As we are now in the Christmas season I plan to take a more reflective approach over the next several weeks. Excerpts from the various Orthodox service texts will be posted accompanied by a brief commentary.
One of the major sources of Orthodox doctrine are the hymns of the church. These songs are often biblical commentary put to music or they may commemorate an important event or person in church history.
The hymns are also important for Orthodox discipleship. In Orthodoxy our theology is shaped by our worship. This follows the ancient principle lex orans, lex credens (the rule of prayer is the rule of faith). Under this principle liturgical worship frames and defines our theology. This is radically different from Protestantism where much of theology is expressed in terms of an elaborate system of propositions and definitions. In Orthodoxy theology becomes doxology. Doxology ultimately leads us to union with Christ and to life in the Trinity.
Many of these hymns are chanted during the Saturday evening Vespers or Sunday morning Matins services. Together they provide the context of Orthodox worship. Many people have the mistaken notion that the Liturgy is Orthodox worship. While the Liturgy constitutes the high point and the core of Orthodox worship, it cannot be separated from the other services. To do so would risk distorting the worship we offer to the Trinity.
Here is one such hymn sung every year on the Forefeast of the Nativity of Christ:
Let us sound the cymbals: let us shout aloud in songs. The revelation of Christ is now made manifest: the preachings of the prophets have received their fulfilment. For He of whom they spoke, foretelling His appearance in the flesh to mortal men, is born in a holy cave and is laid as a babe in a manger, and as a child He is wrapped in swaddling clothes.
With uprightness of mind let us lift up our voice in song, celebrating the Forefeast of Christ’s Nativity. For He who is equal in honour with the Father and the Spirit, has from compassion clothed Himself in our substance, and makes ready to be born in the city of Bethlehem. The praises of His Nativity past speech the shepherds and the angels sing.
The Virgin was amazed, as she beheld a conception past telling and a birth past utterance. Rejoicing at once and weeping, she raised her voice and said: ‘Shall I give my breast to Thee, who givest nourishment to all the world, or shall I sing Thy praise as my Son and my God? What manner of name shall I find to call Thee, O Lord whom none can name?’
“Forefeast of the Nativity of Christ – Vespers service” — Festal Menaion, page 199.
The first stanza tells how the Old Testament prophecies find their fulfillment in the Incarnation. It also presents the Incarnation as a revelatory event when God who revealed himself through the prophetic word now reveals himself in human flesh.
The second stanza tells how the Christ child is one of the Holy Trinity. The Incarnation is explained as Christ assuming the substance of our humanity. He who is consubstantial with the Trinity is consubstantial with humanity.
The third stanza describes the Virgin Mary’s response. She is overwhelmed by the seeming contradiction of her being pregnant with the Creator of the universe. He who sustains all of creation with his providential care now comes under her motherly care. As her son he is under her but as God he is over her.
The hymns of the church teach important lessons to the Orthodox faithful. Here we learn about the Old Testament prophets, the Trinity, the Incarnation, and Mary’s love for Christ.
Let us like Mary be overwhelmed by God’s grace revealed in the birth of Christ.