One of the characteristics of Orthodoxy is the church’s concern for faithfulness to the Apostolic tradition. We guard against heresy, heterodoxy and innovation by immersing ourselves in Holy Scripture and the writings of the Fathers of the church – those who are the direct descendants of the Apostles. Beginning with the first several generations after the Apostles and continuing through the centuries with their disciples, they have been careful to maintain the unaltered faith of the Apostles.
We have at our disposal the theological treatises of many of these fathers, such as Athanasius’ “On the Incarnation” and St. John of Damascus’ “On the Holy Icons.” We have the sermons of great preachers such as St. John Chrysostom. And we have letters of instruction from such prolific correspondents as St. Gregory the Great and St. Jerome. But it is primarily in the Liturgy that most Orthodox Christians receive the thought of the Church Fathers. It is in the several liturgies of both East and West – those of St. John Chrysostom, St. Basil, St. James, St. Mark, and St. Gregory the Great (and its derivative, that of St. Tikhon) – that we hear the words of the fathers about the Holy Trinity, the Incarnation, salvation, redemption, forgiveness and healing.
The hymns which adorn our liturgy provide special insight into the thought of the fathers, and the hymns of Lent and Passiontide are particularly important for maintaining our connection with the ancient church. An examination of some of these hymns in the St. Ambrose Hymnal will show the richness of our liturgical heritage and the continuity of the faith of the fathers, expressed in several Lenten themes.
The two Office hymns for Lent were written by our patron, St. Gregory the Great. In “The Fast as Taught by Holy Lore” (#87), specified for the daily service of Matins in the morning, St. Gregory refers to the practice of fasting by our Jewish ancestors under the old law, a practice which Christ sanctified for us under the new Covenant. He spells out specifically that in our Lenten fast, we should abstain not only from some food and drink, but also from excessive talking, joking, and even sleep. The Vespers hymn “O Kind Creator, Bow Thine Ear” (#84) sung before the Magnificat in the evening, expresses the hope that as we fast outwardly, we may also fast inwardly, thereby purifying our souls.
In another Lenten hymn by St. Gregory, “The Glory of These Forty Days” (#88), the “typology” so frequently used by the fathers is employed. We are told that our fast, which we keep in imitation of our Lord’s fast, was prefigured in the Old Testament – by Moses, fasting before receiving the Law; by Elijah who, while fasting, was given the vision of the chariot of fire; and by Daniel who, through fasting and meditation, was delivered from the lions’ den. And, as St. John the Forerunner fasted and became the herald of the Messiah, we pray that we may, through our fasting, be prepared to see our Lord.
Two Sarum (from the ancient usage at Salisbury Cathedral) office hymns are included in the Lenten section of the hymnal: “Now is the Healing Time Decreed” (#82, from the 11th century) and “O Jesu Christ, From Thee Begun” (#83, from the 9th century). In these hymns, we are reminded that the Orthodox view of sin is like that of sickness that requires not punishment or retribution but healing, and that the spiritual and physical disciplines of Lent are as medicine to the sinner.
In the hymns, “Jesus, Name All Other Names Above” (#79) and “The Deep Abyss of Former Sin” (#88), we are to identify ourselves as prodigal sons, the penitent thief, and the publican at prayer as we plead for God’s grace and return to our father in repentance. The first hymn is the only known hymn written by St. Theoctistus (c. 890) and paraphrased from his “Suppliant Canon to Jesus” and the second was written by St. Joseph of the Studium in the 9th century.
The hymn, “Servant of God, Remember” (#85), written as part of a longer work by the poet Aurelius Clemens Prudentius (348-413), is a reminder to the Christian that the Cross is our protection against the terrors of night and the temptations and assaults of the devil. We are to make the sign of the Cross upon our hearts and foreheads and remember God’s grace.
The verses of a long work by the poet, Venantius Fortunatus (540-600) are divided in the hymnal to form office hymns for Passiontide and feasts of the Holy Cross. In “The Royal Banners Forward Go” (#96) and “Thirty Years Among us Dwelling” (#95) these verses pay homage to the tree – the Cross – which brought about man’s freedom for our bondage caused by Adam’s sin through that first tree in Eden. This hymn was written for a very momentous occasion – the depositing of a relic of the True Cross given by the Emperor Justin II for the monastery in Poitier of the Abbess Radegund.on November 19, 569. St. Gregory of Tours describes the great feast in his History of the Franks: “…[Bishop] Eufronius deposited the sacred relics in the nunnery with much chanting of psalms, with candles gleaming and with a great burning of incense.”
In these and the other hymns by early hymnographers sung during this season of preparation, these themes appear again and again: that the Lenten fast was prefigured in the Old Testament and sanctified by Christ; that sin is illness requiring healing through the medicine of fasting and repentance; that our Lord, in his parables, showed us the way of repentance; and that the Cross is to be revered as the instrument of our Salvation.
As we lift our voices in song during this season, we remember that these words express the thoughts of the Fathers of the Church. These are the words that bind us to Christians from the earliest days of the Church and throughout the ages. This is the faith of the Apostles and in singing with the Fathers, we are maintaining that faith and passing it on to our children.