On the Use of "Master" in Services

Bishop Seraphim : Article
December, 2003

Because of the questions I have been asked by our faithful people from time to time, it seemed that it would be helpful to write a few words in order to try to address one of these. I have the hope that some might entertain the possibility of correcting what I consider to be an incorrect usage. A matter of wording in services has been a concern for some time, and this has to do with the use of the word “master” in our services (and also the lack of it).

To begin with, we are aware that our Saviour said in Scripture that we are to call no-one master (or father), except the Lord Himself (see Matthew 23:1-12). In the Greek of these verses, the word didaskalos is used. This is itself a translation of the Hebrew word rabbi. In the Greek and in Hebrew, the word means “teacher”, or “master”. Of course, we will hear it often repeated against us by various Protestants that we nevertheless do use these words. This concern could result in a lengthy discussion. Regardless, it is true that we do use this word very often liturgically. Why ? The principal reason it is used, is to refer to Christ. He is the Master. When we say “master”, we are not using the word to imply any quality of domination, or any quality of forcing into submission, but rather, we refer to Christ’s quality as Teacher. Older Canadians, Commonwealth citizens and British persons might be familiar with this term as applied to any teacher. More people might be used to hearing in certain British and Commonwealth films that the head of a school is the headmaster. Those who have attended a private school in Canada may well also be accustomed to this term.

We properly conclude a service with “Master, bless”, because it is Christ, Himself, who blesses. At the end of a service (particularly at Matins), we hear and say, “Master bless”. The serving cleric responds : “Christ our God, He Who Is, is blessed, always, now, and ever, and unto the ages of ages”. The request is turned over to Christ our Saviour, who is our Master. We say, “Master, bless”, because the bishop or the priest is precisely representing Christ to the faithful. Then, why do we say “Master, bless” to the bishop or the priest ? It is because the bishop or the priest re-presents Christ in all liturgical services. As he, standing at our head, offers our collective prayer to God, he also conveys the Grace and Love of God in Christ to us all. In the liturgical texts we received from pre-revolutionary Rus’, we do not read “father, bless”, or “bishop, bless” to make a specific distinction. “Master bless” is always written in the service-books. The distinction between “father” and “master” is actually a new phenomenon.

This new phenomenon is a development contrary to the ancient inheritance. The nature of the distinction is revealed in particular during Hierarchical (episcopal) Liturgies, and it seems mostly to be emanating from Russia. As a result, in some places (but not everywhere), we have begun to use “Right Reverend Master, bless” ; “Most Reverend Master, bless” ; “Most Blessed Master, bless” ; “Most Holy Master, bless”, in accordance with the rank of a particular bishop. It is in the context of this distinction that we see the use of “Master, bless” as a privileged use in cathedrals and sobors. In North America, this was preceded by a development in which “Master, bless” began to be replaced with “Father, bless” when a presbyter would be presiding at a service. It might be suggested that this tendency could have arrived with the large number of Uniats returning to Orthodoxy in the last century, although this would be difficult to prove. Regardless, we now hear “Father, bless” almost everywhere.

Neither of these developments is, in my opinion, a good one. This is because we take the focus away from Christ and His blessing, and we focus instead upon a particular cleric, an ordinary human being. However, it must be repeated that it is not this particular human being who is blessing. It is Christ Himself who is blessing. Evidence to support this is the fact that in current Greek use, we still hear “Master, bless”, or, “Holy Master, bless”, even at a presbyteral (priestly) service. This request is still clearly pointing to Christ Himself, not to the bishop or presbyter who is presiding.

It is much better, then, at the beginning and ending of services (and at other times also) to use the more traditional formula “Master, bless”, or “Holy Master, bless”, at all times, rather than to reduce the focus to a particular human being. This formula is elegantly simple. By contrast, when the rank-specific format is used, and when readers or choristers are not certain about the precise nomenclature and rank of the cleric, a mistake could result in an irreparable insult. Some people are particularly sensitive about such things.

On the other hand, there is an apparent exception to this principle, and it seems to be a typical Orthodox paradox. It has to do with the reading of the Canonical Hours when a bishop is present. If a bishop were present, at the end of an hour, upon the request, “Master, bless”, the serving presbyter normally would say, “through the prayers of our holy master, O Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and save us”. If a bishop were not present, the presbyter would customarily say, “ Through the prayers of our holy fathers, O Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and save us”. This latter exclamation is usually taken to mean “fathers” in the ancestral sense of saints and the reposed who have gone before us.

However, there is strong enough evidence (in the context of the first example in the previous paragraph about the Hours) that this invocation refers to the present, assembled community. When a bishop is present, it is through his prayers that we ask the Saviour to have mercy on us. When a bishop is not present, in a male monastery we ask this through the prayers of the present and the absent holy fathers who live there. By extension, in a female monastery, it would be through the prayers of the present and the absent holy mothers who live there. Then, in any other type of community or assembly, we could use “brothers and sisters”, or “brothers” or “sisters”, according to the nature of those present. In the past, an educated flexibility with the texts was presumed, so that all variants would not have to be provided in books produced by hand-copying or expensive type-setting (for the sake of economy of writing and money). The readers and clergy were expected to understand how any given text would be able to be adapted at sight to the conditions surrounding its use.

The main point of this reflection is to encourage us to “use our heads” (as I was often exhorted to do by my father and grandfather). This means particularly to use our minds and hearts. Most importantly, it is crucial that we remember to keep our hearts and minds focussed on Christ — not only in various liturgical texts, but also and primarily in our daily life, prayer and experience. Christ must have first place in our hearts and in every aspect of our life, since He is the Source and Sustainer of our life, and our only Hope.