St Mark’s liturgy: Theology and Gospel at Prayer

Christ in Glory, Ethiopic Gospel ms, British Library Or. MS 481, f.110v. 17th century

Today is the feast of St Mark. According to tradition, St Mark who wrote the Gospel that bears his name was a disciple of St Peter, and he went to Alexandria to preach the Gospel there. As a result, the traditional Egyptian Eucharistic liturgy bears his name. Our oldest surviving copy of this liturgy dates to the fourth century; given the highly traditional(ist) nature of ancient Christian liturgical texts, I am fairly sure we can safely say that most of what we find in this liturgy is ante-Nicene — that is, before all of the alleged Constantinian corruptions of the “pure” liturgy.

You can read this liturgy in the Victorian translation from Ante-Nicene Fathers over at New Advent. This version is definitely post-Nicene — it contains the sixth-century Trisagion as well as calling Jesus “co-eternal”, and I suspect that Arius would not have got so far as he did if the traditional liturgy of his hometown contained that word?

It contains a number of lovely prayers, such as this prayer of the entrance:

O Sovereign Lord our God, who hast chosen the lamp of the twelve apostles with its twelve lights, and hast sent them forth to proclaim throughout the whole world and teach the Gospel of Your kingdom, and to heal sickness and every weakness among the people, and hast breathed upon their faces and said to them, Receive the Holy Spirit the Comforter: whosesoever sins you remit, they are remitted unto them; and whosesoever sins you retain, they are retained: Breathe also Your Holy Spirit upon us Your servants, who, standing around, are about to enter on Your holy service, upon the bishops, elders, deacons, readers, singers, and laity, with the entire body of the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.

We see that the ancient church in Egypt believed in the Real Presence, as well:

We pray and beseech You, O Lord, in Your mercy, to let Your presence rest upon this bread and these chalices on the all-holy table, while angels, archangels, and Your holy priests stand round and minister for Your glory and the renewing of our souls, through the grace, mercy, and love of Your only-begotten Son, through whom and with whom be glory and power to You.

One of the things I love about reading historic liturgies is the family resemblance they have — the Apostolic Tradition, the BCP, the Roman Mass, the Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, and there, the Divine Liturgy of St Mark, begin the anaphora in the same manner:

The Lord be with all.

The People.

And with your spirit.

The Priest.

Let us lift up our hearts.

The People.

We lift them up to the Lord.

The Priest.

Let us give thanks to the Lord.

The People.

It is meet and right.

The Priest begins the Anaphoral prayer.

O Lord God, Sovereign and Almighty Father, truly it is meet and right, holy and becoming, and good for our souls, to praise, bless, and thank You; to make open confession to You by day and night with voice, lips, and heart without ceasing;

From there, as in the other members of the family, we launch forth into the Gospel (as I discussed in relation to the Divine Liturgy of St Basil), describing salvation history:

To You who hast made the heaven, and all that is therein; the earth, and all that is therein; The sea, fountains, rivers, lakes, and all that is therein;

To You who, after Your own image and likeness, has made man, upon whom You also bestowed the joys of Paradise;

And when he trespassed against You, You neither neglected nor forsook him, good Lord,

But recalled him by Your law, instruct him by Your prophets, restore and renew him by this awful, life-giving, and heavenly mystery.

And all this You have done by Your Wisdom and the Light of truth, Your only-begotten Son, our Lord, God, and Saviour Jesus Christ, Through whom, thanking You with Him and the Holy Spirit,

We offer this reasonable and bloodless sacrifice, which all nations, from the rising to the setting of the sun, from the north and the south, present to You, O Lord; for great is Your name among all peoples, and in all places are incense, sacrifice, and oblation offered to Your holy name.

Next come sundry supplications, and then we have a very dramatic prelude to the Sanctus:

For You are far above all principality, and power, and might, and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this world, but in that which is to come. Round You stand ten thousand times ten thousand, and thousands of thousands of holy angels and hosts of archangels; and Your two most honoured creatures, the many-eyed cherubim and the six-winged seraphim. With two they cover their faces, and with two they cover their feet, and with two they fly; and they cry one to another for ever with the voice of praise, and glorify You, O Lord, singing aloud the triumphal and thrice-holy hymn to Your great glory:—

Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Sabaoth. Heaven and earth are full of Your glory.

(Aloud.)

You ever sanctify all men; but with all who glorify You, receive also, O Sovereign Lord, our sanctification, who with them celebrate Your praise, and say:—

The People.

Holy, holy, holy Lord.

After the Prayer of Consecration comes the epiclesis, the calling down of the Holy Spirit upon the gifts. I know that there is some historic controversy over the use of the epiclesis in Protestant liturgy. Nevertheless, the description of the Holy Spirit warms the heart:

O Lord our God, we have placed before You what is Yours from Your own mercies. We pray and beseech You, O good and merciful God, to send down from Your holy heaven, from the mansion You have prepared, and from Your infinite bosom, the Paraclete Himself, holy, powerful, and life-giving, the Spirit of truth, who spoke in the law, the apostles, and prophets; who is everywhere present, and fills all things, freely working sanctification in whom He will with Your good pleasure; one in His nature; manifold in His working; the fountain of divine blessing; of like substance with You, and proceeding from You; sitting with You on the throne of Your kingdom, and with Your only-begotten Son, our Lord and God and Saviour Jesus Christ. Send down upon us also and upon this bread and upon these chalices Your Holy Spirit, that by His all-powerful and divine influence He may sanctify and consecrate them, and make this bread the body.

The grace of God is, as ever in Eastern liturgies, visible in abundance, saving us and setting us free:

O God of light, Father of life, Author of grace, Creator of worlds, Founder of knowledge, Giver of wisdom, Treasure of holiness, Teacher of pure prayers, Benefactor of our souls, who givest to the faint-hearted who put their trust in You those things into which the angels desire to look: O Sovereign Lord, who has brought us up from the depths of darkness to light, who has given us life from death, who has graciously bestowed upon us freedom from slavery, who has scattered the darkness of sin within us, through the presence of Your only-begotten Son, do Thou now also, through the visitation of Your all-holy Spirit, enlighten the eyes of our understanding, that we may partake without fear of condemnation of this heavenly and immortal food, and sanctify us wholly in soul, body, and spirit, that with Your holy disciples and apostles we may say this prayer to You: Our Father who art in heaven, etc.

I like the tendency to pile on the properties of God:

O Sovereign and Almighty Lord, who sittest upon the cherubim, and art glorified by the seraphim; who hast made the heaven out of waters, and adorned it with choirs of stars; who hast placed an unbodied host of angels in the highest heavens to sing Your praise for ever; before You have we bowed our souls and bodies in token of our bondage. We beseech You to repel the dark assaults of sin from our understanding, and to gladden our minds with the divine radiance of Your Holy Spirit, that, filled with the knowledge of You, we may worthily partake of the mercies set before us, the pure body and precious blood of Your only-begotten Son, our Lord and God and Saviour Jesus Christ. Pardon all our sins in Your abundant and unsearchable goodness, through the grace, mercy, and love of Your only-begotten Son:

(Aloud.)

Through whom and with whom be glory and power to You, with the all-holy, good, and life-giving Spirit.

In case it hasn’t become abundantly clear, I appreciate the richness of this theology. This sort of liturgy makes it hard for me to maintain contentment at low-church evangelical worship events. Would your pastor ever pray something like this:

O mightiest King, co-eternal with the Father, who by Your might has vanquished hell and trodden death under foot, who has bound the strong man, and by Your miraculous power and the enlightening radiance of Your unspeakable Godhead has raised Adam from the tomb, send forth Your invisible right hand, which is full of blessing, and bless us all.

This has gone on long enough. Go read the whole thing. May it stir you up to greater love and devotion of the God Who made everything, Who breathed life into the first man, Who become incarnate, died, rose, breathed the Spirit into His Apostles, and now dwells with us daily.

A Good Week for Egyptian Saints

This week in the Eastern calendar sees the feasts of four Egyptian saints of the ancient church: St. Antony the Abbot yesterday, Sts. Athanasius and Cyril of Alexandria today, and St. Macarius the Great tomorrow.

St. Antony (d. 356) was the “founder” of Christian monasticism and was saint of the week here. Here’s a little something from his sayings:

Someone asked Abba Antony, ‘What must one do in order to please God?’ The old man replied, ‘Pay attention to what I tell you: whoever you may be, always have God before your eyes; whatever you do, do it according to the testimony of the holy Scriptures; in whatever place you live, do not easily leave it. Keep these three precepts and you will be saved.’

‘I saw the snares that the enemy spreads out over the world and I said groaning, “What can get through from such snares?” Then I heard a voice saying to me, “Humility.”‘

‘Our life and death is with our neighbour. If we gain our brother, we have gained God, but if we scandalise our brother, we have sinned against Christ.’ (trans. Benedicta Ward, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers)

St. Athanasius (d. 373), St. Antony’s biographer, was the Patriarch of Alexandria in the height of the fourth-century Arian controversy and was saint of the week here.  Here’s a little something from his work On the Incarnation:

‘The Word of God came in His own Person, because it was He alone, the Image of the Father, Who could recreate man made after the Image.  In order to effect this re-creation, however, He had first to do away with death and corruption.  Therefore He assumed a human body, in order that in it death might once for all be destroyed, and that men might be renewed according to the Image.  The Image of the Father only was sufficient for this need.’

‘Not even His birth from a virgin, therefore, changed Him in any way, nor was He defiled by being in the body.  Rather, he sanctified the body by being in it.  For His being in everything does not mean that He shares the nature of everything, only that He gives all things their being and sustains them in it.  Just as the sun is not defiled by the contact of its rays with earthly objects, but rather enlightens and purifies them, so He Who made the sun is not defiled by being made known in a body, but rather the body is cleansed and quickened by His indwelling.’ (SVS Press trans.)

St. Cyril of Alexandria (d. 444) was the Patriarch of Alexandria during the fifth-century Nestorian controversy and is the theological successor of Athanasius.  Here’s a little something from him as well:

‘Because the Son is God from God, in some mysterious way he passes this honor on to us.’

‘It is held, therefore, that there is in Emmanuel two entities, divinity and humanity. Yet our Lord Jesus Christ is nonetheless one, the one true Son, both God and man; not a deified man on the same footing as those who share the divine nature by grace, but true God who for our sake appeared in human form. We are assured of this by Saint Paul’s declaration: “When the fullness of time came, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law and to enable us to be adopted as sons.”‘

St. Macarius the Great (d. 390) was, like St. Antony, one of the Desert Fathers.  Here’s a little something from his sayings:

‘Abba Macarius of Alexandria went one day with some brethren to cut reeds.  The first day the brethren said to him, “Come and eat with us, Father.”  So he went to eat with them.  The next day they invited him again to eat.  But he would not consent saying, “My children, you need to eat because you are carnal, but I do not want food now.”‘  (trans. Ward, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers)

‘Macarius  the Great said to the brothers in Scetis after a service in church, “Flee, my brothers.”  One of the brothers said to him, “Abba, where can we flee when we are already in the desert?” He put his finger upon his lips and said: “I tell you, you must flee this.” Then he went into his cell, shut the door, and remained alone.’

‘Macarius said also, “If you are stirred to anger when you want to reprove someone, you are gratifying your own passions.  Do not lose yourself in order to save another.”‘ (trans. Ward, The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks)