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.