The Great Litany - Part 6
Fr. Thomas Hopko · October 4, 2012
Continuing his look at the first Great Litany of the Divine Liturgy, Fr. Tom explores what it means to pray concerning wrath, danger, and need. Also included is a helpful reflection on the most frequent phrase in the Liturgy: "Lord, have mercy."
This is the 40th podcast/reflection on The Divine Liturgy in our series Worship in Spirit and Truth. We’ve been going through the Great Litany. We already did five reflections, and today, we’ll have our sixth.
The last time we reflected on, “This city, every city and country and for the faithful who make their home in them.” We prayed for favorable weather, healthful seasons, for the abundance of the fruits of the earth, for peaceful times, or for temperate weather and good winds and so on. And we prayed for the traveling people who are traveling by land, by sea, by air, and maybe we could add in space. We also prayed for the sick and the suffering and their salvation and their safety; those who are in prison and for their safety.
For travelers by land, sea, and air, for the sick, the suffering, the captives, and for their salvation, let us pray to the Lord.
Now, we will continue on today commenting on this Litany with the next petition. In the Orthodox Church in America translation, it says, “For our deliverance from all affliction, wrath, danger, and necessity, let us pray to the Lord.” Now, again, I want to mention these petitions are setting the stage for the Liturgy as a whole.
So, it’s about these things that every prayer, every intercession, every act, every ritual movement in the Liturgy is going to be for all of these things that we are listing in The Great Litany. I’m tempted to say that it’s kind of like a shopping list. You put down what you want to get. Well, in The Great Litany, we’re kind of listing all the things that we can think of that we want to hold before the face of God; that we want our Liturgy to be about. We want our Liturgy to concern these things. We want our Liturgy to be for these things.
And we see that we don’t ask for specific things in The Great Litany; we just hold these various areas and situations of human life before the face of God. We hold before God civil authorities. We hold before God armed forces. We hold before God the people who live in our town. We hold before God the weather and the cosmological realties of the planet earth. We hold before God anybody who is traveling, rather on land, on sea, or in the air.
And I think that this is what we are doing. And I think it’s good to say, “For those who are traveling by land, by sea, and in the air.” But I think that when they translated it, “For those who are traveling by land, and by the air, and for those who are sailing on the sea,” you hear that sometimes. Well, you also are sailing when you’re in the air. So if you’re going to use the word sailing, it’s better to say, “For those who are sailing on the sea and in the air, and for those who are journeying by land, let us pray to the Lord.” But it’s just a question of what is the best, most significant, most careful, most accurate translation into English.
Now, what we have here in this petition is, “For our deliverance from all affliction, wrath, danger, and necessity.” That’s the OCA translation. The Antiochian Liturgikon says, “For our deliverance from all tribulation, wrath, danger, and necessity, let us pray to the Lord.”
The translation in Great Britain, the Ecumenical Patriarchate, says, “For our deliverance from all affliction, wrath, danger, and constraint, let us pray to the Lord.” The Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Theological School translation says, “For our deliverance from all affliction, wrath, danger, and distress, let us pray to the Lord.”
Now, the affliction or tribulation, the wrath of God, and danger, those are pretty much the words found in all the translations. It’s that fourth words that differs. The OCA says “necessity.” The Holy Cross says “distress.” The British translation says “constraint.” And the Liturgikon says “necessity.”
Actually, I prefer the word “need.” I think that that’s probably the most accurate word. I think that what is being prayed for here; what is being held before God in this particular petition, which again I repeat is what the whole Liturgy is going to be about. The whole Liturgy is going to be a prayer, a rite, a worship in spirit and in truth that concerns our deliverances from afflictions, from anger, from danger, and from need.
In Greek, there are different ways those words can be translated. But here again, what we are doing is saying to God, “Generally speaking, dear God, Our Lord, we want all that we are doing here and all that we are praying and everything that we’re going to do in this Divine Liturgy to serve for our deliverance.”
And even that word sometimes even could be translated as “our redemption from;” that we would be delivered in that sense, and from everything that is afflicting – tribulations, suffering, the anger, the wrath of God, danger from all sides, and distress.
Now, again, we have to immediately comment. All those things are in our lives, and they are all there. And in fact, the Christian teaching would be that you cannot enter the Kingdom of God without afflictions; without enduring, from time to time, the wrath of God against you because of your sin, so that you would repent. You cannot live on the planet earth without being in danger, and sometimes, the danger wins. You’re in the danger of a storm, and you get killed in it.
The needs that you have of food, drink, housing, protection, shelter, many people do not have those needs fulfilled at all in this life. But what we are doing here is we are again offering a general petition to God that we want all these good things. We want to be delivered, like in the Lord’s Prayer, “deliver us from the evil ones.” We want to be delivered from everything that’s negative, ungodly, not good, causes us distress and constraint. That’s what we want.
Now, this can also show that we believe that this is what God wants for us too. Because everything that we’re praying at the Divine Liturgy in the various litanies, and we have other litanies to look at later, certainly are contained in this opening Great Litany – the Litany of Peace, the Litany of the Kingdom. Those things that are included, what we are doing is we are holding them before the face of God; that God would do with them as He knows best for our salvation.
So we can actually say that God certainly wants all of us to be delivered from all affliction, wrath, danger, distress, need, and constraint. Sure, God wants that. And so, I think you could make a principle here again that all petitionary prayer is to petition God and to supplicate God and ask God for what we believe God is already giving us, even if we don’t ask Him, of for what God wants to give to us and would be thrilled to give to us, but which, as a matter of sure fact, He cannot give to us fully, completely, and totally in this world.
Only in the age to come will we have perfect salvation and deliverance from every affliction, tribulation, anger, wrath of God, danger, need, distress, and constraint. That will only happen in the coming Kingdom. So, in a sense, we can say we’re praying for the Kingdom of God to come, if we’re praying for this literally. And we’ll see how that point appears time and again in the Divine Liturgy.
For example, we’re going to see in the Psalm; how we sing that the Lord sets the prisoner free. The Lord feeds the hungry. The Lord releases the captive. The Lord takes care of the orphan. Certainly, that is true; ultimately in the coming Kingdom. Now, we’re praying to God that this would be as much as it could be, given the fallen-ness and the corrupted and perverted nature of our human life on this planet.
Now, who in their right mind would not want to be delivered from tribulation, affliction, wrath, danger, and need? Everybody would. And this is what we ask God for, and even God wants this. So, what we’re really saying to God when we pray for our deliverance from these things, we could say, that certainly, we don’t want them in our lifetime now as much as possible. We want things to be as well as they can be on this earth, but we know darn well that all these things continue to plague us, and that’s why we pray for them every single time we pray.
Every time we pray even the Lord’s Prayer, we say, “Lead us not into temptation,” which as we’ll see means, don’t let us fall when we’re tried and tested by afflictions and tribulations and dangers and needs and hunger and thirst. Don’t let us give in. But on the other hand, deliver us from every evil and every evil person, and from all the wicked ones. Sure, we want that, but we’re going to have to endure in this world not always having it that way.
But when we go to the Divine Liturgy, we know that the Liturgy itself and in its wholeness is concerning our deliverance from all affliction, anger, danger, and constraint or however you translate that. We pray for that and want that as much as possible. But then again, we have to add that if we’re praying for those things, then we have to be grateful when we have those things. We have to use those things for the good of others.
If we don’t have afflictions, then we have to help the afflicted, but sometimes we need afflictions ourselves. Psalm 119 says, “Before I was afflicted, I went astray, but now that I’m afflicted, I keep your commandments, O Lord.” Before I experienced the wrath of God on me, maybe even through sickness or through other things, I was a big sinner.
So I needed that wrath on me in order to be saved. I needed to face danger. I needed to experience needs just so that I could trust God and give myself to God and know that ultimately only God is going to give me these things. His plan may be that in my early life, I’m pretty much protected from many of these things. But no one is totally protected, and everybody sooner or later has to face these things.
But we pray that when we are facing them that we would be delivered from them. And here also, you could add that what we really want to be delivered from in all these afflictions and angers and dangers and needs is sinning because we don’t have them. We could ask God to let us know that we’re delivered from the ultimately, and to deliver us from them now for the sake of our keeping the Commandments, for the sake of being grateful to God, and for the sake of being to help other people.
These things are not ends of themselves, but no one in their right mind would not pray for these things or pray about these things or hope that God Almighty would have a plan in which all these things would ultimately come true. And we Christians are people who believe in the happy ending. We do. Sometimes people make fun of us, and they say you guys can’t lose, because whatever you pray for, you always say that it’s God’s will. And you always say that in the life to come that everything is going to be fine.
And I would answer such people, “Yeah, you’re right. That’s true. We believe in this life that we pray for all the things that God wants for us. We pray that He will give them. We know that He can. We know that if He does, we are responsible for these things, and we have to use them rightly for our neighbors And we know very well that God is using all things ultimately to bring us into the coming Kingdom where none of these things will actually exist. There will be no tribulations, afflictions, wrath, danger, or needs in the coming Kingdom of God.”
So it’s right. We believe that whatever we get in this world is the will of God. And we believe that those who love God, give themselves to God, repent of their sins, bow theirs knees to Christ and to God, and who want the Holy Spirit and not the demons, they will have the deliverance from all these things forever and ever and ever. And we want to anticipate that if we can, already on this earth, and that’s why we raise things before God in this particular petition.
Now, the next petition says, in the Orthodox Church in America translation, “Help us, save us, have mercy on us, and keep us, O God, by Your grace.” The Liturgikon of the Antiochian says, “Help us, save us, have mercy on us, and keep us, O God, by Your grace.” The British translation says, “Help us, save us, have mercy on us, and keep us, O God, by Your grace,” exactly the same words.
The Holy Cross translation says, “Help us, save us, have mercy upon us, and protect us, O God, by Your grace.” It’s interesting that this is protect, instead of keep us. We could also mention that there are other translations of this. In the Romanian Church, for example, they’ll say, “Help and save us.” They won’t just put the four imperatives in a row.
But it’s interesting to note here that this petition does not begin concerning or about anything. It actually is amazingly daring in some sense, because they are imperatives or telling God to do these things and to do them by His grace, or saying to Him, “Help. Save. Have mercy. And protect.” There are different ways or doing this.
But it’s important to know that when we make imperative prayers to God, we never tell God to do anything that we don’t believe that He wants to do anyway and He will do even if we won’t ask Him for the sake of our salvation. Now certainly, we would have to say that God certainly does want to help us, to save us, to have mercy on us, and to keep us, and He does it by His grace. That’s what He wants.
So in this petition, we are saying to God, “Do what you have revealed to us that you want to do and that you are doing to us and giving to us, even if we don’t ask you.” And this would be the teaching of the New Testament – that God is wanting to help and to save and to protect and to have mercy on everyone.
He wants to save and to have mercy, and He does save, and He does have mercy without consulting us. He just saves us and has mercy on us, even if we don’t ask Him. So every petitionary prayer that is safe is a prayer where you ask God to do what you believe He wants to do, and you believe what He’s going to do, and you believe what He is actually doing, even if you do not ask Him.
And I think that we could say that is the only kind of prayer that we can dare to say in an imperative form. If we say, “O God, help me,” it’s because God wants to help me. If we say, “O God save me,” it’s because God wants to save me. “O God be merciful and forgive me.” It’s because He wants to. We can say, “O God, please protect me.” It’s because He wants to.
Now, ultimately, that will all be in the coming Kingdom, but in this life and this world, sometimes we experience other things. But we would believe that even those other things would be for the sake of the ultimate salvation, reception of mercy, protection, and well-being, by God’s grace.
We believe as Christians that everything is grace. No matter what happens, it’s grace. Like we said earlier, you can’t lose if you’re an Orthodox Christian, because every time you pray, you believe that God hears it and answers it appropriately.
What we have to see though, and we’ll see this as we go on through the Liturgy, is that we, in celebrating the Liturgy, we do make specific petitions. We may pray for some particular person who is sick. We may pray for some particular person who died. And there’s no petition here for the departed in The Great Litany, because it’s the constitution of the prayer of the Church on earth.
We’ll later have plenty of places to pray for and pray with and pray to the departed. We’ll see that as we go through, but not in The Great Litany. But what we do want to say is this, when we are praying for specific things, which we will do in the Liturgy as we shall see, we always have to have in mind, if not in actual words, “If it be Your holy will.” If we pray for a sick person to get well, we have to say, “According to Your will,” because it may be God’s will that they die.
If we say, “Let Joe marry Judy,” we should add, “if it be Your holy will,” because maybe Joe and Judy shouldn’t get married. “May I move to California, if it be Your holy will,” because it may be better for me to stay on the East Coast. When we’re not sure, we have to always add, “Nevertheless, not my will, but Your will be done.”
But there are things that we know are God’s will, like to save us, to have mercy on us, to help us, and to be with us. We know that God wants to do that, so when we tell Him to do it, we’re telling God to act as He will.
And this leads us to one more reflection for today, and that is the response to everyone of these petitions we have reflected on is the response, Kyrie, eleison, Lord have mercy. We know it in all these languages. And in some early Latin Liturgies, they would say, Kyrie, eleison.
It was a very important petitionary prayer. And I think it’s the most basic, the mos inclusive, the most safe, the most secure, and the most important prayer that a person can say to God. Lord, be merciful. Lord, mercy me. Lord, grace me. In this petition we say, “By Your grace,” and when we say, “Lord have mercy,” it’s almost synonymous in the Bible.
So it’s very important to realize that whatever petition we say to God, for whatever reason, at any time, for whatever purpose, however general, or however specific that the response always will be liturgically, Kyrie, eleison. Lord, be merciful. Lord, mercy me. Lord, show mercy.
Now, that mercy in modern English is taken as an antonym to condemn or judge. So people think that when we say, “Lord, have mercy,” that what we’re saying is, “God don’t condemn us. God forgive our sins.”
And I even read in books that the “Lord, have mercy,” that is so often repeated in Orthodox Liturgy, is because it was a monastic liturgy when it was formulated, and then it became more widespread, connecting with the cathedral rite. Our present Liturgy is a combination of the monastic and the Constantinople, great Church typikon, which is a cathedral rite. We can’t get into that here. That’s technical study.
But it’s interesting that that “Lord, have mercy,” is there all over the place from the beginning. And it’s after every possible petition, every possible prayer, and every possible situation. Even after when we have Holy Communion, we’ll see when we say, “Having partaken of the Divine, Heavenly, Holy Mysteries, the Body and Blood of Christ, Lord have mercy.” So it’s always, “Lord, have mercy.”
Now, about mercy, Americans can think that that means, “Don’t condemn us, and let us off,” sort of like plea-bargaining in a court. That’s not what it means. In fact, I like to say that if the Revised Standard Version of the Holy Scripture were in vogue when our Liturgies were first translated into English, we could have easily said, “Lord, have steadfast love. Lord, love us. O Lord, love.”
We could be saying, “O Lord, be gracious.” We could say, “O Lord, be generous,” because that eleios word means doing all good things and everything possibly good that you can do, please do it. That’s what it means. And so, “Lord, have mercy,” doesn’t mean, “Lord, let me off,” or, “Lord, pity,” or, “Lord, don’t judge me harshly,” or, “Lord, don’t condemn me to Hell.” That’s not what it means.
I think the best explanation for Kyrie, eleison means, and again it’s an imperative; we’re telling God to do this, but we believe when we pray this that we’re really telling God, “Please be the way you are. Act toward us as you are. Be yourself to us. We know that you love. We know that it’s all grace. We know that you’re saving us. We know that you want to save us. We know that you want to have mercy on us. We know that you want to protect us. We know that you don’t want us to suffer. We know that you want to be alive forever.”
And all of that is contained in that expression, Kyrie, eleison, Lord have mercy. And we say it one time. We say it three times. We say it twelve times. We say it forty times. We say it seventy times, when we bring the cross out, because Kyrie, eleison contains everything.
In those two words is everything. It’s telling God to be the way He is toward us. We affirm you as you are, God. We love you as you have revealed yourself to us to be. We want you to be yourself toward us. We don’t want to flee from. We don’t want to run away from you. We want to be in your good graces. We know you want to grace us.
And it’s interesting that eleison and grace in old English were verbs. “Lord, mercy me. Lord, grace me. Lord, love me.” That is what we are asking here. So that Kyrie, eleison, that is the response to all of these petitions, we are doing this. We’re holding a reality of our life before God – this household, our bishops, our clergy, country, the country in which we live, this country, the president, civil authorities, travelers, the city, the region, the captives, the prisoners, the travelers, the sick, the suffering.
We’re holding all of those before the face of God and saying to God, “Be to them as is expedient for them. Show your mercy on them in the best possible way.” And it might mean that God has to withdraw His grace, and we have to learn a lesson. It might mean that God has to let us suffer, so we could learn a lesson or bear witness to God.
It might mean that we be overcome by dangers. It might mean lots of things. God knows. But that Kyrie, eleison means, “God, do it in a divinely proper manner.” And in the Old Covenant, it says that the Lord is merciful, gracious, long-suffering, abounding in steadfast love, and faithful to us. So Kyrie, eleison means, “God be how you are as the good God who loves mankind.” This is what we’re saying, when we say, Kyrie, eleison.
Then, there is one more petition to commending ourselves to each other and God. And then there is the prayer, and then there is the exclamation and The Great Litany is ended. So next time, we will speak about the ending of The Great Litany, remembering as it says in the OCA translation:
Commemorating our most holy, most pure, most blessed, and glorious Lady, Theotokos and ever virgin Mary, with all the saints, let us commend ourselves and each other and all our life to Christ our God.
Then, the response is, “To You, O Lord,” we commend ourselves. And then we have the prayer and the exclamation. We will speak about that next time.