Music is important in our lives because it soothes (think classical music), it excites (think dance music), it sets a mood (think Christmas carols), and it evokes emotion (think about singing “Happy Birthday” at a birthday party, or the fight song for your college football team).
In worship, music is also important. In fact, the singing of hymns has always been an important part of worship. Before the time of Christ, there are several examples in the Old Testament of Psalms and hymns that were sung in worship.
Worship music often takes on the form of praise music. This is what we are most familiar with in Western worship. People raising their hands, closing their eyes, and lifting up their voices in praise of God. It is unfortunate that in Orthodox worship, congregational participation (both physical gestures and singing) remains limited and hopefully, this is something that will change over time.
Orthodox liturgical music certainly contains hymns that praise God. It also includes hymns of supplication to God. Many of our hymns to the saints ask for intercession to Christ on our behalf. That is supplication, or asking God for something.
What is unique to Orthodox hymnology, is that the vast quantity of our hymns neither praise God nor ask Him for anything. Many of our hymns are didactic, they teach us things. We all learned our A-B-Cs singing the alphabet song. And a great tool in learning the basics of Christianity is the hymns of the Orthodox Church. Back before most people could read (which is the majority of the history of the church), people learned by singing hymns. We’ve all had the experience of having a song stuck in our heads all day. The repeated singing of hymns had the same effect on people. It helped them not only praise God, but helped to teach them about God.
The movie, “The Greatest Story Ever Told” was released in 1965, telling the story of Holy Week as an epic movie. For centuries before the release of this movie, the Orthodox Church has re-enacted Holy Week over the course of 9 days and many services, filled with rubrics that re-enact scenes from Holy Week, and also tell the story not only in Scripture readings but in hymns.
It is very important in our worship that Scripture and hymns are both used. Scripture, by and large, touches us in a cognitive way. It makes us think. It is not often that people cry during the Gospel reading at any service, including a funeral.
Music, on the other hand, hits us in an emotional way. It makes us feel. On Holy Thursday, as an example, we read 12 Gospel passages about the Passion of Christ. They help us remember what happened on Holy Thursday and Good Friday two thousand years ago. Nestled in the middle of the longest service in the Orthodox Liturgical year is the hymn “Simeron Kremate,” “Today is hung upon the Cross, He Who suspended the earth amid the waters.” (15th Antiphon, Holy Thursday Evening, Trans. by Fr. George Papadeas, p. 238) This hymn is intoned by the priest as he makes a solemn procession around the church carrying the large cross of the crucified Christ. It is then sung by the choir as the congregation kneels. This hymn makes me cry each time I hear it because combined with the visual image of Christ on the cross, it puts us on Golgotha two thousand years ago. It tells us in song not only that a man was crucified, but the one who suspended the earth amid the waters, the Creator of the universe, died for the sins of those He created.
Two nights later, the long journey of Holy Week, which had been preceded by the forty days of Great Lent, comes to an end as we proclaim the Resurrection, singing “Christos Anesti,” “Christ is Risen,” and those tears of sorrow are replaced with elation. It’s really amazing after reading the Gospel of the Resurrection, to hear the collective breath that the congregation takes in the seconds before “Christ is Risen” is proclaimed. It’s like everyone wants to have breath in their lungs so that they can sing this hymn with joy and exaltation.
I have for a long time desired to write a series entitled “The Greatest Story Ever Sung: Reflections on the Hymns of Holy Week.” We know the story of Holy Week from Scripture but we’ve probably never studied it from the starting place of hymns. Not only are the hymns connected to Scripture passages, but they also go beyond what we hear in Scripture. They include theology, interpretation of Scripture, praise of God, and calls to action for God’s people. They not only include the Holy Week narrative, but they also reach back to the Creation of the world and the Old Testament promises the prefiguring of Christ. There are hymns devoted to the various characters in the story—The Virgin Mary, Peter, Judas, and many more. This is why telling the story of Christ’s Passion through hymns, while it will still lead us to the same destination—the Resurrection—it will take both an emotional path, as we reflect on the hymns that bring emotion to the week, in addition to the cognitive path which is open more deeply through the theology, character development, and connection to the Old Testament that combine together to create the greatest story ever sung.
Each reflection in this series will begin with a hymn. It will then connect that hymn to Scripture. This is important because the hymnographers were intentional about weaving Scripture into their work. Because the story is told in Scripture. That is the starting point. Hymns expand on the base of Scripture to tell the story. There will be the customary reflection after the Scripture, and each reflection will conclude with another hymn, Psalm, or prayer from Holy Week. Even though Pascha is many weeks away, and we are still a week away from beginning Triodion (pre-Lent), this series is starting today, so that we can cover hymns from each day of Holy Week and get to the Hymns of Holy Saturday by the start of Holy Week. Following Pascha, there will be several reflections on the Hymns of Pascha. It is hoped that by going through this series before Holy Week, we will be better able to understand the significance of the hymns we will be hearing and singing so that when we hear and sing them this year, we will do so with greater depth, greater purpose and ultimately with greater joy.
Praise the Lord! Praise God in His sanctuary; praise Him in His mighty firmament! Praise Him for His mighty deeds; praise Him according to His exceeding greatness! Praise Him with trumpet sound; praise Him with lute and harp! Praise Him with timbrel and dance; praise Him with strings and pipe! Praise Him with sounding cymbals; praise Him with loud clashing cymbals! Let everything that breathes praise the Lord! Praise the Lord! Psalm 150
Let’s begin our journey through the greatest story ever sung!