Unknown, “Christ Enthroned with the Mother of God and John the Forerunner,” c. 1600, Benaki Museum
‘Thou art Lord of the seraphim and King of Israel. Thou alone art holy and rest in the heavenly sanctuary.’
President Donald Trump sent ripples through Twitter recently when he passed on a message from a talk show host, who referred to the president as the “King of Israel” and the “second coming of God.” Many people objected to the president applying a messianic title to himself.
The controversy resonated with me deeply, because technically, I pray to the “King of Israel” every Sunday. The phrase is an ancient part of the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, the typical Sunday service of every Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Rite (Byzantine) Catholic Church. And naturally, the title has nothing to do with any earthly ruler.
It comes just before a censing and the Great Entrance, when the priest will carry the bread and wine in procession to the altar. The prayer, which the priest prays in a low voice because it is his private confession and plea for clemency, reads:
No one who is bound with the desires and pleasures of the flesh is worthy to approach or draw near or to serve Thee, O King of Glory; for to minister to Thee is great and awesome even for the heavenly powers. Nevertheless, through Thine inexpressible and boundless love for mankind, Thou didst became man, yet without change or alteration; and as Ruler of all, Thou didst become our High Priest, and committed unto us the ministry of this liturgical and bloodless sacrifice. For Thou alone, O Lord our God, rulest over those in Heaven and on earth. Thou art borne on the throne of the cherubim. Thou art Lord of the seraphim and King of Israel. Thou alone art holy and rest in the heavenly sanctuary. Therefore, I entreat Thee, Who alone art good and ready to listen: Look down on me, a sinner, Thine unprofitable servant, and cleanse my soul and my heart from an evil conscience; and by the power of the Holy Spirit enable me, who am endowed with the grace of the priesthood, to stand before this, Thy holy altar, and perform the sacred mystery of Thy holy and pure Body and precious Blood. For I draw near unto Thee, and bowing my neck I implore Thee: Do not turn Thy face away from me, nor cast me out from among Thy children; but account me, Thy sinful and unworthy servant, worthy to offer gifts unto Thee. For Thou art the Offerer and the Offered, the Receiver and the Received, O Christ our God, and unto Thee we ascribe glory, together with Thy Father Who is without beginning, and Thine all-holy, good, and life-creating Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.
This prayer is anomalous in the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, as it is the only priestly prayer written in the first-person singular: All other prayers say “we” and “us.” It occupies roughly the same position in the Eastern Divine Liturgy as the Lavabo in the Extraordinary Form of the Mass – shortened to “Lord, wash away my iniquity; cleanse me from my sin” in the Ordinary Form of the Mass – as the celebrant washes his hands. It is his personal cry for justification before entering into the liturgical Holy of Holies, the Liturgy of the Eucharist.
This Byzantine prayer brings three beautiful truths to mind:
1. Earthly worship is heavenly worship. True worship involves all the company of Heaven: The Church Militant but also the Church Triumphant and the “heavenly powers”—that is, the angelic hosts. In the Eastern tradition, we emphasize their unity that church services weld us into one worshiping body with all God’s servants from all ages and realms. “If you wish to see the angels and the martyrs, open the eyes of faith and look upon this sight,” said St. John Chrysostom, “for if the very air is filled with angels, how much more so the Church!” St. Isaac the Syrian said “the Cherubim, the Seraphim, and the angels stand with great awe, fear, and joy. They rejoice over the Holy Mysteries.” The Venerable Bede said, “We should believe that the angelic spirits are especially present to us when we give ourselves in a special way to divine services.” In the liturgy, “Heav’n and nature sing” one song of praise.
2. Christ is our High Priest…and our Sacrifice. While there are many priests and many services, there is truly only one Priest and one Sacrifice. The Apostle Paul wrote that Jesus is “such a high priest, holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners, and made higher than the heavens” that there is no need “to offer sacrifices first for his own sins, and then for the people’s: for this he did once, in offering himself” (Hebrews 7:26-27, Douay-Rheims). Christ offered Himself as the perfect sacrifice upon the cross. Then, to extend this grace through geography and temporal time, He shared His priesthood with human beings. While the West emphasizes the priest’s actions in persona Christi, the East emphasizes the counterbalancing truth that it is truly Christ Who performs the full service – offering the sacrifice of Himself and receiving it purely for our salvation.
3. Being present for the Eucharist is a sacred honor. As mentioned, this is the priest’s personal prayer of repentance. However, it is the priest’s second appeal for purity: The priest made his first before he even entered the sanctuary. And, as in the Latin tradition, he will lead the congregation in yet another before partaking of the Eucharist. Why pray more than once? Because the congregation is transitioning from the Liturgy of the Word to the Liturgy of the Eucharist – and it is a deeper, more exacting part of the service. St. Isaac the Syrian said that even our guardian angel is filled with joy standing by our side in church, because he gets to be present when the Body and Blood of Christ are consecrated. If the angelic hosts are so overjoyed, the Venerable Bede instructs, then “we must strive meticulously, my brothers, when we come into the church to pay the due service of divine praise or to perform the solemnity of the Mass, to be always mindful of the angelic presence, and to fulfill our heavenly duty with fear and fitting veneration.”
Truly, the best thing that could come out of this controversy is that it may bring people closer to God, the true King of Israel.
Rev. Benjamin Johnson is an Eastern Orthodox priest and managing editor at the Acton Institute. His views are his own.