Let Us Set Aside All Earthly Cares

Let Us Set Aside All Earthly Cares June 16, 2009

In preparation for the eucharist, the Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom asks its participants to remove all worldly distractions so that they can be ready for their encounter with Christ. This is manifested in the singing of  the Cherubic Hymn, which goes:

Let us, who mystically represent the cherubim, and sing the thrice-holy hymn to the life-creating Trinity, now set aside all earthly cares.

[priestly interlude]

That we may welcome the King of all, invisibly escorted by angelic hosts. Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia![1]

In such few words, a great deal of theology is taking place. Moreover, a spiritual proposal is given, one which can, and should, be taken out of the liturgical context and used in our daily life. But to understand the discipline suggested by these words, one must first understand their liturgical implication. Therefore, let us look at what the text means and, as we do so, we see some of the ways in which this text can be applied to our daily walk with God (and our understanding of our place in the world).

First, we must ask who exactly are the cherubim? Tradition tells us that they rank in the highest order of angels (along with the Seraphim and Thrones). The surround the throne of God, and revel in their knowledge and experience of God: “The name cherubim signifies the power to know and to see God, to receive the greatest gifts of his light, to contemplate the divine splendor in primordial power, to be filled with the gifts that bring wisdom and to share these generously with subordinates as a part of the beneficent outpouring of wisdom.[2] In Scripture, cherubim are found throughout: one is left to guard the entrance to paradise (Gen. 3:24), two cherubim are part next to the mercy seat on the ark of the covenant (Ex. 25:18), and, in Ezekiel’s vision, they surround the glory of God (Ezek 9:3; Ezek 10:1-22). Indeed, Ezekiel gives us our best description of their appearance: “And the cherubim lifted up their wings and mounted up from the earth in my sight as they went forth, with the wheels beside them; and they stood at the door of the east gate of the house of the LORD; and the glory of the God of Israel was over them. These were the living creatures that I saw underneath the God of Israel by the river Chebar; and I knew that they were cherubim. Each had four faces, and each four wings, and underneath their wings the semblance of human hands. And as for the likeness of their faces, they were the very faces whose appearance I had seen by the river Chebar. They went every one straight forward” (Ezek 10:19 – 22).[3]

Thus, when we are told we mystically represent the cherubim, we must consider what it is that is being said: we have been given the mysteries of the faith, the revelation of the Trinity and the incarnation, and have been given greatest wisdom of all, the truth of God. We represent the cherubim because, like them, we have come to know God. We have been enlightened in our baptism, united to the body of Christ. We also represent them in the act of communion, when we not only know God, but, mysteriously, we surround God by our very person because we our bodies become a temple of God, and he finds yet another throne.

The thrice-holy hymn is the hymn to the glorious Trinity. It in the midst of the celebration, what is referenced is the liturgical development of the “Holy, Holy, Holy is the LORD of hosts” sung by the seraphim (Isa. 6:3), where the people sing, “Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy and Immortal” three times. Tradition understands that each “Holy” represents one of the persons of the Trinity. The prophetic text is understood as one of the clearest pronouncements of the Trinity in the in the Hebrew Scriptures. To know about God is to know about the Trinity, which is the great, paradoxical, mystery of Divinity. Moreover, the proper response to one’s experience of God’s glory is worship. Having come to know God, we worship God, in truth and beauty, in full compliance with the revelation of his Trinitarian nature.[4]

But the only way to experience God, to know God, to worship God, is to overcome ourselves, our reliance upon our own notions and ideas of God and our place with God, and to let God be God. We must let God bring his glory to the earth through us, so that the earth can be transfigured in the divine light of grace. For this to be possible, we must let go of the things of the earth. We must set aside all earthly cares. God must be the center of our lives, not the world. Where our heart is, so shall we be. As long as our focus is on the things of the world, we have failed to reach the height of God. But when we focus on God, the things of the world return to us, in and through God, in their proper place. To set aside all earthly cares is not to ignore the earth, and all that happens on it, but to set aside our egoistic experience of the earth and its goods.  “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If any one serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there shall my servant be also; if any one serves me, the Father will honor him” (John 12:24 – 26). “If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” (Lk 14:26). To set aside all earthly cares is to truly follow Christ. To put aside our own desires, wishes, and expectations, so that God can work in, with, and through us for his greater glory. And that glory, of course, is for the betterment of the world, according to the will and desire of God’s love, instead of the programs we would establish for it. In God, we receive all things, including the world. Without God, we lose all things, even the world which we would seek to keep. Thus, in the liturgy, we are moved to set aside everything, so we can truly receive God, and enter into communion with him. Whatever worldly affairs we bring with us, whatever thoughts we bring in with us, those are what cut us off from God, and prevent us from the loving unity with God that God desires for us. But this is true, not just in liturgy, but also in our daily lives. The more distracted we become with the affairs of the world, the more we find God decentered from our lives, and the more we, and the world around us, suffers. The response is to keep God as the center and focus. Then we can and will live in the world, properly incarnating the grace of God in our lives for the betterment of all.

That we may welcome the king of all, invisibly escorted by angelic hosts. Here, we are reminded that Christ is the king of all – not just humanity, but of all things. Angels surround him. We might not see them, but we know they are there, because of revelation. But it is not just the angels. The universe, the cosmos, all of creation is his. And just as we are mystically representing the cherubim, in a way, we are also an angelic host welcoming him. The rest of creation welcomes him in its own way. We surround Christ in a way which the rest of creation might not know. And just as we might not know all the celebration of the angels, so also, we do not know the celebration of creation, even the creation which is present before us. Yet all creation rejoices in God. And so we are united with the rest of creation in this mystical celebration. In this way, we know that this process procession is not just for us and our sakes, but for the sake of all. “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Rom. 8:22-23). We have primarily understood the work of God for us, but we should do so, not as a sense of exclusivity, but as a sense of how we experience the work of God. He works in us, to heal us. We have a personal experience of the grace of God, and that is, of course, the first way we experience the work of God. Theology is anthropomorphic, not because the extent of God’s work is only with humanity, but it is primarily God’s work with humanity that we know. Historically, this had led many to prematurely dismiss God’s work with the rest of creation. But that goes too far. The silence of how God works with the rest of creation is overcome by the fact that we know God works with it. Scripture indicates, in several places, that the rest of creation has a place in God’s plan. Of course, since God became man, humanity has become a vehicle for God’s grace, and so is accorded a special place in salvation history.[5] But that is as far as we can go. Any presumption that only humanity is to be accorded with salvation, with eternal life, is to be denied.

“Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.” The Cherubic Hymn ends as it should: in glorification of the Trinity. Three Alleluias, three persons of the Trinity. Gogol says that this is the Cherubic Hymn proper, because it is the response associated with the cherubim.[6] And so in coming forward and opening ourselves to God, we can finally attain with the cherubim, the triple-glorification of God, singing, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia, that is, “praise be to Yah(weh).” It is a word of joy, a word of celebration, the praise one gives to one’s beloved. God the lover of humanity brings out of us our own loving praise back. As couples say, “I love you,” one to another, so does the love of Christ, with his procession before us, bring out as a reply, “praise by to God.” And this is what the eucharist is about, the agape, the love-feast of Christ which brings to us in the giving of his person in the form of bread and wine, where we respond in thanksgiving and praise, not demanded by God, but brought out by our sheer joy we experience out of communion. And if we are to be Christians, to truly be the mystical cherubim, than this is the kind of life we are expected to live: the perpetual agape feast, where the things of the world do not get in the way of the love God has for us.

But, we are fallen sinners, working out our salvation with much fear and trembling. We often get distracted and remove God from the center of our lives. We follow our own ways, not the law of love. We stumble. We falter. Our love grows cold. We sin. The joy we want is taken away from us by our sin. We do not experience the love of God as he would, or we would, like. When this happens (and how often it happens), we should not fear. God is love. When we find the world has decentered us from God, we must turn back to him. We must clear our minds and return our focus to God. Again and again we will have to do this, until we have fully and finally set aside all earthly cares. We can’t do it alone. But by his grace, we can be healed, and, through our re-centering on Christ, we can once again experience the love of God, and the joyful, abundant life God wants us to have. It might take time, and so when we continue to stumble, we should not despair. The more we have sinned, the more we have turned our backs on God, the more God needs to work in and through us to purify us so we can experience him as he wants us to. But the more we work with God and let God take us back, the more we will find ourselves in joy, and to be able to sing from the depths of our heart, “Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.” That is what true prayer is about. The response of love.


[1] Historically, the Cherubic Hymn traces itself back to the liturgical reform of Justinian.  Thus, Gogol sees how the procession around a new emperor came to be used to understand the procession of Christ. “To understand this hymn one must know that among ancient Romans it was the custom to carry out the newly elected emperor to the people, surrounded by his legions on a shield raised aloft on spears and canopied by a forest of inclined spears and standards held above him, amid loud cries of: ‘Long live the emperor!’ And one must know, moreover, that this song was composed by one of the ancient emperors who humbled himself to the dust with al his earthly majesty before the Majesty of the King of All Who is borne as on spears by Cherubim and legions of heavenly hosts.” Nikolai Gogol, Meditations on the Divine Liturgy. Trans. L. Alexieff. Ed. Archimandrite Lazarus (Jordanville, NY: Holy Trinity Monastery, 1995), 31. In this way, while there is indeed an aspect of imperial splendor being attributed to Christ, it is also noteworthy to note it expresses the desire of Justinian to empty the pomp of the empire and put it underneath the authority of Christ, the true King. While we might not appreciate the imperial nature of the hymn today, we can appreciate the theological and spiritual content which comes out of it.

[2] Pseudo-Dionysius, The Celestial Hierarchy in Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works. trans. Colm Luibheid (New York: Paulist Press, 1987), 205C.

[3]As for the likeness of their faces, each had the face of a man in front; the four had the face of a lion on the right side, the four had the face of an ox on the left side, and the four had the face of an eagle at the back,”  (Ezek. 1:10)

[4] St. Maximus the Confessor, in his normal way, also presents the Thrice-Holy Hymn (Trisagion) with an eschatological dimension: “The triple explanation of holiness which all the faithful people proclaim in the divine hymn represents the union and the quality of honor to be manifested in the future with the incorporeal and intelligent powers. In this state human nature, in harmony with the powers on high through the identity of an inflexible eternal movement around God, will be taught to sing and to proclaim holy with a triple holiness the single Godhead in three persons,” St Maximus the Confessor, The Church’s Mystagogy in Maximus Confessor: Selected Writings. Trans. George C. Berthold (New York: Paulist Press, 1985), ch. 19.

[5] This is somewhat analogous to God’s work with Israel: God established Israel so that it could introduce the God-man, Jesus Christ, to the rest of humanity. Israel has been chosen for a special purpose and is central to God’s work with humanity. But this does not mean only Israel is to be saved, nor that the rest of the world was expected to follow the special laws established by God for Israel. Similarly, humanity is God’s Israel to the universe. We know how God works in and through us for our salvation. We know God works also through us for the salvation of the world. But what that means for the world, to those who are not human, we can and should investigate, but only in humility and openness to correction.

[6] See Gogol, Meditations on the Divine Liturgy, 31.

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