WORSHIP & THE DIVINE LITURGY: 8
A LITTLE BACK & FORTH – THE ANTIPHONS
The following words have a certain connotation and meaning: antibiotic, antidepressant, antitrust, antithetical, antibacterial, and antiseptic. Not only do they start with the prefix ‘anti’ but that prefix means they are the opposite or opposed to the word the prefix modifies. But in Orthodox Christianity, the prefix ‘anti’ doesn’t necessarily have an adversarial meaning. In other words, ‘antibacterial’ implies that bacteria are bad and they must be opposed, fought and killed. In the Church, that is true with the word ‘antiChrist’ but it does not apply to the word ‘Antiphon’ which is the today’s topic, number eight, in our ongoing series on Worship and Liturgy.
I gained a new appreciation for the prefix ‘anti’ when we visited Greece twenty-five years ago working for the Ionian Village Camp program. During one of our many trips to see ancient churches and classical sites, we had to cross the Gulf of Corinth to go from the Peleponnesos to the northern half of Greece. Back then there was only the ferry boat, now there is the large bridge but on one side was the little town of Rion and on the other side of the gulf was another little town—Antirion. Now, they were not named because one was bad and the other was good, or vice versa. Rather, it was because they just stood across a body of water from one another.
The same is true for Pascha and AntiPascha. One is the Sunday of the Resurrection and the other is the next Sunday, also known for St. Thomas. They stand on opposite ends of Bright-Renewal week. And the same is true for the part of the Divine Liturgy that we call the ‘Antiphons.’ Antiphon literally means opposite or alternating voices because for much of Church history there were two choirs, instead of one, chanting these parts. I first witnessed this when I began attending chapel services during seminary. There were two choirs for every Vespers, Orthros and the first half of the Divine Liturgy, one choir on one side of the solea and the other on the opposite side. At the Cherubic Hymn of the Great Entrance, the two choirs joined together. (Greek dictionary: Antiphonisis- answer to a speech; Antiphonon- a response; Anti- instead of, for, against; Phone- voice, cry, scream, sound. Biblical Greek: Anti- opposite).
We spent the last two weeks talking about the Great Litany. At the end of it, the priest recites the prayer of the first Antiphon while the people sing the very first hymn of the Liturgy: “By the prayers (intercessions) of the Theotokos, Savior save us.” When say, “Most Holy Theotokos, save us,” we are not substituting her for Jesus Christ. Rather, we are asking for her to pray to Christ for us.
Some people confuse how the Orthodox relate to Mary, the Mother of God. They may say we view her as a Co-Redemptress with Christ. This is not accurate. Christ the Lord saves us, but the Theotokos can help. When we say, “by the intercessions/prayers of the Theotokos”, it would be like calling 911 in an emergency. The police, firemen, paramedics, doctors and nurses do the actual work to save a life, but the person who made the phone call initiates the help and the Virgin Mary is the best dispatcher who can facilitate the resources necessary to connect us with our life-saving physician--Jesus Christ.
This hymn ‘Tais presvies..’ is usually sung three times preceded by psalm verses called ‘stichoi.’ Then, the second antiphon prayer is read while the people chant, “Save us o Son of God, who rose from the dead, we sing to you, Alleluia,” also three times.
The tradition of the antiphons goes back to the ancient Church when the faithful assembled outside the church waiting for the beginning of the Liturgy. They would take turns singing the Psalms. Now, we only chant one verse from a Psalm before each of the short hymns. The antiphonal verses were probably in place by the 4th or 5th century.
During the Antiphons, we encounter not only the first hymns, but also the first actual prayers of the Liturgy. The priest can read them quietly during the hymn singing or read them out loud beforehand. The prayers are instructive in that they tell us who God is, who we are, and how we should relate to Him. I’m going to read them slowly with particular emphasis to help us understand them better.
Prayer of First Antiphon: “Lord our God whose power is beyond compare and glory is beyond understanding; whose mercy is boundless and love for us is ineffable: Master look upon us and upon this holy house in Your compassion. Grant to us and to those who pray with us Your abundant mercy.”
Prayer of Second Antiphon: “Lord our God save Your people and bless Your inheritance; protect the whole body of Your Church; sanctify those who love the beauty of Your house; glorify them in return by Your divine power and do not forsake us who hope in You.”
Prayer of Third Antiphon: “Lord, You have given us grace to offer these common prayers with one heart. You have promised to grant the requests of two or three gathered in Your name. Fulfill now the petitions of Your servants for our benefit, giving us the knowledge of Your truth in this world and granting to us eternal life in the world to come.”
Immediately after the third singing of “Save us of Son of God…” the we sing the following hymn: “Only begotten Son and Word of God, Immortal One, Who did humble yourself by taking flesh by the Theotokos and ever-Virgin Mary. Without change did You become man and were crucified Christ our God but conquered death by Your death. As one of the Holy Trinity and being glorified together with the Father and the Holy Spirit, save us.” This hymn might have originally been a prayer. It was probably written by the Byzantine emperor Justinian dating from the 6th century and provides a striking summary of the redemptive work of Christ. Memorize it and share it with friends.
The third antiphon also varies from tradition to tradition. In the Russian Church, the Beatitudes (Makarismoi) are sung regularly. In the Greek Church, the Troparion of the Resurrection on Sundays or the Typica (Psalm 102 or 145) are chanted with Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. These of course clearly articulate how Christians should live in relationship to each other and the world around them. Even though they were written by the Prophet King David hundreds of years before Christ, he Psalms encapsulate the whole of one’s life in Christ.
The antiphons also provide the first opportunity for variety in the Liturgy. Some may say it’s the same thing every Liturgy. However, there are differences between Sunday and weekday liturgies. During the weekday liturgies, we sing in the second antiphonal hymn, “…Save us O Son of God, among the saints glorified…” There are also differences from Sunday to Sunday depending on the festal period. The psalm verses (stichoi) today were different because we are celebrating the Apodosis (or the completion) of the Feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple. The Apodosis of a Feast is almost like celebrating the Feast itself.
In conclusion, let us remember the Apodosis of the Eisodos tis Theotokou, and imitate the little three-year-old Virgin Mary who eagerly entered the Temple escorted by the temple maidens, welcomed by the priests, brought by her parents Joachim and Anna. Let us also remember St. Katherine the Great Martyr whom we also commemorate on November 25th. And let us imitate her who is called “All-Wise” (‘Pansophous’ in Greek) becoming knowledgeable in our faith and worship. Finally, understanding the Antiphons of the Divine Liturgy, we also remember that just because certain people sit on the south side of the nave does not mean that they are anti-north, or the northerners are anti-south. Amen!