The Great Litany - Part 3

August 22, 2012 Length: 33:07

As he continues his commentary on the Great Litany, Fr. Thomas reflects on the prayers for the bishops, presbyters, and deacons.





We are reflecting on the Great Litany with which the Divine Liturgy begins, and indeed the vespers, the matins, the prayer services, the sacraments, virtually all liturgical prayer begins with the chanting of the Great Litany. Sometimes called the Litany of Peace, Ta Eirēnika, the Litany of Peace, because it begins with, “In peace let us pray to the Lord.”

We already reflected on that, that the prayer of the Christian Church on earth is done within the peace of God, the kingdom of God, the victory of God over all of God’s enemies, and peace is the very content of God’s coming kingdom, and peace is the very content of the very proclamation of the very Gospel, of the Gospel itself. Then, of course, the peace is the peace from above, God’s peace, the peace that, as Christ said, that he gives to us: “My peace I give to you, my peace I leave with you, not as the world gives.” So the peace from God, from above, and for the salvation of our lives, of our souls, the victory of God in Christ would be accomplished in us. That’s the content of the peace.

Then the prayer is extended for the whole world, for the welfare, the well-being, the good standing of the churches of God, which are holy because God is holy; and for the union of all the churches, of all humanity, indeed.

Then there’s the specific prayer for the particular gathering, the household of God, called the pillar and the bulwark of the truth, the Church of the living God. So we remember right there, right in the beginning in the third petition that it is the Church that is praying. It’s not simply a gathering of isolated believers; it’s not a prayer service; it’s the constitution of the household of God itself, the Church of God, the kingdom of prophets and priests, those who participate in the victory of God in Christ, who believe in the Gospel and are living according to the Gospel, within the conditions of the Gospel, which is the good news and the glad tidings of our salvation, of our victory in God.

This is how it begins.

In the fourth petition, the prayer is made specifically for the leadership of this community: for the bishop of that community or the archbishop of the community, and then for those who are the elders in the community, the honorable or the precious presbyterate or presbytery, for the diaconate in Christ, for all of the klēros, all those set aside for the service of the Church and who have churchly ministries, and for all of the people of God, all the faithful people. We pray to the Lord; let us pray to the Lord. In Greek, it sounds like this:

Yper tou Archiepiskopou ēmōn (and the name: for our Archbishop and his name, or our bishop) tou timiou presbyteriou (for the honorable or the honored presbyterate) tēs en Christō diakonias (for the deacons in Christ, for the diaconate in Christ, and then it continues: and) pantos tou klērou kai tou laou, tou Kyriou deēthōmen (for all the clergy, those who are set aside, and for all of the people, let us pray to the Lord).

Now here there is commentary that definitely can be made. First of all, it seemed that the traditional practice, at least it seems that way to me, would be that the gathered community who was gathered for God to act within it at the Divine Liturgy, the common action which is empowered, led, orchestrated, guided, designed by God himself, that in that particular gathering the faithful who are gathered would pray for their bishop, for their high priest, for the one who is the leader of their community. And then that particular person, the bishop of the diocese, the bishop of that particular local church, that he would be the one who would commemorate the primate of the larger community of which that particular community is a member. In other words, the local community prays for its own bishop, but then its bishop prays for its archbishop or its patriarch or the one who is the leading bishop in that particular region.

The practice developed that in the local communities that primate would also be prayed for in the great litany. So you could have in this prayer that the gathered community is praying first of all for its archbishop, its primate, the leading bishop in the region, or that archbishop who is also the patriarch, because the patriarch is the head of a particular church and a particular region, but he’s that patriarch first of all because he’s the archbishop of a particular place. For example, the patriarch of Constantinople: he is called the Archbishop of Constantinople and the Ecumenical Patriarch. Same thing in, let’s say, Russia, for example. It would be the Archbishop Metropolitan of Moscow, who is also then ex officio, by virtue of holding that see, would be the patriarch or the ranking leader, the kind of presiding officer within the synod of bishops of that particular region.

Most likely, it’s a very good thing that a local community would pray for the primate of the church to which it belongs and then for its own bishop. This is the way it is in most of the service books now. We would pray, for example, in the official Liturgy book of the Orthodox Church in America, that petition says:

For the holy Orthodox patriarchs, for our Metropolitan (with name), for our Bishop (with name)...

And then it says, “for the honorable priesthood,”—I think “presbyterate” or “presbytery” would be better there—“the diaconate in Christ, for all the clergy and the people, let us pray to the Lord.”

And I think it’s good in this litany—maybe not in other places in the Divine Liturgy; I’ll deal with that later—where basically we, the gathered people, pray for [our] own particular bishop, and then he prays for the primate in his particular Liturgy. But it might be inspired of the Holy Spirit and really very important that a local community would at this point raise the name of the head of its self-governing church, of its local church, which would be an archbishop or an archbishop who also would have the title of patriarch or katholikos or some other title, and then, of course, to remember its own bishop.

This is very important, because it shows that it is the prayer of the Church; it’s not simply a devotional gathering. It’s not just a worship service of singing and preaching or, as the Russian Rosanoff once said, it’s not just a gathering of individual believers for a lecture and a concert. No, it’s the actualization, the realization, the incarnation of the very Church itself, which is a visible community. This is very important for [the] Orthodox understanding of Christianity, that the Church is not an invisible community known to God alone.

Sure, it’s constituted of sinners who hopefully are repenting and struggling to do God’s will, but it itself is constituted by God. The Lord God almighty is present; he is presiding through Christ who is with us always through the power and grace and communion of the Holy Spirit that vivifies the community that makes it alive, that makes it to be the catholic Church. As St. Irenaeus says, “Where the Holy Spirit is, there is the catholic Church.” Ignatius said, in the second century, “Where the bishop is, there is the catholic Church and all righteousness.” So there’s this visible character to the Church in the person of the bishop. Ancient Christianity and certainly Orthodox Christianity sees this as very essential to the very being of the Church.

The Church is a visible community of people, of believers, who gather around under the guidance of its particular archpastor, its particular high priest, who has the name episkopos or bishop. So to say the head bishop of the entire region, and then to name the bishop of the particular gathering, this is very instructive and very important. Again, here, the prayer doesn’t say at all what God ought to do with this archbishop or bishop. It just says we’re offering the prayer concerning the archbishop and the bishop, concerning the Church itself and its leadership. There is this objective leadership.

Every bishop and every archbishop and patriarch was consecrated by several bishops to that particular office, and in the ancient Church that office and that consecration goes back to the apostles themselves. This is certainly the conviction of the Eastern Orthodox Church, that [in] the bishop of the local gathered church, the archbishop of all the churches in the region, of the main church in a particular territory, and therefore as the presiding officer over the other churches within that territory, especially when the synod of bishops meet and gather, representing their local communities in council, then [in the bishop] you’ve got the actual, you might say, visualization, revelation, realization of the Church itself. The Church is then shown to be what it is, and it’s shown what it is to be in the Divine Liturgy.

Here we see that the Liturgy itself is the concrete-ization, the realization, the revelation, the showing-forth in time and space of that community which is the Church of Christ, the Church of God, that identifies itself in history back to the time of Abraham. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, the patriarchs, Moses, the people of Israel through history, just to the coming of the Messianic king of the Jews, Jesus Christ himself, who then completes all of God’s activity in history and by faith and grace all the nations and all the Gentiles, including, as we mentioned, women, Gentiles, slaves, anybody, the lowest of the low, the most outcast, can become a full and complete member of Christ and member of Christ’s body, a bride, a member of the Church of Christ, the people of God. But this is shown forth when the Church gathers, and the full Church, the catholic Church, because it’s in this succession of the bishops.

Here, as we’ve mentioned many times on Ancient Faith Radio, the apostolic succession, the succession of the episcopate from the time of the apostles through history is an essential characteristic of the Christian Church as a visible Church and community that becomes visible, that is actualized, that is realized in space and time in the sacramental prayer, in worship. Here we would say again that it’s only in worship that the Church is actualized. The Church as Church is not actualized in simply a meeting of Christians. It’s not actualized in a meeting of the bishops, even, by themselves. They’re doing their duty there, but they’re doing it as those who make present an entire community of faithful. That community, from the earliest time, had the chief leader who was called the episkopos, but it also had then the elders, and that’s how it’s usually translated in English. The presvyteroi are the elders, and called in liturgical language the presbyters. I think it’s better to use the term “presbyter” than to use the term “priesthood” or “priests” here, because the bishop is also “the high priest.” The presbyter is the more traditional, biblical name here.

In the British translation of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, it says we pray hyper tou archiepiskopokou imon, the archbishop, and then the tou timiou presbyteriou, the honorable or the precious presbytery, and the tēs en Christos diakonias, the diaconate which are in Christ, and then for pantos (all) tou klērou kai tou laou, all the members of the clergy—the deacons, the subdeacons, the singers, the preachers, the doorkeepers, the altar servers, all those various ministries that exist within the Church that are set aside—and then the whole pleroma, the whole body of the faithful.

We are just naming in this petition how the Church is actualizing itself in space and time, where it concretely is. We will see later on how, on the altar table, you have a cloth where the bishop actually signs his name so you know to whom you belong visibly, historically, concretely, in the Church of Christ which is a concrete, historical reality in space and time. We know the continuity of that church and we know who are in communion with that church, and we know how, because of heresies and because of false teachings and perversions of the Gospel, that there are groups of people who also claim to be Christians but are not within this particular visible reality.

Here the teaching I think would be pretty clear that there’s remnants of the Church all over the place in other communities, in other what we would call everyday churches—Roman Catholic Church, Protestant Church, and so on—but here in this petition we specifically raise up the concrete Church to which that concrete assembly belongs, in which it operates, under whose guidance and direction it lives, and very concretely by naming the name of that bishop and even the primatial bishop of a particular region. This is very important, that all this prayer is concerning the leadership of the Church, and basically that would be the bishop, the priests or the presbyters, and the deacons.

Here I would say something about translation. I’m not going to speak too much about various translations like using “thee” or “thou” or “you.” I would just say on the radio I served most of my life praying “thee” and “thou” in the Liturgy, in the old English, but in recent times since I served with the nuns here at the Monastery of the Transfiguration in Elwood City, that particular diocese, that particular church that is within the Romanian Orthodox Episcopate, uses “you” in the Liturgy. The archbishop prefers that; the people do.

Praying with “you,” I find “you” to be much better than “thee” or “thou.” “Thee” or “thou” is archaic. I believe that it’s stilted. If you’re going to use “thee” and “thou,” then you have to have all the verb forms—“thou didst, thou teachest”—all that way which is rather unfamiliar to people, and indeed “thee” and “thou” were considered to be more familiar: not more formal, but more familiar. Nowadays, it’s considered to be more formal, but originally “thee” and “thou” was more familiar.

Nowadays in American and British English, “you” is more familiar, so the Ecumenical Patriarchate translations in Great Britain and here in America at Holy Cross Seminary, they do use “you.” The Romanian Episcopate uses “you.” The Orthodox Church in America uses a combination, depending on the various dioceses and parishes, and the Antiochian Church continues to use “thee” and “thou” as the official translation of the Antiochian Orthodox Church in America. But that’s a debate for another place. I don’t want to get into it personally. I just want to say that my opinion is that the more familiar-type English, in elegant, nice, good style, not newspapery, not jingoism, not slang, obviously, but still using “you” and regular verb forms is probably better, I believe. It’s closer to the way we really speak all the time. It is clearer. It is more understandable. I think it creates a greater intimacy with God and with Christ than “thee” and “thou” which has a kind of formalistic and distancing effect.

I think that debate continues to go on, but in this fourth petition I wanted to mention that sometimes in the original text, you’ll have simply the term in English, “bishops, presbyters, and deacons.” But sometimes in the prayers, you’ll have “episcopate, presbyterate or presbytery, and diaconate.” The only suggestion I would make here in translations is that we be consistent. I don’t think that it’s very good to say that we pray for the “bishops” and the “presbyterate” or the “diaconate,” or we pray for the “episcopate” and the “presbyters” and “deacons.” I think it should be consistent. I think it’s better if it would be consistent.

If the translation is saying, as this one actually says in Greek, for the bishop—because there is one—but then it could say for the honorable or precious or honored presbytery or presbyterate and the diaconate in Christ. To find the best way of saying those titles is something that is still worked on in English, but I would just urge a consistency, of not mixing together different kinds of words, to be consistent in any prayer of how the words are used. There are prayers later on, where we pray for the entire episcopate of the Church, and then we pray for the presbyterate and the diaconate, if you’re going to use those terms.

Right at this point, after we pray for the holy household and for those who are gathered in faith, reverence, and fear of God—that’s how the Christians ought to gather—then the name of the leader and of the leaders, the ministers, the servants, the presbyters, the deacons, together with the name of the bishop, and then even the primate, are raised at this particular point.

Then this petition continues: “for all of the klēros and all of the laos—for all the clergy and the people, let us pray to the Lord.” Here I just want to repeat a podcast that I already gave in this series about clergy and laity, because I personally have to say that I honestly find it a bit misleading, perhaps even more than a bit, to say “the clergy and the people.” First of all, the clergy are members of the people. First and foremost, a bishop, a presbyter, or a deacon is a minister within the people of God, and he is one of those people. He is a member of the laos.

Everybody [is a member] of the people of God, you might say, first and foremost, the bishop and the presbyters and the deacons and the ministers. They are somehow not only the honored and precious members, but they are the ministers; they are the servants; they are the ones who guarantee that the Church is the Church, that it keeps the faith, that it rightly understands the Gospel, that it preserves the unity, the identity, the integrity, the solidarity, the harmony, the unanimity, the reality of the Church itself. They have that particular function, but as baptized people that have certain qualities that allow them to be consecrated and ordained to their ministries. So we wouldn’t want to think of the clergy as not being part of the people.

On the other hand, to say “the people”—the clergy and the people—it makes it sound like the people of God are the not-ordained members: the ordained members are the clergy, and everybody else is the people. Actually, everybody is “the people.” And in some sense, the people of God, meaning the Christian community, the household of God, functions as a klēros, a separated group of intercessors and prophets and teachers and priests on behalf of humanity as a whole.

In the Divine Liturgy, as we will see, one of the aspects and contents of this Divine Liturgy is that the Church as the people of God, led by its bishops, presbyters, and deacons, is praying on behalf of all and for all. It’s praying for the whole world. Right in this litany, it said, “We pray for the peace from above and the salvation of our souls, for the peace of the whole world.” Everybody [is] raised up in prayer before God in the Church of God in Christ. The same way that Christ died on the cross for everyone, not just for the Church, so the Church prays and worships and intercedes on behalf of everyone. In that sense, as I said in an earlier podcast, the Church as the people of God are the klēros or the clergy of humanity.

All the members, all the baptized people, all the chrismated people in the Church, all the communicants in the Church, all those who are faithful to their baptism and keep the faith and celebrate the Divine Liturgy and worship in spirit and in truth are doing this on behalf of the whole of humanity and even the whole of creation.

But in this particular petition, the fifth petition in the great litany, this is what is raised up. We pray concerning or about our archbishop, our bishop, the honorable presbytery—those who are elders in the Church—the diaconate in Christ—and that would include in the oldest days, men and women. There were men deacons and women deacons, or deaconesses, if we want to use that expression. In the Bible, when in the letter to Timothy where the Apostle is urging how the bishops ought to behave, how the elders ought to behave, when it comes to the deacons, the author, St. Paul or who wrote it for St. Paul, speak[s] about the women, “and also the women.” I believe that context in the Timothy letter is also the women deacons. We know that in the Byzantine Empire, the ordination service for the woman deacon was exactly the same as for the man deacon, except that in the prayer for the man deacon, Stephen is mentioned as the first male deacon, and in the ordination prayer for the woman, Phoebe is mentioned as the exemplary New Testamental woman in the diaconate. In the New Testament, Phoebe is called “diakonos.” She is called “deacon,” which simply meant “minister”; it meant “servant.” So we could say, “For the precious elders or eldership, and for the servants in Christ who carry on the diaconal service,” because “diakonia” which is even Jesus Christ applies it to himself in Scripture, that he has come as a deacon, so to speak, as a servant, not to be served, but to serve, and the [word] there in Matthew’s gospel and in the New Testament is “diakonos.” It’s from that very same term meaning a servant.

Here we see that the leadership, the servants, the ministers, are all raised together with all of those who are set aside for a particular purpose, because even the Church bread-bakers and the subdeacons and the taper-bearers, the readers, the chanters were considered part of the klēros, of the clergy, and then there were, of course, the great majority of the faithful people who did not have a particular ministry within the Church as such, although they may have charismatic gifts, like to be a teacher or a healer or a wonder-worker, or even somebody who would pray in tongues or interpret the tongues. We find this in 1 Corinthians; we find it in the letter to the Ephesians, what kind of charismatic gifts belong to what we would call today “the lay people,” the people who are not ordained as bishops or presbyters, priests, or deacons, or are not set aside as readers or chanters or exorcists or doorkeepers or whatever ministers within and for the Church would exist, but there are all those people who have their ministries.

First of all, they have their professions in the world—doctors, lawyers, kings, emperors, healers, nursing people, doctor people, physicians, teachers, farmers, builders, laborers, scientists, artists—all these belong to Christ and to God and are inspired by the Holy Spirit to carry on their ministry, so to speak, within society or within the world, not having any particular ministry within the Church except to be those who are together with the bishops, presbyters, and deacons, and all the other ministers, living according to the Gospel, building up the Gospel, proclaiming the Gospel by their deeds as well as their words, being martyroi, being witnesses to God’s Gospel in Jesus Christ.

Here in this petition, this is all brought together, the entire body of the faithful, all who are there, all who are believers. This is very important, that this done in the Liturgy of the Catechumens, because it tells the seekers and the catechumens that this gathering is a gathering of the Church, and they are witnessing and observing a gathering of the Church of Christ, not a prayer service or a devotion of a bunch of people or individual Christians. No, they are witnessing the actualization and the realization of the Church herself as the body and bride of Christ, the people of God in a concrete assembly in space and time, that has a particular man for its bishop, a particular man for its archbishop or patriarch, who was a presbyterate, elders, all of whom are men with particular qualities, who have a diaconate in Christ. Nowadays we don’t have the women deacons, but we could, and this is something, of course, that is discussed all the time: should an ordained order of women deacons be reinstated at this time in the Church, and that is a debate that is going on.

On that issue my own opinion would be: if they’re needed, let’s have them; if they’re not needed, let’s not have them. If they’re qualified, then you’ve got to follow the canonical rules: the wife of one husband; not a recent convert, all those; not given to much wine; not gossiping and gadding about. In some canons it said that the woman deacon should be 40 years old. Some say 60 years old. Not with a husband and children; either a widow or an elderly woman who is freed from the cares of her own particular household, her own children and so on, who is free to serve the Church. Many of these women were celibate people.

Most of the deacons, I think, in history, were celibate, but not all. Nonna, the mother of Gregory the Theologian, was a deaconess; Tatiana the Martyr, Phoebe, was certainly married; the church met in her household. So, of course, the presbyters and the deacons can be married people, married men, and, if we have women deacons, married women, but the married women have to be those who are freed from the duties of their own particular household to serve the household of God.

Here is the prayer for bringing together all of the Church visibly: a concrete and specific bishop, the actual presbyters, the actual deacons, and all of the ministers in the Church, and all of the people who constitute the Church, who are the Church as the people of God, with their own particular crosses, their own particular charisms, their own particular gifts to offer, their talents in a sense, their powers, things that they could use in society, and, of course, to consecrate what we would call today their secular ministries: their jobs and professions and duties within the world, but, of course, we have to remember that the whole Church exists to serve the whole world, to stand on behalf of the whole world before God, to intercede for the whole world, to empower all the ministries in the world. Secular professions are not simply jobs that have nothing to do with one’s faith or one’s membership in the Church or one’s baptism or one’s chrismation by the Holy Spirit, and one’s participation in the Holy Eucharist.

Indeed, as we will see again and again in these reflections, those who gather as the Church in the Divine Liturgy are sent forth into the world and among all the other people to testify to the Gospel when the worship in spirit and truth is concluded by the reception of Holy Communion and then the prayers of dismissal, to carry on the mission of the Church. Here, there can be specific people called to the ministry of evangelization, to be evangelists, but in some sense every member of the Church is an evangelizer, a martyr. Some people are called to literally die for Christ, to be killed, literally killed, shed their blood, but everybody is called to die. Even in the ordination of the presbyter, he is offered in the Divine Liturgy at the offering with the bread and wine—we’ll speak about this later—as a person who is sacrificed to God.

[For] everyone who participates in the Divine Liturgy, as we will see, together with their bishop, their archbishop, their patriarch, their elders, their priests, their deacons, all their clergy, the Divine Liturgy and worship in spirit in truth is that action by which they offer their own bodies, their own lives, all that they are, all that they have, all that they possess, to God in the crucified and raised and glorified Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. We will see how this works itself out as we continue through our reflection on the Divine Liturgy.

But what we want to see today is that this fourth petition is a raising up of the entire Church, with its leader, named by name, or leaders, primate and local bishop, named by name, and then, of course, the presbyterate and the diaconate, and all those who are set aside for specific ministries in the Church and for all the people all together. They are raised before God, and it’s concerning them that this petition says, “Let us pray to the Lord.”