by: Rev. Peter J. Orfanakos
After concluding the prayers of the Great Litany the gathered assembly of the faithful takes three more steps toward its destination of the Kingdom by singing the three antiphons. The antiphon is a hymn originally sung with alternating voices or choirs (antiphonally). It is now used to designate the three opening hymns of the Divine Liturgy.
These antiphons have a fascinating history. Unlike today, when each parish in a city functions separately like a self-contained unit, in the days of Saint John Chrysostom (4th century) in cities like Constantinople, all of the Orthodox Churches formed a single integrated whole.
The Divine Liturgy was celebrated in the main Church on Sundays and all of the people of the city traveled to that Church to participate in the service. The people of the city belonged to the main Church, but also went to other smaller churches together when called to do so, such as on feast days.
On the feast day of Saint John the Baptist for example, the people would form a procession to go from the main Church to the Church of Saint John to celebrate the Liturgy there. They would sing hymns as they went. These hymns were the antiphons. In the days of Saint John Chrysostom the cantor would chant a verse or two of the psalm and the people would sing the refrain. The cantor would chant the next few verses of the psalm, and the people would sing the refrain again, and so on. The people came to like these hymns so much that they eventually became a fixed part of the Liturgy, even when there was no procession on the way to Church.
The antiphons sung in Church in the 8th century included Psalm 92 with the refrain “Through the prayers of the Theotokos, Savior, save us!,” Psalm 93 with the refrain “Save us O Son of God… Alleluia!,” and Psalm 95 with the hymn “Only-begotten Son,” written by Emperor Justinian in the 6th century, as its refrain.
Everything that is alive continues to grow and develop.This includes the living liturgical tradition of the Church. Thus the way that the Church sang the antiphons continued to develop as well. In the 12th century some monks in Constantinople began the innovative (at that time) custom of substituting Psalms 103 and 146 and the Beatitudes for the normal antiphons at the Sunday Liturgy.
Today some churches follow this custom while others follow the original custom of singing the Psalms 92, 93 and 95 as antiphons. Whichever hymns are used, all liturgies today begin with the singing of three antiphons.
The exuberant praise of God that forms our early liturgical steps into the Kingdom is no accident, for our spiritual life consists of praise. Christ recreated us for this very purpose, to “proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.” (1 Peter 2:9)
“Praising God is not simply one thing we do; it is everything. All that we do must be an act of praise, for God calls us to offer ourselves to Him as a doxology of living flesh and blood. The psalmist sings, “Let every breath praise the Lord” (Psalm 150:6) and as disciples of Christ we strive to fulfill this, making our every action, every thought and intention an offering of praise to our God.”1
Between the antiphons of praise the priest offers prayers. Originally, when the people sang the antiphons in procession on the way to Church, the deacon introduced each prayer by saying, “Let us pray to the Lord!” after which the priest said a prayer and the people responded by saying, “Amen.”
As time went on, the priests began saying their prayers silently and the deacon expanded his invitation to prayer by including other petitions as well to give the priest time to say his prayer quietly. Thus the small litany was born, with the deacon chanting the intoning petitions, “In peace let us again pray to the Lord,” then “Help us, save us, have mercy on us and keep us O God, by Your grace.” And then finally, “Commemorating our most holy, pure, blessed and glorious lady, the Theotokos and ever Virgin Mary....” After the deacon finished the small litany, the priest would intone the final exultation of his prayer so that the people could respond with the “Amen!”
The prayers offered after the first and second antiphons are not simply “filler,” but a cry to God from His children, asking Him to preserve us and accept us as we draw closer to Him. We ask Him to save us and bless us and preserve the fullness of the Church by filling us with Himself and His glory. We ask Him to sanctify us since we love the beauty of His house and come there to worship Him.
As we place our hope in Him, we ask that He abide in us forever, remembering that Christ promised to be “present when two or three are gathered in My Name” (Matthew 18:20). These prayers reveal why we dare to draw near to God and dare to “walk in procession right into His holy presence: since we are no mere collection of ordinary people, but the Church of the living God, His inheritance, His joy, His covenant people.”2
Finally, during the third antiphon the clergy and their attendants (Altar Boys) make a procession with the Gospel. This is a carryover of the original practice of the clergy entering the church for the first time at the beginning of the Divine Liturgy, bringing the Gospel with them.
In the days of St. John Chrysostom, the clergy would enter the church with the Gospel book and go straight into the altar so that the service proper could begin. Rev. Lawence Farley notes that the “Gospel book was carried for a practical purpose only - the deacon (who kept the Gospel book in his home for safekeeping) brought it with him to church so that he could read it during the service.”
Now that the Church keeps the Gospel on the altar table, the carrying of it in procession has a deeper meaning: it shows that Christ is among us, and we venerate the Gospel book as we would Christ, carrying it reverently, with joy, in high triumph, with an honor guard of lights.
We sing the antiphons and all the hymns of the Divine Liturgy not in memory of one who is dead and parted from us, but rather as an expression of joy at finding Christ alive in our midst. The Gospel procession during the third antiphon reveals what our thunderous singing is all about.
1 Let Us Attend: A Journey Through the Orthodox Divine Liturgy,
Rev. Lawrence Farley, p. 24.
2 Ibid., p. 26.
A Commentary on the Divine Liturgy, Nicholas Cabasilas.
Let Us Attend: A Journey Through the Orthodox Divine Liturgy, Rev. Lawrence Farley.
The Byzantine Rite: A Short History. American Essays in Liturgy, Robert F. Taft.
The Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom, Holy Cross Orthodox Press.
The Eternal Liturgy, Rev. Theodore Stylianopoulos.
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