Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Sursum Corda and the Trisagion (or does he mean triple Sanctus?)

"Seraphim about the Divine Throne," Petites Heures de Jean de Berry

Continuing our review of "The Bible and Liturgy" by Fr. Jean Danielou SJ, we now turn to Fr. Danielou's examination of the Trisagion, and in particular Fr. Danielou's demonstration of its connection with the Sursum Corda.   According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, the Trisagion is:

“an invocation, or doxology, or hymn—for it may properly receive any of these titles—which in the Roman Liturgy is sung during the Improperia, or "Reproaches" at the ceremony of the Adoration of the Cross, on Good Friday. The brief hymn is then sung by two choirs alternately in Greek and Latin, as follows: First Choir: Agios o Theos (O Holy God). Second Choir: Sanctus Deus. First Choir: Agios ischyros (Holy, Strong). Second Choir: Sanctus fortis. First Choir: Agios athanatos, eleison imas (Holy, Immortal, have mercy on us). Second Choir: Sanctus immortalis, miserere nobis."

The Catholic Encyclopedia goes on to note that the Trisagion "is sometimes referred to as Tersanctus, and is thus apt to be confused with the triple Sanctus at the end of the preface at Mass."  It appears to me Fr. Danielou has indeed confused the Trisagion with the triple Sanctus, and thus intends to refer to the triple Sanctus rather than the Trisagion in the following remarks. 

According to Fr. Danielou, the Sursum corda and the Trisagion "express the idea that the Eucharist is a participation in the heavenly liturgy.  The Trisagion, in fact, is the hymn of the Seraphim who eternally surround the Trinity: "Man is as it were transported into heaven itself," writes St. John Chrysostom.  "He stands near the throne of glory.  He flies with the Seraphim.  He sings the most holy hymn".  The same idea is found also in Cyril of Jerusalem: "We speak of the Seraphim that Isaias saw in the Holy Spirit surrounding the throne of God and saying: 'Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord, the God of hosts."  This is why we recite this theology that is transmitted to us by Seraphim, so that we may take part in the hymn of praise with the hosts above the cosmos".

Such descriptions of prayer at Mass as a participation in the prayer of Seraphim at the heavenly liturgy before the throne of God are not to be dismissed as mere pious whimsy.  In the Christian angelic hierarchy, Seraphim have the highest rank.  According to Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, "[t]he name seraphim clearly indicates their ceaseless and eternal revolution about Divine Principles, their heat and keenness, the exuberance of their intense, perpetual, tireless activity, and their elevative and energetic assimilation of those below, kindling them and firing them to their own heat, and wholly purifying them by a burning and all-consuming flame; and by the unhidden, unquenchable, changeless, radiant and enlightening power, dispelling and destroying the shadows of darkness."

Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologiae describes Seraphim as follows:

    "The name 'Seraphim' does not come from charity only, but from the excess of charity, expressed by the word ardor or fire. Hence Dionysius (Coel. Hier. vii) expounds the name 'Seraphim' according to the properties of fire, containing an excess of heat. Now in fire we may consider three things.

    "First, the movement which is upwards and continuous. This signifies that they are borne inflexibly towards God.

    "Secondly, the active force which is 'heat,' which is not found in fire simply, but exists with a certain sharpness, as being of most penetrating action, and reaching even to the smallest things, and as it were, with superabundant fervor; whereby is signified the action of these angels, exercised powerfully upon those who are subject to them, rousing them to a like fervor, and cleansing them wholly by their heat.

    "Thirdly we consider in fire the quality of clarity, or brightness; which signifies that these angels have in themselves an inextinguishable light, and that they also perfectly enlighten others." 

 Fr. Danielou notes that the Sursum corda and the Trisagion are connected by a shared sense of holy awe.  He cites Theodore of Mopsuestia to "[show] the relation of the Trisagion to the spirit of fear and awe: "We use the awe-inspiring words of the invisible powers to show the greatness of the mercy which is freely lavished on us.  Fear fills our conscience throughout the whole course of the liturgy, both before we cry out 'holy!' and afterwards: we look down at the ground, because of the greatness of what is being done, manifesting this same fear." 

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