Liturgy Survival Guide: Musical Theology in the Liturgy of the Word

In the previous post in this series, we delved into the first part of the Divine Liturgy, the Liturgy of the Word. We examined the Doxology and the Great Litany, where we give “glory unto God, who gives the light” and join the deacon in prayers that encompass the whole world.

Next, the Church teaches us her liturgical theology in a musical section that is full of textual richness and depth. The music acts as a sort of travelers’ guidebook in the journey of worship, telling pilgrims about the season on the ecclesiastical calendar, introducing the fellow travelers who have taken this path before us, and describing the One who is the destination of our journey.

Musical Theology

Praise is an important function of worship music (just flip through the Psalms for proof), but music also provides an opportunity for the Church to shape our thoughts.

We can see this teaching function in the singing of the antiphons. An antiphon is a hymn that is sung antiphonally, with alternating voices or choirs. (Nowadays we don’t have dueling choirs, but often the choir will sing a hymn, then the priest will repeat it.)

[Photo by Rob Horner]

The musical selections vary according to the festal season, but they include a brief hymn called a troparion to commemorate a feast day, often paired with a kontakion, which explains the meaning of the feast. On Sundays, the day of Christ’s Resurrection, the liturgy includes a resurrectional hymn, and each individual parish also sings a hymn about the saint to whom their temple is dedicated. In Russian Orthodox churches, people chant the Beatitudes together.

In Let Us Attend! A Journey through the Orthodox Divine Liturgy, Fr. Lawrence Farley writes, “In listening intently to the troparia, we learn what the Church teaches about the Lord, the Mother of God, the saints, and the great saving events of the faith” (p. 30). The words can seem formal and didactic to newcomers accustomed to more modern forms of music, but the doctrinal purpose of hymns has been valued for centuries throughout all branches of Christendom.

Unfortunately, this has changed in recent decades. In many Evangelical churches, lyrics rooted in theology have been jettisoned in favor of pop-rock praise choruses. The Orthodox Church, as usual, has not kept up with these trends but instead focuses on timeless truth.

For example, I am writing this post after the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee (from Jesus’ parable in Luke 18:9-14), the beginning of the three-week Triodion period of preparation before Great Lent. The resurrectional hymn for the day gives praise to God while also making a theological statement about the identity of this God: “Eternal with the Father and the Spirit is the Word, Who of a Virgin was begotten for our salvation.” This one short line clearly proclaims a Trinitarian Faith and the Virgin birth of Jesus Christ.


Next, the words of the kontakion admonish the people: “Let us flee from the boasting of the Pharisee and learn through our own sighs of sorrow the humility of the Publican. Let us cry out to the Savior, ‘Have mercy on us, for through You alone are we reconciled.’”

Nothing here addresses my feelings. Instead, the Church confronts my ego, reminding me that any act of self-denial during Lent is worthless without a humble heart. The repentant tax collector is my example, not the prideful religious official. The hymn of my parish’s patron saint provides yet another call to discipleship, encouraging me to imitate her example.

Poetry is here, and so is beauty—and challenge. These antiphons exhort us to a deeper life of faith, proclaim doctrinal truths, and offer loving honor for the godly men and women who have traveled this path before us.

“Only Begotten”

The proclamation of unchanging truth continues with a very singable hymn, “Only Begotten Son of God.” It is from the sixth century and was possibly written by Emperor Justinian:

Only begotten Son and Word of God, immortal One

Who for our salvation did so humble yourself by taking on flesh,

Taking flesh by the Theotokos and ever Virgin Mary.

Without change did you become man

And were crucified, Christ our God,

But conquered death by your death

As one of the Holy Trinity and being glorified together

With the Father and the Holy Spirit. Save us.

These lyrics are meat, not milk. Musically and lyrically, the antiphons help prepare our hearts and minds for the next part of the Divine Liturgy, the readings from the Word of God.

Fr. Jimi Foreso of blessed memory blesses the congregation with the Gospel book. [Photo by Rob Horner]

The Little Entrance

As we sing, the clergy and attendants make a procession, the “Little Entrance,”carrying the Gospel book from the altar table into the nave. (The later “Great Entrance” refers to the processing of the Eucharist—the Body and Blood of Christ in our midst.)

The Gospels are accorded this parade, including an honor guard of lights from the candle-bearers, because the written Word reveals to us the living Word, Jesus Christ. The Gospels proclaim Jesus as Light of the World and call us to shine His light in our lives.

Fr. Theodore Dorrance and acolytes during the Little Entrance. [Photo by Rob Horner]

The Trisagion Hymn

After we complete these hymns, the deacon cries, “Wisdom! Let us attend!” (or, in some translations, “Let us stand aright!”). Crossing ourselves and bowing, we answer with, “Come let us worship and bow down to Christ, the Son of God. Save us, O Son of God, who is risen from the dead. We sing to you, Alleluia.”

Following this response, we join the saints and angels in a beautiful song of worship, the Trisagion Hymn: “Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us.”

This is one of the most ancient hymns of the Church and is deeply Trinitarian, addressing Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is the hymn of the angels, adapted from the sixth chapter of Isaiah: God, high and lifted up, sits on His throne in the temple while the angels surround Him, singing, “Holy, holy, holy, Lord of Hosts! The whole earth is full of Your glory!”

By embracing this song of praise to the Holy Trinity, the Church reminds us that in the Divine Liturgy, we are entering into the ongoing heavenly worship. We stand before God alongside a vast host of angels and all of the saints through the ages.

The Blessing of Peace

Next the celebrant greets the people with, “Peace be with you all!” We respond, “And with your spirit!” This blessing occurs several times throughout the service, occasionally giving newcomers a sense of déjà vu. Yes, you did hear this before. Yes, you will hear it again.

The bestowal of peace is more than a religious nicety; we need this peace and the reminder that Christ is with us, because we cannot listen and discern with troubled, distracted hearts and minds. The peace that the priest offers is the peace of Christ, not his own. In receiving it, we ready ourselves for the reading of God’s Word.


When we resume the Liturgy Survival Guide, we will consider readings of the Gospel and epistle and the homily in the Liturgy of the Word. But next, we will focus on the Lenten season.




  1. Thank you for the explanations! Aware of many parts of the worship, but not familiar with the terminology.
    Keep writing! Very interesting and informative!
    Blessings to you…

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