Sacred Song Stories: Decalogue & Trisagion
By Cheryl Arnold
As we enter into Lent, you will notice some changes to our liturgy and music. Two songs we will sing each week are the Decalogue and Trisagion.
The first song we will sing after the silent processional is the Decalogue, which literally means “the ten words.” We know these “ten words” as the ten commandments, and we sing them at the beginning of the service and prior to confessing our sins to remind ourselves of the many ways we have sinned against God and our neighbor. Our sins point to our need for a Savior.
The Catechism of our Church (BCP p. 847-848) explains what the Decalogue means for our lives:
Q. What do we learn from these commandments? A. We learn two things: our duty to God, and our duty to our neighbors.
Q. What is our duty to God? A. Our duty is to believe and trust in God; I To love and obey God and to bring others to know him; II To put nothing in the place of God; III To show God respect in thought, word, and deed; IV And to set aside regular times for worship, prayer, and the study of God's ways.
Q. What is our duty to our neighbors? A. Our duty to our neighbors is to love them as ourselves, and to do to other people as we wish them to do to us; V To love, honor, and help our parents and family; to honor those in authority, and to meet their just demands; VI To show respect for the life God has given us; to work and pray for peace; to bear no malice, prejudice, or hatred in our hearts; and to be kind to all the creatures of God; VII To use our bodily desires as God intended; VIII To be honest and fair in our dealings; to seek justice, freedom, and the necessities of life for all people; and to use our talents and possessions as ones who must answer for them to God; IX To speak the truth, and not to mislead others by our silence; X To resist temptations to envy, greed, and jealousy; to rejoice in other people's gifts and graces; and to do our duty for the love of God, who has called us into fellowship with him.
Q. What is the purpose of the Ten Commandments? A. The Ten Commandments were given to define our relationship with God and our neighbors.
Q. Since we do not fully obey them, are they useful at all? A. Since we do not fully obey them, we see more clearly our sin and our need for redemption.
An ancient hymn of the Eastern church, the Trisagion was mentioned as early as 451 A.D. in the acts of the Council of Chalcedon. It came to be used during the eucharistic rite as well as in the burial office, on Good Friday, and on Holy Saturday. During Lent, it takes the place of the Gloria in our worship services.
The words to the Trisagion are “Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy Immortal One, Have mercy upon us” (BCP p. 356). The word trisagion is Greek and means “thrice holy;” we sing these words three times to remind ourselves that we worship a triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It echoes and expands on Isaiah 6:3, in which the angels call to one another saying, “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory,” and Revelation 4:8, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!”
The Trisagion follows the Decalogue as a corporate penitential act. The Decalogue reminds us that we are in desperate need of God’s mercy, so in the Trisagion we proclaim His character and cry out to Him. As our liturgy continues, we are reminded that God has already granted us mercy, since Jesus, who was without sin, died for our sins. He fulfilled the law so that we might be saved.