“Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy and Immortal, have mercy on us.”-The Trisagion
The Holy Trinity is upheld as a central Christian doctrine by Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox alike. At the same time, the Byzantine Tradition has a distinct manner of prayer not seen so often by Western Christians such as Roman Catholics and Protestants, and this is exemplified by the Trisagion Prayer quoted above. When we think of the Holy Trinity in the prayer life of Byzantine Christians, references to the Trinity predominate, and we may ask why that is the case. Is it just to reinforce the dogma of the Trinity, or is there a spiritual message which speaks to our hearts? As we shall see, the latter is more often true. In reflecting upon this, we can not only understand why the Byzantine spiritual traditions have this characteristic, we can also find a message worth meditating upon and practicing in our life of prayer that we are all called to as Christians.
Let’s start by thinking about the sign of the cross. Western and Eastern Christians alike use this gesture to unite ourselves physically to the historic event which wrought our salvation, and while this is most clearly linked to the second Person of the Holy Trinity, the sign of the cross tends to come to us in the liturgy when the Trinity is named. Thus, in the Latin Rite it is said at the beginning and end of Mass, when we hear the words “Father, Son and Holy Spirit”. Additionally, this action is done by many at the absolution and at the Holy Gospel, where words of life, healing and forgiveness take us to the same cross. In the Byzantine Tradition, the sign of the cross comes to us even more frequently in the Divine Liturgy, but there is a similar spiritual source and inspiration. Beyond personal preferences or recollections during the liturgy that lead to making the sign the cross, we make the sign of the cross as a community when we are especially penitential (e.g., at the pre-communion prayers as we say ‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner…” and ‘Remember me, O Lord…”) and when we sing or hear “Father, and Son and Holy Spirit”. But there are other occasions when the Persons of the Trinity are not explicitly mentioned, and yet the Trinity can be seen. Sometimes this is a simple fact that a prayer is repeated three times, which points us to the ‘Threeness’ of the Trinity. For example, we make the sign of the cross each of the three times that we sing ‘Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! Glory to you, O God!”, and there is both a triplicate nature to those three acclamations, just as there are three Alleluias in each acclamation. Here, we see oneness in the three Persons of the Trinity because we praise each Person of the Trinity with the same words. Another prayer with a different message would be the Trisagion, where the one Holy God (Father), Holy and Mighty (Son), Holy and Immortal (Spirit) is called upon in what could simply be three dimensions of who God is, but is actually a reflection of the three Persons of the Trinity. The Father is not solely God, nor is the Son the only Mighty one, and the Spirit is not the only Immortal Person of the Trinity. But we emphasize these dimensions of divinity and may arguably see that the three persons of the Trinity manifest the words God, mighty, and immortal in their own ways and emphases. God the Father is Father for the Trinity and all of creation. Thus, as the “head” of the Godhead we see God uniquely in the Father. The Son is the one who conquers (IC XC NIKA means “Jesus Christ conquers”) sin and death. The Holy Spirit is the one who dwells within us and brings life to the world. So while we profess that each of the three Persons of the Trinity are God, mighty, and immortal, we see the Trinity’s complexity and uniqueness in the sequence of prayers known as the Trisagion. The way that we pray as Byzantine Christians makes both explicit and implicit references to the Trinity on many occasions and in many ways. These references point us to the oneness and Threeness and bring this truth to life, when we reflect upon our prayers.
Let’s step back to an even more basic consideration with regard to an explicit reference to the Trinity. When we pray the words “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”, do we meditate upon the singularity of the word “name”? This comes to us directly from the Bible, where Christ utters the same words in the context of the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19). There are three persons who have one name! The Byzantine response to this mystery of the Holy Trinity is that we should revel in this mystery that can be seen on so many levels. What does this cause us to do for our spiritual life? I would like to consider two consequences of this view of the Trinity.
First, we are called to pause and see God in all of life. When God is not viewed as the Father, we do not have a loving leader who brings us guidance. When God is not viewed as the Son, we do not have a condescending love who rescues us from our deepest distress. And when God is not viewed as Spirit, we lack that transcendent love who is “everywhere present and filling all things”. Each of these aspects come to us in the Trisagion, however. The word “Holy” unites the three Persons of the Trinity into the one holy Godhead of the undivided Trinity. And yet the words God, Mighty, and Immortal distinguishes them. As complex beings, we yearn for a King who is mighty and life giving. Dwelling upon God who is enthroned on high, God who is saving us by death, trampling death, and the God who is everywhere present meets every need of our own complexities. We will see God in tragedy because He is a King who will judge the world to make things right. We will see God in sin because He has ultimately conquered it. We will see God at all times and in all places and all people because He abides in all places.
Secondly, meditation upon the Trinity will bring us to realize that mystery is everywhere. So often our analytical approach to life robs us of the fullness of truth in life. As just one example of many, consider church governance and structure and the Nicene Creed, which calls the Church “One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic”. In the Byzantine Tradition, we often hear of the Church described in both a singular and a plural sense. One example would be the standard Ambon prayer which states, “Preserve the fullness of your Church…Grant peace to your world, to your churches…” For many, the idea that the Church could be one flies against the diversity and disagreements of history. We are not all uniform, nor should we be. But if we see uniqueness and yet absolute unity in the Trinity, this will not be so unsurprising. For others, the idea that the Church include an element of “many-ness” is unattractive or confusing, particularly among some who want a monolithic hierarch, or among Protestants who think that they are the only ones who interpret the Bible correctly. Particularly for many Eastern Christians, this complexity is somewhat second nature. We think of our own particular Church’s history, and we not only commemorate other leaders but we understand that our roots are complex. Bishops coming into and falling out of communion with others is a vivid experience, and our diversity of liturgical practices, musical styles highlights that while there is much in common even among Byzantine Christians, there are many unique features within Byzantine Christianity, and yet we can still see the oneness of our faith. Worshipping the undivided Trinity calls us to have that vision of seeing oneness and “many-ness” at the same time, and gives us a more nuanced view than a simple either/or mindset. This issue of complexity can be extended to questions of science and faith, mercy and judgment, celibacy and marriage, lay people and clerics, masculinity and femininity, and so much more. In each case, worshipping the Trinity is the answer because we are drawn towards mystery and away from an either/or mentality.
In conclusion, the Byzantine manner of prayer calls our attention to the Trinity not because this is a strict dogma, nor is it a way of bringing confusion. Instead, this is our grid of understanding God in His deepest mysterious being, and it is our path to best understand ourselves, our neighbors and the world at large. By delving deep into the spirituality of the Byzantine Churches, we are brought to the threshold of a complex reality that makes sense of most difficult issues that we face, and provides hope for our future where these problems are conquered by the God who is Holy, Mighty and Immortal. Glory to Jesus Christ!