The Trisagion

Ἅγιος ὁ Θεός
Ἅγιος Ἰσχυρός
Ἅγιος Ἀθάνατος
ἐλέησον ἡμᾶς

Holy God
Holy mighty
Holy immortal
Have mercy on us

The above little prayer is one of the great treasures of the ancient Church. It’s called the Trisagion, and appears in the fourth century, after which to the present day it is used in the anaphora of Byzantine Divine Liturgies, and apparently in some Western liturgies as well. The thrice-holy hymn is generally understood to have emerged from the vision granted to the Holy Prophet Isaiah of the heavenly Seraphim, chanting, “Holy, holy, holy” at the throne of God (Isaiah 6), through the mediation of the vision granted to St John the Theologian in the Apocalypse (ch. 4). But real certainty, and much of its history, is not what interests me here. It’s rather an interesting thing that I noticed differs between the way this prayer is understood in the Greek and the English.

I think most people who read the English Trisagion think of this as a prayer addressing God as “Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal.” Yet, while this is a possible reading in the English, it is not the case in the Greek. There, instead of a vocative address, we have a series of declarative statements, which are through ellipsis lacking verbs and connective particles: “Holy [is] God, Holy [and] Mighty, Holy [and] Immortal.”

In addition, I think the first phrase bears an implied personalization in the first person plural, following from the final phrase. So, the full prayer should be thus understood:

“Holy is our God, holy and mighty, holy and immortal. Have mercy on us!”

Only in the final phrase are we addressing God with this prayer. Before that, it is a prayer of confession, that our God is holy, mighty, and immortal. Could it be that this prayer emerged out of the martyrdoms? Was it a confession of faith on the part of some being tortured to death for their faith? It’s entirely possible, but we just don’t know. Regardless, it’s beautiful.

(These are some ideas that I had upon waking one day, while clearing my head of the fuzziness of the dream world. Usually my first waking moments are not so productive!)