“Only Begotten Son and Immortal Word of God,
Who for our salvation didst will to be incarnate
of the holy Theotokos and ever-virgin Mary,
Who without change didst become man and wast crucified,
O Christ our God, Trampling down death by death,
Who art one of the Holy Trinity,
Glorified with the Father and the Holy Spirit,
These are the opening words of one of the most crucial hymns in Orthodox Christianity. One of the things which stands out in the incredible beauty of this ancient hymn, which is at once both a poem and a song of praise, is its orthodoxia (orthodoxy), its statement of theologically correct dogma regarding Christ. Often called the Hymn of Justinian after the sixth century Eastern Roman emperor who, tradition holds, ordered it inserted it into the Divine Liturgy, it is a deliberate anthem of Orthodoxy designed to separate the non-orthodox from the orthodox faithful gathered in worship. Today, the hymn is chanted at the end of the Second Antiphon in the first part of the Divine Liturgies of St. John Chrysostom, St Basil the Great, and the Soorp Badarak (“Holy Sacrifice”) or Liturgy of St. Gregory the Illuminator in the Armenian Apostolic Church.
The Creation of a Hymn
The history of exactly when and how the hymn came to hold such a prominent place in the Eucharistic Liturgy of the Eastern Orthodox Church is, like so much in tracing ancient ecclesiastical musicology, complicated and filled with much speculation. Some attribute the hymn to the great Eastern Father of the Church, opponent of Arius, and champion of orthodox (and Orthodox) Christology, St. Athanasius the Great, Pope of Alexandria (296-373). This Church Tradition, held by the Coptic Church and many of the Orthodox Churches worldwide, holds that St. Athanasius composed the hymn in the wake of the first Nicaean Council in 325, which saw his Christological articulation affirmed and accepted and that of Arius rejected and anathematized.
If one does not believe what the hymn proclaims, as its inclusion in the main Sunday service of the Orthodox Church was designed to underline, one cannot really call oneself a Christian. If one does not believe that Jesus Christ is the Only-begotten Son of the Father, if one does not believe He was born of a woman who remained ever-virgin, one cannot call oneself a Christian. The hymn thus serves as a deliberate perimeter or boundary of what the Church understands the very word ‘Christian’ to mean. It sets the perimeter of what it means to be a Christian both socially, in the public square, and especially theologically. The ability to sing this hymn with belief in its words is thus an affirmation of one’s orthodox Christology, and thus, one’s true Christianity.
Why was this hymn inserted into the Divine Liturgy in the earliest days of Christianity? It was a deliberate move by St. Emperor Justinian, venerated as a Saint in both the Orthodox and Catholic Churches, to counter several of the Christological heresies threatening the orthodox teachings about Christ at the time. Think of how long ago this was–a time when the Eastern Roman Empire still used Latin as its official administrative language, not Greek. A time before Islam existed, and a time when Christianity still thrived in the eastern Mediterranean.
One of the things which the Christian Left as a political entity constantly forgets due to its secular worldview is that orthodoxy, having true and right doctrine about God manifested by true and correct worship of Him, is essentially the defining pillar of what constitutes authentic Christian faith. One can worship and praise God with a large degree of freedom, but if one does not believe what the Church continues to believe and has always believed about Him, is one really worshipping Him?
Foundations of Faith
These issues were not matters of little concern to the early Christians. The history of the Church is not one seamless, completely smooth existence from the first apostolic age right up to the Great Schism of 1054. Rather, there were many schisms which rent whole nations from the unity of the early Church, which remain less well known in the West. All of the seven great Ecumenical Councils recognized by both the Orthodox and Catholic Churches were held in order to settle profoundly polarizing questions of faith.
These were hugely controversial questions of Christological, and therefore, anthropological importance which struck at the very core of what it meant to be a Christian in a largely pagan society, in the extremely complex social and political order of the late Roman Empire. Indeed, it is the first two councils (Nicaea I in 325 and Constantinople I in 381) which gave us the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. Moreso than even the Hymn of Justinian, this Creed remains the most important ‘dividing line’ in Christianity today; all who can affirm its precepts may call themselves Christian, while all who do not fall into any number of heresies which put them outside Christendom.
The Hymn of Justinian remains one of the most beloved and treasured in the Byzantine liturgy of the Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Churches. It naturally has its place in Anglican and Roman Catholic hymnology as well, to a lesser extent, but one of the most crucial things to remember about this hymn is that it was designed not just as a light-hearted, airy reflection on the Lord, but as an ultimate, triumphal hymn emphatically proclaiming orthodox Christology.
Its insertion into the Liturgy itself was, like the earlier insertion of the Nicene Creed, a dividing line, a statement that separated all those who affirmed its words from those who could not. If one were to deny the words of this hymn, and the doctrines they proclaim, then one would be departing from orthodox, Nicene Christianity. Those who today sing this hymn while believing its words are united to the Father by the love of Christ through the grace of the Holy Spirit. Their prayers reach the one throne of God, the altar that is both the heavenly altar and the earthly altar where Christ is truly present in the consecration of the bread and wine into His Body and Blood.
All those who partake of this cosmological and ontological unity with the Trinitarian Godhead stand united in the Faith of the one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. It is my hope and prayer that all will unite themselves to the Church by coming within the parameters of what it means to hold to orthodoxy, to true belief and right worship. We cannot simply discard these parameters set in the early Church for the sake of ‘niceness’ today, but rather, we should pray that ‘all may be one’ in the Faith of Christ.
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