Fr. Stavros N. Akrotirianakis is the Proistamenos of St. John Greek Orthodox Church in Tampa, FL. Fr. contributes the Prayer Team Ministry, a daily reflection, which began in February 2015, has produced two books, “Let All Creation Rejoice: Reflections on Advent, the Nativity and Epiphany”: “https://amzn.to/2t1rXwh and “The Road Back to Christ: Reflections on Lent, Holy Week and the Resurrection.” https://amzn.to/2WAcfG0
But Martha was distracted with much serving; and she went to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her.” Luke 10:40-42
We who mystically represent the Cherubim, sing the Thrice-Holy Hymn to the Life-Giving Trinity. Let us lay aside all the cares of life that we may receive the King of All.
Today begins several reflections on what is known as the Cherubic Hymn, as well as the prayers and actions of the priest that occur while the Cherubic Hymn is being sung. So, let us begin with the practical and work our way to the inspirational.
“The Liturgy of the Faithful” begins with a presentation of the Holy Gifts and their transfer to the Holy Altar. What do you mean transfer? Well, first let us step back in time and look at the early church. In the early church, the communities were often much larger than the communities of today. In fact with the entire Christendom belonging to one church, there were churches of one denomination in every neighborhood. So, the communities were larger and had multiple clergy.
When people went to church, they would enter the narthex, and off the narthex they would find two large rooms. One room on the right side was the baptistry, where there would be a baptismal pool, similar to what is found in today’s Protestant churches. The baptismal font would be used only a few times a year, when mass baptisms were done. On the left side of the narthex, there was a room called the “Skevofilakion,” or the room of the Holy Vessels (Skevi). This room was manned by a priest called the “Economos.” He was in charge of the property of the church, and of receiving the gifts offered by parishioners. (As a side note, priests are given “offikia” or titles as they accrue seniority and service. These titles are mostly honorary, since most priests serve by themselves in parishes. One of these honorary titles is ‘Economos”, another is “Protopresbyter.” The only title that materially changes the role of the priest is the title “Pnevmatikos,” because only someone who has been given this title can hear confessions. A confessor also wears the diamond shaped vestment over his right knee. Those who are not confessors do not wear this piece of vestment.)
Upon entering the Narthex, the faithful would give an “offering” to the Economos—wine, bread, oil, incense, candles, etc.—the things needed to conduct the service. This is where the tradition of making an offering comes from, though in the old church, it would not be only money, but these other items as well. The Economos would then prepare the Gifts of Bread and Wine, and at the time of the Great Entrance, the deacons of the church would process down the side aisle, pick up the gifts in the narthex and proceed up the center aisle, where they would be given to the Protopresbyter to be placed on the altar. Over the years, this room called the Skevofilakion was replaced by a table to the left side of the altar, called the table of the Prothesis. At the Prothesis, the priest prepares the bread on the diskos (or Paten) and places wine in the chalice and prepares the Gifts for the Liturgy. At the time of the Great Entrance, he exits the altar, goes down the left aisle to the narthex and then up the center aisle. Though the transfer of the gifts is only twenty feet, from the Prothesis to the altar, the ancient route is still used, going down the side aisle and up the middle aisle. When a bishop is present and serving, the Gifts are presented to him and he places them on the altar. In usual practice the priest carries the Gifts in the procession, and proceeds to place them on the altar table. This is what we call the Great Entrance. Additionally, the priest is preceded by altar servers who carry candles, fans, cross and censer.
Before the Great Entrance can take place, the priest offers a prayer, censes the church, and prepares to bring for the Gifts for the procession. There are several prayers that he offers here which we will examine in future reflections.
The people meanwhile sing the Cherubic Hymn, which makes two important points. First, we are about to stand in the place of the angels. How is that? In Isaiah 6, we read:
In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and his train filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim; each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said:
Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” Isaiah 6:1-3
In Isaiah’s vision of heaven, the angels are around the throne of God, singing the “thrice-holy” hymn. And so, we, the faithful, the human beings, are about to “set aside our worldly cares” so that we too can stand in the presence of God, so that we can temporarily enter into heaven and assume the role of the angels. We do this “mystically”, we can’t explain scientifically how we, the mere human being, can assume the role of an angel. So we “mystically represent the Cherubim,” and we sing the thrice holy hymn to the life-giving Trinity. Because we are preparing to receive “the King of All,” our Lord Jesus Christ, in the sacrament of Holy Communion.
And the hymn reminds us what is needed in order for us to do that with meaning—we must set aside our worldly cares. We all become like Martha in the above scripture. Stress and hurrying around are just a part of life. We almost feel guilty if we are not scurrying around doing something. This hymn not only gives us permission to set aside our earthly concerns but it almost demands that we do. If we can’t set aside earthly cares, at least for a little while each day in prayer, and for a little while each week in worship, then we ARE going to miss out on the needful thing. It is the needful thing that gives us the strength, and the wisdom to do our “running around” successfully. We talk about being a Mary in a Martha world. Well, in order to survive as a Martha, we’ve got to be the Mary and be part of that one needful thing.
Lord thank You for the opportunity to stand in Your presence each week at the Divine Liturgy, and each day during prayer. Help me to set aside my worldly cares each day and each week so that I may receive a portion of You, Your guidance and Your glory, in prayer and in Communion. Give me the wisdom to manage my worldly cares. Thank You for the opportunity to stand in the place of Your angels in the Liturgy. May I remember this on a daily basis and may I be inspired to play this role with reverence and with joy. Amen.
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