-holy hymn: "holy, holy, holy;' but it also summons us to receive communion, the body and blood of the King of all, at this Liturgy. The participation of the angels and the invitation for communion are made very clear when we sing the hymn that replaces the Cherubic Hymn at the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts: 3
Now the powers of heaven invisibly with us do serve. Lo, the King of Glory enters. Lo, the mystical sacrifice is upborne, fulfilled.
Let us draw near in faith and love and become communicants of life eternal!
The Orthodox understand that worship is done not so much as an act of imitating the heavenly worship—as in a theatrical drama or Broadway play—but rather as an active participation in that heavenly worship as described in Isaiah 6:3 and Revelation 4:8.
The Liturgy of Great and Holy Thursday is dedicated to the commemoration of the Lord's Banquet, of that event that took place in "the upper room," "the mystical supper," the institution of the Eucharist itself. Judas' betrayal is commemorated, as well as the wise thief who, on the cross at Golgotha, recognized the crucified Jesus as Lord. All three commemorations are referenced in the hymn that replaces the Cherubic Hymn for this Liturgy:
At Thy mystical supper, 0 Son of God, accept me today as a communicant; for I will not speak ofYour mystery to Your enemies; I will not kiss You as did Judas; but like the thief will I confess You: Remember me, 0 Lord, when You come in Your Kingdom.It is important to understand that the purpose and function of these ever-so-popular hymns are not simply to be accompaniments to the procession of the gifts. They also serve as an introduction to the Rite of communion itself. The Eucharistic Offering begins with a dialogue between the celebrant and the people. After summoning the people to stand with attentiveness and with fear, the priest blesses the people with the words: "The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” To which the people respond: "And with your spirit”. The priest continues: "Let us lift up our hearts” and the people respond: "We lift them up unto the Lord”. "Let us give thanks unto the Lord” exclaims the celebrant, and the people give their agreement: "It is meet and right..."
The celebrant, presiding over the gathered community, then offers to God the prayer of thanksgiving of the faithful. This prayer expresses our total gratitude to God for all that He has done for us in creating, saving, and glorifying the world, endowing us with the Kingdom which is to come. The faithful join with the angels who stand next to God, singing: "Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord of Sabaoth..."
St. Dionysios the Areopagite, in his treatise The Divine Names, attributes the quality of beauty to God. God is Beauty and Divine Beauty is the Cause of every beautiful thing. The knowledge and the beauty of God are transmitted down to the physical creation through the celestial hierarchy (nine ranks of angels). Byzantine mystical thought even stressed the belief in the angelic transmission of the chants of the church. In his Celestial Hierarchy, St. Dionysius articulated the concept of the divinely inspired "prototype" or "model" The hymns that are sung by the angels are passed on from one order or rank to the next until they are received by the hymnographers through a sense of spiritual hearing. By divine grace the hymnographer is able to compose melodies which are viewed as "echoes" or "models" of the heavenly songs and serve as the foundation for all musical creativity.
To an Orthodox Christian it is very important that our act of worship express the joy and the beauty of the Kingdom of Heaven. This joy and beauty have to be experienced. The Divine Liturgy, as Fr Alexander Schmemann has written, "is before everything else, the joyous gathering of those who are to meet the risen Lord, and to enter with Him into the bridal chamber. It is this joy of expectation and this experience of joy that are expressed in singing and ritual, in vestments and in censing, in that whole 'beauty' of the liturgy.”4 In the words of the author of the troparion sung at Lenten Matins, we are "standing in the temple of Thy glory, and we think that we are in heaven.”
The story of St Vladimir's conversion, recorded in the Russian Primary Chronicle, also relates to the divine beauty that permeates the Church of God. Returning to Kiev, the Russian envoys told Prince Vladimir about the Divine Liturgy which they had attended at the great cathedral of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. In describing their experience of the Liturgy, they wrote:
The Byzantines led us to the edifice where they worship their God, and we knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. For on earth there is no such splendor or beauty, and we are at a loss how to describe it. We only know that God dwells there among men.”5
The purpose of our worship is not just to arouse our emotions when we encounter this beauty, but to enable us to enter into a direct and personal relationship with God, the Holy Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.6 The use of incense, lighted candles, ornaments and appointments of silver and gold, liturgical vestments, the Cross, the book of the Holy Gospel - all of this is directly related to our understanding that in the Church, in the gathering of Christians for worship, God is really present. The holy icons which adorn our churches bear witness to the reality of God's presence with us in the mystery of faith.
The Greek word for worship—leiturgia—means a common or corporate action in a public place in which everyone takes an active part. It is important that these parts of our services that clearly advocate dialogue be provided with music that encourages and enables those present to particiapate in the singing.
St Ignatius of Antioch, a disciple of St John the Evangelist and bishop of Antioch at the end of the first and beginning of the second century, wrote to the Ephesians:
“Jesus Christ is sung in your unity of mind and concordant love. Form yourselves one and all into a choir, so that joined together in harmony and having received the godly strain in unison, you might sing in one voice through Jesus Christ to the Father, that he may hear you and recognize you through your good deeds to be members of His Son.” 7
St John Chrysostom encouraged the faithful in his congregation to be attentive and vigilant in their liturgical prayer and points to the words of the deacon just before the anaphora: "Let us stand aright" as an exhortation for them to pay attention, to make a renewed effort to crush the attacks of the demons, and to be totally engaged in fervent and sincere prayer. †
Just think with whom you are standing, with whom you will invoke God: in the company of the Cherubim! Consider those who form this choir with you, and to make you vigilant, it will suffice for you to remember that, though clothed with a body and tied to the flesh, you have nevertheless been judged worthy to celebrate together with the bodiless host the common Master of all. Let no one take part in these sacred and mystical hymns with diminished fervor, let no one at this moment keep his thoughts turned to material life; but let each one, banishing all earthly thoughts and transporting himself entirely to heaven, as if he were flying beside the throne of glory together with the Seraphim, thus address the most holy hymn to the God of glory and magnificence.8
1 Homilia I in Oziam seu de Seraphinis I; PG !vi, 97. Translation in James McKinnon, "Music in Early Christian Literature;' Cambridge Readings in the Literature of Music (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, England, 1989), 89.
2 Bobrinskoy, Rev. Boris, "Ascension and Liturgy" in St Vladimir's Seminary Quarterly, Fall, 1959, volume 3, number 4, p 18. See also: Cabasilas, Nicholas, A Commentary on the Divine Liturgy, J. M. Hussey and P. A. McNulty trans. (SPCK, London, 1966), 59-60.3 The practice of singing this hymn at the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts originated during the reign of Patriarch Sergius of Constantinople (610-639).
3 The practice of singing this hymn at the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts originated during the reign of Patriarch Sergius of Constantinople (610-639).
4 Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy (Crestwood, NY: SVS Press, 1988), 29-30.
5 S. H. Cross and 0. P. Sherbowitz-Wetzor, The Russian Primary Chronicle, Laurentian Text (Cambridge, MA, 1953), I 10-ll l.
6 Bishop Kallistos Ware, The Inner Kingdom (Crestwood, NY: SVS Press, 2000), 59.
7 Ephesians IV, 1-2; PG V, 733-6; AF I, 81. Quotation in James McKinnon, "Music in Early Christian Literature;' Cambridge Readings in the Literature of Music (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, England, 1989), 19.
8 Sur !'incomprehensibilite de Dieu, T. 1 (2nd ed., SC 28bis [Paris, 1970)), introduction by J. Danielou, critical text and notes by A. M. Malingrey, translation by R. Flaceliere. Quoted in Pott, Thomas, Byzantine Liturgical Reform, A Study of Liturgical Change in the Byzantine Tradition ( SVS Press, Crestwood, NY, 2010), 93.