The Stain of Sin

Wine spilled on a carpet

The Stain of Sin

I have a nice Brooks Brothers shirt. The patter is subtle enough to work with a suit, yet looks good with a pair of jeans. It’s one of my favorite shirts. Except it has a couple stains that bother me. It’s been through the wash a couple times, but comes out with the same stains. The shirt is remains a great shirt, yet the stains ruin if for me. Everyone can see the stains; the shirt no longer looks good. It’s been ruined.

In the Orthodox Trisagion hymn is a prayer known as “O Heavenly King”, which goes like this:

O Heavenly King, O Comforter, the Spirit of Truth,
Who are in all places and fill all things;
The Treasury of good things and the Giver of life:
Come and abide in us, cleanse us from every stain,
And save our souls, O Good One.

We pray for the Holy Spirit to cleanse us from every stain. This has its roots in a different conception of sin than we in the West are used to. The western concept of sin is in two parts. While we normally are concerned with the sins we commit (as we should be), the concept of Original Sin is that the guilt of Adam’s sin has been passed on to all of humanity. In other words, human nature itself was not simply corrupted, but actually changed. Thus, even if we had never committed any personal sin, we would still bear the guilt of Adam’s sin.

Think for a moment about my shirt. It is still made of the same fabric. The fit and finish are still the same. It has the same no wrinkle finish, and never needs ironing. It has those nasty stains, which affect the appearance of the shirt. Yet the stains are not part of the shirt, and do not change the essence of what it means to be a Brooks Brothers shirt. The stains are something extra, something that has corrupted the shirt, yet without affecting its essential nature.

For though thou wash thee with nitre, and take thee much soap, yet thine iniquity is marked before me, saith the Lord GOD. (Jer 2:22)

Here Jeremiah clearly references the idea of sin as a stain that cannot be removed with a simple washing. The stain remains, despite our best efforts. We need something more. And yet, even so, the idea of sin as a stain implies that while sin may injure us, damage us, make us less than we were meant to be, yet sin is something foreign, something other, something that comes from outside us. It adheres to us without becoming part of us.

Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool. (Isa 1:18)

No matter how much I try, I cannot get rid of the stain of sin. And yet the Lord says that He can make them whiter, “as no fuller on earth can white them.” (Mar 9:3) In other words, our Lord can remove the stain of sin, leaving our essential human nature intact. Our Lord can return us to the Edenic state, a state of purity, a state of innocence, a state where we can commune with God “face to face”, as it were.

Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness: according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions.

Wash me throughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.

For I acknowledge my transgressions: and my sin is ever before me.

Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight: that thou mightest be justified when thou speakest, and be clear when thou judgest.

Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me.

Behold, thou desirest truth in the inward parts: and in the hidden part thou shalt make me to know wisdom.

Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. (Ps 51:1-7)

This is a fascinating psalm, a psalm of repentance, written after David’s adultery with Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite. Take a look at how David refers to his sin, and what he is asking of God. First, David asks God to “blot out my transgressions.” The best way to combat stains is to blot them up. Basically you apply a towel over the spill to absorb it. This works better than rubbing the stain, which has a tendency to spread the stain and push it further into the surface. Second, Daniel asks God to wash and cleanse him. David asks God to “purge him with hyssop”, which is part of the ceremonial cleansing made for people who had been cured of leprosy, and buildings that had been healed of a “plague of leprosy” (Lev 14). This purging with hyssop also has reference to the ashes of the red heifer (which had burned with cedar and hyssop), and was offered for “purification for sin”, as well as for cleansing from ceremonial uncleanness (Num 19). Finally, David asks God to wash him and make him whiter than snow, which reminds us of the passage from Isaiah, and also the transfiguration account in Mark.

The description of sin and its affect upon the human person is not done in one way. The idea of Original Sin fails to account for all the ways sin is discussed in the bible. In particular, the idea of sin as a stain upon the human person brings with it the idea of sin as something extrinsic to the human person, rather than being something essential to human nature.

The Trisagion Hymn

The Trisagion Prayers are a set of ancient prayers that begin each service of the Daily Cycle of divine services. They are also commonly used to begin one’s private prayers.

The Trisagion Thrice Holy by Angelboy


+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Glory be to Thee, our God; glory be to Thee.

O Heavenly King, the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, Who art everywhere present and fillest all things; Treasury of blessings, and Giver of life:  Come and abide in us, and cleanse us of every impurity, and save our souls, O Good One.

+ Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy Immortal One, have mercy upon us.  (with bow)
+ Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy Immortal One, have mercy upon us.  (with bow)
+ Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy Immortal One, have mercy upon us.  (with bow)

+ Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost, both now and ever, and unto the ages of ages.  Amen.

Most-holy Trinity, have mercy on us:  Lord, cleanse us of our sins; Master, pardon our transgressions; Holy One, visit and heal our infirmities, for Thy Name’s sake.

Lord, have mercy.  Lord, have mercy.  Lord, have mercy.

+ Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, both now and ever, and unto the ages of ages.  Amen.

+ 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 debts, as we forgive our debtors.  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 Ghost, both now and ever, and unto the ages of ages.  Amen.

Meet it is in truth to bless thee, O Theotokos,
ever-blessèd and all-pure, and the Mother of our God.

More honourable than the Cherubim,
and more glorious incomparably than the Seraphim,
thou who without corruption gavest birth to God the Word,
the very Theotokos:  we thee magnify.

+ Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, both now and ever, and unto the ages of ages.  Amen.

Lord, have mercy.  Lord, have mercy.  Lord, have mercy.

Through the prayers of our holy Fathers, + O Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy upon us.  Amen.

From John Damascene’s book “An Exposition of the Orthodox Faith”

Depiction of the Cherubim

The Cherubim

For we hold the words “Holy God” to refer to the Father, without limiting the title of divinity to Him alone, but acknowledging also as God the Son and the Holy Spirit: and the words “Holy and Mighty” we ascribe to the Son, without stripping the Father and the Holy Spirit of might: and the words “Holy and Immortal” we attribute to the Holy Spirit, without depriving the Father and the Son of immortality. For, indeed, we apply all the divine names simply and unconditionally to each of the subsistences in imitation of the divine Apostle’s words. “But to us there is but one God, the Father, of Whom are all things, and we in Him: and one Lord Jesus Christ by Whom are all things, and we by Him.” And, nevertheless, we follow Gregory the Theologian when he says, “But to us there is but one God, the Father, of Whom are all things, and one Lord Jesus Christ, through Whom are all things, and one Holy Spirit, in Whom are all things:” for the words “of Whom” and “through Whom” and “in Whom” do not divide the natures (for neither the prepositions nor the order of the names could ever be changed), but they characterize the properties of one unconfused nature. And this becomes clear from the fact that they are once more gathered into one, if only one reads with care these words of the same Apostle, Of Him and through Him and in Him are all things: to Him be the glory for ever and ever. Amen(4). For that the “Trisagium” refers not to the Son alone, but to the Holy Trinity, the divine and saintly Athanasius and Basil and Gregory, and all the band of the divinely-inspired Fathers bear witness: because, as a matter of fact, by the threefold holiness the Holy Seraphim suggest to us the three subsistences of the superessential Godhead.

Depiction of the Seraphim

The Seraphim

But by the one Lordship they denote the one essence and dominion of the supremely-divine Trinity. Gregory the Theologian of a truth says, “Thus, then, the Holy of Holies, which is completely veiled by the Seraphim, and is glorified with three consecrations, meet together in one lordship and one divinity.” This was the most beautiful and sublime philosophy of still another of our predecessors.

Ecclesiastical historians, then, say that once when the people of Constantinople were offering prayers to God to avert a threatened calamity, during Proclus’ tenure of the office of Archbishop, it happened that a boy was snatched up from among the people, and was taught by angelic teachers the “Thrice Holy” Hymn, “Thou Holy God, Holy and Mighty One, Holy and Immortal One, have mercy upon us:” and when once more he was restored to earth, he told what he had learned, and all the people sang the Hymn, and so the threatened calamity was averted. And in the fourth holy and great Ecumenical Council (I mean the one at Chalcedon), we are told that it was in this form that the Hymn was sung; for the minutes of this holy assembly so record it.

Damascene, St. John (2010-08-08). An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith (Kindle Locations 1955-1981).  Kindle Edition.

For more information, See John Sanidopoulos’s blog: The Miracle of the Trisagion (“Thrice-Holy Hymn”)