We have, over the past few weeks, looked at Psalm 102, the first antiphon of the Divine Liturgy, to see what we can learn here about prayer. The first thing we noted is that the psalm is a call to prayer directed at “my soul”, calling us to gather up our scattered minds in order to truly pray, which means to stand before the Lord with the mind in the heart.
The second thing we discovered through Psalm 102 is that true biblical and liturgical prayer involves recounting who God is and what God has done. This sort of rehearsal - going lovingly and attentively over God’s deeds - instructs us in who and how God is lest we fall into the trap of praying to a god of our own making, an idol, a projection of our own passions and fears. Particularly noticeable is the Psalm’s repeated emphasis on the Lord’s mercy and compassion.
This leads us to the final aspect of this psalm that we want to examine. We find it in the final verses of Psalm 102.
We said in the beginning that this psalm is interesting and unique because the psalmist is talking, not to God, but to himself: “Bless the Lord, O my soul!” Just before the final repetition of that same command in the last verse, however, something very interesting happens. For here, at the climax of the psalm, after rehearsing God’s deeds, His mercy and compassion, the psalmist turns from speaking to himself to calling on the angels of God to join him in blessing the Lord.
The angels, as you no doubt are aware, are God’s heavenly ministers. Again and again in the scriptures they appear in visions of the Heavenly throne room as the choir and the liturgists of the heavenly liturgy. It is the angels in Heaven whom both the Prophet Isaiah and the Apostle John the Theologian hear as they sing the original Trisagion Hymn, “Holy! Holy! Holy!”
The Psalmist would have, no doubt, been familiar with the earthly liturgy in the temple in Jerusalem, a liturgy which was a copy of the heavenly liturgy. In this liturgy there would be, along with priests offering the sacrifices, a choir and a choir director, who would sing the appropriate hymns at the appropriate times of day as well as for fasting and festal seasons. It was the choir director’s job to know the hymns that were called for at the appropriate times and lead the choir in chanting and singing these hymns. There was no sheet music in the ancient temple but rather the director would set the melody and the hymn and the choir would follow.
What we should see, here at the climax of Psalm 102, is that the psalmist has become, in effect, the choir director, not merely of the earthly liturgy in Jerusalem, but of the heavenly liturgy. For he calls here, not the temple’s Levites, but the heavenly liturgists and choir - the angels and hosts and powers of God - to follow him in blessing the Lord through recalling the Lord’s mercies and compassions and great deeds. Thus the Psalm that begins with the psalmist instructing his own soul to “Bless the Lord!” climaxes, not in a solitary spiritual revelry, a mere “personal relationship” with God, but in a cosmic hymn in which the psalmist has “called the tune”, leading not only the earthly choir but the heavenly one in the worship of God.
How appropriate that we begin the Divine Liturgy with this Psalm as the first antiphon. For the Divine Liturgy is itself our entrance into the cosmic liturgy of Heaven. Infinitely more so than the liturgy of the Jerusalem temple of the Old Covenant, which was a copy of the heavenly liturgy, the Divine Liturgy is a participation in the heavenly liturgy where Christ our Lord is at one and the same time the Great High Priest and the Lamb of God, the sacrifice offered once and for all.
Our work, as we see in Psalm 102, is to become heavenly liturgists, ministers together with the angels before the Throne of God. This work begins for each of us in our own soul, as we have learned, by gathering our mind into the heart before the Lord. But it does not stop there in an individualistic, “personal relationship” with God. Rather, through the prayer of the heart we must be raised up into the cosmic liturgy. There we join the hosts of Heaven, the choir of the righteous and the angels, in the cosmic adoration and praise of God before the heavenly Throne.
With love in Christ,
“Give me a word!”
We must always remember that the Liturgy is an infinite creation. Every Liturgy is unique and is performed by Christ Himself. It is an act of revelation surpassing description, embracing the whole creation: heaven and earth, Angels and men, the living and the departed. Christ offered Himself once for all in the eternal power of the Holy Spirit and His Holy Sacrifice remains unto eternity to sanctify all who partake of it, for it is sealed in His divine blood which He shed for the life of the world. The Divine Liturgy is an eternal expression of Christ’s ‘greater love’. It is a workshop of love, a heart of love, man’s union and communion with the Savior and the other members of the Body. Man thus becomes an active member of the communion of Divine love, hearing the word of God, invoking His holy Name and partaking of the Body and Blood of the Lord.
Of course, it would be easier to get to paradise with a full stomach, all snuggled up in a soft feather-bed, but what is required is to carry one’s cross along the way, for the kingdom of God is not attained by enduring one or two troubles, but many!
+St Anthony of Optina