The Trisagion (Grk. Τρισάγιον) or “Thrice Holy” is one of the most ancient prayers in the Christian Tradition. Within Eastern Orthodoxy in particular it carries the special significance of being the opening prayer of the Divine Liturgy of the Byzantine Rite. The phrase “Trisagion” translates into Thrice Holy— glorifying God in three different qualities. The most common form of the prayer reads as follows:
Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal have mercy on us!
This is repeated three times, again, following the rubric of the threefold nature of the prayer. The prayer itself is very ancient and could very well predate the historical events assigned to its origin. Within the menology of the Orthodox Church, the origin of the Trisagion began on either the 24th or 25th of September¹ during the primacy of Proclus, the then Patriarch of Constantinople. During that time, the city of Constantinople was struck by a devastating series of earthquakes which lasted for four months. The earthquakes were so severe in fact that most of the city’s inhabitants were forced to seek shelter outside it’s walls in the surrounding fields.
The legend goes that whilst the Eastern Roman Emperor, Theodosius II, Proclus and the people of Constantinople were praying for divine intervention on behalf of their city, a child was lifted into the air to which the masses of people cried out “Lord, have mercy!” It was then, so it is said, that a heavenly voice came out of the child announcing to the Patriarch and the people to pray the following: Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal have mercy on us!
Proclus then commanded that the throngs of people in the camp begin to recite the chant and soon after the earthquakes ceased. The whole event was taken to be miraculous and from that day forward the Empress Pulcheria commanded that the Patriarch decree that the hymn be sung in all churches throughout the entire Oikoumene.
Saint John of Damascus notes in his treatise The Orthodox Faith that the Trisagion was sung during the Council of Chalcedon² in 451 AD. Not only is the Trisgarion recited in all Oriental Orthodox³ liturgies as well as the Eastern Orthodox Liturgy of John Chrysostom, but was also attested to have been used in the liturgy of the Gallican Rite⁴, truly testifying to how ancient the prayer is. Indeed, both the Coptic and Armenian Churches attest that the chant actually originated with Nicodemus⁵ who, after taking the body of Christ down from the cross, saw his eyes open and exclaimed “Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal!”
While all Eastern Churches employ the use of the Trisagion it’s usage is noticeably missing from the liturgies of the West, who instead make use of the Sanctus⁶ in their prayers. Notable exceptions include the use of the Trisagion by the Roman Catholic Church during the services for Good Friday. Within the Anglican Communion, the Episcopal Church introduced the Trisagion in their Book of Common Prayer in 1979 where it is sometimes used as an alternative to the Kyrie eleison. In Common Worship, a series of services authorized by the Anglican Church, the Trisagion was introduced as a prayer concluding the litany.
The Trisagion has also been subject to modification throughout it’s history. In addition to the traditional hymn, the phrase “…who was crucified for us.” was added by the Monophysite⁷ Patriarch of Antioch Peter the Fuller. This was later rejected by Orthodoxy at the Council of Trullo⁸ in 692. The controversy seems to stem from whether or not the Trisagion was referring to the Holy Trinity or to God the Son in particular. This is attested to in the fact that the additional phrase added by Peter the Fuller, while omitted in the Orthodox Church, is still retained by the Oriental Churches.
The Trisagion is also combined with other prayers, most notably the Lord’s Prayer. This varies when whether or not the Trisagion is recited during the morning or in the evening. In it’s entirety, the Trisagion prayer should resemble something like this:
O Heavenly King, Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, Who art everywhere present and fillest all things, the Treasury of blessings and Giver of life: Come, and abide in us, and cleanse us from every stain, and save our souls, O Good One.
Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal: have mercy on us. (Recited three times.)
Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, both now and ever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen.
All-Holy Trinity, have mercy on us. Lord, cleanse us from our sins. Master, pardon our iniquities. Holy God, visit and heal our infirmities for Thy name’s sake.
Lord, have mercy. (Again, three times.)
Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, both now and ever, and unto the ages of ages.
Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy name. Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.
For Thine is the Kingdom, and the power, and the glory, of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.
The Trisagion can be recited during one’s morning or evening prayers or incorporated into one’s own personal and private prayers. While not explicitly excepted by Orthodoxy, it is this author’s own personal opinion that the Trisagion constitutes an angelic hymn, this borne out by the fact that during the Cherubic Hymn of the Divine Liturgy it follows:
“We, who mystically represent the Cherubim,
And chant the thrice-holy hymn to the Life-giving Trinity,
Let us set aside the cares of life
That we may receive the King of all,
Who comes invisibly escorted by the Divine Hosts.”
Through our reciting of the Trisagion we are imitating the angels who perpetually glorify God in His majesty. This is further advanced by the act of ritually rising and falling during it’s recitation, always oriented towards the holy altar. We should aim to always incorporate the Trisagion into our personal prayers because in doing so we implore the mercies of the Holy Trinity into our lives. I would especially recommend the praying of the Trisagion especially during fast days.
It is unfortunate the Trisagion not widely known outside of Orthodoxy. However, I hope that this brief article will have done it’s job in bringing attention to this most ancient and divinely inspired prayer.
¹The Eastern Orthodox Church commemorates the Miracle of the Trisagion on September 25th.
²Regarded as the Fourth Ecumenical Council. The Council of Chalcedon determined that Jesus Christ was both “fully God and fully man.”
³Oriental Orthodoxy is a communion of Christian churches which rejected the decrees of Chalcedon. Oriental Orthodox Christians tend to make up large minorities in the Middle East, Africa, and India.
⁴The Gallican Rite actually refers to an interwoven series of different rites which emerged in Western Europe around the 1st Century AD. These rites were based upon the older Greco-Syrian rites of the Patriarchates of Jerusalem and Antioch.
⁵Saint Nicodemus was a Pharisee who, along with Joseph of Arimathea, took Christ’s body down from the Cross and prepared it for the tomb.
⁶In both Western and Eastern Christianity, a hymn sung right before the Eucharist. The Latin version is as follows:
Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus
Dominus Deus Sabaoth.
Pleni sunt cæli et terra gloria tua.
Hosanna in excelsis.
Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini.
Hosanna in excelsis.
⁷Monophysitism was an ancient heresy that asserted that Jesus Christ possessed only a single nature which was both fully human and fully divine. This is contrasted with the “orthodox” Chalcedonian position which states that Christ has both a human and divine nature united into a single hypostasis.
⁸The Council of Trullo is often considered to be an addendum to the Fifth and Sixth Ecumenical councils, although the Roman Catholic Church denies that any decision this council reached was authoritative in any sense.