Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Three Liturgical Questions

          I sometimes cannot help asking myself three liturgical questions whenever I visit churches which serve the Liturgy in the “classic” pattern I learned in seminary—all of those questions quite rhetorical. I would like to share them here in a spirit of calm inquiry in the hope of provoking helpful discussion about things liturgical. My approach might be styled as motivated by a spirit of “liturgical reform” by some, or even “renovation” by the less sympathetic, but my aim is not so much reform or renovation as a return to patristic common sense. That is, at Liturgy I cannot help wondering what St. John Chrysostom would think about what we have done with the Liturgy ascribed to him, and concluding that he would be less than thrilled at some of the changes that have evolved over the years. This does not mean that we should take the liturgical scalpel to the texts as Vatican II has done with the Roman Mass. But it does mean that if certain aspects of our praxis would raise the eyebrows of a Chrysostomus redivivus, perhaps we should revisit that praxis.
          Question one: why do the people say “Amen” to prayers that they have not heard? Where the practice obtains of saying the prayers silently, the priest will say (for example) the prayer after the Great Litany silently or quietly enough not to be heard by the congregation, and then raise his voice so that the final bit of the prayer can be heard: “for unto You are due all glory, honour, and worship: to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever unto ages of ages”. The congregation (or perhaps the choir, substituting for the congregation) then answers, “Amen”. The part that can be heard is not a prayer, or even a sentence, but simply a clause. The problem, of course, is that such a practice makes nonsense of the people’s response “Amen”. The word “amen” does not mean “the prayer is over”. As St. Justin Martyr explained long ago, it signifies “so be it” (in his Greek, genoito/ γενοιτο), and represents the people’s participation and assent to what has been said. This congregational assent transforms the utterance from being the private wish and prayer of the celebrant into being the corporate prayer of the gathered church. As Schmemann says (in his book The Eucharist), “With this word the ecclesial assembly concludes and, as it were, seals each prayer uttered by the celebrant, thereby expressing its own organic, responsible and conscious participation in each and every sacred action of the Church”. This presupposes, of course, that the prayer has been uttered and heard. Of course the people know (maybe) what the priest has said silently, but private knowledge is not the point. Liturgical worship is not private knowledge, but public utterance. As it is, the people are sealing not a prayer, but a clause, one with minimal content. The fact that this is not felt as odd reveals how greatly the role of the laity has been devalued and rendered liturgically irrelevant.
          And sometimes it is worse than this. In places where the priest serves without a deacon, it is customary for him to intone the Great Litany, and then straightway intone the final clause of the prayer (the so-called exclamation or ekphonesis), and then, after the Amen has been sung, say the prayer quietly during the singing of the First Antiphon. (Presumably this is why that prayer is called in the liturgy books “The Prayer of the First Antiphon”.) This means that the people are saying their Amen not only to a prayer that they have not heard, but to a prayer that has not yet been said. Their “amen” and their role then is not only irrelevant, but nonsensical. I can imagine St. John Chrysostom raising his eyebrows.
           The second question is this: why do we sometimes talk to people who aren’t there? I refer of course to catechumens in congregations where catechumens do not exist. Whether or not a congregation has catechumens within it, oftentimes the deacon and priest will assume they are there and talk to them. The deacon begins by addressing them, “Pray to the Lord, you catechumens!” and then goes on to pray for them. He will conclude by talking to them again, bidding them, “Bow your heads unto the Lord, you catechumens!” Then the priest prays a prayer, asking God to look down upon the catechumens “who have bowed their necks before” Him and unite them to His holy Church through baptism. After all this, the deacon again talks to them, ordering them twice to “depart” and again to not remain. But if no catechumens are there, who are priest and deacon talking to and about? Generally speaking, sane people do not talk to people who are not there as if they were.
          If a congregation does have catechumens, it is reasonable for them to pray for these catechumens even when they are absent—but not to talk to them. In the case of absent catechumens, the church might reasonably pray for them in the third person, omitting the lines in which catechumens are addressed in the second person (e.g. “Pray to the Lord, you catechumens!”). And of course one would not tell people to leave who were not present in the first place. As it is, we are talking to catechumens who aren’t there, and then telling them to leave, when we would in fact want them to remain even if they were there. When Chrysostom had his catechumens dismissed, he expected them to actually leave. That is, his words had existential meaning and a corresponding reality in congregational life. He would wonder why we pretend we have catechumens when we don’t, why we tell them to pray and bow their heads to the Lord when they are not there, and why we tell them to leave when we expect them to stay for coffee hour, or at least until the end of the service.
          Question three: why do we pretend things have happened when they haven’t? Here I refer to several things. In some congregations the deacon cries out before the Gospel, “Stand upright!” (or “Let us attend!”; the Greek is orthoi/ ορθοι) and in some places this is taken as the signal to kneel. We tell people to stand up straight, and then don’t bat an eye when they do the opposite. Their piety may be commendable (if a touch uncanonical), but it makes nonsense of the liturgical direction.
           It is similar later on when the people are bidden to bow their heads to the Lord (i.e. bow their heads forward so that the priest may extend his hand over them to bless them), and everyone present remains with unbent neck—except, oddly enough, the priest who turns his back on them to bow his head to the Lord. Or, most strangely of all, the diaconal command, “In the fear of God and with faith, draw near!” This is, of course, not a suggestion, but a command to all those listening to come forward to receive Holy Communion. The liturgical text assumes that the people have obeyed and that everyone present drew near, for the next diaconal litany begins, “Stand upright! Having partaken of the divine, holy, most pure, immortal, heavenly, life-creating and awesome mysteries of Christ, let us worthily give thanks unto the Lord”. In some congregations hardly anyone comes forward to receive (I remember being in one packed Greek church of about 500 people, where my wife and I and four other people were the only communicants), but the deacon insists on chanting as if the congregation had partaken of the divine and holy mysteries. In all this we see a gap between what we say and what actually happens. Our liturgical words have been, if not exactly emptied of meaning, then certainly subject to an existential erosion of meaning. We no longer mean exactly what we say. Constantinople’s pastor, I suggest, would not be amused.
          What to do? One sometimes hears that no one can do anything to close the gap between words and reality in the Liturgy without the pronouncements of an Ecumenical Council. Such a view of history is defective. As a matter of historical fact, liturgies evolved throughout the centuries through shared local variation, quite apart from the mandates of an Ecumenical Council. Such councils, whether “ecumenical” or “provincial”, only concerned themselves with liturgical details when abuses and problems became widespread enough to merit their attention. Thus the Council of Nicea ruled that deacons should not commune presbyters (canon 18), and that one should not kneel liturgically on Sundays, or during the Paschal season (canon 20). Thus the “Quinisext” Council ruled that the pre-Eucharistic fast should be maintained even on Holy Thursday (canon 29), and that milk and honey should not be offered on the altar (canon 57). In all these rulings the councils were not concerned to police every liturgical development that occurred (which was beyond their power even if they had wanted to), but to simply curb developments they felt were widespread abuses. Liturgy grew and developed because it was alive, and quite apart from conciliar decrees. (For a quick overview see Taft’s The Byzantine Rite: A Short History.) The bishops had the major share of decision-making and control because the bishops then (unlike now) were the local pastors. As such, of course they had liturgical authority over the churches in which they had the weekly burden of pastoral care.
          For now, the best we can hope for is to at least start the discussion.  It is not an unimportant one. And we should hold the discussion realizing that St. John Chrysostom is watching us with interest. He might not now get a vote in the proceedings, but his approval or disapproval should surely matter to us.  We invoke his name and his authority at the conclusion of every non-Lenten Liturgy, and we will one day have to face him and perhaps explain to him why it is we serve “his Liturgy” the way we do. 

Friday, June 23, 2017

Commentary on the Divine Liturgy: the Gospel

          I would like to conclude this commentary series on the Divine Liturgy (or at least the first part of the Liturgy, the so-called “Liturgy of the Catechumens”) with a reflection on the reading of the Gospel.  In the Liturgy, after the reader chants the prokeimenon and the epistle, the Gospel lesson is then chanted.  But it is not chanted without a somewhat elaborate preparation.  Prior to the priest taking the Gospel book from the altar table and giving it to the deacon who will read it, the Gospel is censed from all four sides.  The Church recognizes the holiness of objects by censing them, so that it censes the holy icons on the icon-screen before the start of the service, the holy Gifts of bread and wine before they are moved to the altar table, and the holy people of God as they assemble for worship.  In the same way the holy Gospel book is also censed before it is picked up because the book represents Christ—we show our reverence for Him by showing reverence to the volume containing His words.
It is easy to miss the significance of this censing, since (for some reason unknown to me) the deacon censes not only the Gospel book but also the interior of the altar, the people within the altar, the icons on the icon-screen, and the people standing in the nave.  The rationale for the censing is thus easy to lose sight of, as one might suppose the deacon is censing the altar table along with pretty much everything else in church.  But he is not censing the altar table; he is censing the Gospel book, which happens to be resting on top of the altar table.  The focus and rationale for this censing is even easier to lose if the comprehensive censing is done during the reading of the epistle, for one might then imagine that the censing has something to do with the epistle.  It does not.  It has nothing to do with the epistle, and everything to do with the Gospel. 
The censing of the Gospel book at this point shows the importance of the reading.  The epistle is important too, but we do not cense the epistle-book before reading it.  The Gospel book, alone among the books we use, is censed before being read.  This reveals the supreme importance of those words—among all the other holy words, these words represent the Holy of Holies, the very words of the Master, the ipsissima vox of Christ Himself, and in them Christ even now stands in our midst to speak to our hearts.
Hearing these words brings with it a tremendous responsibility, for we will no longer be able to claim ignorance of the divine will if we fail to carry it out.  The Lord warned us, “To whom much is given, much is required” (Luke 12:48), and once we receive the gift of hearing the words of Christ, we will be required to fulfill them.  We need therefore to let these words sink not just into our outer ears, but also into our inner hearts.  That is why in every Christian liturgical tradition a prayer precedes the reading of the Gospel, asking that we might be worthy of hearing it.  The Gospel prayer in our present Liturgy asks that God might illumine our hearts with the pure light of His divine knowledge and open the eyes of our mind to the understanding of His Gospel teachings so that we might think and do such things as are well-pleasing to Him.  The prayer, too often said silently, is clearly meant to be said aloud, for it represents not the private devotional prayer of the priest, but the prayer of the entire congregation about to hear the words of the Gospel.  It is only after that prayer is said that the deacon dares to read the Gospel to the people of God.
To do this, he stands among them, not reading the Gospel from the ambo at the front of the Church facing the people, but standing in their very midst.  That is because it is not the deacon who speaks so much as Christ Himself, dwelling in the midst of His assembled people, and speaking His words.  We honour the Lord who thus manifests Himself in our midst by holding candles before the book containing His words, standing as a kind of honour guard around Him.  The psalm sung as a prokeimenon between the epistle and the Gospel always has as its refrain the cry, “Alleluia!  Alleluia!  Alleluia!”, because the words of the Lord always produce joy in the hearts of those who hear them with faith.
Before reading the Gospel, the deacon asks for a blessing, since he is mindful of the importance of the work he is about to do.  The celebrant responds by blessing him as he requested, asking that God, through the prayers of the Evangelist whose book he is about to read, may indeed enable him to proclaim the good news with great power, fulfilling the purpose of the Gospel.  It is only after receiving this priestly blessing that the deacon reads the Gospel.  And the people also require a blessing to hear the words of Christ fruitfully:  the priest therefore blesses them also, saying, “Peace be unto all!”  The words of Christ are chanted to the cry, “Glory to You, O Lord, glory to You!”, for these are not the words of someone long dead, but those of One even now alive in their midst.
All this extra ritual emphasizes something fundamental, not only about the Gospel reading, but also about the Liturgy as a whole—that in the Liturgy, Christ Himself comes to meet and transform us.  Liturgy is not like a funeral, wherein someone offers a eulogy praising someone no longer among them.  It is a banquet given by our divine Host who sits among us as we come to His festal table.  Even more than that, Christian Liturgy represents the voice of Christ Himself, praising His Father from the midst of His people.  That was the insight of the writer of Hebrews 2:11f:  the verse from Psalm 22:22, “In the midst of the church I will sing hymns to You” finds its fulfillment in Christ.  In the midst of the Church He sings our hymns to the Father, for we are His Body.  He stands among us, in the midst of His lampstands (Revelation 1:13), healing us with His Word, feeding us with His Body and Blood.  Every Liturgy is our saving rendezvous with this ever-living and saving Son of God.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Commentary on the Divine Liturgy: the Epistle

           In the Orthodox Divine Liturgy, after the Trisagion Hymn comes the chanting of the prokeimenon and of the epistle.  In many places the prokeimenon now has practically no purpose or significance, and looks like a verbal tag chanted in haste by the reader to introduce the epistle which follows it, for the people either make no congregational response to the chanting of the prokeimenon or a distinctly minimal one. 
Originally of course the prokeimenon was chanted precisely in order to facilitate a congregational response, because the prokeimenon was the refrain they were to sing interspersed among the verses of the psalm that the reader chanted.  The prokeimenon then did not serve as an introductory tag to the epistle, but as part of a psalm which was inserted between the Old Testament reading and the epistle.  This psalm provided an opportunity for the people to rest from listening and to refresh their attention by singing before listening to the next lesson.  (We see this same practice of inserting a psalm between numerous readings in the Vespers of Holy Friday, when the faithful listen to substantial readings from Exodus 33, Job 42, Isaiah 52-54, and 1 Corinthians 1.  The prokeimenal psalms there are interspersed between these readings and provide a break from listening.)  In today’s usage, the Old Testament reading has dropped away from the Liturgy, leaving the interspersed psalm hanging with not much to do, its once-numerous verses now reduced to a single verse.  No wonder in some places even this verse is now omitted; its original function has now become superfluous.   One could wish for the restoration of the first lesson and the interspersed psalm, not the further reduction of the psalm’s refrain.
But however the prokeimenon is chanted, after it comes the reading of the epistle, usually from the pen of St. Paul.  The reader chants it from the midst of the assembly, facing east along with the rest of the people, for it represents the abiding voice of the apostle still sounding in the midst of the Church.   It is too easy to under-value this reading, especially if the deacon insists upon doing the pre-Gospel censing of the Gospel book and much else during the time when the epistle is being read.  The deacon may regard it is a kind of liturgical multi-tasking, but it actually serves to denigrate the significance of the epistle.  St. Paul should not have to compete with the deacon and the bells on his censer for the people’s attention.  His words should command the undivided attention of all—including the deacon.
We can miss also the full significance of the epistles.  We regard it as “Scripture”, a holy text, and of course it is.  But it is also a personal letter addressed and written to people other than ourselves.  In listening to the epistle we are in fact reading someone else’s personal mail.  Think of how it would look if we read a letter addressed to someone else in a public place—say a personal letter written by the bishop and addressed to the priest.  Wouldn’t this be regarded as a bit odd, and perhaps a little inappropriate?  But no one regards the reading of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians as odd or inappropriate, despite the fact that we are not Corinthians and the letter was written to people other than ourselves.
This is because the value of the letter resides not in the personal circumstances which Paul addressed, but in the abiding apostolic witness.  These epistles reveal how the apostles dealt with problems in their own day, and thus how they would deal with the same problems should they befall us.  The Corinthians were told, for example, that the person who was living in open and serious sexual sin (in this case, living with his step-mother) must be excommunicated (1 Corinthians 5:1f), and so through this particular example we know how the apostles would deal with open and serious sexual sin in our own congregations today.  We can learn from these epistles what the apostles thought about who Jesus was, what salvation consisted of, and thus how we must therefore conduct our lives.  Because the Church is apostolic, their words and views have an abiding and authoritative significance for us.  Paul’s words to the Corinthians are not out-dated vestiges of controversies and cases long dead, but living words of contemporary counsel.  No wonder we read them every time we meet to celebrate the Lord’s Eucharistic presence among us.
  The epistles also reveal the nature of our salvation—that is a corporate reality, not an individual and private one.  If Christianity were a philosophy, it might be embraced and followed privately, without much reference to others who decide to adopt that philosophy themselves.  But our faith is not a philosophy, but a family.  Each one of the epistles was written to a community, a family, a group of believers who met together every week as the body of Christ.  The exceptions of the epistles to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon, prove this rule, for they were written to individuals to give them advice for ruling and living in the church community (see 1 Timothy 3:14-15).  Salvation consists of being part of the Church, and of finding our identity and healing within it.
It is easy to zone out mentally during the reading of the epistle, or to regard it as a mere add-on.  This is especially so if the homily is routinely based not on the epistle, but on the Gospel reading.  But we must not let our attention flag and our minds wander, as if St. Paul had nothing important to say to us that day.   We should listen up and pay strict attention.  After all, before the epistle is read, the deacon cries out, “Wisdom!” and “Let us attend!”  If we want to leave the Church assembly with more wisdom than we had when we entered it, we should indeed attend to what Christ’s apostles say to us.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Book Review: The Departure of the Soul

 Lately a new book has become available, The Departure of the Soul, published by St. Anthony’s Greek Orthodox Monastery in Arizona.  Its full title is, The Departure of the Soul According to the Teaching of the Orthodox Church; a Patristric anthology, and this about sums it up.  It deals with the Scriptural material as interpreted by the Fathers, and goes on to examine the teaching as found in the liturgical services of the Orthodox Church, the writings of the saints, and the hagiography or lives of the saints.  It contains an examination of the iconographic tradition expressing this teaching with an impressive 216 pages of full colour plates, and much more.  It is a formidable volume, and not one to be held in one hand while drinking a Starbucks coffee with the other—it contains 1112 pages in all, bound sturdily between its two hard covers.  That makes it a bargain at $58.  It took five years to research and produce.
It also contains an impressive number of hierarchical introductory endorsements, including those of Metropolitan Joseph of the Antiochians, Metropolitan Hilarion of ROCOR, Bishop Mitrophan of the Serbian Church, Archbishop Nicolae of the Romanian Church, and my own archbishop Irenee of the OCA.  (They will I trust forgive my lack of capitalization.)  The volume concludes with a number of 17 academic endorsements from scholars writing to support the book, including the respected and prolific Archpriest John A. McGuckin.  These impressed me even more than the hierarchical endorsements, if only because scholars are more vulnerable in their careers than are bishops, and must take greater care what they endorse.  The fact that a number of scholars endorse the book is very significant, for works emanating from a monastic milieu do not always find a welcome reception in the world of Academia—or vice-versa.
The book was not written because the Athonite monks in Arizona had nothing else to do.  In the Introduction it is explained that “In 1978, a lone author, Deacon Lev Puhalo (later Fr. Lazar Puhalo in tonsure), launched a campaign against the Orthodox Church’s 2,000-year old teaching on the trial of the soul at death”.  His teaching was banned by his own jurisdiction (ROCOR) whose Synod warned that his writing “can cause great harm to the souls of the faithful”.  Nevertheless (the Introduction continues) “Deacon Lev and several subsequent writers who reiterated his un-Orthodox views continued to issue their publications”.  They note that these writings “have fuelled a controversy for nearly forty years, even to this present day”.  Thus it was that in 2011 the editors of the book began their research into the topic.  Their book represents the fruit of their extraordinary labour, including chapter 7, entitled “On the Falsifications, Misrepresentations, and Errors of Those Who Oppose the Teaching of the Orthodox Church”.  Not surprisingly Puhalo comes in for detailed scrutiny, as editors present “over sixty fallacies which Puhalo used to attempt to support his invalid theories”, including many deliberate falsifications of both text and iconography.  Puhalo’s personal history also comes in for some needed scrutiny in Appendix G, which narrates his “Extended Biographical Information”. 
As a pastor, I note that even apart from the correction of distortions and misrepresentations of the Church’s Tradition, the book also serves as a corrective to the more widely-held errors of secular society, which routinely assumes that, with the possible exception of White Supremacists, terrorists, and Nazis, everyone goes to a heaven of some sort as soon as they die with little or no fuss.  Look at the pages of Facebook or any social media as soon as any celebrity dies:  there you will see a multitude of posts comforting themselves and others with the thought that the deceased celebrity has passed effortlessly through the Pearly Gates and is now strolling the streets of heaven (and possibly giving out autographs). 
It reminds me of the old 1974 song by the Righteous Brothers, “Rock and Roll Heaven”.  One of its lyrics reads,  “If there’s a rock n’ roll heaven, well you know they’ve got a hell of a band…Jimmy gave us rainbows, and Janis took a piece of our hearts…There’s a spotlight waiting, no matter who you are, ‘cuz everybody’s got a song to sing, everyone’s a star”.  A happy thought (and one that accords with today’s fascination with universalism), but is it sensible?  The Jimmy who gave us rainbows was Jimi Hendrix, and the Janis who took a piece of our hearts was Janis Joplin.  Jimi would become angry and violent when drunk or when he mixed alcohol with drugs.  After his death in 1970 at the age of 27, an autopsy revealed that he choked to death on his own vomit while high on barbiturates. Janis, rarely seen without a bottle of her favourite “Southern Comfort”, died of accidental heroin overdose, possibly compounded by alcohol, in October 1970, also aged 27.  One can and should have sympathy for such young people, but it is at least an open question whether they made it to heaven, despite their acknowledged skill in rock n’ roll.  The point is this:  our culture assumes that everyone makes it to heaven, especially celebrities.  No fuss, no muss, no trial of the soul at the hour of death.  Just a quick and painless step from choking to death here on your vomit to the heavenly spotlight there, “cuz everybody’s got a song to sing, everyone’s a star”.   This is assumed without argument in our culture, and may not challenged at the office water-cooler without giving the impression of being a heartless, judgmental misanthrope.  But the challenge to our culture needs badly to be made just the same.  We may be grateful therefore that the monks in the Arizona desert have taken up that challenge, and done their work—and now offer it to us at such a comparatively low price.  No church library should be without one.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Commentary on the Divine Liturgy: the Trisagion

          In the Divine Liturgy, after the antiphons, comes the Trisagion Hymn, prefaced by a prayer in which the celebrant prays that the God who is hymned by the seraphim, the cherubim, and by every angelic power in heaven, may also deign to accept the hymn we now sing to Him on earth.  In many churches this beautiful prayer is said silently, so that the faithful hear only the final clause of the prayer (“For holy are You, O our God, and unto You we send up glory…”) and so miss the rationale for saying this prayer prior to chanting the Trisagion.  When we look carefully at the Trisagion Hymn, however, we see something a little odd—and something that provides a clue to the hymn’s original function and its present meaning.
            That odd bit to which I refer is the presence of the words “Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages”—sometimes referred to in liturgical shorthand as “the Glory Now and Ever”.  Why are these words found at the conclusion of the Trisagion Hymn?  They are not found at the end of other hymns such as the Cherubic Hymn (“Let us who mystically represent the cherubim…”) or the anaphoral hymn to the Theotokos (“It is truly meet to bless you, O Theotokos…”) or the post-communion hymn “Let our mouths be filled with Your praise…”)  Why do we sing it at the conclusion of the Trisagion?  The answer:  its presence in the Trisagion is a vestige of the psalm of which the Trisagion once formed the repeated refrain.  It is, in fact, all that is left of the psalm—unless one counts the way the Trisagion is sung during a Hierarchical Liturgy with the bishop.  In that service, the Trisagion is sung not just three or four times, but many times, and in between some of the Trisagion refrains the bishop chants the verses of Psalm 80:14f, “Look down from heaven, O God, and behold, and visit this vine which Your right hand has planted and establish it”.  It is not a fancied-up version of the original Trisagion, but a vestige of the original. 
            In the original usage, the Trisagion was sung as a refrain to Psalm 80. The cantor would chant verses of the psalm as all walked in procession and the people sung the Trisagion hymn as its refrain after every verse.  Like all psalms, this psalm concluded with the “Glory Now and Ever”, after which the refrain was sung one final time.  In other words, the Trisagion Hymn once served as an entrance chant, something everyone sung while entering the Church.  Now that it is preceded by the Great Litany and the Antiphons, its original function as the entry chant has become obscured.  But a final vestige of this function can still be seen if one watches the clergy very carefully—as the singing of the Trisagion comes to an end, they leave their place in front of the altar table and walk to the High Place at the far east end, the place where the clergy seats originally stood.  That is because these seats were their original destination—in the days of Chrysostom the clergy entered the Church, walked through the nave, up into the altar area and took their seats at the far east end.  Only then after the initial greeting did the service begin with the readings.  The clergy now stand in the altar for quite some time before the Trisagion, but their final arrival at the High Place for their seats is still deferred until after the Trisagion has been sung.
            The fact that the Trisagion was originally an entry chant also reveals its true meaning and the meaning of the Liturgy as a whole.  That is, the Liturgy represents our drawing near to God, our leaving the world and coming into His Presence, our spiritual access into heaven where we stand before His face as His children.  That is why we sing the song of the angels:  in heaven the angels sing the thrice-holy hymn, crying “Holy, holy, holy!” (see Isaiah 6:1-3), and we sinners also sing a thrice-holy hymn to the heavenly God.  It takes boldness for us, frail creatures of dust and ashes who drink iniquity like water (Job 15:16), to stand before God as the holy angels do.  That is why in the preceding prayer the celebrant says that God does not despise the sinner, but instead appointed repentance unto salvation and has granted us to stand in the holy place and offer the worship and praise which are His due.  That is why we boldly enter His presence—not through our worthiness, but through His grace.  Through Christ and by His Spirit, we have an access into the divine presence not granted to the rest of the world.
            We must not however take this access for granted and become complacent because we routinely enter into Church and take our respective places before the face of God.   The psalmist long ago told us what we need to bring to God if we are to receive that grace—anyone who dares to ascend the hill of the Lord and stand in His holy place needs clean hands and a pure heart, walking in integrity and humility (Psalm 24:3-4).  If we live as hypocrites and not a penitent disciples of Christ, walling off our Sunday devotion to Him from the rest of the week, we are in no condition to ascend into His holy place and sing the thrice-holy hymn of the angels.  Better to remain afar until we have repented and come to our senses.  Then we can join the throng of the baptized and enter with them into the holy place. 
            The Trisagion Hymn witnesses to the function of Liturgy as one of entrance.  Once we were far from God, separated from the covenants of grace.  Now in Christ we have been brought near, and boldly enter into the very presence of God.  When we sing the Trisagion Hymn we are reminded of that entrance, and of the grace by which we enter.