In Orthodox hymnody, the psalms and biblical canticles have pride of place. Even when they aren’t explicit – which is only a choice on the part of the local community since they are always appointed – they are implicit. Orthodox hymns use the phrases of biblical texts to tell the story of our redemption in Christ. In a way, the whole body of Eastern Church song recasts the biblical songs in order to sing of the Incarnation of God the Word and the economy of our salvation.
One could outline (such a dull word!) Orthodox liturgical services in terms of the biblical texts sung and the actions or mysteries performed. For example, when Eastern Christians of the Byzantine Rite gather to sing vespers, the main points are these:
Opening / Psalm 104 “Bless the Lord, O my soul”
Psalms 141, 142, 130 & 117 “Lord, I call upon You” / Offering of incense & lighting of lamps
“Gladsome Light” / Entrance
Psalm 93 or 123
Prayer of St. Simeon / Dismissal
This is the very basic outline to which the other elements of vespers are joined. One could say that when we gather for evening prayer, it is to offer especially these psalms, hymns and prayers, to which others are added.
Matins, as a “watch” service (vigil), has a predictably longer structure:
Opening / Six psalms (3, 38, 63 & 88, 103, 143)
Psalm 118 “The Lord is God”
Psalm 119, or 135 & 136
Psalm 51 “Have mercy on me, O God”
1st Ode (canticle of Moses)
3d Ode (canticle of Hannah)
4th Ode (canticle of Habbakuk)
5th Ode (canticle of Isaiah)
6th Ode (canticle of Jonah)
7th Ode (prayer of Azariah)
8th Ode (canticke of the Three Youths)
9th Ode (canticles of Mary & Zachariah)
Great Doxology “Glory to God in the highest”
Those who know Orthodox matins, of course, will want to chime in with all sorts of additions and corrections. But I only mean to provide the basic outline that forms the infra-structure of the service. The basic format of Orthodox Matins is this order of psalms and canticles. Much else is added to it, so much so that much of these texts is, in fact, suppressed, or crowded out.
Now, I’ve entitled this brief series of posts “Odes and Links,” and I’ve done so because, in our liturgical terminology, the various canticles of Matins in Greek terminology are called odes. (Canticle is a Latinate word.) I’ll assume it’s not a new term to you, and neither is it technical. An ode is a biblical poem that is not in the Psalter. But the structure of biblical canticles is the same as that of the psalms. In fact, some canticles share large portions of text with certain psalms. (And some parts of psalms are repeated in other psalms; given how they came together, that ought not be surprising.) So, there is a structural link between psalm and canticle.
Also, there is a technical link between canticle and church hymns. You see, as Eastern Church hymnodists began composing hymns to adorn the services (for the Byzantine Rite, this was a process begun and in Palestine at the monastery of Mar Sabbas and matured in Constantinople at the monastery of Studion), these hymns were usually tied to fixed psalms in the above outlines. Strophes would be interspersed with verses of a psalm or canticle. In the case of the canticles of Matins, the first strophe to be introduced was called a link, (heirmos, or irmos). This strophe also set the melody and meter for those that followed. So, there was a musical linkage, as well.
But not unimportantly, there is a link of another kind that also exists. In future postings, this is what I’ll concern myself with. The other liturgical structures and functions we can deal with another time. I’m interested in how church hymns of various kinds interact with biblical hymns in terms of content, vocabulary and form. So, in my next post, I’ll begin with that hymn we call an heirmos and which means link and is used with an ode.