The Summary of our Liturgy in One Sentence
There is a very interesting story of Hillel, the Rabbi who lived right before the time of Jesus Christ. He was well-known for his knowledge of the Hebrew scriptures. A young man once approached him and asked him if he could recite the entire scriptures standing on one toe of a foot. He had already asked this question to another rabbi,who pulled his shoe to slap him. Hillel, however, calmly replied with a smile on his face, ‘Do unto others what you expect from them! This one commandment contains the entire scriptures.’
Imagine a young man asking you a similar question about our worship. ‘Can you recite the entire Qurbana standing on one toe of a foot?’ I don’t know how you would respond, but I would respond as follows: Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner! This prayer is a summary of the entire Qurbana, and actually of the entire liturgy.
Let me explain why I think this is the summary of our entire Qurbana.
This prayer is a literal translation of its Greek form, Kuriyelaison, and its Syriac form, Moran Esrahaam Alain. This is well known in the Greek Orthodox world as the Jesus prayer, which is Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner! This prayer is repeated seven times in the Qawmo, the usual introductory prayer. When a minister exhorts us ‘let us pray to the Lord!’ we pray, ‘Lord, have mercy on us!’ Actually this is all that we have to pray, and it summarizes our entire liturgy.
Now let us see what exactly we are requesting for in this prayer. We are requesting God to have mercy on us. In its literal sense, it implies that right now God has no mercy on us, and we are pleading God to change his mind toward us. Although this is how it literally sounds to us, we are really not asking for God to change his mind, for God does not need to change His mind. He is always merciful to us.
Then what exactly are we requesting here? We are really not requesting anything. We are simply letting God know that we are sorry. ‘Lord, I am sorry’ is a better translation than ‘Lord, have mercy on me’. In our usual conversation, we seek forgiveness saying, ‘I am sorry’ or ‘please forgive me’.
Let us explore the importance of seeking God’s forgiveness with a few examples. The prodigal son approaches his father with this prayer. He feels really sorry for disobeying his father, for leaving him. and for wasting all the hard-earned wealth. He realized the greatness of his father when he had the opportunity to experience a merciless master who refused to let him eat even the pigs’ food. However, his older brother, who refuses to come inside his home and welcome his brother, justifies himself and accuses his father as well as his brother. He does exactly the opposite of what the prodigal son does. He justifies himself and blames everybody else. The prodigal son, however, blames himself and justifies everybody else.
Another example is that of the Pharisee and tax collector praying in the temple. The tax collector, who felt sorry for his behavior, prayed, ‘Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner!’ He blamed himself and justified God. The Pharisee presented before God as a good person comparing himself to the tax collector. He expected God to bless him and curse the tax collector. However, Jesus ends the story saying that the tax collector went home justified by God, but the Pharisee went home unjustified.
Another example is how Adam and Eve stood before God after their disobedience. Neither of them was willing to admit the mistake and say sorry. They both put the blame on others-- Adam upon Eve, and Eve upon the snake. Ultimately the blame was upon God, for it was God who placed Eve and the snake in the garden. The relationships were broken, and left broken, for the ones who were responsible were unwilling to apologize.
The minister often exhorts us in worship, “Let us stand well!’ Its Greek form is more common-- Stauman kalos. How do we stand well when we stand before God? We get a clue when we pay attention to the response. Whenever the minister exhorts us to stand well, we utter together ‘Lord, have mercy on us (Kuriyelaison)’. Standing well before God means standing like the prodigal son and like the tax collector-- blaming oneself and justifying God. We are not supposed to stand before God like Adam and Eve, like the brother of the prodigal son, or like the Pharisee.
Why do we say Sorry to God?
We say sorry because we do mistakes knowingly and unknowingly in our thoughts, words, and deeds. It is human to err. God is the only one who doesn’t do any mistakes. That is why we repeatedly affirm that God is holy. In a Qawmo we repeat this affirmation nine times. In the Qurbana we make the affirmation that none is holy except the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit. We also admit that we are sinners, which means that we are likely to do mistakes.
We make the affirmation that God alone is holy based on the affirmation that God alone knows everything. None among men or angels is omniscient. We do mistakes because our knowledge is limited. God is the only one who is free from mistakes because God is the only one who knows everything.
Adam and Eve didn’t know this. The Pharisee didn’t know this. That is why they justified themselves and blamed God. However, the tax collector knew this. That is why he blamed himself and justified God.
A Vision of Heaven
Isaiah, the prophet, had a vision of heaven once. He was meditating in the temple. His mind was disturbed over the recent happenings in his nation. King Uzziah had died recently as a leper, and it was believed that it was a punishment from God for burning incense in the temple, which only the priests usually do. King Uzziah was a great king, and his period of reign was a period of prosperity. People in general were angry at God for punishing the king, and they even cursed God.
When Isaiah had his mind focused, he had a vision, which presented an entirely different scene. The angels were all praising God. No one was cursing God. They praised ‘Holy Holy Holy Lord God almighty, by whose glory the heaven and earth are filled!’ This was an eye-opening revelation for Isaiah. He understood why heaven was heaven. The inhabitants of heaven realize that God alone is holy. They all praise God for being holy. As a result, no one justifies oneself, and they are able to forgive each other. If only the inhabitants of the earth had such a realization of God, the earth also might turn to become heaven.
In fact our earth was once heaven, as we see in the Garden of Eden. People lived in harmony with God and nature, and at peace with one another. However, people began to blame God and justify themselves. As a result, the earth turned into a hell. We hope that it can once again become heaven as we see in the last chapters of Revelation.
We create our church buildings representing the world-- with heaven and earth. We worship God in the church as the angels worship God in heaven. We practice heaven in our churches on Sundays so that our world may slowly become heaven as it used to be.
What do we do in Qurbana?
The Syriac word Qurbana means sacrifice. We sacrifice ourselves to God along with Jesus Christ. It is a living sacrifice because unlike the sacrifices of the past, we don’t kill ourselves to be sacrificed. We surrender fully and completely at the feet of our heavenly father. We do it willingly like the prodigal son. We transfer our ownership to God. We give ourselves as slaves to God willing to obey His will.
In doing this we do exactly the opposite of what Adam and Eve did. They refused to obey God, and placed the blame on God justifying themselves. However, we follow the example of Jesus Christ, the second Adam, who submitted to the will of the heavenly father unconditionally, and also bore the responsibility of all the sins of the world on his head.
Traditionally, one who sacrifices and animal eats its flesh and drinks its blood to become one with it. In Qurbana, we eat the flesh and blood of Christ, so that we become one with Christ. The bread and wine also represent the church, the body of Christ.