You can always hear a very ancient exclamation, most often in Ancient Greek – ἄξιος, which means “worthy”, during the ordination of the deacon, presbyter or bishop. The purpose and meaning of this ancient exclamation may seem obvious, but not everything is as simple as it seems at first glance. What is the history of this liturgical call? What an important role could it have played in the life of the Church?
The History of the Axios
According to the Eastern tradition (as opposed to the Western tradition, in which the analogue of the Axios, Dignus est, is said before the ordination), the proclamation of the Axios is made after the ordination of the clergyman. This exclamation was first mentioned in an ancient Syrian manuscript of the 3rd – 5th centuries, titled The Testament of our Lord Jesus Christ (I, 21), which says that after the ordination of a bishop, the people exclaim Axios three times. Prior to the 11th century, there was no Axios in the rite of the ordination of a bishop in Byzantine liturgical books, and people greeted their new bishop with a holy kiss. The kissing of newly baptized Christians by the bishop is a remarkable reminiscence of this kiss (Hippolytus of Rome, Apostolic Tradition 21). The custom of greeting a newly ordained bishop with Axios at the time of vesting him in the omophorion reached Constantinople in the 11th century, whereas the ordination of deacons and presbyters still ended with a kiss and was not accompanied by any exclamation. Beginning in the 14th century, the Axios was already sung during both the deacon’s and the priest’s ordinations: in the first case, while laying on the orarion and conferring the fans; in the second case, while transferring the back end of the orarion from the left shoulder to the right shoulder (i. e. turning it into an epitrachelion) and while putting on the phelonion.
Russian Tradition and the Influence of Alexandria
In contrast to the Euchology of the Church of Constantinople, the Euchology of Alexandria prescribed the singing of the Axios not only during the ordination into the ranks of deacons and above but also during the appointment of minor orders, e. g., readers and subdeacons. The singing of the Axios was preceded by a bishop’s exhortation, Blessed is the Lord! Here, the Servant of God [Name] is being made a reader/a subdeacon of the holy Church [Name] in the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. During the 17th-century liturgical reform under Patriarch Nikon, this anticipatory call was adopted by the Russian Church and became part of the rite of elevation into the ranks of a reader and a singer, as well as those of the protodeacon, archdeacon, hegumen, archimandrite, and protopresbyter. All these orders (except for elevation to the rank of reader and singer) were accompanied by singing the Axios. In modern practice, the ordaining bishop hands over another liturgical item and exclaims “Axios!”, the call is chanted and repeated three times by the clergymen in the altar, and then by the choir three times on behalf of all the faithful. In addition to ordinations, the Axios is also sung during the enthronement of the Patriarchs, as well as when conferring Church awards.
All rituals are important — from the very first rites to the bishop’s prayers and the confirmation of the administered Sacrament by the faithful — because every part of the rite has its own value and every liturgical action has its cause. Thus, according to St. Symeon of Thessalonica (†1429), the words “The divine grace that always heals the powerless and fills the lacking, procures [Name] the reverent subdeacon to the deacon” already effect the Sacrament of Ordination and make the subdeacon a deacon. However, this is still not enough and “it is necessary that he bows his head to the sacred altar, and kneels down, and that the hand of the hierarch is laid upon him, and the prescribed prayers and petitions are said, and the sealing is done, and the utterance is made: Axios, and the sacred kiss is done. For all these things together make one ordained, and all must be done” (St. Symeon of Thessalonica, On the Holy Temple and its Consecration). By singing Axios the bishop does not only testify that the candidate is worthy of priesthood, but at the same time the exclamation itself is a prayer for him to remain worthy of this grace. No one is worthy of this dignity, so St. Symeon recommends that the person who is being ordained should humble himself at that moment. The Axios is proclaimed by the bishop and is repeated three times both in the altar and in the church itself, as a sign that all who attend “believe in this grace, affirm it together with the heavenly hosts, and rejoice greatly in it”. Furthermore, the Axios indicates that the one who is elected “has become worthy before God, is known by angels and men, and must behave worthy of this cause.”
Triple Role of the Axios
There are three roles that the Axios plays in the divine service. We have already mentioned the first two: one is the testimony of the fact that the priest deserves to carry out the church ministry, and the second is that it is a prayer that he may remain worthy. The third role that this liturgical call plays used to have a more pronounced and meaningful character in the early Church, when the candidates for clerical office were elected by the faithful people themselves. The bishop ordained the candidate, while the people sealed their choice with a loud Axios. This ancient ecclesiastical right is also reflected in the deacon’s call “Command” before the sacrament, through which the entire church community’s consent is solicited. The history of the Church knows examples of the exclamation “Anaxios!”, i.e. “Not worthy”, e. g., during the cheirotonia of Demophilus, the Arian Bishop of Constantinople. In line with the logic of St. Symeon of Thessalonica, the ordination in this case may not be considered valid because it is not accepted by the people. Thus, the exclamation of the Axios is not only a beautiful and solemn element of the divine service but also reminds of the role and responsibility that lay people should have in the life of the Church, not just as “consumers” of the Sacraments, but as active members of the Body of Christ.