The hymns of the Orthodox Church

by Alexander A. Bogolepov

"Christian art is centered on worship, as the heart of the Church's life. It is for the purpose of worship that musicians, artists, sculptors, architects and poets have created their masterpieces. Orthodox service books, those containing the basic services of the daily cycle as well as those devoted to the order for services on particular days in the year, represent an outstanding collection of the poetry of the Christian East.

In the Menaion, Triodion and Octoechos there are many hymns which differ from one another only in their slight variations on constantly repeated themes, and many others in which the unfading beauty of genuine poetry is at once perceived. The names of their authors are often associated with these works. Among the more important are: John of Damascus, who "illumined the Holy Church in his hymns," Cosmas of Maiuma, whose liturgical books are called "a vessel of divine grace" and "the glory of the Church," Roman the Melodious, John Chrysostom, Basil the Great, Anatolios, Patriarch of Constantinople, Sofronios, Patriarch of Jerusalem, Andrew of Crete, Archbishop of Cortyna, the nun Cassia, and many, many others. We are separated from them by long centuries, and yet they still live with us in their works. In their voices we hear the voice of the whole Orthodox Church, the Church regards them as expressing most clearly her own thoughts and feelings.

In the Christian East the Church's poetry was developed in connection with the elaboration and definition of the Orthodox faith and the suppression of heresies. The victorious and triumphant truth of the Church is reflected in these Orthodox hymns, and the "whole wealth of Orthodox theology" appears there in artistic form. The Church's poetry is thus inextricably bound up with her religious philosophy. Among the many Orthodox hymns those dedicated to the major feasts of Christmas, Holy Week and Easter shine with a special beauty.

To define the basic themes and set forth the ideas of the more important of these hymns is to come to an understanding of the vast supply of wisdom contained in them. But hymns must be reproduced as much as possible in their original poetic form if they are to speak for themselves, if their thought is to be adequately clarified and their beauty truly perceived. As with poetry in general, the Church's poetry must be "felt deeply as well as understood". Only this combination of intellectual understanding and sympathy can lift one's spirit into those "invisible realms" which are accessible to religious thought as it probes beyond the limits of physical sight. Only with this sympathetic understanding is it possible to enjoy fully the "bright and glorious solemnity" of the Church's Feasts.

The hymns for each Feast have a distinct cluster of ideas and figures which in connection with the events being commemorated bring to mind the various aspects of Christian salvation. However, they are all inwardly united by their common approach to the events they contemplate, by the spirit in which these events are received. In particular there breathes through them the spirit of the Gospel of St. John a lively sense that Eternal Life has entered into this life on earth, that God the Word has appeared to men in the flesh, that men have seen Him with their own eyes, touched Him with their hands, have beheld the victory and glory of the Only Begotten Son of God (John 1:1-14, I John 1:1-3).

One of the richest and deepest sources of the poetic thought of Orthodox hymns lies in this marvelous conjunction of - and at the same time the inevitable contradistinction between - the heavenly and the earthly. Antithesis is the natural form for its poetic expression, and the wealth of striking antitheses is one of the characteristic features of Orthodox hymns. In them we find an expression of reverent worship in the face of what is for man's mind the incomprehensible union of the divine and human, which led to the birth of Him who has no beginning, the death of Him who is immortal, and life beyond the grave.

The vision of this conjunction in Christ's earthly life of two such contradictory principles breaks through the external setting of the events in His life. We begin to see them with a kind of double vision, so that behind the visible phenomena things are revealed in a world unseen by the naked eye and perceived only by the eye of the spirit."

from Orthodox hymns of Christmas, Holy Week and Easter
Russian Orthodox Theological Fund, Inc PO Box 36, Bowling Green Station, New York 4, NY.

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