The Rite of Trisagion in the Syro-Malabar Liturgy



The Rite of Trisagion in the Syro-Malabar Liturgy[1]

Dr. Joseph Alencherry



Trisagion, literally meaning ‘thrice-holy’ (tris-agion), is the name given to the liturgical hymn “Holy God, Holy Mighty One, Holy Immortal One, have mercy on us”. This hymn is sung in all liturgical traditions, both Eastern and Western. In the Latin rite it is used at the veneration of the Cross on Good Friday, whereas in the Oriental rites it is used in most liturgical services, above all, in the Holy Eucharist.[2] In the Syro-Malabar liturgy this hymn is placed before the Scriptural readings of the Holy Qurbana and it is recited in the course of the Liturgy of Hours. The Trisagion in the East Syriac tradition has a unique rite: the hymn is always initiated after the deacon’s proclamation “Lift up your voices and glorify the living God, O all people”. Afterwards, the hymn is sung thrice by alternating choirs with Gloria Patri. The present rite of Trisagion in the Syro-Malabar liturgy is the following:

Deacon             : Lift up your voices and glorify the living God, O all people.

Assembly         : O Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us.

Celebrant         : Gloria. O Holy God…

Assembly         : Sicut erat. O Holy God…

This article aims to describe the liturgical history of this rite in the East Syriac tradition, basing on early Syriac sources. The study proceeds under five sections. First of all, we try to determine the period in which Trisagion entered into the East Syriac liturgy.  The second section deals with the main East Syriac sources on the origin of Trisagion. The textual aspects and the addressee of the hymn are analysed in the following two sections respectively. Finally, the liturgical function of this hymn in the East Syriac liturgy is briefly commented on. All the texts given as indented quotations within the article are our translations from the Syriac sources.

  1. Introduction of Trisagion into the East Syriac Liturgy

Though the exact origin of Trisagion is obscure, it is generally accepted that the hymn arose in the Greek speaking eastern provinces of the Roman empire.[3] In the middle of 5th century, Trisagion was apparently used as a popular hymn or a processional antiphon during stational services in Constantinople and in early sixth century it entered into the liturgy as introit of the Eucharistic Service of the Great Church.[4] Most probably it was Catholicos Mar Abba (540-552), after his voyages in Constantinople, who introduced many liturgical usages of the Great Church in East Syriac liturgy, including Trisagion.[5] Catholicos Ishoyahb I (581-595) is the first to attest its liturgical use in the East Syriac liturgy. Ishoyabh, who was the head of the School of Nisibis from 565 to 568, in fact has written a theological commentary on Trisagion. In this commentary written at the request of his master Abraham, Ishoyabh names Trisagion as qanonā (antiphon) and confirms its use in every evening and morning service (Ramšā and Ṣaprā).

We also, weak disciples of Apostles and Fathers and servants of the Lord God Christ, Lord of all, today with trust and aid from the power of Christ, shall narrate to the flock of our Saviour the account of the qanonā ‘Holy God’ that is said at the evening and morning (service) in the Church of God everywhere under heaven. When the vigilant and careful mind hear its cause and its account, and likewise also its explanation, they will be in each (service of) evening and morning incited to praise the Holy Trinity, the doctrine that is from the Holy Spirit in all ages and in all moments.[6]

The liturgical Commentary of Gabriel Qatraya (CGQ) of the early 7th century witnesses the use of Trisagion not only in the Liturgy of Hours but also in the Holy Eucharist/Mysteries (Rāzē). Jammo has convincingly argued that Trisagion did not belong to the original structure of Rāzē but was later inserted after its structure was well established.[7] The same argumentation is true for Ramšā and Ṣaprā as well and this explains why this Greek hymn was translated and appended to the end of these services rather than being inserted inside their established structure.[8] In any case, Trisagion was certainly part of East Syriac liturgy by the middle of 6th century.

The Monophysite incise of the Trisagion, “who was crucified for us”, was never used in East Syriac liturgy, neither in Persia nor in Malabar. This historical fact is explicitly stated in the Canons of Catholicos Timothy I (780-823).[9]

  1. Origin and ‘Cause’ of Trisagion

In the sixth century a new and rather unique literary genre called ܥܠܬܐ, ‘Cause’, came into use in the curriculum of the School of Nisibis.[10] The subject matter of this genre concerned with the origin and meaning of Christian institutions, feasts celebrated during the ecclesiastical year and hymns used in liturgy. “Cause” genre is not simply a historical reconstruction of past, and therefore, it is important to filter facts from legends in such literature.

Regarding the “Cause” of Trisagion, in contrast to West Syriac tradition, East Syriac liturgy shares more or less a common tradition with the Byzantines, though in details there are variations: it was revealed in Constantinople during an earthquake, in the background of theopaschism and cyrillianism in the first half of 5th century.[11] The phrase “who was crucified for us” was a later Monophysitic addition in late 5th century, as a counter attach against dyophysite doctrine. We briefly examine the six main East Syriac sources on the origin of Trisagion.

  1. The earliest source is in an interpolated passage of the “Book of Heraclides of Damascus”, therefore, of Pseudo-Nestorius. The work was already known in Persia in its Syriac version around 540. The assumption that it was Mar Abba who brought this work back from the Roman empire and had it translated, is conjectural.[12] The reference on Trisagion occurs in the background of theopaschism but without any mention on the incise, “who was crucified for us”, attributed to Peter the Fuller around the year 470. The interpolated passage lists various disasters, including earthquake and falling of vast stones in the forum of Theodosius the Great, seen as punishment for theopaschite teaching. The origin of Trisagion is simply presented as if revealed by God himself (“God gave it”) as a supplication (ܬܚܢܢܬܐ) in order to combat the heresy, but with no direct reference to the place of origin or to how the disasters ceased when the hymn was sung.[13] L. Abramowski dates this passage between 451 (death of Nestorius) and 470.[14] Whereas for Janeras the text refers to events of 431-433, and it attests an Antiochene and diphysite origin of Trisagion before the said period.[15] It may noted here that Severos of Antioch in his homily on Trisagion delivered in 518 attests explicitly to its Antiochene origin.[16]
  2. The earliest complete treatise on Trisagion is a work, in the form of ‘Cause’ genre, written by Catholicos Ishoyahb I of Arzon (581-595).[17] This work gives a more detailed account of the origin of Trisagion than the “Book of Heraclides”, and this version subsequently turns up in all later sources. During a time of earthquake, which was itself a punishment for the wickedness of the people of the Great city, Trisagion was revealed by a holy angel to a saintly presbyter of the ‘Great Church’ of Constantinople, and once it was introduced the quake that had lasted for forty days ceased all of a sudden.

One of the holy angels appeared in dream to one of the presbyters of the Great Church, a man very acknowledged in righteousness, and said to him, “Stand up, and go immediately to the Great Church and there with high voice praise as this: God who is above all, Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us. And immediately the quake will stop, and there will be great serenity in the whole community”. (…) And when this qanonā  was said three times, there was great serenity and the quake stopped completely.[18]

Regarding the incise (“who was crucified for us”), this commentary states that it was ordered by emperor Anastasius (491-518) who favoured the opponents of Chalcedon, but this addition was not accepted in the great cities of Constantinople, Jerusalem and Rome.

  1. The third source is the Commentary of Gabriel Qatraya (CGQ) which dedicates a whole question on the ‘cause’ of Trisagion.[19] Sebastian Brock, who offered an English translation to this unedited text, has already noted the similarity between the accounts of CGQ and of Ishoyahb I, suggesting that they are both drawing on a common source. This can be demonstrated by a comparison between the text (see italics) but with new liturgical adaptations (see bold).
Ishoyahb I CGQ
(Angel) appeared to him a third time, and said, “believe me, my man, for I am one of those who stand before the Lord, Lord of all, and I am being sent to announce you the salvation; therefore, do not fear to enter the city, for the Lord is near and is preparing to grant you the loving-kindness. Behold, when you enter in the Church, you will find me before you, and what you hear me saying, you also say”. The blessed presbyter took courage and went to the city with a few (others) with him, and they found the angel standing before the sanctuary and praising God in a loud voice saying, “Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us”. Then, they also began (to sing), and when this qanonā  was said three times, there was great serenity and the quake stopped completely.[20] The angel appeared to him on a third night, saying, “believe me, my man, I am one of those who stand before God and with great eagerness transmit his instructions; therefore go into the city and do not be afraid, for the Lord is preparing to act in mercy towards you. And when you enter the city, you will find me: what I say, do you say (too) – and the earthquake will cease. Then the priest arose in the morning, and (taking) some people with him, they entered the Church in the city, and the priest saw the angel standing in the nave, in front of the sanctuary; in a loud voice he was saying “Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us”. Then that priest and the people with them responded [25a] to the angel with the same qanonā, and when they had said it three times, the earthquake ceased.[21]

CGQ places the earthquake in the reign of Theodosius II (408-450). CGQ has a similar account of falling of stones as in “Book of Heraclides”, but with an additional element of the ‘statue of Theodosius the Great’; for Brock, this was introduced into the narrative after 480.[22] On the incise, CGQ follows the facts given by Ishoyahb I.

  1. Commentary of Abraham bar Lipah’s (first half of the 7th century) account on Trisagion is nothing other than an abbreviation and paraphrase of CGQ.[23]

Cause of the Qanonā ‘Holy’. In the time of emperor Theodosius, the Less, who due to his slackness in that he allowed corruption to enter the true faith, through the seditiousness of Satan and presumptuous Cyril; while causing people to shut their ears from listening the true teaching, and causing to suffer the divine Nature in their (songs of) praise. God allowed them to be disciplined by various chastisements; and a fearful punishment was sent against the mother city. As they had provoked the holy angels in their (songs of) praise, and had caused heaven to tremble of their blasphemies, they likewise caused the earth beneath them to tremble, causing the strong towers of their walls to shake. The earthquake lasted forty days without ceasing, night or day. When they still did not (repent) of their folly, (God) added them a further affliction, during this earthquake: there was a huge pillar built in the middle of the city, above which a statue of the emperor Theodosius the Great was fixed. Vast stones bound with iron and lead were removed from this and were conveyed in the air for a long time without falling on the earth. Everyone was terrified lest all of a sudden the (stones) fall on him, and so all the inhabitants of the city fled to the wilderness; and every evening they expected not to see the night through, and in the morning they did not believe that (their) buildings (perhaps corrupted: alive) would remain until the evening. After that they had lost hope of their lives. God, who in his wisdom measures up his chastisements, sent one of the heavenly hosts, and he appeared to a certain virtuous priest, and commanded him saying, ‘enter the city, go to the Church, and say this qanonā three times, and the earthquake will cease’. But when the priest narrated the dream to others, the apparition seem to them to be a delusion. The angel appeared to him again and said to him the very same things. When the priest was (still) in doubt, the angel appeared to him on a third night, saying, “believe me, O man, I am one of those who stand before God; go into the city and do not be afraid, for the Lord is preparing to act in mercy towards you. And when you enter the city, you will find me: what I say, you do say (too) – and the earthquake will cease”.

Then the priest arose in the morning, and (taking) some people with him, they entered the city, and entered into the Church, and the priest saw the angel standing in the nave (ܗܝܟܠܐ), in front of the sanctuary (ܡܕܒܚܐ); and in a loud voice he was saying “Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us”. Then that priest and the people with them responded to the angel, and when they had said it three times, the earthquake ceased. Anastasius Caesar, in his presumptuousness resorted to giving orders that it should be altered in all the churches that were subject to this authority: instead of “Holy Immortal, have mercy on us”; on his own authority, he ordered that the following be said, “…Holy Immortal, who was crucified for us”. (He did this) without feeling any shame or fear of altering the wondrous composition that had been handed over by a holy angel to human beings. The capital city of Constantinople refused to change this qanonā; so too did Jerusalem and the western regions. Instead, they say, just as we do.[24]

  1. The most extensive liturgical commentary of East Syriac liturgy is the commentary on the Ecclesiastical Services (CES), written in the threshold of 8th and 9th century.[25] CES puts together from different sources further data on the origin of Trisagion: the earthquake took place around the year 436 and the presbyter’s name was Proclus, who probably after becoming bishop of Constantinople (434-446) ordered it at the end of Church services.[26] CES also specifies that Peter the Fuller, Patriarch of Antioch (468-470) added the Monophysite incise.

According to what the teachers, inspired by the Spirit and the ecclesiastical chronicles hand down, this is what they have written: in the year 748 of the Greeks (AD 436/7), and in the twenty-fifth year of the emperor Theodosius, four years after the un-canonical synod of Ephesus had gathered under the wicked Cyril and the holy Nestorius was cast out, in the year that the ‘sons of Ephesus’ were resuscitated, a great quake occurred in Byzantium, and rocks broke off from amidst the city wall and hovered above the city. And as people began to panic, flee and exit, for they thought that the city was going to be demolished, angels appeared to a presbyter of the Church of Byzantium, whose name was Proclus, and they were praising in Greek tongue and saying: “Holy God Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy upon us”. And the angel cautioned him to gather the people in Church and to say the words which he heard. And the presbyter gathered the people in the Church and cried out before them, and they cried out after him three times, and the city was calmed and the quake ceased. And when this was heard in every land, it was manifested to this blessed one that this canon should be said at the end of the service. For just as mercy was given to them at this time of distress, God’s mercy will visit us at all times when we say this qanonā. Peter the Fuller, a heretic belonging to the mind of Severus, who was the patriarch at Antioch, added to this qanonā ‘who was crucified for us’. This is the cause why qanonā is said here.[27]

  1. The last source is the Commentary of Abdisho bar Brika which adds nothing new regarding the origin of Trisagion, except the attribution of the incise to Severus, Patriarch of Antioch (512-518) during the reign of Anastasius.[28]

Qanonā of Holy: the exaltation of the thrice-blessed Natures, that the Angel of the Lord taught one holy priest in Constantinople, at time (when) a terrible earthquake came heavily; and the Angel commanded all people to say it three times; and on account of it, ceased the alarmed earthquake; and thus it happened. For this the herald of the Church says: “Lift your voices and glorify all people”. This, “who was crucified for us” that the Jacobites say, is added by Saverius, and had obtained stability by assistance of Emperor Anastasius.[29]

  1. Textual Composition              M. Hanssens had thought that the East Syriac formulation of Trisagion is same as the Byzantine.[30] But Jammo and Janeras have well demonstrated the distinction of Syriac grammatical composition from its Greek counterpart.[31] In Greek, ‘Holy’ (ο Θεός) is always used with the implicit verbal form, but can take either nominative third person as ‘God is holy…’ or vocative second person as ‘O God, you are holy…’. Juan Mateos considers the former as the original Byzantine form, whereas the latter usage is practised in West Syriac rite.[32] But in East Syriac liturgy, the first three acclamations are translated as invocations in the second person with no verbal form, “O Holy God, O Holy Mighty, O Holy Immortal”. The final part of Trisagion is the earliest liturgical supplication, “Kyrie eleison”.

The text of Trisagion is an amplification of the triple Seraphic ‘Holy’ in Isaiah’s vision (6:3).[33] Gabriel Qatraya interprets it in this way. Indeed, it uses the liturgical text of Is 6:3 that refers to “heaven and earth” and not the biblical, “the whole earth”; it uses not “Lord God of Sabaoth” of LXX but “Lord Almighty” of Peshitta as also found in Rev 4:8: “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty”.

[fol. 26a] It is the composition of a holy angel, and in its structure and wording it resembles the three sanctifications which the blessed Isaiah heard from the holy Seraphs who fly about crying out one to another, saying “Holy, holy, holy, Lord Almighty. Heaven and earth are full of his praises” (Is 6:3).

In East Syriac tradition, Trisagion is termed qanonā by all commentaries, in contrast to lākumārā which is called qanonā only in CGQ but later on ‘onitā. According to Mateos and Jammo, it is called qanonā in the sense of an antiphon, for it is sung antiphonally three times with Gloria Patri.[34]

  1. Addressee

It is clear that originally different geographical areas understood Trisagion in different ways: at Constantinople, Jerusalem and in the West, it was taken to be addressed to the Trinity, whereas in Syria, parts of Asia Minor and Egypt it was understood as referring to Christ. Unfortunately, what had started out as a geographical difference in interpretation came to be regarded as hall-mark of ecclesiastical identity. Since the opposition due to the doctrinal definition of Chalcedon was particularly strong in Syria, the addition of “who was crucified for us” came to be taken as an identifying characteristic of all anti-Chalcedonians. In the Chalcedonian tradition, the Constantinopolitan understanding of Trisagion was subsequently refined with additional explanation ‘Holy God’ referring to the Father, ‘Holy Mighty’ to the Son and the ‘Holy Immortal’ to the Holy Spirit, and this became later Byzantine understanding.

For Brock and Janeras, the Christological understanding of Trisagion is earlier than the Trinitarian, and the original context was indeed that of the crucifixion.[35] Indeed, in the “Book of Heraclides” we have allusions to its origin from the Antiochene Christological tradition.[36] Jammo after analyzing various liturgical texts in Ḥudrā concludes that Trisagion was used to praise not only the divine Nature or Trinity but also Christ.[37] We have already noted that the archaic prayers of East Syriac liturgy were largely addressed to Christ. Nevertheless, the earliest commentaries on Trisagion, of Ishoyahb I and of Gabriel Qatraya, both belonging to the (Persian) School tradition, favoured the Constantinopolitan Trinitarian interpretation but with an originality: Trisagion is understood as referring to the divine Nature of the triune God, thus providing an interpretation of the identity of the addressee that differs from that of the Byzantine tradition. The later commentaries no more posited such theological issues with regard to Trisagion.

4.1 Commentary of Catholicos Ishoyahb I

The work of Ishoyahb I is the earliest known commentary of Trisagion in any liturgical tradition. According to this commentary, the angelic hymn is nothing but a concise definition of God. It specifies that ‘Holy God’ refers to the Nature (ܟܝܢܐ) of God, ‘Holy Mighty’ to the attributes of that Nature (ܐܝܠܝܢ ܕܟܝܢܐ) and ‘Holy Immortal’ to what God is not (ܐܝܠܝܢ ܕܠܝܬ ܠܗ). It may remembered that in the East Syriac connotation the term nature (ܟܝܢܐ) is generic, and it is associated much more closely with ‘essence’ than with prosopon, while qnomā is an individual manifestation of a nature. The three acclamations of ‘Holy’ refer to the one Nature of the triune God, and not to the three Qnomē of the Trinity; where as with the three-fold repetition of Trisagion, we praise the three Qnomē in their one Nature.

The name ‘Holy’ as essential quality is only to God, as it is said by the Prophet, “Lord has sworn the dominions by his holiness” (Amos 4:2), that is, God swore by the immutability of his nature; and blessed apostle also teaches this, “God for our advantage, that we may become partakers of his holiness” (Heb 12,10), that is, he did all (things) with mercies for our advantage, until we are made worthy for the gift of immutability from him. This is equal also to that Holy Spirit was telling to blessed Virgin Mary, when he was announcing her on the greatness of our saviour, “who is born from you will be holy and he will be called ‘son of the Most High’” (Lk 1,35.32); with ‘be holy’ he meant the immutability and with ‘the Most High’ he signified his immortality; he used both of them very aptly. For it is proper to holy and to son of God, that he is above death and change. Because of this, the spirits (angels) said ‘Holy God’, that is, it is right that God is made holy always and to him the praise of holiness is proper because all these of his own are immutable.

Thus also the name of God means (his) nature. According to the usage of Hebrews, the name of God is understood as ‘Judge’, others say ‘Creator’. According to the use of Greeks, it is understood as ‘Cause of all’. As proper, the eternal nature agrees to the name of God. Since it was used by a holy angel, the name of nature that agrees to the essence, he added ‘Holy’. Thus he willed to hallow and to praise also the (attributes) that the nature has naturally just as he had hallowed the nature, praised of divinity. Through one of these (attributes) he indicated all; he was compelled to say this one out of many (attributes) because he (wanted) to make his discourse very brief, and so he added ‘Holy Mighty’, that he was able to say very briefly on the nature and on (the attributes) of nature, as Being who is living, spiritual, hidden, infinite and similar as these; but all these he included in that of ‘Holy God’. On the attributes of nature he was able to say: intelligent, good, prognostic and similar as these; but also all these he included in it saying, ‘Holy Mighty’ and he placed all these glories (attributes) in the name of ‘Mighty’.

After thus (dealt) wisely in brief on nature and on these (attributes) of nature, he adds another (word) that does not signify the nature, that is, what it is or how is it, not even the attributes of nature, but signifies what God does not have; on this, he adds to holiness the word ‘Holy Immortal’. In this he used very briefly and placed from many (only) one among them (that God does not have). However, he could have said, incorruptibility, immutability, imperturbability, non-inclinability or similar as these. But in that of immortality he included all of them. But he did not show what God is in it or in those said above, but instead to say God is not mortality, that is, he is a being without beginning and without end, and death does not kill the life of his being and change does not touch. As, God is good, and he is not bad, with ‘good’ is said what God is and with ‘not bad’ what he is not. The same discourse (therefore) with two variations: if you affirm ‘good’ you show that he has, and you signify also on those he does not have; and if affirm ‘not bad’ you show what he has not, and you signify also what he has. Thus also (the word) ‘Immortal’ that the (angelic) spirit set in place to say living, whose life is not …(text is corrupt).

And to all these (words) he added rightly ‘have mercy on us’. The fact that nature is cause of all, while it has no cause, and is mighty than all and powerful in all and eternal, never conquered and never caused to conquer and he has naturally and essentially a superior life in weight and in measure and also in fear, this (nature) is also merciful, lover of our race, and wills our good. To him, let us ask to return towards us with mercies. Hear briefly! “Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us”, that means, holy in all, cause of all, mighty in all, who is not hindered by anything, answer us in your mercies, have pity on our weakness and sustain our sinfulness in your compassion. The fact that the words are tripled and not quadrupled, he signified the Trinity, he did not divide it or gave it to qnomē, divinity to first one, mighty to (second) one and immortal to (third) one; but (he did so) to incite and exhort them (men) with the triple praise so as to praise unceasingly the divine, mighty and immortal nature: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.[38]

4.2 Commentary of Gabriel Qatraya

The commentary of Gabriel Qatraya is pretty brief but more precise: Trisagion is the praise of orthodox faith in the immutability of the divine Nature, one in essence and three in qnomē, against the theopaschite doctrine. We translate a few unedited portions of CGQ.

[fol. 25a] This qanonā was transmitted by a holy angel for the instruction of human beings, so that they should not suppose that the divine nature was subject to suffering and death.

[fol. 26a] So this qanonā, being (words of) praise and exaltation of the divine nature, single in its essence, and threefold in its qnomē, which proclaims to us the unchangeableness of the divine Nature, and the distinction between the qnomē of the holy Trinity, and the inseparable unity of the hidden essence. It also openly rebukes the unjust heretics who dare to attribute suffering to the divine nature which is not in any way at all subject to the constraint of sufferings.

[foll. 82b-83a] Because of this, the qanonā ‘Holy’ was composed (by angels) and was handed down to men, in which teaches us on immutability [83a] of the divine nature and the distinction of qnomē of Holy Trinity; and on the unity of everlasting and hidden essence, that is, His Being as being without change and without alteration; there is to him no opponent and nothing against the Lord of everything, in some way or other.

  1. Liturgical Function

In Ramšā and Ṣaprā, Trisagion is found exclusively at the end of the Service. Indeed, during the time of CGQ and CES, Trisagion was followed by the final priestly blessing and then the sanctuary veil was shut to show that the cathedral Service was over.

[foll. 26b-27a] That the service of Ramšā is completed with the qanonā ‘Holy,’ just as that of Ṣaprā; (this) is obvious, not only because that the priest intones the (prayer of) laying on of hands and blesses the people, but also by that we close the veil before the people, since [27a] the service has received completion. For the opening and the shutting up of the veils show the door of God’s mercy, that which is not shut before the men, as often as we ask mercy from God. For just as with the service of Ṣaprā, in like manner with the service of Ramšā, when the qanonā of ‘Holy’ is finished, we shut up the veil.

Trisagion is said at the end of Sunday Ṣaprā and again, it is repeated in Sunday Rāzē, where it is found at the early part of the celebration: between lākumārā and the Readings. If Trisagion is found exclusively at the end of daily Services how is it at the beginning of Rāzē? For Jammo, Trisagion was inserted after the existing introit (lākumārā) as an introduction and spiritual preparation to the Readings.[39]

Gabriel Winkler disagrees to associate Trisagion with the Readings, but considers it as a further expansion of the processional introit chant, similar to its use in the early Constantinople enarxis.[40] M. D. Findikyan rightly observes that the use of Trisagion is rooted genetically in Constantinopilitan entrance rites, but not structurally and therefore he favours its association with the Readings as found in the Armenian rite.[41] The only evidence that we could trace in this regard from the commentaries is in CES, where Trisagion is associated to the initial service rather than to the Readings. In the mystagogy of Rāzē, CES has a pluri-cycled interpretation, each cycle typifies the whole economy of salvation: first cycle from the beginning till Trisagion, second cycle from Readings till expulsion of catechumens, and third cycle from the anthem of Mysteries till the final blessing. These three cycles seem to refer to the three archaic services that constitute Sunday Rāzē: the Service of (third) Hour, the Service of the Word and the Service of the offering. Trisagion is, then, naturally collocated at the end of the Introductory Service, and not to the liturgy of the Word.[42]

The rite of Trisagion in per se needs no presbyter, and therefore deacon can be called the liturgical minister of this rite in the East Syriac liturgy. This fact is indirectly attested in the Canonical Collection of Gabriel of Basra (ca. 884-891). According to this Nomocanon, neither deacons nor laymen are allowed to recite liturgical parts pertaining to priests, in their absence. Nevertheless, when no priest is present, instead of the priestly collects deacons may recite the Trisagion or the Lord’s Prayer.

(The laymen) not even should say ‘let us pray, peace be with us’, that is rightful to the deacon; but they shall begin and end with ‘Our Father’; and between each hullālā, the deacon repeats silently the same prayer of ‘Our Father’ or ‘Holy God’”.[43]

It is the deacon who summons the people to sing the Trisagion, the litanic praise. The proclamation made by the deacon at Bema (“lift up your voices and glorify the living God, O all people”) echoes the command of the holy angels to sing after them according to the legendary origin of this hymn. Here is a late eighth century testimony:

The fact that the deacon commands ‘lift up your voice and glorify all (the people)’, just as this qanonā was heard from the angels, the same way this corporeal angel (deacon) always awakes and commands the people on everything to be done, and also now completes the series of his service; in honour of our Lord now he does not descend from the Bema so as to show that our Lord remained in Jerusalem until his ascension. As soon as this qanonā is concluded, the service of Ramšā is finished.[44]

The deacon’s proclamation brings to our mind the function of heavenly beings (angels and saints): they continually praise their Creator and invite mankind to join in their incessant praise.  Angels have the divine gifts of “reason and freedom” in a higher level than man, and in this sense they are superior to man.[45] Since liturgy is an act of reason and freedom, angels are perfect models for worship. For this reason they have a pedagogic role in Revelation and in liturgy. Man imitate and replicate many angelic hymns in liturgical singing. Hence, the best way to commence any earthly liturgy is by reproducing the angelic praises. Most of the liturgical poetry is inspired directly by the angelic revelations in the Scripture. Trisagion is a heavenly catechesis for men, teaching us on the divine Nature and our liturgical function in relation to the cosmos. In short, heaven and earth join in one accord to praise their Creator in Trisagion.


[1] © Published in Christian Orient 32 (2011) 137-152.

[2] For a recent study of the Trisagion from a comparative liturgical perspective, see S. Janeras, “Le Trisagion: une formule brève en liturgie comparée”, Acts of the International Congress ‘Comparative Liturgy Fifty years after Anton Baumstark (1872-1949)’ Rome, 25-29 September 1998, R. F. Taft & G. Winkler  (eds.), OCA 265 (2001) 495-562 (= Janeras, “Trisagion”).

[3] S. Brock, “The origins of the qanona ‘Holy God, holy Mighty, holy Immortal’ according to Gabriel of Qatar (early 7th century), Harp 21 (2006) 174 (= Brock, “Origins of Holy God”).

[4] R. Taft, Beyond East and West: Problems in Liturgical Understanding, Rome 1997, 215-216; J. Mateos, La célébration de la parole dans la liturgie bizantine, OCA 191, Roma 1971, 99-100, 112-114.

[5] S. Y. H. Jammo, La Structure de la messe chaldéen, du début jusqu’à  l’anaphore: Etude historique, OCA 207 (1979) 93 (=Jammo, Structure).

[6] G. Furlani, “Il trattato di Yesho’yahb d’Arzon sul Trisagion”, Rivista degli Studi Orientali 7 (1916-18) 690:9-17 (.

[7] Jammo, Structure 97.

[8] According to the original Syriac text, Trisagion is sung at the end of Ramšā and Ṣaprā. But in the reformed Malayalam text, the position of Trisagion has been adapted.

[9] “In omnibus provinciis Babel, Pars et Atur, in omnibus regionibus ubi sol oritur et apud Indos, et apud Sinas et apud Tibetas, sicut apud Turcas, et in omnibus civitatibus…quae sub Throno illo patriarcali sant… hoc Trisagion semper sine additamento… dictum est.” H. Labourt, De Timotheo I Nestorianorum patriarcha, Paris 1904, 45.

[10] It is not clear when exactly and by whom the genre was introduced in the School (probably by Narsai), but it is certain that the oldest specimens that have been preserved were initially transmitted orally by the teachers. G. J. Reinink, “The Cause of the Commemoration of Mary: Author, Date and Christology”, Malphono w-Rabo d-Malphone: Studies in Honor of Sebastian P. Brock, G. Kiraz (ed.), Piscataway 2008, 517.

[11] S. Janeras and S. Brock has given an excellent overview and summary on the different accounts of the origins of Trisagion. Their works are already quoted above.

[12] S. Brock, “Church of the East in the Sasanian Empire up to the Sixth Century and it’s Absence from the Councils in the Roman Empire”, Fire from Heaven: Studies in Syriac Theology and Liturgy, Chapter II, Aldershot 2006, 79.

[13] “But, since he wished to bring them to perceive their blasphemy and to desist therefrom, because they came not thereto, God himself gave unto them a manner of intercession – for he who should do this had not been found – whereby they should say: ‘Holy God, holy [and] mighty, holy [and] immortal, have mercy upon us.’ And every one assented with one mind thereto and left off the things for which they had yearned [and] for which God had not yearned. And they wrote this down in the basilica and in public and set it up thus: ‘Glory and thanks to the holy one and to the immortal, God the saviour of all’; and they had almost succeeded in confessing God immortal; and that to which they clung they denied not, but this was sung in every place. But after the earthquake had ceased and a few wars were arising, they roused themselves again and revealed themselves against God; and they were dissembling the confession [of faith] in God, as persons that remembered not the [formula] ‘God the holy one and mighty and immortal’, who was able / to bring wars to peace even without human might, wherein was his might and except for which there was not [any kind] of preparation [for war]; and they have made trial of this thing in fact. Now indeed they have ceased even from [this] supplication.” The Bazaar of Heraclides, G. R. Driver & L. Hodgson (trs.), Oxford 1925, 365 [for Syriac text: Le livre d’Héraclide de Damas, P. Bedjan (ed.), Paris/Leipzig 1910].

[14] L. Abramowski, Untersuchungen zum Liber Heraclidis des Nestorius, CSCO 242, Subsidia 22 (1963)119.

[15] Janeras, “Trisagion” 540.

[16] Homily 125: “Et c’est par notre ville d’Antioche que cette louange a commencé, par où a commencé également les nom des chrétiens; mais déjà et elle est par venue justqu’aux Églises d’Asie et elle fait son chemin dorénavant vers toutes les Églises”: PO 29/1 249.

[17] G. Furlani, “Il trattato di Yesho’yahb d’Arzon sul Trisagion”, Rivista degli Studi Orientali 7 (1916-18) 687-705, Syriac text in 690-698 (=Ishoyahb I’s Cause of Trisagion) . But Brock refers to this Cause as if of Ishoyahb II (628-645). Brock, “Origins of Holy God” 176.

[18] Ishoyahb I’s Cause of Trisagion 692:16-21; 693:7-8.

[19] For ET see Brock, “Origins of Holy God” 173-185. The liturgical commentary of Rabban Gabriel Qatraya bar Lipah is the earliest and most comprehensive witness to East Syriac daily liturgy. The unedited text is found in a unique Ms Or.3336, conserved in the British Library, London. The author is not yet clearly identified, but it is certain that he wrote the commentary in the early decades of the seventh century, before the liturgical reforms of Ishoyahb III. The region of Qatar was an intellectual centre during this period. The literary genre of this commentary (erotapokriseis) and the title of its author (Rabban) hint at a School-cenobitic background in which the text was conceived.

[20] Ishoyahb I’s Cause of Trisagion 692,25-693,8.

[21] Brock, “Origins of Holy God” 182. The author is not yet clearly identified. Since this work is merely an abbreviation of the Commentary of Gabriel Qatraya, it confirms the popularity and value of the latter.

[22] For Brock, possibly the statue was introduced at some time after the earthquake of 480, when the statue of Theodosius I in the Forum Tauri is recorded as having fallen from its column during an earthquake. For details: Brock, “Origins of Holy God” 181 note 26.

[23] Brock, “Origins of Holy God” 179-180 note 22. The commentary of Abraham bar Lipah of Qatar belongs to the first half of the seventh century. The author is not yet clearly identified. Since this work is merely an abbreviation of the Commentary of Gabriel Qatraya, it confirms the popularity and value of the latter.

[24] Anonymi auctoris Expositio officiorum ecclesiae Georgio Arbelensi vulgo ascripta. Accedit Abrahae Bar Lipeh Interpretatio Officiorum II, R. H. Connolly (ed. & tr.), CSCO, Scriptores Syri, series 2, t. 92, Roma 1915, 166-168.

[25] The author is generally known as “Pseudo-George of Arbela” or “Anonymous Author”, but according to modern scholarship, the author is by all probability Abdisho bar Bahriz, Metropolitan of Mosul (died ca. 828). For details see J. Alencherry, “The Author of Pseudo-George of Arbela”, Urha 4 (2010) 53-61.

[26] Proclus is associated to the origin of Trisagion in other sources too. See Janeras, “Trisagion” 543; Brock, “Origins of Holy God” 178.

[27] Anonymi auctoris Expositio officiorum ecclesiae Georgio Arbelensi vulgo ascripta. I-II, R. H. Connolly (ed.), CSCO 64 Scriptores Syri, series 2, t. 91, Paris-Roma 1911, Syriac text 187,9-188,2.

[28] Abdisho bar Brika in his Book on the Order of Church Regulations composed in 1315/16 for the use of judges and directors of the ecclesiastical courts, the third tract gives a brief liturgical commentary on Church Services. Our English translation is based on the Syriac edition, prepared by J. Kelaitha.

[29] ܦܢܩܝܬܐ ܕܛܘܟܣ ܕܝ̈ܢܐ ܥܕܬܢܝ̈ܐ. ܕܥܒܝܕ ܠܡܪܝ ܥܒܕܝܫܘܥ ܡܝܬܪܦܘܠܝܛܐ ܕܨܘܒܐ ܘܕܐܪܡܢܝܐ. English Title: Book on the Order of Church Regulations: Written by Mar Abdisho, Metropolitan of Nisibis and Armenia, J. Kelaitha, Urmia, Persia 1918, Syriac text 46a-b.

[30] Hanssens describes that the ESL formulation as “ipsam formulam byzantinam sine ullo discrimine”. J. M. Hanssens, Institutiones liturgicae de ritibus orientalibus, II-III, Romae 1930-32, here III, 149.

[31] Jammo, Structure 94; Janeras, “Trisagion” 528-533.

[32] J. Mateos, La célébration de la parole dans la liturgie bizantine, OCA 191, Roma 1971, 98-99; Janeras, “Trisagion” 529.

[33] A sixth century monk Job, held that it was simply a justaposition of Is 6:3 with Ps 42:2 where some Gk mss have “My soul has thirsted for God, the Mighty, the living (that is, Immortal). See Janeras, “La Trisagion” 519-520.

[34] J. Mateos, Lelya-Sapra: Les offices chaldéennes de la nuit et du matin, OCA 156 (1972), 98 note 1; Jammo, Structure 94. The following passage from the Commentary of Ishoyahb I on Trisagion indicates that the term qanonā can have the same sense of ‘Canon of Scripture’: a text officially authenticated by Church as inspired by the Holy Spirit and therefore considered closed (no more addition or removal). In this sense, Trisagion is an angelic canon. “The city (Constantinople) which had the tradition of this qanonā from the Holy Spirit did not admit to introduce (the incise) for two (motives). For its inhabitants said, “we, that is our Fathers, we have received the angelic qanonā; it will be very foolish and also wicked, if we, while our Fathers had received the good tradition from heaven by which they were saved from the vehement punishment that effaced life, pervert and change the heavenly tradition with the words of earthy man (…)”. Ishoyahb I’s Cause of Trisagion 697,5-11.

[35] S. Brock, “The Thrice-Holy Hymn in the Liturgy”, Sobornost 7 (1985) 29; Janeras, “Trisagion” 560.

[36] “Because men made compensation unto God, having confessed him [to be] both holy and mighty and immortal, both by law and by commands and by penalties they confirmed [their actions] against those who confessed God the Word [to be] holy and mighty and immortal and [punished them] with despoilment and exile and death, until Theodosius, who had raised himself up against God, was taken from [their] midst; and the mouth [of every man] was opened to confess and to glorify and to adore God the holy and mighty and immortal, speaking without fear. For not he who calls Christ God passible and mortal confesses Christ [to be] God, but he who speaks of Christ in his divinity which he is in his nature and confesses God impassible and immortal and mighty and holy in his nature but passible in his humanity, in that he confesses that he is by nature man.” Bazaar of Heraclides 369.

[37] Jammo, Structure 96.

[38] Ishoyahb I’s Cause of Trisagion 693,15-696,5.

[39] Jammo, Structure 97-98.

[40] G. Winkler, “Review of Jammo, La Structure de la messe chaldéen, du début jusqu’à l’anaphore: Étude historique,” OC 66 (1982) 240-241.

[41] M. D. Findikyan, The Commentary on the Armenian Daily Office by Bishop Step`anos Siwnec`i (+ 735): Critical Edition and Translation with Textual and Liturgical Analysis, OCA 270 (2004) 458.

[42] “Those (deacons) on duty remain and they ascend (the Bema and say) the qanonā ‘Holy’ which is the completion of (this part of the service) of the Mysteries. Thus far they typified only the service of the dispensation, but now the dispensation is completed.” A Commentary on the Mass (which has been attributed to, but it is not really) by the Nestorian George, Bishop of Mosul and Arbel (10th century), R. H. Connolly (tr.), R. Matheus (ed.), Kottayam 2000 36.

[43] Die Rechtssammlung des Gabriel von Basra und ihr Verhältnis zu den juristischen Sammelwerken der Nestorianer, H. Kaufhold (ed.), Berlin 1976, Syriac text 226-227.

[44] Anonymi auctoris Expositio officiorum ecclesiae, op. cit., I:188,3-11.

[45] Cf. R. M. M. Tuschling, Angels and Orthodoxy: A Study in their Development in Syria and Palestine from the Qumran Texts to Ephrem the Syrian, (Studies and Texts in Antiquity and Christianity 40) Tübingen 2007.

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