When the terrorists of September 11 unleashed their savage blow, I was vacationing in Greece with my wife and children. Fear, uncertainty, frustration overcame us and being overseas in our case made it all the more difficult.
A colleague, a professor of theology at the University of Athens, shared a thought that stuck with me. From now on he said, Americans would not only be more united as a nation, but also be more receptive to the grace of God and the divine work of the Church. I took him to mean that not only would people increase their faith in God, but Americans might become more overtly religious. In times of need, man's sense of desperation pushes him to seek out God more intensely, especially in his place of worship.
It is unfortunate that it takes a crisis to realize how much we really need God. Man's hunger for God should be as immediate as his hunger for food but he often pushes God aside. It is one reason why so many Christians feel empty.
From ancient times, the Church's liturgical prayer within the setting of the eucharistic celebration has urged the faithful to identify with the fallen human predicament and to embrace all of humanity with the unfailing love of Christ. The Divine Liturgy, not only relives the mystery of the Son of God but also transforms each believer, each communicant, into a "little Christ", empowered by grace to operate as Christ's mouthpiece and hands and feet in the world. In liturgical prayer, we enter as one body into the mystery of Christ's incarnational and passionate love for humanity. And this love alone has the transforming potential to work the wonders for which our world is starving.
Unquestionably, the Church has never truly known any period of absolute peace or repose in its history. Consequently, all liturgical prayer regardless of the eucharistic tradition in which it was formed, has always addressed the urgency of peace as well as the need to identify and embrace and treat man's fallen condition. In times of heightened crisis, the intensification and inclusive nature of Christian liturgical prayer becomes an unchangeable source of comfort.
Let's examine three examples of liturgical prayer from three different eucharistic traditions: 1) the Old Roman Intercessions; 2) the Coptic Jacobite Liturgy; and 3) the Byzantine Liturgy of St. Basil the Great. Each prayer was written in the context of a fallen and insecure world and reveals an image of a Church fervently imploring its Master for divine and long-lasting peace in difficult and often restless times. Each prayer excerpt is taken from the Fervent Litany of the Synaxis section of each liturgy where such prayer forms abound.
The Old Roman Intercessions - Prayerful Love for One's Enemies
Nowhere in the world was the infant Church of the first century persecuted so relentlessly as in the imperial capital of Rome. Although the manner of life and focus on heaven was nothing short of an abomination to their pagan despots, the early Christians still knew that Christ commanded that they love, forgive, and pray for their enemies. As Christ outstretched His hands over Golgotha, so was the Church expected to embrace fallen man in the spirit of indiscriminate divine love.
In the old Roman intercessions (still in use in the West on Good Friday, albeit in a revised form), the collect unites the prayers of the faithful for "peace, unity and safety throughout all the world." This sense of security was very important because it ensured that the message of the Gospel would be successfully preached everywhere. The prayer continues by beseeching God to subject "unto her principalities and powers," a reference to the forces of evil that were manifested through oppressive political and military rulers. Intercession was then made "for the government and the state; for the catechumens; for the needs of the world and all in tribulation ... for heretics and schismatics; for the jews (sic.), and for the pagans."
In these Roman intercessions the Church not only acknowledges the presence of evil in the world, but also understands how secular rulers often fall victim to Satanic influence. The fallen nature of man, his vulnerability to worldly cares and his usual misinformed sense of judgment, made this susceptibility all the more obvious. For this reason the Christians prayed vigilantly for their pagan overlords so that their hearts also would be converted to the love of Christ.
It is important to realize that this prayer was not utilitarian; that is, the Church was not concerned with simply pacifying the nations so that it could flourish and rule the world so to speak. A genuine concern existed for the spiritual welfare and salvation of every man, woman, and child alive. The early Church, despite its limited functionality, sought to embrace mankind through its fervent liturgical prayer, in the hope of saving others from the hideous manifestations of demonic influence throughout the civilized world.
The Coptic Jacobite Liturgy - Inclusiveness at Its Best
The next example of liturgical prayer that demonstrates the Church's urgent desire for peace appears in the Alexandrian tradition, namely, the Liturgy of the Coptic Jacobites. This text appeared sometime in either the fourth or fifth century and may have been a revision of an earlier third century manuscript.
The prayer is fascinating, primarily because of its inclusive nature. The requests for peace and salvation are not confined only to the membership of Christians within the Church, but the Church lifts up its hands in prayer to benefit all people of every background in need of God's mercy. This ability to transcend its immediate boundaries in order to embrace the world around it has always been at the forefront of the Church's missionary activity. Genuine and prayerful concern for one's heterodox neighbors and persecutors as well as secular leaders, properly characterizes not only the Christian mindset but also the corresponding behavior that must accompany it. The excerpt from the Coptic rite reads as follows:
Again let us pray God almighty the Father of our Lord and our God and our Saviour Jesus Christ. We pray and beseech thy goodness, o lover of man: remember, o Lord, the peace of thy one only holy catholic and apostolic church which is from one end of the world to the other: bless all the peoples and all the lands: the peace that is from heaven grant in all our hearts, but also the peace of this life bestow upon us graciously. The king, the armies, the magistrates, the councillors, the multitudes, our neighbors, our goings in and our goings out, order them in all peace . . . Let all our souls live through thine Holy Spirit and let not the death of sins have dominion over us thy servants nor all thy people.
In this beautiful collect the Church first makes entreaty to the Lord for itself, that the Body of Christ may remain whole and undefiled and that it may continue its work effectively and responsibly within the world. The supplication then shifts beyond the borders of the Church to the entire world which, like the Body of Christ, also finds its origin in God. Christians beseech the Lord not simply for heavenly peace which is the assurance and confidence in one's heart of God's unconditional love and limitless mercy, but also for worldly peace which ensures that man may have a future in which to believe and hope. Prayer is then offered for secular leaders (quite possibly of all nations), whose actions determine whether or not worldly peace is attainable.
Finally, the separation into two groups of "us thy servants" and "all thy people" implies a concern for Christians and non-Christians alike to be spared from the death of sin: the ultimate rejection of all the sacred values and ideals inscribed by God upon every human heart regardless of the individual's religious orientation. We see then in this Alexandrian litany an enticing example of the ancient Church, ever persecuted by its pagan overlords, embracing humanity in the very spirit of the crucified and resurrected Lord.
The Byzantine Liturgy of St. Basil - Repetition and Urgency
A common characteristic of Byzantine worship is the frequent repetition of whole sections of litanies and responses. In certain cases a litany that should have been excised editorially from the rest of the text was retained in place thus unnecessarily repeating a previous section. Nonetheless, the very decision to keep the litany intact may be interpreted as the Church's desire to convey to its faithful the urgency of prayer for the safeguarding of the world and the fulfillment of its needs. It is well known that prayer repetition not only encourages retention and learning, but also conveys the seriousness of the prayer offered to God.
In the first three petitions of the Fervent Litany from the Byzantine Synaxis the urgency to prayer is emphasized. In the first petition the deacon urges the faithful to beseech the Lord's mercy "with all our soul and with all our mind." The faithful's response after each petition "Lord, have mercy" is repeated three times. The second petition makes three demands of God: "we pray You, listen and have mercy." And in the third petition, the prayer begins with a request for mercy, "Have mercy on us, O God, according to Your great mercy," and concludes in exactly the same manner as the second petition.
The petitions which follow begin with the clause: "Again we pray", a clear implication that previous entreaty has already been made for the same requests, either during the enarxis (commencement) of the Divine Liturgy or during the services of the vigil that preceded it. The non-eucharistic services of the vigil (Vespers, Mesonyktikon, Hours, Matins) all include the same Fervent Litany in their structure. Hence, we invariably see that the liturgical life of the Orthodox Church is oriented around the vigilant and ardent expression of concern and love for fallen man. This love for others derives from the same love that the Church possesses toward its Master which it celebrates at every Divine Liturgy.
Observations and Exhortations
Each aforementioned liturgical tradition developed in an unstable world not that different from ours. The Christians at prayer in Rome, North Africa, and Byzantium experienced the same insecurities and fears that we experience. Their aspirations for a peaceful and sinless world were the same we hold. Their persistent retreat to the liturgical life of their local church day after day and week after week can encourage us today.
As Orthodox Christians, our prayers must not only rest with the victims of the tragic attack on 9-11 and their families, but also with the perpetrators of this horrible crime, particularly that God will grant them the opportunity to repent and be saved. The world stands united in God and crumbles when man sets himself up against his fellow man, and it does not matter who his fellow man is. Likewise, we must pray for the entire world and make no distinctions between peoples and nations. In the eyes of God, every human being is of equal worth. It is only when man enters into his fellow man's vision that he begins to appear different.
Finally, our churches should be filling up every Sunday, because the reality of pain and suffering is a constant that needs to be treated through our fervent liturgical prayer. As we delve into the Orthodox Church's rich liturgical tradition and become inspired by the power of its incessant liturgical prayer, lwe cant avoid spiritual devastation in the future.
Fr. Stylianos Muksuris, BA, MDiv, MLitt, PhD (cand.), is a graduate of Hellenic College and Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, Brookline, MA, and the University of Durham, Durham, UK, and specializes in Eastern Liturgy and Theology. His doctoral dissertation is entitled "Economia and Eschatology: The Mystagogical Significance of the Byzantine Divine Liturgy's Prothesis Rite in the Commentaries of Sts. Nicholas Cabasilas and Symeon of Thessalonike". He has also authored "The Anaphorae of the Liturgy of Sts. Addai and Mari" and the "Byzantine Liturgy of St. Basil the Great: A Comparative Study" (unpublished MLitt thesis). He may be reached at: email@example.com.