The Great Litany
by: Rev. Peter J. Orfanakos
Having declared our defiance of the world in the opening exclamation of the Divine Liturgy, we now take our first step together in the journey toward the Kingdom. The Great Litany contains the opening petitions of the Divine Liturgy. It is referred to as the ‘Great’ Litany, not just because of its length, but also because it sums up the totality of our needs. Through these prayers, the Church “sweeps up the whole world in its great and loving arms, and offers it up to God to be blessed and sanctified and saved.”1
At the beginning of the Divine Liturgy the priest calls the people to prayer for he is appointed to this office and it is for this reason that he is placed before the people. He is also there as their representative and mediator, so that his prayer may be effectual as the apostle James says: “the effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.” (James 5:16)
At the same time, those for whom he is making supplication (the congregation - the λαός), contribute all they can through their good behavior, prayers, gentleness, justice and anything else which they know to be pleasing to God.
“In peace let us pray to the Lord.” The Church begins by inviting all to pray “in peace,” invoking first of all “the peace from above” and the “salvation of our souls.” It is for this reason that sometimes this litany is referred to as the litany of peace. Peace is fundamental not only to this prayer but to all prayer and in fact to a Christian life itself. Without internal peace we cannot know God much less come before Him and offer Him prayers of intercession.
Peace is the great and parting gift of Christ to His Church. On His final night with the apostles the Lord said, “Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.” (John 14:27)
Before Christ, warfare raged in the cosmos and in our hearts as well. His saving death on the Cross and the shedding of His precious blood, brought peace to all. (Colossians 1:19-2.) By repentance and faith,we enter into this saving peace.
We have peace with God, with whom we are now reconciled (Roman 5:1) and peace with each other as well. In fact, the more we enter into this peace the closer we draw to God, and the more powerfully He dwells within us.4 “Saint Seraphim of Sarov said, ‘Acquire the spirit of peace, and thousands will be saved around you.’”2
So, before we begin this litany, we are called to enter again into the peace of Christ “casting out from our hearts any distraction, all turmoil and anxiety, and focusing only on Christ. Only then can we stand aright before Him and offer supplication for the needs of all.”3
In this Great Litany the Church also prays for “the peace of the whole world,” and “the stability of the Churches of God.” It prays for “this holy house and for those who enter it with faith, reverence, and the fear of God.” It prays for the local bishop by name, “for the honorable priesthood, the diaconate in Christ, for all the clergy and the people.” In this petition, we see the saving synergy (cooperation) of the Church in action.
The Church also prays for the physical world on which we all depend. We pray for “seasonable weather, for abundance of the fruits of the earth, and for temperate seasons,” to harvest these gifts.
The Church continues by praying for those in special distress and danger: for “travelers by land, by sea and by air.” (in ancient times travel was especially dangerous), for “the sick and the suffering,” for “captives and their salvation.”
In fact, the Church prays for our deliverance from “all affliction, wrath, danger and distress.” To each of these petitions and needs the faithful lift up the cry, “Lord, have mercy!” (Κύριε ελέησον).
Rev. Lawrence Farley, in his book about the Divine Liturgy explains, though the English word ‘mercy’ has a rather juridical feel (recalling the plea of a condemned man for mercy and pardon from a judge), the Greek has a wider meaning. In this repeated response, the Church prays not only for pardon but for blessing, strength, rescue, the total outpouring of God’s generosity. “The ‘mercy’ we beg is the equivalent of the Hebrew term hesed, which is translated not simply as ‘mercy’ but also ‘steadfast love,’ or ‘loving kindness.’ When we pray over and over again, ‘Lord, have mercy!’ We are beseeching the God of our Fathers to lift us up from all the pits into which we stumble.”4
1 Let Us Attend: A Journey Through the Orthodox Divine Liturgy,
Rev. Lawrence Farley, p. 17.
2 Ibid., p. 18.
3 Ibid., p. 18.
4 Ibid., p. 20.
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