This article will deal with the topic of the usual beginning of the divine services. What is the meaning and purpose of these initial prayers? How did these prayers emerge in the Christian worship?
The initial prayers in their modern version consist of two parts – the initial exclamation of the officiant, which opens any divine service, and a small group of prayers read by a reader. Depending on the type of service and its solemnity, there are various appropriate exclamations, while the second part of the prayer, if not omitted altogether (as is the case at the beginning of the All-Night Vigil), is unchanged at all times. The initial prayers appeared in the divine service pretty long ago, but it is difficult to date their contemporary form with great precision.
Blessed is our God is a classic exclamation of the priest already known at the time of the Old Testament and was used both in the Temple and at home (Prof. Mikhail N. Skaballanovich, Typikon Explained). All meals were blessed with special blessings which began with the words Blessed is our God. It is difficult to say exactly when this exclamation was first used in a church service. The oldest surviving manuscripts contain either various presbyter’s prayers for Matins, Vespers, Liturgies, and Sacraments (the so-called Euchologies) or Horologions, which do not describe the introductory prayers in detail. One of the first manuscripts to indicate the initial exclamation Blessed is our God at the beginning of Matins and Hours is a 13th-century manuscript containing the 1292 Typikon of the Sicilian Santissimo Salvatore Monastery, while Vespers began with Blessed is the Kingdom (Alexei A. Dmitrievsky, 8b7, 870, 872).
It is worth noting that a variety of initial exclamations were preserved for many centuries in ancient times in different churches. Thus, Testamentum (The Testament of Our Lord Jesus Christ), an ancient Syrian liturgical and canonical text of the 3rd-4th centuries, indicates Glory to the Lord as the bishop’s exclamation before the Matins, while the Sinai ascetics of the 6th century began their prayer with the Little Doxology (Nikon the Montenegrin, Pandectae, w. 29, p. 112). The laypeople, who perform services of the daily cycle privately, or in the temple in the absence of a priest, replace the exclamation Blessed is our God, which only priests are allowed to say, with Lord Jesus Christ, our God, have mercy on us through the prayers of our Holy Fathers, although the Matins exclamation Glory to the Holy Trinity is uttered by lay people, in spite of its more glorifying and dogmatic character than the simple Blessed is our God.
The Usual Beginning
As Prof. Skaballanovich suggests, the ancient usual beginning consisted only of the Lord’s Prayer, which is confirmed by the fact that such small services as the Hours in the 2nd century consisted only of this prayer. Along with the development of the rite, the Lord’s Prayer took up the central place. The fact that Our Father acted as the initial prayer is also confirmed by the fact that it was placed in the beginning in the Western rite, except for the Mass and Compline, and was read secretly. One of the ancient Mozarabian Horologions informs us of the practice of the usual beginning in the form of Kyrie eleyson, Christe eleyson, Kyrie eleyson, the exclamation, and Our Father (Alexei A. Dmitrievsky Τυπικά, 8b7, 872). The aforementioned Typikon of one of the Sicilian monasteries also has the sole Lord’s Prayer as the beginning of Matins and Vespers. Similarly, there was a custom in the East in the 4th century to first read the Creed and Our Father and only then begin the service itself. As for the Trisagion, it was not earlier than the 10th century that it appeared in the usual beginning, and the Holy Trinity appeared even later.
The priest’s exclamation is followed by the reader’s reply, Glory to Thee, our God, glory to Thee, followed by the reading of The King of Heaven, asking for the help of the Holy Spirit, “for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered” (Romans 8:26). The sticheron to the Holy Spirit is followed by the usual beginning proper. This group of prayers, addressed exclusively to God, is divided into three prayers: Holy God, then The Most Holy Trinity, and Our Father. All three prayers end with a Doxology, the first two with the Little Doxology, and Our Father with the more pronounced liturgical exclamation For Thine is the Kingdom. Gradually, the prayer intensity increases: there is a threefold petition for mercy in the Trisagion, whereas the second element has a sevenfold petition (the four petitions in the prayer to the Holy Trinity and the threefold Lord have mercy), and Our Father closes with a twelvefold Lord have mercy. This entire corpus of prayers and petitions is marked by joyful, laudatory, and at the same time penitential undertones, which are intended to set the tone for the ensuing divine service, a kind of devotional tuning-fork. This is the main meaning and purpose of the initial prayers: to attune a Christian to the upcoming divine service from the very beginning.
As we can see, the meaning of the initial prayers, which existed in ancient times, both in the West and in the East, differing only by the selection of prayers and their wording, is to calm the feelings, to direct attention to prayer in order to perform the service with awe and dignity, overcoming the scattering of thoughts not halfway into it, but at the very beginning.