Trisagion | My Song Is Love Unknown

Trisagion | My Song Is Love Unknown

Liturgy Lessons: March 10, 2019 (First Sunday in Lent)
Call to Worship: Psalm 84
Prayer of Invocation
Hymn of Adoration: Praise to the Lord, the Almighty (#53)
Confession: Isaiah 6:1-5 and Trisagion
Assurance: Isaiah 6:6-7 and 2 Cor. 5:14-17
Song of Assurance: Whiter than Snow
Catechism/Congregational Prayers
Reading of the Word: Luke 9:57-62 (The cost of following Jesus)
Doxology: #731
Sermon: Rev. Eric Irwin, “Following on His Terms”
Supper: My Song Is Love Unknown; Take My Life
Closing: All For Jesus (#565)

He [Christ] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him.
– Colossians 1:15-22

So many of our liturgical practices, both in form and content, pre-date the Reformation. We are a reformed church, yes, but we are also grafted into the great body of believers, the majority of which were alive in the faith before 1517.

I have always had an uneasy feeling about the label “Protestant,” not because of the content of our beliefs, but the connotation of the title. It seems to suggest a contrarian identity, one that is defined by what it is against. The word “protest” is just so loaded, particularly in our hyper-politicized world, and the synonyms (objection, complaint, disapproval, opposition, dissent, fuss) just sound so inhospitable and borderline unchristian. Perhaps a more accurate and winsome term would be to call ourselves Professants. We profess. We proclaim. We affirm. We define ourselves by a positive declaration of the timeless truths in God’s word. We would agree with what C.H. Spurgeon once said, “Reformed theology is nothing other than biblical Christianity.”

According to the Bible, divisiveness is dissonance with the sweet harmony that God intends for us (Ps. 133). Shouting is very different than singing. It is hard to shake hands with a stiff arm. When we put down the denominational placard and instead take up one of the ancient hymns, creeds or prayers from our shared heritage, we allow space for grace. There is, after all, this statement in the Apostle’s Creed.

We believe in one holy catholic, and apostolic church.

That statement first appeared over 1,000 years before Luther got out his hammer. Of course, the creedal confession of our identity as “little-c” catholics finds its origins in scripture (see Eph. 2:11-22 ). The spirit of reconciliation and unity is all over the New Testament (see 1 Cor. 12:12-31 and 2 Cor. 5:18). Jesus prayed that we may be one (Jn. 17) and the Father’s purpose through Christ is the unification of heaven and earth (Eph. 1:10) and the reconciliation of all things to himself (Col. 1:20). Jesus is the word made flesh, and “the church’s one foundation.” As that historic hymn states:

Elect from every nation, yet one o’er all the earth,
her charter of salvation one Lord, one faith, one birth;
one holy name she blessed, partakes one holy food,
and to one hope she presses, with every grace endued.

One of the ways that we affirm the one-ness of all believers is by observing the Liturgical calendar. Following the seasons that trace Christ’s earthly journey puts us in lockstep with millions of Christians from different traditions. And so now, with our brothers and sisters around the world, we enter the season of Lent. There is perhaps no other liturgical season of the church that is more countercultural than Lent. In an era of glut and fullness, the Christian empties out. In a culture of indulgence and distraction, the Christian fasts and prays. In a western ideological world where the self is sovereign, the Christian denies himself, takes up his cross, and follows Jesus. It is traditionally a time of prayer, fasting, self-denial, and repentance, during which the Christian believer draws closer to God by following the example of Christ, who fasted in the wilderness for forty days.

Lent (from middle English lenten “spring”) as a season is rooted in the preparation of candidates for baptism at the Paschal vigil. The first mention of it was around the year 200. As a 40-day period (six weeks) Lent is mentioned in a canon of the first ecumenical Council of Nicaea in 325. Such an ancient practice calls for age-old songs. Speaking of which…

Text: 5th century Orthodox liturgy (based on Is. 6:3; Rev. 4:8; Ps. 50:1; 1 Tim. 1:17)
Music: Fernando Ortega, 2011

“Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy Immortal One, Have Mercy on Us.”

The inspiration for the text of this hymn is mentioned two times in scripture, in Isaiah and Revelation. Both are occasions where the curtain is pulled back and man gets a vision of heaven, in which the Seraphim are declaring “Holy, Holy, Holy.” This threefold cry is the basis for the Trisagion (pronounced “Tri-sigh-yahn”), which basically translates as “thrice holy.” The early church fathers saw this Seraphic hymn as an address specifically to the three persons of the Holy Trinity, so they expanded it into the Trisagion. For them it was mystagogical (guiding into the sacred), a way for man to join the heavenly liturgy. St. John Chrysostom said this:

“Above, the hosts of angels sing praise; below, men form choirs in the churches and imitate them by singing the same doxology. Above, the Seraphim cry out the Trisagion Hymn; below, the human throng sends up the same cry. The inhabitants of heaven and earth are brought together in a common assembly; there is one thanksgiving, one shout of delight, one joyful chorus.”

The legend of the Trisagion’s origins is miraculous. On the 25th of September (my wife’s birthday, BTW), each year the Orthodox Church commemorates the miracle by which the heavenly hymn was delivered to the early church. This account dates from the year 447, when Theodosios II was emperor.

“During Proclus’ reign great earthquakes were occurring in Constantinople for four months continuously. Being struck with fear, the Romans went out of the city to the so-called Kampos (encampment), and were supplicating God and processing with the bishop night and day. One day, when the earth was shaking and all the people were continuously crying out the ‘Kyrie Eleison’ (Lord have mercy), at about the third hour, suddenly and in sight of all a young child was taken up into the air, and a divine voice was heard around it announcing to the bishop and the people to process and to say thus: ‘Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy Immortal One, have mercy on us’, nothing else being added. Our father among the Saints, Proclus, accepting the decision, processed the people chanting thusly and the earthquake immediately ceased. The blessed Pulcheria and her brother, supporting the miracle, established that this divine hymn be chanted throughout the entire ecumene; and from that day all the churches sing to God each day.”

The most common modern English rendering of this divine hymn is found in the 1970 The Book of Common Prayer from the Anglican church, which uses the prayer regularly as part of their communion. In describing the merit of this hymn in contemporary liturgies, one priest had these very compelling and unifying words:

“The hymn which we sing comes to us directly from the angels, and it is taken in part from the book of the sacred psalms of the prophet. It was gathered together by Christ’s Church and dedicated to the Trinity. The Church which is the assembly of those who believe and profess the Trinity and Unity of God, played in part in gathering together these two acclamations, joining them, and adding the phrase, ‘Have mercy on us’; she wished to show, on the one hand, the harmony of the Old and New Testaments, and on the other, that the angels and men form one Church, a single choir because of the coming of Christ who was of both heaven and earth.”

It is a profound mystery that God has “raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:6-7). And if we are seated next to the angels, that means we are established as a member of the heavenly choir. This Sunday we celebrate that reality by singing the Trisagion hymn. We join that eternal song to the Triune God that has been on a glorious repeating loop since the earth was without form and void, darkness was over the face of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.


My Song Is Love Unknown
Text: Samuel Crossman (1664)
Tune: ST. JOHN, John Baptiste Calkin (1827-1905)

In Galatians 6:14, Paul passionately states “But God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world.” This prayer is the root of an exquisite meditation on the suffering Savior by the aptly named Samuel Crossman in 1664. It is very similar in tone and style to the mystical poetry of George Herbert. In seven devotional and heartfelt verses, Crossman beautifully illuminates the love of Christ. The first verse contains the simple and sublime statement that Christ is “love to the loveless shown that they might lovely be.” In the next five verses Crossman ruminates on the rejected and despised Jesus, asking “why, what hath my Lord done? What makes this rage and spite?” He then declares the truth that Christ “willing to suffering goes, that he his foes from thence might free. Then, in a tender benediction, Crossman gives us one of the greatest final verses in all of hymnody:

Here might I stay and sing, no story so divine;
Never was love, dear King, never was grief like thine.
This is my Friend, in whose sweet praise
I all my days could gladly spend!

On Sunday, we will take Crossman’s advice and linger to honor the man on the Cross. In our actions we will upgrade the phrase ‘might stay’ to a definitive. Here we will stay and sing. In response to this hymn (which will be our first supper hymn), we will sing the great hymn of consecration, “Take My Life and Let it Be.” If you listen closely to the violin, in between the verses of “Take My Life” you may hear echoes of “My Song Is Love Unknown.” These musical echoes of the Cross should prompt our grateful and willing surrender to Christ. This is beautiful and right. We love because He first loved us (1 Jn. 4:19). We give ourselves to him because He gave himself for us (Eph. 5:25). We sing because He sings over us (Zeph. 3:17). It is all just so apt and fitting. Isaac Watts reminds us, the only appropriate response to “Love so amazing, so divine” is to offer up “my life, my love, my all.. This Jesus, this “love to the loveless shown,” He is our great Friend, in whose presence and sweet praise we will gladly spend our days.

Sheet music
Recording from Faith Presbyterian Tacoma