A major part of Orthodox liturgical worship is found in the center of Matins, which is the primary morning office of prayer. Matins begins with a night vigil and ends with praise for the new dawn, moving from repentance in the darkness to thanksgiving in the light.
Joining these two parts is the Canon of Biblical Odes – a series of eight canticles from the scriptures, which we listed in a previous posting. (If you were paying attention, you noticed that the list skipped ode 2, which is another canticle of Moses, a rather long one from Deuteronomy. This is because, outside of the great Lenten fast, this canticle is suppressed due to its very penitential character.)
In the service of Matins (Greek, “Orthros”) back in Constantinople of late antiquity, this part of the service was sing in the middle of the Nave, gathered around the great Ambo there – a large elevated platform that functioned as the pulpit/lectern from which psalms were sung and lessons read. The service began in the Narthex, centering on the recitation of Psalm 118/119; moved to the Ambo for the Canon of Odes, then to the Sanctuary/altar for the Lauds, or Praises, welcoming the dawn.
These canticles were sung verse by verse with a short refrain sung after each verse, such as “Glory to You, O God, glory to You,” or “Holy name, pray for us,” or some other. In time, composed poetic stanzas, called troparia, replaced the short refrain; and eventually, replaced the biblical canticle altogether. The first of these stanzas provided a bridge between these and the biblical ode. This bridge was called a link, or irmos (Gr.).
From here on, I shall call the biblical hymns “canticles” and the sets of stanzas on each canticle “odes.” “Canon” refers to the entire set of odes. Except for “canon,” this is my own nomenclature.
For the Nativity of the Lord According to the Flesh, two canons are provided to be sung: the first by St. Kosmas, the second by St. John of Damascus – both pre-eminent hymn-writers of the Eastern Church. (St. John of Damascus is especially known for, among other writings, his canon for Pascha, “This is the day of resurrection, let us be illumined, O Faithful.” St. Kosmas is especially known for his Nativity canon.)
Canons reflect on the event or saint commemorated that day, and utilize key words and phrases found in the canticle. Sometimes the connection is very strong; sometimes only passing. But the biblical vocabulary is used in the Church’s reflections and re-telling that make up the substance of the canon. Here are some from the Nativity canon of St. Kosmas:
Ode 1 – “…sing to the Lord…for He has been glorified.” This is almost a direct quote from the story and canticle in Exodus 19 where this canticle is given as a response to the deliverance of Israel through the Red Sea: “Let us sing to the Lord for He has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider He has thrown into the sea!”
Ode 3 – “…You have raised up our horn, holy are You, O Lord.” The horn is an Old Testament poetical reference to strength, a symbolical phrase. This occurs frequently in this ode, as does the exclamation, “Holy are You, O Lord” because it is a quote from the canticle of Hannah in 1 Samuel (1 Kingdoms, LXX). Hannah is giving praise to the Lord for granting her a child after having been barren. She proclaims the love of the Lord toward the down-trodden, exalting the lowly, and exclaims, “There is none holy like the Lord.”
I’ll look at several other odes in the future postings.