The Orthodoxy Today website has an interesting commentary by the Orthodox priest Fr Stylianos Muksuris. He reminds us of something that might seem obvious but is too easily forgotten: “The Christians at prayer in Rome, North Africa, and Byzantium experienced the same insecurities and fears that we experience.” Rather strikingly, then, they still prayed for their enemies. And so must we (yes, Fr Muksuris says, we must even pray for terrorists): “The world stands united in God and crumbles when man sets himself up against his fellow men and it does not matter who his fellow man is.”
Commenting on the Lord’s Prayer (“Forgive us as we forgive …”), St John Chrysostom once said:
How great punishment must they deserve, who, far from themselves forgiving, do even entreat God for vengeance on their enemies, and as it were diametrically transgress this law; and this while He is doing and contriving all, to hinder our being at variance one with another? For since love is the root of all that is good, He, removing from all sides whatever mars it, brings us together, and cements us to each other.
Fr Stylianos Muksuris draws our attention to how the early Church recognized in its liturgies that we are all “cemented” together by God’s love. He examines the litanies and responses in the Byzantine Liturgy of St Basil and the intercessions in the first-centuy Roman liturgy (still in use in a revised form in the West on Good Friday). The old Roman intercessions include entreaties that God make subject the “principalities and powers,” and then prayers for the state, “heretics and schismatics,” the Jews, and the pagans. There is a clear understanding of evil in these intercessions, perhaps especially “how secular rulers often fall victim to Satanic influence,” but the Church prayed for all of fallen humanity, all of its “others.” This was not because such prayers would somehow work for the Church’s own advantage, but rather because “genuine concern existed for the spiritual welfare and salvation of every man, woman, and child.”
Most interestingly for me, because I knew little about it, and Fr Muksuris deems it “inclusiveness at its best,” is the Liturgy of the Coptic Jacobites. This liturgy, part of the Alexandrian tradition, appeared first in either the fourth or fifth century. We are provided with this excerpt:
Again let us pray God almighty the Father of our Lord and our God and our Saviour Jesus Christ. We pray and beseech thy goodness, o lover of man: remember, o Lord, the peace of thy one only holy catholic and apostolic church which is from one end of the world to the other: bless all the peoples and all the lands: the peace that is from heaven grant in all our hearts, but also the peace of this life bestow upon us graciously. The king, the armies, the magistrates, the councillors, the multitudes, our neighbors, our goings in and our goings out, order them in all peace . . . Let all our souls live through thine Holy Spirit and let not the death of sins have dominion over us thy servants nor all thy people.
Let me end with Fr Muksuris’ comment on this:
In this beautiful collect the Church first makes entreaty to the Lord for itself, that the Body of Christ may remain whole and undefiled and that it may continue its work effectively and responsibly within the world. The supplication then shifts beyond the borders of the Church to the entire world which, like the Body of Christ, also finds its origin in God. Christians beseech the Lord not simply for heavenly peace which is the assurance and confidence in one’s heart of God’s unconditional love and limitless mercy, but also for worldly peace which ensures that man may have a future in which to believe and hope. Prayer is then offered for secular leaders (quite possibly of all nations), whose actions determine whether or not worldly peace is attainable.
Finally, the separation into two groups of “us thy servants” and “all thy people” implies a concern for Christians and non-Christians alike to be spared from the death of sin: the ultimate rejection of all the sacred values and ideals inscribed by God upon every human heart regardless of the individual’s religious orientation. We see then in this Alexandrian litany an enticing example of the ancient Church, ever persecuted by its pagan overlords, embracing humanity in the very spirit of the crucified and resurrected Lord.