In our last podcast, reflecting on the Great Litany with which the Divine Liturgy begins, and indeed which most of the services of the Church do begin—vespers, matins, sacramental services, baptisms, marriages—you always kind of set up, you locate the gathering and the concerns of the gathering in that opening litany as the Liturgy is celebrated today. What we want to do today is to conclude by discussing and thinking about this very last—it’s not a petition; it’s actually a kind of exhortation to those who are gathered to remember the mother of God, the Theotokos, Virgin Mary, with all the saints, and to commend ourselves and each other and all our life to Christ our God. Then you have the prayer and the exclamation which ends the Great Litany.
We said last time that the response to the petitions up until this point in the litany is, “Lord, have mercy.” We made the comment that “Lord, have mercy” does not mean “Lord, let us off.” It’s not simply a penitential cry. It’s not simply for the forgiveness of sins, but it’s for God to be the way he is, and the merciful God is the one who is generous, who is kind, who is compassionate, who gives all things to us. As it says in the Gospel, and I like that parable of the Prodigal Son, where the father says to the older son, “Everything that I have is yours.” So we do believe that as Christians, in Christ God gives us everything that he has and even everything that he is: all of his divine qualities are shared with us, are given to us. That’s why God created us, and that’s why he redeemed us in Christ: so that we could be everything that he is, by grace, and by his grace, as the petition says—“by thy grace, by your grace”—that we also could have all of the attributes of God and be by grace everything that God is by nature. That’s how we understand what it means to be a human being in the Christian vision of reality.
But we have all these petitions and we say, “Lord, have mercy,” which doesn’t mean, “Lord, let us off.” It means, “Lord, be to us and give to us as you are in the fullness of your divine supra-being, your being that is beyond all being; your want to give this to us in Christ.” So we say to the Lord, “Be as you are. Be merciful.” You know we have in the Church saints who are called the merciful: St. John the Merciful in Alexandria; St. Martian the Presbyter, the Merciful; St. Philaret the Merciful. These merciful saints were not saints who let off criminals, judges who were not strict in their judgment but showed mercy in that sense. It doesn’t mean that. These particular saints were the ones who helped the poor, who helped the needy, who cared for the suffering, who shared what they had, who provided goods and food and so on to people. That’s what it means to be merciful, and that’s what this “Lord, have mercy” [response to petition] means.
When we end that litany with “Help us, save us, have mercy on us, and keep us, O God, by your grace,” we say, “Lord, have mercy.” Then the next thing that we say to conclude the litany is the following. This is the Orthodox Church in America translation:
Commemorating our most-holy, most-pure, most-blessed and glorious lady, Theotokos and ever-virgin Mary, with all of the saints, let us commend ourselves and each other and all our life unto Christ our God.
In the translation that they did in England—Bishop Kallistos, Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware), and Fr. Ephrem Lash, and those with them—they translate that as:
Commemorating our most-holy, pure, most-blessed and glorious lady, Mother of God and ever-virgin Mary, with all the saints, let us entrust ourselves and one another and our whole life to Christ our God.
The Greek Orthodox translation from Holy Cross here in America translates it this way:
Remembering our most-holy, pure, blessed, and glorious lady, the Theotokos and ever-virgin Mary, with all the saints, let us commit ourselves and one another and our whole life to Christ our God.
The Romanian Diocese in America translation does not say “Mother of God” or “Theotokos.” It says, “Birth-giver of God.” It says:
Let us offer ourselves and one another and our whole life to Christ our God.
In the Liturgikon of the Antiochian Church, we have the following words:
Calling to remembrance our all-holy, immaculate, most-blessed and glorious lady, the Theotokos and ever-virgin Mary, with all the saints, let us commend ourselves and each other and all our life unto Christ our God.
The response to that is: “To you, O Lord” or “To thee, O Lord.” So this is how the Great Litany is completed, and actually virtually every litany in Orthodox services: the short litany, the small litany that we will comment on soon, that comes between the antiphons and that is used very often in church: “Again and again in peace, let us pray to the Lord… Help us, save us, have mercy on us, keep us, O God, by your grace… Lord, have mercy…” and then this remembrance of the Theotokos, Christ’s mother Mary, the mother of God, the birth-giver of God, together with all the saints. We make that remembrance.
That remembrance is very important. I think translating it “commemorating” or “calling to remembrance” or “remembering”... We will see especially in the Liturgy of the Faithful how this remembering is a very, very, very important part of liturgical worship. We’re asking God all the time to remember us. Even in the Liturgy of the Catechumens, at the entrance with the Gospel book, it’s going to be: “Remember us, O Lord, when you come in your kingdom.”
This remembering and asking God to remember or, you might say, in what we remember we ask God also to remember because we believe he is always remembering these things and we want to remember that he remembers those things and remember those things ourselves. I think that that’s a kind of a mouthful, but I think it’s important for us to think about that, because in the Bible it’s clear that when God forgets, then we’re dead; then we’re out of his communion with him. In fact, Sheol, the place of the dead in the Psalms and in the Old Testament, is called the place of forgetfulness, where we are abandoned, we are not remembered, because when God remembers us, then we are alive. When we are in the mind of God, we are alive.
Sometimes dying is connecting with God forgetting us, and that’s why, in the Orthodox Church, whenever we are remembering those who have departed this life, who have reposed already in Christ, who have already died, our song is, “Eternal memory”: May your memory be eternal. May God remember you. May you be alive in God—because when you remember, then what you remember becomes present to you.
That was certainly the case in the Old Testament worship. For example, on the Passover, you remembered everything that God had done for you; remembered how he brought you out of Egypt, and you remembered it with a ritual and with questions. The son asked the father, “What does this mean?” And then he told them and he said, “Never forget it. Do not forget it.”
I think of my own life: my father used to tell the story that when his own father was dying—my grandfather died when my father was twelve years old—my father said that among the last words that his father spoke to him was, “Remember, my son. Do not forget, my boy, that your faith is Orthodox and your nationality is Russian. Go to a church only,” he said, “where there is a three-barred cross and the priest has a wife.” Well, I used to joke with my father that then he couldn’t go to an Antiochian or a Greek church where there was an archimandrite as the pastor, because they didn’t have the three-barred cross and the priest didn’t have a wife.
But the point I want to make here is there’s always this charge, this commandment, virtually, exhortation, to remember, not to forget, not to neglect, but to keep alive in your mind, in your consciousness, at all times to be aware, to be awake, to know where you come from, and to have that memory is a very central thing in human life. Fr. Alexander Schmemann used to say sometimes that to love is to remember, and to be grateful is to remember, because we are grateful for what we remember that has been done, that has been done for our benefit, that has been done for our salvation, that has been done for our good, and never ever to forget it. So there are things that we are never, ever supposed to forget. In some sense, we are supposed to remember everything all the time.
This petition tells us that what we are remembering and calling to remembrance in this litany is the mother of Christ, the mother of God, the Theotokos, birth-giver of God, Virgin Mary, with all of the saints, without whom we would have no faith, without whom we would not have the Scripture, without whom we would not have the Church services, without whom we would not have the preaching of the Gospel, without whom we would not have Christ, because Christ himself, he needs a mother capable of bearing him to come into the world, the Son of God. There has to be the saints who are ready to receive him when he comes. There has to be John the Baptist. There have to be Peter and Andrew and James and John. There has to be the people prepared, the people ready, and we remember all those people, in the Old Covenant and in the New. In the Christian Church in the 21st century, we remember all those holy people in every century, in every age and generation, who received God, who remembered God, who never forgot the presence and the power and the activity of God in their life, who never forgot the saving activity in Christ which is the Christian Gospel.
So this calling to remembrance, remembering, and making alive and being aware of is just an essential human element, and we will see how much, when we don’t remember, when we forget, then of course we’re in big trouble, because then we’re left over to the powers of this age.
We could say about God forgetting our sins: call not to remembrance our sin. Well, that means don’t let it be active for us, but in fact we have to remember our sins, even, and we’ll see this later on in the Liturgy where we are exhorted. The deacon will say to the congregation, “Every one of you, every one of us, mindful of our sins,” so that we would know how God forgave them, how God died on the cross for them, how God redeemed us from the effects of sin, which is death. This remembering, and in this instance, commemorating or remembering, I don’t think it’s so much commemorating like you’d commemorate some event. “Pomnit’sya” [or] “zapomniv” in Slavonic means “having remembered, remembering. “
But the OCA says “commemorating…”—we could say “remembering”—“our most-holy, most-pure, most-blessed and glorious lady, Theotokos and ever-virgin Mary with all the saints.” That means that we are also remembering the fact that we are together with these people, that we constitute the same Church as these people, the same assembly, the same gathering; that when we pray this Liturgy, celebrate this Liturgy, the mother of God and all the saints are present with us, including even the holy angels.
So the Liturgy’s a gathering together, before the face of God, of the whole creation, and certainly of all those who love God, who trust God, who believe in God, who count on God, who believe they’re made in the image and likeness of God, who are grateful for all the activities of God in our life, especially the Gospel, especially the incarnation and the teaching and the death and the resurrection and the glorification of Jesus for our salvation. Remembering, we’ll see later, the gift of the Holy Spirit, that came upon the Theotokos, Mary, so she could conceive Christ; the Holy Spirit who made all of the holy saints, the holy people, also to be filled with the Spirit—the activity of the Holy Spirit.
This is what is going to happen in this Liturgy as a whole. Once again, when we keep repeating this expression and we hear it many times, it’s so that we would never forget the context in which we are praying, that we would never forget those upon whom we depend for having our faith. Later on in the Liturgy we will name them: ancestors, fathers, patriarchs, prophets, apostles, preachers, evangelists, martyrs, confessors, ascetics, teachers, and every righteous spirit made perfect in faith and especially for the holy, most-pure, most-blessed Theotokos, ever-virgin Mary. That is the context; that’s the reality within which this Divine Liturgy takes place, and that’s why, from the very beginning and throughout the Liturgy it’s repeated this particular remembrance.
But what is being said here is not only that we are to commemorate or to remember or to call to remembrance the Theotokos and all of the saints—and that means, of course, the canonized saints, but it means also all of the Christians, because in the Scripture, of course, the name “saint” was simply a name for the Christians: those who have been consecrated and sanctified by God. In some sense, everyone who is created is called to be a saint; we’re all called to be saints. St. Paul in his letters when he writes to the churches, he calls them “saints,” and in that sense we are a holy people, but we have to preserve that holiness, remember that holiness, never forget it, be constantly awake and aware of it. That’s what we have to do as Christians, but we don’t want to think of only the canonized saints here. When it says “and all of the holy people…” you see: “the Theotokos and all of the holy people, meta pantōn tōn agiōn mnēmonevsantes” in Greek: all of the holies, all of the sanctified.
Then we are remembering every Church member, everyone who died in faith, everyone who lived their life in communion with God, so that in that remembrance we smash right through the barriers of death also. We smash through time and eternity. We are still in time, but our remembrance puts us into the eternal realities: all of the things that we remember. We’ll see later on in the Liturgy that we’ll even remember the future. We will remember Christ’s coming again in glory which hasn’t happened yet on the planet Earth in our temporal time, but we remember as eternally happening, so to speak, in the timeless time and beyond even [in the] eternal reality of God himself.
This particular—I don’t know if we can call it a petition or an exhortation—of commending ourselves and each other and all our life to Christ our God, together with the Theotokos and all of the saints, this also reminds us that the Liturgy is a common act. It’s not a private devotion. It’s not an act of piety. It’s an actualization and a realization of the Church itself as the people of God, as the chosen nation, the holy people, a royal priesthood, and it shows that the Liturgy is a common act, and that’s even what leitourgia means: a common act. It’s not something you can do alone. It’s not even something you do with a couple of other believers in some kind of private way. It is always and every time a gathering of all reality, all humans, all saints, all creation, and experiencing that creation as having been created and saved and redeemed and sanctified by God almighty.
So we know that even in the law of Moses, repeated by the letter of Peter in the New Testament, it says, “God is holy. God alone is holy.” We’ll even say that at the end of the Liturgy: “One is holy, one is lord, Jesus Christ,” but we are all made holy through God. So it says in the Old Covenant, “Since your God is holy…” Or God himself says, “Since I, your God, am holy, you have to be holy, too.” You have to be holy, too. You have to be sanctified, too. Here we can think again that that term, “holy,” or “all the saints, all the holy ones,” it also has the connotation in Hebrew, the word “holy, kadosha,” it means being set apart, being called and set apart by God himself, being other than. The opposite would be “profane”: alienated from God. When we speak about being holy, it means we have an identity that comes from God, that we are made to be what God is. And everyone is.
So this “with all the saints” shows that we belong to this community of the people of God, the royal priesthood, the holy nation, God’s own people: the saints, who are sanctified by God almighty himself, by the Holy One who is Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit who is the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Christ, the Spirit of truth, the life-creating Spirit. This is the reality that we are in, and we’ll see how that is specifically proclaimed as we continue to reflect on the Liturgy.
But let us now think just a little bit more here about the exhortation that when we are remembering the Theotokos and all the holy people, we are then exhorted to commend ourselves or to commit ourselves—the English translation in Britain says to entrust ourselves; the Romanian-American translation says to offer ourselves—and one another and our life to Christ our God. And that’s a very, very important, significant exhortation, because when we remember the mother of God and all of the saints, we know that their whole life was commended to God. It was entrusted to God. It was committed to God. There was a commitment. There was an offering.
And we’re going to see that the entire Divine Liturgy is one big offering of ourselves and each other and the whole of creation to God the Father, through Jesus Christ our Lord, through his broken Body and Blood, by the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. So we’re going to see that this sacrificial offering at the Divine Liturgy in the Liturgy of the Faithful is going to be our own bodies, our own life. All that we have and all that we are is going to be offered and entrusted and committed to God so that he could sanctify it, purify it, make it holy.
Here, these adjectives that are ascribed to Mary—most-holy, most-pure, most-blessed, and most-glorious—that’s what we have to be, too. We have to be most-holy, most-pure, most-blessed and glorious together with the Theotokos, because we can mention again, now, as we’ve mentioned many times, that the Theotokos is not the great exception. She’s the great example. She’s the most perfect example of what a human life is to be like. She’s kind of the saint of all the saints, the leader of all the saints, the most holy of all the holies, set apart for God, given to God, living for God, having no identification or self-awareness except in the awareness of God and being identified as one who is created, saved, sanctified, loved, purified, illumined by God almighty himself.
We commend ourselves, we offer ourselves with Mary and all of the saints, through Christ, to Christ, and then through Christ to God the Father by the Holy Spirit acting within us. Now it also says, “commend ourselves and each other.” That “each other” is a very important part of this particular sentence, because we go to church not only to offer ourselves to God, and all that we have and all that we are, symbolized in that bread and wine in the Liturgy of the Faithful, but we come to offer each other. I go to church to offer you to God; you go to church to offer me to God. We are in this together, and we have this wonderful—not only privilege, but duty, a calling, to offer everything to God: ourselves and each other.
So this shows us also a very important Christian conviction, that we are members one of another. We belong to each other. Our life is not our own. We have given our life to God and therefore to our neighbor, and that would mean, for example, in marriage, specifically we give our life to our spouse. The husband gives himself totally to his wife; the wife gives herself totally to her husband. Your bodies are not your own. Your bodies belong to your spouse.
In the monastery, it’s similar. Enter a monastic community and you give yourself to each other, to build up a communion of love. One of the first definitions of the Church in Church history is in the letters of St. Ignatius of Antioch at the very first decade of the second century, the end of the very first century he defined the katholikē Ekklēsia, the catholic Church—he’s the one who first uses that expression, “catholic,” which means including everyone and everything; that’s what “katholon” means; it’s “according to the whole.” “Catholic” doesn’t simply mean “universal”; it means “whole, full, complete, everyone included,” and we include everyone. St. Ignatius defined the catholic Church as a henosis agapēs kai pisteōs: as a union, a communion, a koinōnia of faith and of love.
So we share the faith with the other believers, we love one another, and we’re going to be exhorted, later on in the Liturgy before offering our gifts on the altar and offering our bodies and our whole life with Mary and all the saints through Jesus Christ and with Jesus Christ to God the Father, we’re going to say, “Let us love one another.” When we love one another and have the love for one another, we become members, one of another. St. Paul uses that expression twice: once in the letter to the Ephesians [5:30] and the letter to the Romans [12:4-5]. He said not only are our bodies melē Christou, members of Christ—and Christ got his own body from the Virgin Mary’s body—but we also are ourselves as the Church the body of Christ. We are members of Christ, and if we’re members of the Church we’re members of Christ, and our bodies and our whole reality become members of Christ. If every one of us is a member of Christ, then we are a member of each other as well.
So St. Paul is very clear when he says we are members, one of another. We can never identify ourselves in isolation. Isolation is of the devil. In fact, it’s interesting to note that the very word, “devil, diabolos,” means to separate, to divide, to pull apart; where the word, “symbolos, symbol,” in the old patristic meaning, not in the modern Protestant meaning—a symbol in the modern Protestant means something that’s not real—in classical Christian language, a symbol means that which brings everything together. That’s why we can even call the Divine Liturgy a symbolical act. That’s why we call the Nicene Creed the Symbol of Faith, because it brings everything together and it shows how we belong to each other.
That consciousness has to be within us if we’re really Christians and really human beings, and therefore it has to be really something very much that we are aware of when we celebrate the Divine Liturgy, that we are members of Christ, members of his body, members of the Church which is his body and his bride, and therefore members of one another, and therefore we have no life in ourselves or by ourselves. We have our life coming from God, and it’s the life that we all share and hold identically. We all have the same life. We have the same human nature. We have the same God. We have the same faith. We have the same hope. We have the same Lord. We have the same Holy Spirit.
Again, St. Paul really, really emphasizes this in his letters. There’s one faith, one Lord, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, one hope of our salvation. Everything is one, and that’s, again, an adjective defining the catholic Church in which everything is included, that it is one; the Church is one. There’s one Church. It’s a whole Church (catholic), and it is a holy Church because it’s of God and it is what it is because of the holy God and the holy One of God who is Christ and the Holy Spirit, and it is made up of holy people, sanctified by God. So in this particular exhortation, we are, in fact, saying a definition of the Church, and the Church, of course, shows us what human life is supposed to be.
Again, our Fathers teach us that the Church is the experience of creation as kingdom. The Church is by grace the experience of the human race and the human community and the planet Earth, together with all the animals, plants, and fish and birds, and all of the galaxies and the sun and the moon—it’s the experience of all of that in togetherness, being brought together. The Russians had a word for this: sobornost. They even translated the term in Slavonic, “katholikē,” as “sobornye,” meaning everything is brought together.
We celebrate and proclaim our membership in Christ and in one another, our belonging to one another, and we not only celebrate and proclaim it, we exhort each other to actualize it. That’s why we say here, “Let us commend, let us give, let us offer, let us entrust ourselves and each other and all of our whole life unto Christ our God.” So we’re giving everything to Christ, and then he takes it on our behalf in the presence of God his Father, and it’s all sanctified by the Holy Spirit, and we become what God created us to be in the beginning and what he saved us to be through Christ and what he sanctified us to be through the Holy Spirit.
This is extremely important when we live in a situation where individualism is so rampant. There are even those who think that the great Christian principle is that we’re all individuals… Well, that word “individual” is a kind of tricky word. Sure, we can say we’re individuals, but in Christian tradition it would be much, much better and more accurate not to call ourselves individuals, but to call ourselves persons, because to be a person you must be in communion with other persons. You must belong to other people. You must know that you own also everybody else in some sense. We belong together.
St. Silouan on Mount Athos, in the beginning of the 20th century—he died in 1938—one of the greatest saints of our time, he said that when he came to know God in the Holy Spirit and came to have a clearer vision of reality as a baptized, chrismated, consecrated Christian and monk, he said what he saw was the Cross of Christ and his brother, the other people. The Lord said to him, “Your brother is your life.” So when we commend ourselves, each other, and all our life to Christ our God, in some sense “all our life” includes everybody else, and even the whole of creation. We are essentially, necessarily connected and joined to every other human being, whoever they are, and not only those who are holy and faithful and good, but to everybody without exception.
That’s why one of the things that Christians do in the Divine Liturgy is to offer the whole world to God, to offer the whole human race to God, to offer everything that God has and gives to us back to him. So [at] the high point of the Liturgy of the Faithful, we’re going to say, “That which is yours, we offer again back to you; your own of your own; thine own of thine own, we offer to you,” and then we say, “Kata panta kai dia panta, on behalf of all and for all.” Here again, St. Paul makes it very clear at the last verse of the first chapter of the letter to the Ephesians that the Church of Christ is the fullness of him who fills all and in all, that the Church of Christ is his body, his bride, and that, by his crucifixion and redemption of the world by his suffering and death, Christ is become the head of everything.
St. Paul says it very clearly in that verse in Ephesians; he said, “God has made Christ the head, ē kephalē tōn pantōn, of all things, of all people,” not just believers, not just the elect, not just members of the Orthodox Church, not just Christians, but everybody without exception. And the Christians are those who believe this, who know this, who celebrate this, who proclaim this, and who exhort one another to actualize this, to live this, and that’s why we have repeated so many times in the Divine Liturgy:
Commemorating, remembering, our most-holy, most-pure, most-blessed, most-glorious lady, Theotokos, mother of God, birth-giver of God, and ever-virgin Mary, with all of the holy ones, let us, here and now at this Liturgy, commend ourselves and each other and all our life unto Christ our God.
Here, because this is the Liturgy of the Catechumens and there may be non-baptized people there or seeking people or people who do not believe in the Gospel, in this particular exhortation we can say that in some sense it extends even to them, that they are being exhorted to offer and to commend themselves, together with us, to Christ our God. In other words, it can be interpreted as an invitation to everyone who is present to remember Mary, to remember all of the holy Christian people, and to join into that community, into that assembly, into that ekklēsia, into that Church, and so also to commend not only themselves individually but to join us in commending ourselves—together in the plural—and also each other and everything that we are, our entire life, to Christ our God.
Then we all say in response, “To thee, O Lord. To you, O Lord,” because Christ is our Lord. God is the Lord. The Lord is God. The Holy Spirit is the Lord, the Giver of Life. So when we say, “Lord, have mercy,” and “To thee, O Lord,” it can be definitely interpreted as to each person of the Divine Godhead—the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, each one of whom is our Lord, and together exercise the Lordship, the divine Lordship of the Holy Trinity, to us.
So we remember that, we commemorate it, we are aware of it, we celebrate it; we celebrate it with the greatest human being who ever lived— the Virgin Mary. Jesus Christ, of course, is the greatest human being who ever lived, but Jesus is the Son of God who became human. Jesus is a divine Person who became human. He is fully and completely human, and he’s the greatest Man who ever lived, the greatest Human, because he’s a real human being, but [of] the merely human is the Theotokos as the greatest among us, our great example.
Then, of course, we remember all of the holy people, and we remember that we are all sanctified, and then we commend, we offer, we give ourselves and one another and all our life to Christ our God. And we say to Christ: Take this to your Father. Take it to our Father. As it says in the letter to the Hebrews, “Be our forerunner into the holy place. Be the pioneer of our salvation, the archēgon. Be the forerunner for us. Be the firstfruits of creation and firstborn of the dead and the firstfruit of those who are fallen asleep.”
So Christ, who is human and divine, takes us, through his humanity, into his own divinity, which he has received from God the Father, which is the divinity of the one, true, and living God who is his Father, and the Son of God, and the Holy Spirit. This is our faith, and we are exhorted to remember it and to actualize it. That’s what this exhortation is. When we say these particular words, “Remembering our most-holy, most-pure, most-blessed and glorious lady, Theotokos and ever-virgin Mary,” we are remembering and we are exhorted to remember, and we come together in the Liturgy to remember, but not only to remember, but to offer, to sacrifice, to give, to commit, to commend, to entrust ourselves as the people of God, as Christians and as human beings made in the image and likeness of God, not only ourselves but one another. And we have the privilege and the duty of doing that because we belong to each other. We are members one of another.
St. Anthony the Great who lived all alone in the desert for years and years, he wrote seven letters and in every one of them at least once—in many of them twice; I believe in one of them three times&madsh;he quotes that word of St. Paul: We are members one of another. Even the hermit living in a cave out in the desert knows that he or she is a member of everyone, and [as] members of Christ we become members of each other. This is absolutely dogma, you might say, of the Christian worldview, of the Christian understanding.
So we not only remember, we actualize, we realize, we make real, we proclaim, and we say, all together, with one voice, one mouth: “To you, O Lord, we commend ourselves and each other and all our life.” But then there follows after this the prayer of the Great Litany and then the final exclamation that ends the litany. We will reflect on that the next time.