“You repeat things three times a lot, don’t you?”
The question came to me at the end of a baptism.
“Yes, we do,” I replied.
In a baptism, we question, three times, “Do you unite yourself to Christ?” We bless both the person and the baptismal water in sets of three. We baptize, immersing the candidate three times in the water. We petition our Lord, and respond, “Lord, have mercy. Lord, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.”
We have prayers referred to as “Trisagion” (literally “Thrice Holy”), which echo the song of the seraphim surrounding the Throne of God, “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” (Isaiah 6:3). A newly married couple takes their first steps together as husband and wife by processing three times around a table upon which sits the book of the Gospels. At the consecration of the holy gifts, the bread and wine now become the body and blood of Christ at communion, the faithful respond, “Amen, Amen, Amen.”
The number three is always at the forefront of our mind because, for Orthodox Christians, the mystery of the Trinity is manifest in all that we do. The mystery that God has revealed himself to us as one God in three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This is the God that we know, the holy, consubstantial, life-giving and undivided Trinity.
And yet, our repetition goes beyond a simple Trinitarian emphasis. We repeat ourselves because so often we just need to hear things again. Like a parent who repeats the instruction to their toddler or the teacher who stops to repeat an important point, the church recognizes our human weakness. The church realizes that our minds wander, that we simply do not always “get it” the first time. And if something truly is important and worth noting, we make sure that it is emphasized.
This is not about vain repetition or mindless babbling. Christ warns us against this. We are not, like the Pharisees, trying to somehow gain more favor with God or make sure that he truly “hears our prayer” – our Father knows what we need before we ask him. (Matthew 6:8). We are not trying to impress others by displaying an affected false humility. We simply know our weaknesses; minds wander, attention spans are short. So, we repeat; in our liturgy, we continually call people back to prayer, to refocus with the command, “Let us be attentive.”
We refocus, we repeat, we instill and ingrain. Orthodox Christianity is experiential, a system not only of belief, but of life. It is lived and felt every minute of every day and in all that we do. That is our life in Jesus Christ. That is our confidence in his power over creation. And that is our faith that every day, for the rest our lives on this earth, we will wake up glorifying God with our entire being.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.
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