So, hymnography in the worship of the Church serves tradition, I said. And tradition is an active thing, even a way of life, I said. It’s meant to be living, not “dead letter,” to quote St. Paul. Hymnography feeds this life-style. It’s not the only thing that feeds it, but it does feed it in a certain way that other means don’t. Sermons feed it. The disciplines do, too, as does obeying the commandments. To practice prayer and fasting and almsgiving is to act out the Tradition, the life-style. That will get to the heart of a person much faster than a sermon or a hymn. But it takes work to pray, fast and give; and hymns and sermons are a means of developing the appetite for such things.
They also give us a vocabulary for the spiritual life, I think. (I have to be careful here; I am not a guide for the spiritual life!) The way we talk about things, the names we use for things, how we describe things is important to how we understand them. That’s why I get nervous when folks get chatty and creative when speaking about the life of faith. They’re not trying to get you to see things in a way that is common but in a way that is individual, idiosyncratic to themselves. Dangerous!
Hymns and sermons, when done “right”, provide us with “a way of speaking” (to quote a morning prayer from my prayer book) that will hopefully train our way of thinking. And hopefully a way of speaking and thinking that is not only accurate, but beautiful.
(I’ll probably need a blog post on beauty.)
Because hymns are set to music – melodies and rhythms – they go through the skin into the bloodstream much quicker, rather like some kinds of medications. Or alcohol. They tend to bypass the head and go to the heart more directly. If the hymn is well-written, well-composed and well-sung, then it just might stir a holy feeling or disposition within us like, say, gratitude. Now there’s a necessary attitude. One can’t get far in this quest that we (with Pinocchio) call “being real” (as in human) without thankfulness. Even that children’s story “traditted” this truth to us: Pinocchio’s lies were an affront to the love of his papa, Gepetto, which in turn got P. into a lot of trouble; and they both ended up being swallowed by a whale. (Sound familiar?)
Now, the story of Pinocchio is so familiar to us, not only because we heard it as kids, and because the story is pretty interesting, but because it’s familiar. We understand those lies. We understand our will weakening before hucksters (Cat & Fox). We understand feeling shame before the love of a parent we’ve dishonored through selfishness and disobedience.
But we also have heard part of that story before. After all, didn’t Jonah suffer from childish rebelliousness? He got swallowed by a “great fish” trying to run away. And he came to his moment of repentance inside the belly of that whale.
We might say that the story of Pinocchio is told “according to the Scriptures.” Using the language and scenes of the Bible, we hear the story of Pinocchio, and the age-old values of honesty and obedience and dire consequences are passed along to us.
When St. Paul says – twice – that Christian Faith is “according to the Scriptures,” once in regards to the resurrection and another with the Lord’s Supper, he is saying that we understand the truth of Jesus in scriptural terms. We use the vocabulary and images and events of the Old Testament to tell the story and understandings of the New. While we believe that the truths in the New transcend those of the Old, they cannot do without them. Take the Old Testament away and the New goes with it. The New fulfills the Old. It doesn’t consign it to oblivion. It takes the old stories and images and words and fills them with the meaning gained by the witness and experience of the Risen Lord.
This idea is rather important as we encounter and explore and understand Orthodox hymnody because it draws on so much scriptural vocabulary.
Next: According to the Scriptures, continued