We see the Godhead sacredly hymned, on the one hand as a monad & as oneness because of the simplicity & unity of its supernatural undividedness, through which, as a unifying force, we are united; the distinctions which divide us are laid aside in a manner surpassing this world, & we are brought together in God-like oneness & union imitating that of God; & on the other hand it is hymned as a Trinity because of the manifestation in three persons of its life-giving power which is above all being, & from which all lineage in heaven & earth derives its being & its name. (St. Dionysius the Areopagite, On The Divine Names quoted by Christos Yannaris, Hymn of Entry, p. 15)
Coming originally from Protestant roots, I have always had a strong affinity for hymnology. A very sad part of the Protestant Reformation involved the process by which the production of art was separated from the promotion of Faith. Along with sacraments, liturgy, Tradition & many other things, Protestantism has rendered hymnology, or any form of art for that matter, unessential to the Faith through a reductionist theology. Songs & hymns may be the result of Faith for the Protestant, but they are never a means for their Faith.
In Orthodoxy however, art in the form of icons & hymns are an integral part of developing Faith. Icons & hymns teach theology in color & tone no less than the Holy Scriptures do in written word. Just step into an Orthodox Church & you will immediately notice that color, art, is all around. One will also quickly notice there are very few parts of an Orthodox liturgical service that are not sung. After becoming Orthodox, I continue to be impressed by the depth & development of Orthodox art & hymnology.
The Orthodox seem to have a song or hymn for just about every passage of Holy Scripture. In Orthodoxy Holy Scripture is never merely a book to be read, studied, examined, memorized, exegeted, or hermaneuticized until it has been stripped of all its inherent beauty, glory & majesty; thus leaving only a barren & dull ancient text, devoid of any & all meaning, of interest only to equally barren & dull academicians & historians.
Many Christians know that Holy Scripture contains songs. Moses sang as did his sister Miriam. King David sang & is forever linked with Book of Psalms. King Solomon, David’s son, also sang as recorded in the Song of Songs. The whole nation of Israel sang “By The Waters Of Babylon” by the waters of Babylon. The three Holy Youths sang in the fiery Chaldean furnace. The Theotokos, the Virgin Mary, the mother of Christ our Lord, sang, “My soul magnifies the Lord & my spirit rejoices in God my Savior…” St. Simeon sang when he held the infant Christ for whom the very angels sang at His birth. His song “Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace according to Thy word, for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation: which Thou hast prepared before the face of all people. A light for revelation to the Gentiles, and to be the glory of Thy people Israel.” is still sung by the Orthodox at Vesperal services. St. John’s book Revelation tells us that even the cherubim, seraphim & righteous sing (& will sing) for all eternity in worship, “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, Who was and is and is to come!” Yes, the Holy Scriptures are full of songs.
The Orthodox, however, instinctively know that Holy Scripture is much more than a mere collection of stories, poems & songs. For the Orthodox rather…
Holy Scripture Is The Song Of Salvation!
Furthermore, the Orthodox instinctively know…
The Song Of Salvation Must Be Sung!
So too do the Orthodox Church continue to sing the song of salvation. This is nowhere more evident than during Holy Week. Matins of Holy Friday (served on Thursday evening) is a special service where the Twelve Passion Gospels are read (chanted) followed by appropriate hymns to enhance & reinforce the Gospel passages. In these readings we journey with Christ as He lives His last days on earth. We journey with Him as He experiences ridicule, floggings, being spat upon, slapped & imprisoned. We stand as witnesses as He endures repeated trials before the Sanhedrin, Herod & Pilate until He is officially sentenced & ultimately experiences death by Crucifixion.
Things are starting to happen extremely fast & one gets a definite sense that a climax is rapidly building. Jerusalem, literally meaning “God’s foundation of peace”, is full of conspiracy & rebellion; death cannot otherwise but soon follow. All of this stands in stark contrast to the cheers with which the children of Israel greeted our Lord as they waved palm branches & laid their cloaks in His path just a few days earlier as He entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Chants of “Hosanna!” are transformed into rants of “Crucify Him!” Songs of “Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord!” are now contrasted with screams for the release of a murderer. Jesus Christ, the Giver of Life is rejected for Barabbas, a destroyer of life.
Holy Thursday is the day of the Last Supper in which Christ gives His last instructions to His disciples & washes their feet. The Eucharistic Last Supper is established as He utters the words “Take, eat; this is My Body…Drink of this, all of you, for this is My Blood…” Christ prays for His disciples & gives them a new commandment to “Love one another.” This is the night of our Lord’s prayers in the Garden of Gethsemane while His disciples slept. This is the night of Judas’ betrayal of His Lord & Master with the most intimate & precious of acts, the kiss of friendship, in that same garden. This is the night of Peter’s denial of our Lord out of fear of 2 young maidens.
Also foretold is the telling of the drama of the Cross that took place on Holy Friday; this too we experience through the Gospel narrative. We experience Christ hanging & dying on the Cross at Golgatha. We experience Judas the betrayer now hanging himself, sacrificing his earthly life just as he did his heavenly life in the potter’s field. At the same time we witness Peter, who had declared that he would follow his Lord unto death & instead thrice denied Him, now repenting & weeping bitterly over his deeds. Meanwhile the rest of the Lord’s disciples have long since fled.
We journey with Joseph of Arimathea as he asks Pontius Pilate for Christ’s Body so that he & Nicodemus might bury him so that our Lord’s body would not be thrown into the ever-burning dump outside of the city. Ironically, while they are laying our Lord’s now lifeless body in the tomb, the Jewish leaders are petitioning Pilate to have the Holy Tomb sealed & a Roman guard placed around it so that Christ’s Body could not be stolen by His followers.
Here the Passion Gospel readings end for Matins of Holy Friday. Jesus Christ, the long awaited Messiah who was to inaugurate the Kingdom for the people of Israel, has been crucified & is lying dead in the sealed Tomb, surrounded by pagan Roman soldiers.
All is lost!
Or so it seems…
The next few blogs concern the twelve Passion Gospel readings sung by the priest along with the associated hymns sung by the Orthodox faithful. They are divided into 3 or 4 Gospel readings & hymns each. I hope that you enjoy them. If you get the chance watch this video of the Orthodox service in which the twelve Passion Gospels as well as the Orthodox hymns are sung: Holy Thursday – Reading of the 12 Passion Gospels