Thy Nativity O Christ Our God

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“This is an astonishingly beautiful video which puts together a host of the Fathers’ sermons on the Nativity of Christ the Lord with Orthodox hymns and chants for the occasion of the feast.” (Ryan Hunter)

Christ(mas) Healing of Chronos, Kairos, and Aeon

An Orthodox Theology of Time – II / V

 

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The Persistence of Memory – Salvador Dali

Nature of Time: What is time? What is its relation to God’s mode of being? Time as understood in its relation to the Church as a receptacle of the eternal Kingdom of God.

 

“What is time? Who can explain this easily and briefly? Who can comprehend this even in thought so as to articulate the answer in words?

Yet what do we speak of, in our familiar everyday conversation, more than of time?

We surely know what we mean when we speak of it.

We also know what is meant when we hear someone else taking about it.

What then is time? Provided that no one asks me, I know.

If I want to explain it to an inquirer, I do not know”

 

(Augustine’s Confessions,11.14.17, p. 230)

Some Fathers, including Sts. Basil the Great and Maximus the Confessor, spoke of three modes of being (i.e. time (chronos), age or creaturely eternity (aeon) and the everlasting or uncreated eternity (aidios, aidiotes) and sometimes … proaionios or the pre-eternal which is ateleutetos or without an end)), not just the two of time and eternity.

 

…First, everlastingness or everexistingness (aidiotes)  is the mode of being only of God, who is utterly beyond the distinction between time and creaturely eternity, being and non-being, since He is the pre-eternal (proaionios) God who is “endless” in the sense of being beyond duration. Everlastingness is essentially a negative or apophatic category emphasizing God’s unknowableness.

 

God is indefinable as the ho pro aionon Theos (Slavonic: prevechnyi Bog) which can be translated as ‘the pre-eternal God’ or ‘God before the ages.’ As the Kontakion of Christmas puts it:

 

Today the Virgin gives birth to him who is above all being [ton huperousion], and the earth offers the cave to him whom no one can approach; Angels with Shepherds give glory, while Magi journey with a star, for to us there has been born a little child, God before the ages [ho pro aionon Theos].

 

Second, we have creaturely eternity/age (aion–aionios), which is the creaturely mode of being of the supra-cosmic or spiritual creation of God—angels. [Human beings too. Both Angels and humans are eternal, because although they were created in Time, they do not have an end]. This mode of being is not one that excludes change but it is not bound by the distinctions of our present time’s version of change. The past is not utterly past but it is contained in the present as is the future and the future in the past and the past in the future so that eternity is a sort of perichoretic version of time. This, I would argue, is what Schmemann was getting at when he wrote that points in time can be gathered together and encountered simultaneously:

“In an instant, not only are all such breaths of happiness remembered but they are present and alive—that Holy Saturday in Paris when I was a young man—and many such ‘breaks.’ It seems to me that eternity might be not the stopping of time, but precisely its resurrection and gathering.”

 

Moreover, there is in the Kingdom of God, which is an eternal Kingdom not of this world, an enduring quality of being where one forever praises God from one moment to the next—a sort of sempiternal or eternal duration—without in any way being trapped in growing old or being trapped in the inexperience of youth. In such eternal duration, the goodness of God is always desired and always held in its fullness at the same time as that goodness continually increases our capacity and desire for it although we never possess this goodness in its fullness.

 

 

Time in physical creation, as we now experience it under the weight of sin, is understood as a reality with a strict division between past, present and future where the person in time, who has turned his back on God’s grace in Jesus Christ, is prevented from being present to more than one division at once. Thus when I err under the weight of sin I cannot be present to here and there at once since I am bound to here.

 

… Christ heals our time (chronos), and indeed the time of the invisible creation (aeon), by making it His time of opportunity for our salvation in Him (kairos).

 

Time, as Christ’s time, becomes a means to our perfection in Him rather than the ultimate expression of our rejection of God’s grace. Through Him in His Body the Church we come to partake in the mode of being of the invisible creation, creaturely eternity, but this eternity or time of the invisible creation becomes wedded with our sensible time, remade for an embodied being like man, through participating in the everlasting life of God. Time is, therefore, remade and renewed in the Church as the Kingdom of God and we have a foretaste of this renewal in the liturgy.

[Chronos, Kairos and Eternity, or, Agape. Because Eternity is Hypostatical Agape in God]

 

Source: Excerpts from Gallaher, Brandon ‘s Orthodox Theology of Time at https://www.academia.edu/3561108/Chalice_of_Eternity_An_Orthodox_Theology_of_Time_St_Vladimirs_Theological_Quarterly_57.1_2013_pp.5-35

To Be Continued …

For Part I go to https://orthodoxcityhermit.com/2015/12/18/chalice-of-eternity/

For Part III go to https://orthodoxcityhermit.com/2015/12/18/4497/

The Womb and the Tomb

 

Icon of the Nativity compared with the Icon of the Resurrection

Left: Christ in the manger; Right: the Empty Tomb

No description of the Nativity Icon would be complete without mention of Jesus’ appearance in the manger.

It should be never forgotten that Jesus came to us in order to die – this was known by Him, at least, from the very beginning. Therefore, in Iconography, the manger in the Nativity Icon deliberately resembles a stone coffin, the swaddling clothes resemble a burial shroud, and the cave itself can even be said to prefigure Christ’s tomb.

With the side-by-side comparison shown above of the Icon of the Nativity with the Icon showing the Myrrh-bearing women discovering Jesus’ empty tomb, no more words are necessary. (1)

The Passion of Nativity

… Let us look more closely at the child in the relief.  “His tight swaddling clothes are evocative of burial wrappings.  In the byzantine tradition, there is an intentional connection between the swaddling clothes of the infant in a Nativity icon and the burial clothes of the Epitaphios (epi– upon; taphos- grave or tomb) icon which is venerated and anointed during Great Friday Vespers.  Also on Great Friday, the “soma” icon on the crucifix is taken down from the cross and shrouded in identical wrappings before it is processed and reposed in the sanctuary.”

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“…Note, as well, that the “manger” is a cave, a small hollow in a rock formation that mirrors Jesus’ tomb in the gospels.  In many icons, Jesus’ cradle is a stone box.  Who would lay a child in a coffin? What macabre motive would make an artist paint a baby as a mummy and give him a tomb as his nursery?  Indeed, the motive is not macabre, but joyful and eschatologically triumphant: we only understand the significance of the incarnation if we hold it in tension with Jesus’ saving death; we may not separate the two.  This also reminds us that the liturgical year commemorates events in the life of Jesus but it never parses the paschal mystery.”

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Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem 

The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is one of the oldest continuously operating churches in the world, and the oldest in the Holy Land (founded in 325)

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A virgin womb, conceiving thee, revealed thee;
a virgin tomb, receiving thee, concealed thee.

We glorify her from whom thou didst receive a beginning in time,
and we honour him that ministered to the end of thine earthly life for our sakes,
asking that through their prayers, O merciful Saviour,
we might be deemed worthy of thy Kingdom of the Heavens.

Theotokion on the Praises for the Feast of St. Joseph of Arimathea
Appendix to the July Menaion, Holy Transfiguration Monastery

 

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Church Of The Nativity Bethlehem Stable

All the eschatological themes of the Advent season converge in the Nativity tableau and are carried forward into Christmas.  This should not surprise us.  The birth of Christ and his salvific death form the cosmic fulcrum upon which the beam of human history rests, with creation and eschaton at each end.  In a nativity icon this is super concentrated.  Incarnation and eschaton are so ingeniously and inextricably intertwined that we might not even read “passion” in what is written in the icon unless we understand the symbolic significance of the iconographic elements.  The best known example of this is the gifts of the wise men: while gold and frankincense represent Jesus’ kingship and priesthood, respectively, myrrh, used for embalming, is a symbol of his death.

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When I look at a Nativity icon and I see a child embraced by death, and embracing death, I have at least an inkling of what Rilke was, perhaps, trying to convey in the first Duino Elegy:

“For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror, which we are still just able to endure, and we are so awed because it serenely disdains to annihilate us.” (2)

 

(1) Posted on by 

(2) Posted at https://memoriadei.wordpress.com/2010/12/17/the-ox-the-ass-and-the-passion-of-the-nativity/

The Ass and the Ox

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Nativity of the Lord” Andrei Rublev 1405, Cathedral of the Annunciation, Moscow

As of today, I thought I might begin to concentrate on certain details of the Nativity iconography and explore their symbolism and theological significance in order to prepare my cave (a hermit as I am 😊) to receive the Word in the flesh.  My starting point will be a symbolic (and typological) analysis of the ox and the ass figures in the nativity iconography.

Generally speaking, the presence of any animals in the Nativity icon is in addition to any symbolic meaning a theological statement of restoration. It reminds us, I think, that all creation worships God ( the stars and the sun and even the dumb animals). That which was brought about by Adam’s transgression meant that the dominion he was given in Genesis over the birds of the air, the fish of the sea and the animals on the land was corrupted, made incomplete and he started eating that which was originally meant for companionship. When the Word who becomes flesh  is born, He who made Heaven and Earth and all that is in it,  it is only fitting that representatives of His creation are there to worship and adore the mystery of the Incarnation.

 
Revelation 5:13                
And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying, “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!” 
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Specifically now to the ox and the ass. “These two manger animals are ubiquitous in Nativity images.  They peer over the new-born Christ child in wonderment, usually with their muzzles close to the child, as if to warm him with their breath.  Their significance should be plain: The ass carries Jesus into Egypt, away from the murderous Herod who, like Pharoah, orders the slaughter of infants.  (The flight into Egypt in Matthew’s gospel is the first of many Jesus/Moses parallels.)  Later, the ass will carry him into the holy city of Jerusalem to the acclaim of the crowd: “Hossana!  Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” The ass who greets the Lord at his birth is the same ass who bears him into Egypt and carries him to his death at Jerusalem where he is hailed as “king of Israel” but crucified as a common criminal.  The red ox stands as a stark and basic  symbol of Hebrew cultic sacrifice.” (1)

There is no ass or ox in the Biblical narratives of the birth of Christ.  Yet, besides the Christ Child himself, the ass and the ox are the most ancient and stable elements in the iconography of the nativity.  In fact the earliest example of a nativity known to us contains only the swaddled Christ in the manger flanked by the ox at his head and the ass at his feet.  David Clayton, on the New Liturgical Movement blog, has written a detailed piece on the subject, and I will go through the basics while adding a few more aspects he does not mention.

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Nativity scene on a 4th century sarcophagus from Italy

When reading comments on the nativity (for example in Ouspensky’s “The Meaning of Icons”) one finds that the inclusion of this detail is a reference to the prophecy of Isaiah:

The ox knows his owner, and the ass his master’s crib: but Israel has not known me, and my people have not understood.

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Some apocryphal texts have the ass and the ox worshiping the Christ child, such as the gospel of pseudo-Matthew:

Therefore, the animals, the ox and the ass, with him in their midst incessantly adored him. Then was fulfilled that which was said by Habakkuk the prophet, saying, “Between two animals you are made manifest.”

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The Nativity – Icon in the Monastery of St. Catherine
[Many thanks to Bill M. for the link and drawing attention to the look on the ox’s face 😊 The icons of St Catherine’s, being isolated and in dry desert conditions meant that their icons have survived remarkably well, making it is a treasure of pre-Iconoclast iconography] (2)

nativity9.jpgFreiburg, Couvent des Cordeliers / Franziskanerkloster, MS 9, fol. 11r. 

What though is the relationship between the ox and the ass, why are these animals paired together so?  We will often read that traditionally, the ox is seen as Israel, and the ass is seen as the Gentiles.  This comes from a very important distinction about the two animals.  The ox is a “clean” animal, and the ass is an “unclean” animal according to dietary proscription in the Old Testament.

Mixing the clean and the unclean is related very tightly to the mixing of Jews and Gentiles.  The clearest example of this is in St-Peter’s vision of the clean and unclean meats placed together, which signify the entry of Gentiles into the body of the Church.  Indeed there is a Mosaic law which I have never seen quoted in relation to the Nativity Icon, but which seems to hold one of the keys to the ass and the ox:

Thou shall not plow with an ox and an ass yoked together.

What is proscribed, the yoking of the clean and unclean, the bringing together of the “inside” and “outside” can only be accomplished without sin by the Christ, the incarnation of the Logos.  In fact, even St-Paul following this tradition, uses the same imagery to warn Christians not to be “yoked” with unbelievers.

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This brings out another meaning, which is related to the incarnation and its relation to universality of the Church.  The ass is a beast of burden, a “mindless” strength which was created to “carry” .  In this respect, the ass is a symbol of corporality itself.  One should not be surprised that the symbol of the unclean and “outer” is analogical to fallen corporal existence and sensuality. This can be seen so strongly in the hesychastic tradition in its relationship between the heart and the senses.  The “outer” part, corporality, the senses, the Gentile, are related to the garments of skin, which we have discussed before, and this periphery can be seen as protecting but also carrying what is precious, like the shell of the ark…

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Icon of the Nativity carved in linden by Jonathan Pageau

It therefore follows naturally that stories such as the talking ass of Balaam are seen as prefigurations of the incarnation in sources as early as St-Irenaeus, or that it is so important for Christ be found riding an ass (even in later Rabbinical Judaism, the ass and colt of Zecharia’s prophesy are seen as representing the Gentiles) .  These Old Testament images, like the joining of the ass and the ox in the icon of the Nativity, are symbolic of the joining of extremes, the union of the spiritual and corporal, the clean and unclean, the inside and outside and ultimately the uncreated and created in the person of our Lord Jesus Christ. (3)

 

 

 

Sing Ye Carols!

 Carol Singers William Gunning Kind

 

Sing Ye Carols: An Interview with Hierodeacon Herman by  • November 24, 2015 

Hierodeacon Herman (Majkrzak), Chapel Music Director and Lecturer in Liturgical Music at Saint Vladimir’s Seminary, has started a small ministry during this Nativity fast – a series of Facebook posts highlighting lesser-known hymns and carols from the Western tradition. You can enjoy his posts here: Fr. Herman’s Choral Advent Calendar. We thought this a good opportunity to ask him to share some thoughts on Western hymns and carols, and what role they can play in Orthodoxy.

A painting depicting traditional Christmas carolers in Greece

A. Gould: Father Herman, to begin please tell us about your Facebook page, “Fr Herman’s Choral Advent Calendar.”

Hdn Herman: Andrew, thanks for hosting me at Orthodox Arts Journal. I think many of your readers would be interested in checking out what I’m calling my “choral Advent calendar.” I’ve based the name for the page on the delightful old German Advent calendars where each day leading up to Christmas you open a little door that reveals a holy image or a scripture verse or the like. My page is the same idea, but each day it’s a link to a piece of choral music.  And with each day’s post, I include a description or commentary, and the text of the piece. My hope is that people will take this fast as an opportunity to listen to music attentively ­– i.e., will learn something about a piece before listening, and will listen to it with their undivided attention, while not doing anything else, and while reading along with the text.

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Most of the pieces I’m posting are from the repertoire of Western choral music, especially carols and hymns, the subject of this interview. I do occasionally post Orthodox liturgical music as well, and in any case the posts are following the Orthodox liturgical calendar throughout the fast. For those on the Old Calendar, I’ll be refreshing each post thirteen days later, so you can follow and be sync liturgically with your parish.

You don’t need to have a Facebook account to access the posts, but for those who aren’t on Facebook, I also have an email list – write the OAJ editor if you’d like to be added, and tell him whether you want the new calendar or the old calendar posts.

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A Gould: A lot of people, including Christians, tend to be fed up with Christmas music. It’s everywhere, in stores, in offices, and on the radio, and so much of it is cheap and just helps in the commercialization and secularization of this important Christian holy day. It can be easy to become cynical or jaded. You must have some thoughts on this, given how much you think about carols.

Hdn. Herman: Absolutely, Andrew. I think we should really make an effort not to be cynical about Christmas. The world has tried to spoil Christmas in so many ways, but we shouldn’t let that effort triumph in our own lives, in our own hearts.

I prefer to look at the presence of carols in stores and malls as one of the last vestiges of Christianity in the public space here in America, and I think we should value this and build on it. Yes, the carols are sometimes cheap and often annoying, but it’s not all “Jingle Bell Rock”! I’m always delighted when I go into a department store in 2015 and hear songs about Christ’s virgin birth! Even if, as is usually the case, I don’t like the musical arrangements, I’m still so happy to hear them. Some Christians complain when they start hearing carols and seeing Christmas decorations long before Christmas. Okay, maybe this is not ideal, but, you know, really I’d prefer to go into a store on November 1st and hear a song about Our Savior – or even Rudolph! – than a song about licentiousness, which is what we’re treated to the rest of the year.

Young adults today will probably be the last generation to have grown up somewhat familiar with a basic repertoire of a dozen or so famous carols: “The first Nowell,” “Hark, the herald-angels sing,” “Silent night,” “O come, all ye faithful,” “O come, O come, Emmanuel,” and the like. For many people, memories of early childhood Christmases are some of the purest and happiest of their lives, even if mixed with avarice or bitterness surrounding gifts, and those memories are bound up with carols like these. This means that for the next fifty years or so, these carols will have the potential to connect to a very special part of people’s lives. Our task as Orthodox Christians in a society increasingly post-Christian, but still having these vestiges of Christian memory, is to elevate these carols, to help them be a window through which people can experience something beautiful, something peaceful, and have even just a glimmer of joy and gratitude. This is especially our job if we are musicians. We should organize concerts with carols, and go caroling in our neighborhoods or at local hospitals and nursing homes. Let’s not let the devil have Christmas. It doesn’t belong to him.

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A. Gould: You grew up as an Episcopalian, and you were an organist and singer in the Anglo-Catholic tradition before your conversion to Orthodoxy. How has your experience with Western liturgical music influenced your vocation as an Orthodox choir director?

Hdn Herman: Well, Andrew, when I think back to the time in my life, to early adolescence (not long before you and I first met), when I was moved to make a resolute commitment of my life to our Savior, Christ Jesus, it seems to me that it was liturgical music that the Lord used to open that door in my heart. Discovering the traditional canon of Western, and particularly English, church music inspired me to learn about and immerse myself in the more traditional forms of Western liturgy that that music was meant to accompany. So, for example, I will never forget the summer Sunday in 1991 or ’92 when for the first time I attended a solemn mass in the full Anglo-Catholic tradition. It’s a cliché, but it really was a life-changing experience to discover a much older, more full stream of liturgical tradition, largely unscathed by the banal impoverishments that the liturgical reform of the 60s had brought about in Western Christianity. I was twelve or thirteen, and I had discovered the joy of my life: traditional liturgical worship. It was traditional music that led me to take traditional liturgy seriously, and liturgy in turn inspired me to dip into theology in my early high school years. I read C.S. Lewis, Peter Kreeft, and other contemporary apologists, but then went further with Thomas Aquinas and collections of Patristic homilies. I even read a ten volume set of Anglican dogmatic theology by F.J. Hall. This all may seem far afield of your question, Andrew, but it’s not, really, because without this theological self-education I would probably never have become Orthodox. In my early college years I realized that I needed to have complete integrity and unanimity between these three great loves of my life: music, liturgy, and theology. I could not have one without the other two, and it is only in the Orthodox Church where they constitute an integral whole. I take my work as an Orthodox choir director seriously because I see what an irrevocable effect good church music had on me in middle school, and I think Orthodox church music has even greater potential to direct the lives of our young people today on the path of righteousness and salvation.

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A. Gould: It is often the experience of one who converts, that at first he feels it is a complete rupture – that nothing from his old ways are compatible with Orthodoxy. But over time, we mature, and come to understand that much of what we had known in the Western Church is highly sympathetic to Orthodoxy. And we start to see that the Western and Eastern traditions are not necessarily isolated alternatives, but rather are two related sisters in the Church’s history. Each has historically depended upon the other for inspiration, and they need to do so still, if liturgical art is to remain fresh and creative. This has been my experience since my conversion, and I wonder if yours has also followed this pattern?

Hdn Herman: I think you’ve put this very well, Andrew. This is a common path for converts, and I would even say it is a necessary path, first intentionally to distinguish yourself, to set yourself apart from what the service of reception of converts calls your “former delusion,” but then, perhaps years later, to go back and reacquaint yourself with these roots, viewing them with new, Orthodox eyes.

Yes, people who convert to Orthodoxy, especially from other Christian communities, should wholeheartedly immerse themselves in and be formed by the Orthodox tradition, not just in its dogmatic and moral teachings, but in its Eastern liturgical piety, its traditions of chant, iconography, and architecture, its ascetic disciplines, its monastic ethos. (And as an aside, to really do this well, I think you need to develop some measure of affection for and familiarity with one of the cultures from which Orthodoxy came to this country and to your parish. In my case that meant the culture and faith of Russia.) This is so important, because this is the path to making Orthodoxy your own: you are completely uprooted from your previous confession, and then you’re deeply planted in the soil of the Church. And I’d say that the new convert should not be too concerned with distinguishing between what is essential and what is incidental in Eastern Orthodox practice. (And to be clear, by incidental, I don’t mean insignificant.) Such distinctions are important, and will come with time and education, but new converts are not capable of making such distinctions, really, and if they try, they may become confused and perhaps be led astray.

But later, having undergone that clear separation and having internalized the ways of one’s new home, having laid a firm foundation for one’s new identity as an Orthodox Christian, one is then able to look at traditional Western Christianity with clearer vision and with more sympathetic eyes, and one sees that there is so much there that is beautiful and true and worthy of our close attention and admiration. You’re still aware of the problems, certainly, but you no longer fixate on them. And, yes, as you say, the more you learn about Church history, the more you see that, despite the Schism, despite the dogmatic divergences, East and West have never been two isolated, watertight compartments within Christianity. It is one common culture, with its roots in the Roman Empire. There are different emphases, of course, but the family resemblances are often quite charming.

Christmas carolers, Ukraine

A. Gould: Regarding Western hymns and carols, how would you characterize their strengths and weaknesses as a liturgical art? What do they do really well, and what do they offer us that may be lacking in the Eastern choral traditions?

Hdn Herman: That’s a huge question, Andrew. I’ll come at it from a few different angles.

Let me begin by clarifying that Western carols are not, technically, liturgical. Though often sung in Church, their origin is not found in prescribed liturgical texts or chant books, but rather they arise out of the spontaneous devotion of Christian people. And such extra-liturgical or, perhaps, paraliturgical singing exists within Orthodox cultures as well: one thinks especially of the famous Russian and Ukrainian Christmas carols, transplanted and sung to this day with such great fervor by Yup’ik Orthodox in Alaska, of the Arabic carol for Lazarus Saturday, “Rejoice, O Bethany,” or of the many carols from Greece or Serbia, including 20th-century compositions by St Nektarios of Aegina or St Nikolai of Zhicha. So I’d want to rephrase your question and make it less about East and West and more about liturgical and non-liturgical.

Put in that light, I think it’s really important for us to nurture extra-liturgical expressions of our Faith, and singing together about Christ and his Incarnation is one of the best ways of doing this I can think of. People who sing together about joyful things become joyful themselves. You and I did this for hours on end when we were teenagers, and I think this should be a regular part of the lives of all Orthodox children, youths, and grown-ups. Singing hymns and carols together is much better than making playlists of rock music on Spotify or playing video games! The one draws us into the embrace of a centuries-old Christian culture, the other conforms us to the world.

Koledari Christmas Carolers, Bulgaria

So, what extra-liturgical music should Orthodox be singing? For English-speaking Orthodox, the answer is obvious: we have a tradition ready to go, we just have to make it our own! And I think it’s wonderful when we as Orthodox say, “Everything, anywhere, that is good and true and beautiful belongs to Christ and belongs to His Church, and so we will preserve it and pass it on because it is, in fact, ours.” We are the custodians of all that is good in Western Christian culture, because we are Orthodox Christians who speak a Western language and who live in the West. That’s a serious responsibility, when you think about it, and unfortunately Western Christians, with some notable exceptions, are not taking their patrimony seriously! Isn’t it ironic that we as Orthodox might pick up and treasure the Western carol tradition just as so many Western Christian denominations are turning away from their own traditional music and embracing contemporary musical forms that are shallow by comparison?

Christmas carolers, Romania

To return to your question, I probably wouldn’t say that there’s anything lacking in the Eastern choral traditions for the context in which they originate. The liturgical hymnography and chanting of, say, Slavic or Romanian or Arabic lands is complemented by a culture of pious folk singing that brings the Faith into the home. These Eastern carols are often much simpler melodies than the liturgical chants of the Church, they are composed in meters and verses that are easy to learn and remember, and so have immediate popular appeal – and yet they are also suitable for more elaborate arrangements and for performance at a very high and nuanced artistic level.

 

All the same things can be said of Western carols. And for English-speaking Orthodox, English carols and hymns, whether for Christmas or other seasons of the Church year, give us the unique opportunity of hearing our faith sung in poems originally written in English, hearing our faith expressed in poetic and musical forms native to our culture and our language. This is something immensely valuable. This is something that really helps us make the Faith our own as English-speakers, and it’s something that helps us elevate our Anglo-American culture so that it partakes of the Spirit of the Church and the life of Christ. The same can certainly be said about, say, French- or German-speaking Orthodox and those respective carol traditions, but I’m speaking from my own experience and vantage point as an English-speaker.

A troupe of self-described 'Hipster Carolers' in New York City.

A. Gould: Can you give an example of a carol that expresses good theology in a uniquely Western way – a carol that is wholly sympathetic to Orthodoxy, but that could never have been written in the East?

Hdn Herman: Well, I’d hesitate to say what “could never have been written in the East.” Eastern hymnography encompasses a huge variety of themes and expressions, and of course the hymnography contained in the received texts of our service books is only a fraction of the hymnography composed in the Eastern Church.

But one can readily find Western hymns and carols that express perfectly Orthodox theology, and that do so in poetic forms more familiar to the Western ear. An example that comes to mind is the majestic hymn, Of the Father’s Heart Begottena translation of the fourth century Latin hymn, Corde Natus Ex Parentis, by Aurelius Prudentius Clemens. With this and so many other early Latin hymns, not only is its content Orthodox, but so is its author, since Prudentius lived centuries before the Schism. The text has a simple, regular meter and rhyme scheme; the melody is solemn, yet lyrical and joyful – though a liturgical hymn, it demonstrates many carol-like qualities.

The text expounds the mystery of the Incarnation, beginning with the eternal begetting of the Son by the Father, moving on to the Creation of the world, and the foretelling by “seer and sybil” of Christ’s advent to bring salvation from the curse of sin and death, and arriving at the Incarnation itself, the birth of the eternal Son from his Virgin Mother. It moves forward into the future (in a verse unfortunately omitted in the linked recording), to sing of Christ’s Second Coming as Judge of creation, and concludes in an explosion of glorious praises by angels and men and all creation, singing with joy around God’s throne.

Of course, these are all themes we can find in Eastern hymnography, but perhaps what makes this hymn distinctly Western is its sweeping survey of the entire economy of salvation within one, long hymn. The focus is the Incarnation – this is a Christmas hymn – but it places that mystery in the context of the whole history of creation and beyond; indeed in its first verse it sings of Christ as the beginning and the end:

He is Alpha: from that Fountain,
All that is and hath been flows;
He is Omega, of all things
Yet to come the mystic Close,

thus, in just four pithy lines, drawing together the vast expanse of time and eternity. It does so with an allusion to the Book of Revelation (the Alpha and the Omega), which itself is uncommon in Eastern hymnography, since that book is not part of the lectionary of the Eastern Rite.

Christmas carolers, Ukraine

A. Gould: The English-language translations of Orthodox hymnography currently available are disappointing with regard to poetic language, and the tones to which they are usually sung are disappointing with regard to melody. Most of our hymnography, as sung in American churches, compares negatively to the elegance of great English hymns. Do you think that, over time, with better translation and better musical settings, it will be possible to sing Orthodox hymnography with this kind of poetic refinement and fitting melody?

Hdn Herman: Good questions. You’re asking both about the chant melodies used for our stichera, troparia, and other hymns, and also about the English translation of these texts. There’s not much I have to say about the melodies themselves. When sung beautifully, and in their most authentic forms, they are beautiful, and I don’t think inventing a new body of chant melodies ex nihilo would ever gain much traction. Whether working with Byzantine chant or one of the Slavic chant families, our job as choir directors and singers is to sing stichera sensitively and reverently. The temptation in Russian chant, certainly, is to make a caricature out of these sacred melodies, in each musical phrase racing through the recitation, and then dragging out the ending as if somehow to compensate for how fast one had just been singing. Often the hymn is not pointed well to begin with, with phrases that are too long to be sung meaningfully, or divided at the wrong part of the sentence, or with emphases put on unimportant words, where they could with slight adjustment be used to bring out more substantive words. If there is an area of Western church music that could inspire us to sing Russian chant more sensitively, it would be Anglican Chant, with its flexible, recitation-based melodies used by English cathedral choirs for the singing of Psalms. But one cannot simply imitate the style of Anglican Chant when singing Kievan Chant – the result could be quite comical. This is a difficult subject to articulate.

Malankara Orthodox Christmas Carolers in Abu Dhabi, U.A.E.

Regarding English translations, this is a can of worms, but impossible to avoid. The English language culturally is not in good shape at the beginning of the third millennium, alas. I’m reminded of a letter written by poet W.H. Auden to his parish priest (Auden was an Episcopalian) probably in the early 70s:

Our Church [i.e., the Anglican Church] has had the singular good-fortune of having its Prayer-Book composed and its Bible translated at exactly the right time, i.e., late enough for the language to be intelligible to any English-speaking person in this century (any child of six can be told what ‘the quick and the dead’ means) and early enough, i.e., when people still had an instinctive feeling for the formal and the ceremonious which is essential in liturgical language.

This feeling has been, alas, as we all know, almost totally lost. (To identify the ceremonious with ‘the undemocratic’ is sheer contemporary cant.) The poor Roman Catholics, obliged to start from scratch, have produced an English Mass which is a cacophonous monstrosity (the German version is quite good, but German has a certain natural sonority): But why should we imitate them?

Well, lucky for us Orthodox, many of our translators did not feel they needed to “start from scratch,” but produced solid English translations that built on the wording and the spirit of Jacobean liturgical English. The difficulty is that neither the Prayer Book nor the Bible gives us models of how to render the florid rhetoric of Byzantine hymnography in English. I think that Metropolitan Kallistos’s translations (though some may disagree with certain word choices here and there, naturally), do the best job of any translation of bringing together the style of traditional liturgical English (admitting of some careful and limited modernization) and the text of Byzantine hymns. I wish he had gone on to complete Mother Mary’s draft of the Octoechos and Pentecostarion!

When we look to the tradition of the English translation of Latin carols and hymns, we see that they are almost always translated metrically, i.e., according to the original Latin meter, so that they can be sung to the same melody, which is composed to fit the text like hand in glove. This is also how the liturgical books prepared by Holy Transfiguration Monastery in Brookline translate Byzantine hymnography, because they intend them to be sung to Byzantine melodies composed for the Greek texts. But a metrical translation is always a paraphrase, and sometimes this can be problematic. In any case, when translating for Russian chant, fidelity to the Greek meter is not required, since Russian chant melodies are by nature expandable and contractible, so as to allow for more or fewer syllables per phrase, as needed.

In general, I would love to see a greater poetic sensitivity in our liturgical translations, but one that is rooted in the tradition of English scriptural and liturgical translation that stretches back to the sixteenth century—this too is part of our patrimony as English-speaking Orthodox! However, there are many who strongly disagree with me, thinking that we should create our own style of liturgical texts using 21st century literary English style as the starting point. I take Auden’s approach here: ours is not the right era for this, because we have lost that “instinctive feeling for the formal and the ceremonious which is essential in liturgical language.” By the way, this principle Auden articulates is nothing new, but was present even in the earliest liturgical translations from Greek to Latin. This has been demonstrated by the linguistic historian Christine Morhmann.

Carolers in Bucharest, Romania, 1929

A. Gould: Is there a way for Orthodox churches to incorporate Western hymnography into their worship? There has always been some paraliturgical music in Orthodox services – hymns that are commonly used in local traditions, but which do not appear in the service books. Why should English-speaking churches not use old English hymns as paraliturgical anthems? Can you give us your thoughts on this question, and maybe some practical suggestions?

Hdn Herman: I’d be very cautious about this, actually. There is not really any open slot in our services for paraliturgical hymns, with the possible exception of the time during the Communion of the clergy at Divine Liturgy. There are those who argue that only the prescribed Communion Psalm should be sung at this time, but given that so many of our people rarely attend Vespers and Matins, I often will sing stichera during Communion, rather than repeating Psalm 148 every Sunday. If paraliturgical hymns are sung during Communion, I believe they should only be hymns by Orthodox hymnographers, either ancient (including pre-Schism Western hymns), or modern.  After the dismissal of a service, as during the veneration of the Cross after Liturgy, I would be comfortable with later Western carols or hymns. I once saw a video of Christmas Liturgy from Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow in which they sang Russian translations of Western Christmas carols during the veneration of the Cross. (I specifically recall hearing “Angels we have heard on high…”) I think this is good.

 

Christmas Vespers at the Cathedral of Christ Our Savior, Moscow, 2013

A parish can also sing carols during coffee hour or parish meals, at Holy Supper on Christmas Eve, or following a class or lecture. And parishioners should organize carol sings in their homes too, as well as in neighborhoods, downtown shopping areas, and nursing homes, hospitals, and prisons. All these possibilities embody the goal of letting our devotion to God flow out of Church and into our daily lives. Families could sing a different carol together each night after dinner during the Nativity fast and up through the end of the festal season.

A project I’ve been thinking about for some time is to compile several dozen of the best Christmas carols (both familiar and less-well-known) for use by Orthodox communities, carefully choosing which versions of each carol to use, to bring out the richest content. So many Protestant hymnals, unfortunately, have meager selections, missing verses, or poor harmonizations, or have altered the words for political reasons… but at present, as a convenient resource, I recommend finding a used copy of the Hymnal 1940 from the Episcopal Church. It’s quite solid, and unlike most Protestant hymnals it includes many hymns from the pre-Schism West – the old Gregorian office hymns, many of which are quite ancient.

A. Gould: Father Herman, you’ve given our readers much to think about. Do you have any closing comments?

Hdn Herman: I do indeed, Andrew! You’ve got me on a roll. Just a few final words about music more generally, as it relates to the life of the spirit and the life of the Church.

Our culture is drowning in music; many people are to some extent addicted to having music playing in the background throughout their day, and much of that music does not edify but draws us away from Christ in subtle or sometimes blatant ways, to say nothing of the resulting absence of silence. With the choral advent calendar, I’m trying to give people an opportunity to be more intentional about their music, and to help folks find music which can warm their hearts and help them draw near to God.

Christmas carolers, Poland

Now, taking the next step, and not just listening to good, Christ-centered music, but singing it: this is really important for Orthodox Christians in America. Our young people especially should be singing much more than they are, both in Church and at home (and hopefully at school too). Parents with any musical ability should make this a regular part of their family time, and children with any musical ability should have the formal study of music, especially piano and singing, as a central part of their education – required, not optional.

Why do I insist on this? Not only because Orthodox Churches across North America are in desperately dire need of proficient singers and choirmasters, but also because this can be such an important element in basic human developing and flourishing. And it’s on this subject that I’ll close, leaving you with a few words by Fr. Seraphim (Rose) of Platina:

The education of youth today, especially in America, is notoriously deficient in developing responsiveness to the best expressions of human art, literature, and music, as a result of which young people are formed haphazardly under the influence of television, rock music, and other manifestations of today’s culture (or rather, anti-culture); and, both as a cause and as a result of this – but most of all because of the absence on the part of parents and teachers of any conscious idea of what Christian Life is and how a young person should be brought up in it – the soul of a person who has survived the years of youth is often an emotional wasteland, and at best reveals deficiencies in the basic attitudes towards life that were once considered normal and indispensable …

Sometimes a spiritual father will deny his child the reading of some spiritual book and give him instead a novel of Dostoevsky or Dickens, or will encourage him to become familiar with certain kinds of classical music, not with any “aesthetic” purpose in mind – for one can be an “expert” in such matters and even be “emotionally well-developed” without the least interest in spiritual struggle, and that is also an unbalanced state – but solely to refine and form his soul and make it better disposed to understand genuine spiritual texts.

The entire article is well worth reading, but can best be summed up by the grace-filled words of St. Paul: “Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Phil. 4:8)

So, thanks, again, Andrew, and may you and all your readers have a very blessed Nativity fast!

A. Gould: Thank you, Father Herman.

Source: Orthodox Arts Journal at http://www.orthodoxartsjournal.org/sing-ye-carols-an-interview-with-hierodeacon-herman/

Fr. Herman’s Choral Advent Calendar Curated daily posts of (mostly Western) choral music and carols for the Nativity Fast, Christmas, and Theophany, each with brief introduction and text. http://www.svots.edu/