Holy, Holy, Holy | Trisagion

Holy, Holy, Holy | Trisagion

Liturgy Lesson: February 28, 2021 (Second Sunday in Lent)
Call to Worship: Hebrews 1:1-3; Psalm 99:1-3, 5
Prayer of Invocation
Hymn of Adoration: Holy, Holy, Holy (#100)
Confession: Joel 2:12, Ps. 51:1-12, and Trisagion
Assurance: Eph. 2:4-9
Hymn of Assurance: My Worth is Not in What I Own
Reading of the Word: Luke 22:63-23:5 (Jesus before Counsel and Pilate)
Doxology: #731
Sermon: Rev. Eric Irwin
Tithes and Offerings
Supper: Alleluia! Sing to Jesus (w/ “Worthy is the Lamb” chorus)

It has been said it takes an average of sixty-six days for a new behavior to become automatic. That’s roughly ten weeks. What then happens after ten months or even a year of doing the same thing? What if that repeated behavior involves an entire group or family?

By now all of us have established many pandemic-induced rhythms and behaviors. One hopes that most of these will fade away with the virus, but some will have lingering side-effects. The behaviors that have re-choreographed our worship gatherings are of particular impact because they enter the womb of the church where the body is being formed.

Historic, biblical worship is understood to be about practices that shape the soul. This is part of the purpose of the liturgy. Worship is not just expressive, it is formative. I have often said that worship is not just something we do, it does something to us. Liturgy is defined as “the work of the people,” but a liturgy also can, with the agency of the Holy Spirit, work in and on the people. Here’s the basic point I’d like us to consider: when our worship changes, we change. This change often happens at the substrata level and goes unnoticed. But, over time, these practices can carve out a character and a culture. You may not see the glacier moving, but it is re-shaping the landscape.

This is why it’s so important to endure in worship, even when—especially when—it is difficult or you don’t feel like it. God is present and working through it all. His spirit is animating the song that is stifled by the mask. His love is holding the heart broken by loss. His presence is strengthening the soul stricken with fear. His truth is confronting the judgmental one who now kneels at a distance from his brother. His grace is softening the stony heart. His kindness is comforting the lonely and isolated.

Brothers and Sisters, the Lord is resplendent in glory, incomprehensibly wise, steadfast, supreme, and sovereign. His power and provision can burrow far beneath all the temporary trappings that have dampened our worship this past year. It may be a long, dark winter, but God does not hibernate. He who watches over you does not slumber nor sleep (Ps. 121:3-4). Deep down in the hidden places of the heart, the Lord is awaking and remaking our affections. Through every aspect of our service (and even in the stillness) He is working, watching, whispering, wrestling, warning, wooing and winning. His spirit is not stopped nor hindered by masks, mandates, and mitigating measures.

Friends, your leadership has worked tirelessly this past year to keep the engine of the church humming. It has required more maintenance and repair than ever. You want to know what drives me (and I suspect the others) to do this great work? The heart of it is expressed in Ephesians 3.

“For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”

Weekly worship is an extraordinary gift. Let’s not get caught up in the externals. Even if church on Sunday feels bubble-wrapped, what you find inside is absolutely precious. Come and take hold of it, lean into it, stick to it. Carry on, keep on, hold on. Hang tough and hang in. Be determined, be resolute, be stubborn. Keep it up and see it through. Hold fast. Worship is the one habit that is established for eternity.

“Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.”

Holy, Holy, Holy
Text: Reginald Heber (1826)
Tune: NICAEA, John B. Dykes (1861)

And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and within, and day and night they never cease to say,
“Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty,
who was and is and is to come!”
And whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to him who is seated on the throne, who lives forever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall down before him who is seated on the throne and worship him who lives forever and ever. They cast their crowns before the throne, saying,
“Worthy are you, our Lord and God,
to receive glory and honor and power,
for you created all things,
and by your will they existed and were created.”

– Revelations 4

Ok, here’s the challenge. Write a hymn. You only have four verses, four lines each, eight syllables per line. In this you must distill all of Revelation 4, and also a bit of Isaiah 6, thus linking old and new testaments. Oh, and one more thing: please defend and champion the doctrine of the Trinity. Got all that? Ready? Go!

This was the task that Reginald Heber gladly embraced. Heber, a lifelong poet and hymnwriter, not only passed the test, but he aced it! In four brilliantly succinct and sublime verses, Heber evokes a sense of awe at God’s majesty, and calls us to join in the heavenly anthem that praises the Godhead three-in-one.

Reginald Heber was always trying to improve the music for the Anglican Church he served in England during the mid-19th century. Though his superiors frowned upon the use of anything but metrical psalms (the Church of England banned the singing of hymns until 1820), Heber introduced hymns by Cowper and Newton and even wrote some of his own. This hymn, which certainly would find its place on the Mt. Rushmore of hymnody was called, by Alfred Lord Tennyson, “The world’s greatest hymn.”

It is very rare to find a hymn that is included in almost every hymnal, with relatively unchanged text. And yet this is the case with Heber’s greatest hymn, set to a tune by John Dykes named NICAEA, after the Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325. It was this 4th-century council that gave us the Nicene Creed, in which the church leaders established a firm doctrine of the Trinity in response to the heresies of Arius. Each verse opens with a threefold “Holy,” and the closing statement of the first and last lines is “God in three persons, blessed Trinity.” One of the reasons that this hymn is the gold standard is that the form of the music supports and further illuminates the words. It is interesting to note how many musical intervals (the distance between two consecutive pitches) in this tune are thirds. In fact, the opening melodic statement is based on the triad (do-mi-so) of the diatonic scale, a simple and foundational element of western music. This makes the opening musical gesture very easy to sing, but it is also symbolic of the Trinity, since it groups the first musical phrases in harmonious thirds. Simple yet profound, accessible yet transcendent, this hymn is worthy to be echoed around the glassy sea.

A more un-traditional version
A special treat for the traditionalists

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.”

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 have entered the season of Lent. 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.

The inspiration for the text of this ancient 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.”

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.

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. The version of this hymn that we sing is written by Fernando Ortega. It is a beautiful and haunting contemporary setting that preserves a chant-like, ancient feel. We will be using this repeatedly throughout Lent, because…well…habits form hearts.