St. John of Damascus said, “We do not change the everlasting boundaries which our fathers have set, but we keep the Tradition, just as we have received it.”1 In the preparation of this hymnal we have been aware that our task is not to be creative, innovative, or “up-to-date” in the manner in which most hymnal committees might approach their work. Rather, we are to pass on the Tradition, taking what is good and helpful, making it available in a manner which is useful and accessible, given our present context (time, place, congregational make-up, etc.). Tradition in the Orthodox Church is not thought of as something that is dead or even stagnant, but as the living memory of the Church under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. We understand Scripture itself as a part of Holy Tradition, to be understood through the mind of the Church; but Tradition also includes the Creeds, the decrees of the great councils of the Church, the writings of the Fathers, the liturgical texts and music, and even the icons and architecture. Thus our work on this hymnal has been grounded in our scriptural understanding, our theological concerns, and our awareness of the Tradition, that we may pass on what is needed to sing the Lord’s praises.
Holy Scripture provides a wonderfully rich account of how the people of God are to worship. The Psalms make it clear that our God is “worthy to be praised” (Ps. 18:3), to be given our worship, for “who is so great a God as our God?” (Ps. 77:13).2 Exodus, chapters 20 to 30, gives instructions for everything from building the altar, to keeping the Sabbath and various feasts, to furnishings for the sanctuary and vestments. The people of God could not worship in any manner which pleased themselves, rather they were to worship in the manner appointed by God Himself.3 In the understanding of worship shown by the Chronicler, the forms of worship at Jerusalem, and even the choral music, were instituted by the commandment of God, through the prophets Nathan and Gad4. Contrary to the notion that worship is to be spontaneous and free-form, Scripture shows us worship that is prescribed after the pattern of heavenly worship (Exodus 25:40 & Hebrews 8:5), beautiful and ordered.
Throughout Scripture the People of God sing their praises. Corporate worship in Scripture is always sung, from Exodus (“Then sang Moses and the children of Israel this song unto the Lord, and spake saying, I will sing unto the Lord, for He hath triumphed gloriously: the horse and his rider hath he thrown into the sea” 15:1) to Revelation (“And they sung as it were a new song before the throne…”14:3). One of the principal reasons for this song is calling to mind the great things that God has done for us: “Sing unto the Lord, O ye saints of His, and give thanks at the remembrance of His holiness” (Ps. 30:4). Not only with the Eucharist, but with our praises as well, there is a sense that remembering or recalling (anamnesis), somehow makes something truly present.5 As we recall what God has done for us, He is present in our midst. An awareness of this is found in 2 Chronicles 5:13, “It came even to pass, as the trumpeters and singers were as one, to make one sound to be heard in praising and thanking the LORD; and when they lifted up their voice with the trumpets and cymbals and instruments of music, and praised the LORD, saying, For he is good; for his mercy endureth for ever: that then the house was filled with a cloud, even the house of the LORD…” (emphasis added). The cloud represents the glory of God. In his copy of the Calov Bible Commentary, Johann Sebastian Bach added a marginal gloss at this verse saying, “In devotional music God is always present with his grace.” 6
The Orthodox Church, both East and West, patterns its worship after the heavenly worship shown to us in Scripture, most especially in the Book of Revelation — thus the norm for our worship is sung prayer. Unlike some groups we have no sense that the need for beauty, richness, majesty, and order in worship has passed away, as something belonging to the “old order”, as this same approach to worship is shown most clearly in the Revelation of John, existing to the end of time. We understand that our worship, especially the Divine Liturgy (the Eucharist), foreshadows and even participates in the worship which occurs continually before the Throne of God in heaven.7
In the Revelation of John the only word used for worship is proskuneo (pros – towards, kuneo – to kiss), occurring some 23 times.8 This act of worship in Revelation refers to an act of reverence, a physical and spiritual assent. Both it and the kindred act of prostration or falling down in worship are usually accompanied by singing the praises of God.
And when he had taken the book, the four beasts and four and twenty elders fell down before the Lamb, having every one of them harps, and golden vials full of odours, which are the prayers of saints. And they sung a new song, saying, Thou art worthy to take the book, and to open the seals thereof: for thou wast slain, and hast redeemed us to God by thy blood out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation…” (Rev. 5:8-9).
Exegetes have counted up to thirty hymns or hymn fragments in the text of Revelation, pointing to the importance of sung praise in this book.9 The Hebrew pattern of hymnody, taken into the early Church, consisted of (1) the thesis which recognized the Creator God; (2) the antithesis which told of mankind’s dilemma; and (3) the resolution or synthesis which spoke of man’s restored relationship with God. When this pattern was continued by the early Church it based all things within the context of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.10
And I heard a loud voice saying in heaven, Now is come salvation, and strength, and the kingdom of our God, and the power of his Christ: for the accuser of our brethren is cast down, which accused them before our God day and night. And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony; and they loved not their lives unto the death. Therefore rejoice, ye heavens, and ye that dwell in them. Woe to the inhabiters of the earth and of the sea! for the devil is come down unto you, having great wrath, because he knoweth that he hath but a short time. (Rev. 12:10-12)
In the New Testament Church, St. Paul states that sung prayer is to be with both heart and mind united (“I will sing with the spirit (pneuma), and I will sing with the understanding (nous) also” 1 Cor. 14:15). This admonition applies not only to the gift of tongues, but to all our prayers and praise. In the Orthodox understanding the soul made in the image of God is triadic: nous, word, and spirit.11 Thus St. Paul is encouraging us to sing praise with our soul, with all our being, with heart and mind, with joy and with our intellect.
As the early Christians did, we sing hymns both for worship of God and for instruction of the faithful and those new to the faith (“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord” Col. 3:16). St. Paul points to the manner in which the word of God can dwell in us through the wise use of words in our sung praise. Religious leaders through the ages have utilized song as a way to teach, making use of melody, rhyme, and meter as tools for helping to instil or reenforce basic dogmatic instruction.
The Psalms were the “hymnbook” of the people of Israel, making every sort of human condition and emotion available in the musical praises and laments of God’s people. The early Church composed new songs of praise while continuing to give high priority to the singing of Psalms (Mt. 26:30, 1 Cor. 14:26, etc.).
If we keep vigil, in the Church, David comes first, last and midst. If early in the morning we seek for the melody of hymns, first, last, and midst is David again. If we are occupied with the funeral solemnities of the departed, if virgins sit at home and spin, David is first, last, and midst… In monasteries, amongst those holy choirs of angelic armies, David is first, midst, and last. In the convents of virgins, where are the bands of them that imitate Mary; in the deserts, where are men crucified to this world, and having their conversation with God, first, midst, and last is he. All other men are at night overpowered by natural sleep: David alone is active; and, congregating the servants of God into seraphic bands, turns earth into heaven, and converts men into angels.12
In the New Testament we find songs, or fragments of songs, which became part of the hymnody of the Church. The song of Mary, the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) is sung daily at Vespers in the West (at Matins in the East). The Song of Simeon, the Nunc dimittis (Luke 2:29-32), is sung daily at Vespers or Compline (Vespers in the East). The Song of Zechariah, the Benedictus Dominus Deus (Luke 1:68-79), is sung daily at Lauds (or Matins, depending upon the construction of the Office). In the Eucharistic Liturgy, the Sanctus, the hymn to God as thrice holy, is found in Isaiah 6:3 and echoed in Revelation 4:8; the Benedictus is found in Matthew 21:9, recalling Psalm 118:26. The New Testament also provides glimpses of other early Christian hymns (e.g. Philippians 2:5-11, 1 Timothy 3:16, Revelation 5:9, 14:3, and 15:3). The early Church enriched the tradition by making use of what it had received, contributing new offerings, and passing this treasure on for successive generations.
From our study of Holy Scripture we learn that God is worthy of our worship and praise and that God’s people have seen sung praise as the most fitting expression, our obligation and our joy. Our musical offerings should be orderly, appropriate, and beautiful. We are to sing our praises with heart and mind, learning the truths of our faith from the words of our songs. We sing and worship to remember all that God has done for us, and with our remembrance He is present in our midst.
1. On the Divine Images, II, 12
2. All Scriptural citations are from the KJV unless otherwise noted.
3. John W. Klening, The basis, function and significance of choral music in Chronicles, Journal for the study of the Old Testament, supplement series 156 (Sheffield, England: JSOT Press, 1993), p. 30.
4. Ibid, p. 62.(cf. 2 Chronicles 29:25ff)
5. Concerning the Greek word anamnesis, Dom Gregory Dix states, “It is not quite easy to represent in English, words like remembrance or memorial having for us a connotation of something absent, which is only mentally recollected. But in the scriptures both of the Old and New Testament, anamnesis and the cognate verb have the sense of re-calling or re-presenting before God an event of the past, so that it becomes here and now operative by its effects.” The Shape of the Liturgy (London: Adam & Charles Black, 1945), p. 161.
6. Klening, p. 13.
7. Ware, p. 270.
8. Thomas Allen Steel, A theology of music for worship derived from the Book of Revelation, Studies in Liturgical Musicology, 3, (Metuchen, NJ: The Scarecrow Press, 1995), p. 31f.
9. Ibid, p. 23 and Appendix C
10. Carl F. Price, “Hymn Patterns,” reprinted for the “Hymn Society of America” from Religion in Life (New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press), Summer 1947, p. 6.
11. Hierotheos Vlachos, Orthodox Psychotherapy, trans. Esther Williams (Levadia, Greece: Birth of the Theotokos Monastery, 1994), p. 120. Metropolitan HEIROTHEOS gives further explanation concerning the nous in Scripture and in the Fathers, “sometimes it is identified with the soul, sometimes it is an energy of the soul, the eye of the soul, sometimes the term suggests the essence of the soul, sometimes its energy, and sometimes the attentiveness which is subtler than the mind.” p. 125.
12. St. John Chrysostom, quoted in John Mason Neale, Commentary on the Psalms, vol. 1, (London: J. Masters & Co., 1884) p. 1.