“I am the Lord, the Holy One, the Creator… your King” (Is 43:15). Thus speaks the Lord God from his sanctuary on high. He is the One before whom the glorious, fiery Seraphim tremble in awe, needing two of their six wings to cover their faces lest they be overcome by the unutterably dazzling brilliance of the divine glory. The only words that can find expression on their lips are, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts…” (Is 6:3).
God, essentially the Holy One, and especially Jesus Christ, the divine “Holy One of God” (Jn 6:69), are often not accepted or spoken of as such these days. The transcendent, awe-inspiring dimension of the divine nature manifested in and through Christ, the unique Son of God and only Savior, has to a great extent fallen out of liturgy, theology, and spirituality, especially in much of the West.
To those who deny the divinity of Christ, who want to bring Him down to our level instead of begging to be raised up to his, who want to jettison gestures of reverence and to remove from our midst images and symbols of the majesty and holiness of Christ our God, I say: the demons have greater faith and clearer insight than you do! “I know who You are, the Holy One of God!” they said to Jesus (Mk 1:24). May God take pity on those whose spiritual understanding and sensitivity is inferior to that of demons, and who would still teach and lead others!
My purpose here, however, is not primarily to deal with the phenomenon of the loss of the sense of holiness or with those who have brought it about. Rather, I wish simply to reflect on the presence of the Holy One in the Byzantine Liturgy, and thus to help rekindle the fire of fervor, the wonder of worship, and the righteousness of reverence toward Him who is holy. To the Lord God the priests sing: “For You, our God, are holy, and to You we give glory, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, now and forever…” And the choir responds with the Trisagion (“thrice-holy”): Holy God, Holy Mighty One, Holy Immortal One, have mercy on us.
Some time ago, I was suddenly made aware, during the celebration of the Divine Liturgy, of the beautiful interplay of the priest’s silent prayers and the choir’s hymns during the anaphora, when the consecratory prayers are prayed. The reverent worship of the people rose like incense as the priests fervently invoked the Most High to make present the awesome Sacrifice. Holiness was like the air we breathed. Silent prayer and chanted praises became as one heartbeat, one cry of longing for the Coming One to come. It all started when the choir began softly to sing: “Holy, holy, holy….”
Rather than try to explain it all, I would like to present a selection of excerpts from the prayers, alternating the priest and choir parts, to highlight the delicate dance of divine praises which the Bride offers Him who loves mankind (the priest’s prayers are in italics).
It is right and just to sing to You, to bless You, to praise You, to thank You, to worship You… It is fitting and right to worship the Father, Son and Holy Spirit… You brought us from nothingness into being… we fell, You raised us up again… You, Your only-begotten Son, and Your Holy Spirit… the Trinity, one in essence and undivided… We thank You for this sacrifice which You have deigned to accept from our hands, even though there stand before You thousands of Angels…the cherubim and six-winged Seraphim… Singing, crying, exclaiming, and proclaiming the triumphal hymn….
At this point the choir, which “mystically represents the Cherubim,” begins to sing ‘the thrice holy hymn to the life-giving Trinity.” And the dance goes on:
Holy, holy, holy… With these blessed powers…we too cry out and say: Holy are You… holy Lord of Sabaoth… You and Your only-begotten Son and Your Holy Spirit… Heaven and earth are full of Your glory… and magnificent is Your glory. You so loved Your world as to give Your only-begotten Son… Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord… He came and fulfilled the whole divine plan for our sake… Hosanna in the highest!
The priests sing the Words of Institution aloud, while the choir, deeply bowed or prostrated before the Mystery, responds with a soft yet solemn “Amen.” And we remember the price of our redemption:
Remembering… all that was done for us, the cross, the tomb, the resurrection… we offer to You, Yours of Your own… We sing to You, we bless You… in behalf of all and for all… we thank You, O Lord, and we pray to You… we implore, we pray, and we entreat You: send down Your Holy Spirit…
Before Holy Communion, there is more explicit worship of Christ as the Holy One. The priest bows three times before the precious and holy Body and Blood of Jesus, saying, “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” Then, with all reverence and care, extending his hands to touch God—the Burning Bush, the Pillar of Fire, the Slaughtered Lamb, the King of kings and Lord of lords—the priest performs the elevation, saying aloud, “The Holy Things for the holy!” The “Holy Things” here mean, of course, the holy Body and Blood of Jesus. The “holy” who receive them are those consecrated by God for divine worship and Holy Communion. All holiness is derived from and communicated by the Holy One. Therefore the choir sings:
One is holy, one is Lord… Broken and distributed is the Lamb of God… Jesus Christ… sanctifying those who partake… to the glory of God the Father. Amen.
After Communion, choir and clergy alike give thanks: Let our mouths be filled with Your praise, O Lord… We thank You, O Master, Lover of mankind… for You have made us worthy to share Your holy, divine, immortal, life-giving Mysteries… even today You have made us worthy of Your heavenly and immortal Mysteries… Keep us in Your holiness… protect our lives and secure our steps… that we may always learn Your righteousness… through the prayers of the glorious Mother of God and Ever-virgin Mary, and of all Your saints… Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!
After celebrating the Eucharist like this, there is obviously no place for the irreverence, informality, and general lack of respect for the majesty and holiness of God that characterizes all too many church services today. The way God is to be worshipped is not a matter of some liturgists’ tastes, nor does the agenda of some theologians or even bishops matter, when they declare that the widespread evisceration of the Eucharistic Liturgy is “what the people want.” The prevailing spirit of the world is not the Spirit of God. There is room for a legitimate plurality of liturgical traditions, but they all have to respect and reflect the reality that God is God, that He is to be approached as the Holy One as well as the Lover of Mankind.
The balance of reverence and intimacy needs to be kept in order for worship to be authentic and acceptable to the One whom we adore. Otherwise, people may be creating a cult of self-worship or community-worship, being blind and deaf to the will of God. That would defeat the purpose of worshiping God because He is God, because He created and redeemed us and prepares everlasting life for us, because his judgments are righteous and his word is Truth, and who therefore has absolute rights over his creation.
Where orthodox faith and “acceptable worship with reverence and awe” (Heb 12:28) are lacking, one has to wonder precisely what is the agenda of those responsible for, and who preside over, this degeneration. And who are they serving and trying to please, if they are not faithful servants of the God of Scripture and Tradition, of Sinai and Tabor, of the Cross and the Empty Tomb, the God who was, and is, and is to come?