A Guide to Orthodox Hymnographers

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Liturgical Dynamics, part V

I want to offer a few more thoughts on Orthodox liturgical life being ordered. For some reason I don’t feel I’ve expressed yet what I really want to say, what it is I sense that needs to be brought out. So, I’d like to proffer two thoughts.

First is, that the order of liturgical life is meant to teach us about the way things are. Not only is there bound to be a certain ritual, whether elaborate (think Byzantine) or simple (think Reformed), because when more than one person need to communicate or do anything together, it must share a framework. The liturgy needs to be in accordance with what is believed about the human person, the gathered community, the entire cosmos, God. The liturgy will teach its observants (May I coin that word?) about “things.” A lack of liturgy – or I should say, a devolution into haphazard liturgy – teaches something. Orthodox liturgy most assuredly teaches rather specifically about the traditional Christian view of “things.”

This was driven home to me this last weekend at my parish. We had our periodic visitation from our bishop, which is always a joyful event. But we get somewhat maxed out on “ritual,” especially Byzantine court ritual, some of which was assumed in earlier centuries by Orthodox bishops after the fall of the Byzantine Empire: capes and crowns, candlesticks and kisses, bows and acclamations, beautiful trios and cacophonous interruptions. It’s quite fun, really. But it’s also a school in “the way we do things.” And that way is rather deliberate.

This is because we believe something about the Lord, not only in His divinity but in His humanity. We believe something about the Apostles and their authority. And we believe something about their successors and the role they play in keeping this disparate and unruly congregation of humanity together and basically aiming for the same thing: the Kingdom of God. I don’t want to go into all that here. Fr. Thomas Hopko has done that very well on Ancient Faith Radio in his podcast series “Worship In Spirit and Truth.” Suffice it to say that in a very real way, we greet and honor the bishop as one who “comes in the name of the Lord,” in persona Christi, as the Roman Church would say it. St. Ignatius makes this point very strongly in his epistles to the churches of Asia-minor.

If you want to know what the Orthodox believe about the bishop, and by extension, what we believe about the Apostles who form the foundation stones of the Church, and what this Church is about, just look at how we liturgically greet the bishop and worship in his presence under his leadership. This is true with all the rites and customs of Orthodox worship.

It’s not so much about how we believe in dogmatic terms. This is important. But the order in liturgy also trains us to think in a certain way. The fact that the liturgy puts “Lord, have mercy” and “Glory to You, O Lord” and other oft-repeated phrases in our mouths, is hugely indicative of those attitudes which the Church finds salvific.

Our parents trained us to behave in certain ways to help us to become civilized in this way or other. We were taught to say “Please” and “Thank-you” as well as “Excuse me” and “Yes, Sir or Ma’am.” These phrases, seemingly petty, not only allowed us to relate to others in ways less abrasive and demanding than “give me” or hey you.” They taught us the personhood of others. They taught us that others were part of life’s equation, that we weren’t the only ones around that mattered. They taught us a basic level of gratitude and humility. They taught us manners.

The Church teaches her children manners, also, and it’s painfully obvious when adult worshipers haven’t learned them. So, we are taught to not just barge into the Church without saluting the icons of the saints with whom we are going to worship, because they are present with us. Hebrews 12:22-23 makes this more than clear, and the Church explicitly teaches us this. You greet your elders and betters when you enter a room of people – or, we used to. When you intend to receive a sacrament, you make some kind of preparation, whether it’s Confession or fasting or prayer or quietness. And you don’t leave without saying “Thank-you” to the One who vouchsafed to you such a precious gift.

Most of the little customs of piety and liturgy are related to this mannerliness that teaches us humility and gratitude. It not only keeps good order. It just may save our souls.

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Liturgical Dynamics, part IV

I want to follow up a bit on my last posting.

I’m a musician.  I deal in written and printed and published music every day.  I teach it, I sing it, I play it, I coach others in performing it.  In doing so, I’m constantly reading from a script.  We rehearse the script daily.  We purchase new scripts when old ones get worn out, or need editing, or updated laying-out.  And we (well, not me but others who are professional performers beyond what I do) record it.

Now, why do we have so many recordings of the same music?  I have a number of recordings of Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil.  Why?  They all use the same script (or score).  Isn’t one sufficient?  Fact is, no.  They’re all different.  The tone color of the choirs is different, the specific tempi used by the directors are different, and the relative dynamics and their intensity (levels of loud and soft) are different.  Their feeling is different.

What makes music work in large part is the freedom and individuality that is contained within the score.  The score sets out the boundaries, if you will, in which the music occurs: this key rather than that one; this meter rather than that one; these harmonies, voice classes, rhythmic structures, etc.  These musical elements form the boundaries and structures of the playground in which musicians are invited to play.  And the musicians, with their knowledge of style and musical intent, acoustic properties and tone colors, expressive qualities of various rhythmic figures and combination — and lots of hard work fitting it together with this particular band of musicians – bring to life and co-create with the (now dead) composer the script into a living thing of artistry: beauty through form.

Thus the liturgy of the Church.  It is a score made of up the rhythms of dialogue, the textures of busy and still moments, the dynamics of quicker and slower parts, the imagery of poetic verse and the plainness of prose instruction.  Of all the words that are available, we use these instead of those, this art rather than that; and so with vestments, material substances, gestures, sequence, even musical style.  It is no more rendered un-free or meaningless or heartless than is Beethoven’s 9th symphony just because he wrote it down, and every time it’s performed it’s the same.

And yet, not the same.  Every musician and interested listener will tell you that no two performances are alike.  That the great Ode to Joy still stirs hearts is so obvious as to be embarrassing to say.  Yet, it is rather minutely scripted (more so than any traditional liturgy, or at least as much).  The “freedom” and “spontaneity” is not to be found in the musicians creating music on the spot.  (There is music that calls for this, to greater and lesser degrees; and even whole styles predicated on it.  But even Jazz has a script, even if only the barest.)  No – it is to be found in the fact that we have changed since the last celebration.  The world has changed.  Experiences have accumulated, along with wisdom.

This, then, requires a liturgy of substance, a liturgy whose content and form is beyond the mere “here and now.”  It must be one that can contain the faith of millions over centuries.  And it must be one that is real, having been forged in the crucible of live lived and faith tested.

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Liturgical Dynamics, part III

Part of the purpose of this blog is to publish bits of a class series I did some time ago titled “Liturgical Dynamics.” An introduction to this topic is given in one of the early blogs, so I won’t repeat that hear. But Part II (or was it Part 2?! – I seem to be inconsistent with my labeling!) dealt with the communal and liturgical aspects of Orthodox life: our life is communal, and it is worked out liturgically.

Part of the liturgical character, but not it’s only one, is that it is ordered. For many people, what is distasteful about liturgical life is its ordered character: things aren’t (supposedly) spontaneous. For them, this means that it is not free, and, more importantly, that it is not genuine, of the heart, personal. Therefore, it cannot be of faith. I think I’ve got this right because I grew up with this stance, and held it for some years before rejecting it.

A “gimme” (er, concession): This isn’t entirely incorrect. There is very much a danger of cold formalism, even ritualism, in liturgical life. I can’t deal here with these objections in depth except by saying (a) that there are very many resources available that deal with the subject of liturgy, its biblical foundations as well as its history, development, etc.; and (b) that all public life is, or becomes, liturgical, or should I say, non-spontaneous. The difference is not whether a Christian community’s worship follows predictable forms or not, but are its forms (actions, sentiments, gestures, etc.) good or bad. Are they adequate to the expression of and transmittance of the content of the Faith and to the worship and praise of God the Father through His Son Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit?

I’ve attended, planned and led very many “free church” services, and I can tell you there is little spontaneous or truly “free” about them. They all followed predictable and expected forms with predictable and expected formulas of words. When there were surprises, they were almost always predicated on somebody’s personal charisma and dynamism and “creativity.” Even those times that seemed especially “meaningful” and prompted of the Spirit were not outside the expected norms of the community. It was most definitely “liturgical” in this sense. The problem is, when a community mis-identifies itself and its experiences, it is open to accepting a falsehood. There’s no way that a community can claim a non-liturgical characteristic and have adequate liturgy.

The ordered nature of Orthodox communal life is characterized by liturgical experience, and this experience is bounded by a “rite,” a way of doing things, a certain form of words and gesture. This ordering contains procedure and precedence, structure and ranking. This allows the liturgical (and other aspects of life) to be done in a manner that is above the individual believer, whether he be a pastor or a layman. It isn’t subject to a committee or a commission. It isn’t dependent upon someone’s creativity or dynamism. The same liturgical experience and content is available any place that believers are gathered and celebrating to the best of their ability.

Examples of this ordering include the table of scriptural lessons that are taken in public services. Rather than a community depending on a local pastor to see that the Word written is meted out faithfully, the Church has given us an ordering of lessons that not only see to it that all parts of the New Testament are taken regularly, but that they are appointed in such a way as to teach the faithful what their use and purpose is. For example, the Gospel of John is read after the experience of Holy Week and Pascha. Prior to that, a steady diet of instruction throughout Great Lent led us through Genesis, Isaiah, Proverbs, Hebrews and Matthew. In other words, to understand John, one needs the basics of biblical history, moral instruction, prophetic witness, and messianic fulfillment.

The manner in which services are led teaches the Faithful that the community has a hierarchy, an order that, while far from perfect, assures training in humility and obedience – both of which are necessary for repentance and salvation. There are given tasks for priests, deacons, readers and others. While all are equal in Christ in that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, male or female…,” all are not equal in terms of gifts or roles or responsibilities. And this is imaged out in how various offices participate in public service.

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While on the subject of angels in hymns of western Christianity, I want to look at a hymn that I don’t think gained a large amount of popularity. I certainly didn’t grow up singing it, though that doesn’t reveal very much. I suspect that it’s a hymn mainly known in the high church wing of the Anglican Communion, because it’s a hymn that is quite elaborate in its call for all the angels and saints to join in the praise of God.

“Ye watchers and he holy ones” was written by Athelstan Riley in 1909. Riley was active in the Anglo-catholic Anglican world of late 19th and early 20th century England. He died in 1945. I bring this hymn to light in this context because it so obviously draws on traditional catholic Christian language and liturgy. The first verse calls on the angels to praise, the second…more on that later, the third names the “souls in endless rest…patriarchs and prophets blest…holy twelve…martyrs strong…all saints triumphant,” and the fourth offers a doxology to the Blessed Trinity. This is just too hieratic for much of the Christian world. Too bad.

But back to that first verse. Riley’s knowledge of both the Holy Scripture and Christian mystical tradition is evident. Here is the verse:

Ye watchers and ye holy ones, Bright seraphs, cherubim and thrones,
Raise the glad strain, Alleluia!
Cry out, dominions, princedoms, powers, Virtues, archangels, angels’ choirs,
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!

This ought I not strange language to any Bible-reading, liturgy-attending Christian. However, let’s unpack it a bit. First stop, St. Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians chapter 6. (I’ll quote the AV in deference to Riley). “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.” (6:12) Earlier, in 1:21, he says that Christ has been set “far above all principality, and power, and might, and dominion, and every name that is named.” In 3:10, that the wisdom of God through the Church is made known to “the principalities and powers in heavenly places.” Romans 8:38 speaks about “powers” and “heavenly rulers” being among those things not able to separate us from the love of God in Christ. (It’s stronger than that: “nothing shall separate.”)

In Jewish and then Christian taxonomy of angels, there are traditionally nine orders, or ranks, of angels: cherubim, seraphim, thrones, dominions, principalities, powers, virtues, archangels, and angels. With the fall of some of the angels, these various ranks are mirrored on either side of the great spiritual conflict. We see St. Paul referring to these various ranks, both good and bad. Christ is above them all, and our battle is with the evil ones, not with the flesh. Of course, He has already won over the forces of darkness. The forces of light are down for the strugglewith us.

In the above stanza, Riley has included them all. But he has also included two other titles that are not part of the traditional taxonomy, but we do find in the Bible: “watchers” and “holy ones.” In Daniel 4:13, the king has a dream, and in the dream an appearance is made by “a watcher and an holy one.” I think this is a double description of one figure: a messenger of God called a “watcher, a holy one.” Clearly a being that exists in such proximity to God and is ever-vigilant before God could be described as a “watcher, a holy one.”

To Orthodox Christians, these aren’t new images. The liturgy of the Church, particularly the prayer of the Priest at Baptism (and at the Blessing of the Waters), refers to the “Powers endowed with intelligence….The Angelic Powers….The Choirs of Archangels….The many-eyed Cherubim and the six-winged Seraphim…” Those last references are found at each Eucharistic celebration, also, before we sing with them, “Holy, holy, holy”. Here we find the awesome descriptions of heavenly scenes in Isaiah 6 and chapter 4 of the Revelation of St. John.

Also, Orthodox Christians are confronted with icons of the angels very often: on the Holy Door of the sanctuary barrier is an icon of the Archangel Gabriel bring Mary “the tidings every so strange”; on the two side doors are images of Angles; on the liturgical fans that are often borne before the Gospel Book and Gifts of bread and wine are images of the six-winged Seraphim; and Angels appear in icons appearing to the shepherds at Nativity; showing to the Myrrhbearing Women the empty tomb; and very many other places.

Now, I want to refer to one other stanza of Rileys’, the second that I skipped. Angels make an appearance here, but not as the subject. Rather, this verse describes another called to praise:

O higher than the Cherubim, More glorious than the Seraphim,
Lead their praises, Alleluia!
Thou bearer of the Eternal Word, Most gracious, magnify the Lord,
Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia!

Perhaps unwittingly sung by many, this is almost verbatim an Orthodox hymn to the Mother of God, the “bearer of the Eternal Word” (Theotokos, God-bearer) who is “most gracious” (as Gabriel said, “full of grace”). She is “higher than the Cherubim” and “more glorious [beyond compare] than the Seraphim.” This the famous Axion estin of the Greek liturgy (Dostoyno yest in Church Slavonic). She magnifies the Lord in her hymn from St. Luke’s Gospel, “My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior.”

She is “higher than the Cherubim” because Christ has been exalted “far above all principality…” And in His Ascension, He took His body, his glorified flesh. And “we are members of His body,” says St. Paul in 5:30 of that same Ephesian epistle. By grace, we are – or rather, hope to be – seated with Christ at “God’s right hand.” His mother Mary has anticipated that general resurrection, so the Church believes, and, even now, enjoys that fellowship in the sacred life of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

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Just this morning I was listening to a brief podcast on Ancient Faith Radio concerning angels. The host was interviewing an author who has just published a book on the Orthodox belief about and experience with angels. It got me to thinking about some of the hymns I sang in church when an “evangelical” protestant. While we didn’t talk a lot about angels, they weren’t absent, even if they didn’t quite have the status that they do in the Eastern Orthodox world. But I did think of a line from a hymn by Matthew Bridges that makes a reference to angels that, to my mind, is quite profound. I’d like to draw your attention to it.

Bridges was an Englishman raised Anglican and turned Roman Catholic. He wrote books of history and theology as well as hymns. One hymn is used frequently in the protestant and Roman Catholic world, “Crown Him with many crowns.” As a child, this was my favorite hymn, and I miss singing it very much. It is full of biblical imagery and profound statements of who Christ is and what He did.

This is one of those hymns that seems to vary from book to book in how many verses are provided and how they are edited. The structure of this hymn is based on each stanza beginning with the imperative “Crown Him the Lord of…” and then proceeding to various aspects of Jesus’ lordship: “Lord of life,” “Lord of peace,” “Lord of love,” “Lord of years,” “Lord of heav’n.” Not all hymnals have all of them, and sometimes they differ in the lines that follow. I prefer the one I grew up with except for the lack (or omission) of “Lord of love.” Here is the stanza:

Crown Him the Lord of love, behold His hands and side,
Rich wounds, yet visible above, in beauty glorified;
No angel in the sky can fully bear that sight,
But downward bend their burning eyes at mysteries so bright.

I suspect that the hymnal of my youth left out this verse because it was thought to be too un-biblical. I don’t know that for sure, but the book was produced by strict literalists who at times omitted phrases that didn’t fit their “low church” style and at times allowed fanciful phrases like “A little light from heaven filled my soul, it bathed my heart in love and wrote my name above.” One must allow for some poetic license in metric song. But it was applied rather unevenly.

Besides, the stanza given above is thoroughly biblical. First, in the Gospel of John is told the story of how the Apostle Thomas was brought to faith by being invited by the Master to “touch my hands and side.” The Risen Lord had visible wounds in His resurrected body.

As to the angels, speaking of the salvation in Christ, St. Peter says in his first epistle (1:12) that “even the angels long to look into these things.” If the footnote in my Bible is correct, the Greek word implies “to stoop and look intently.” In 1 Corinthians 2:6-10 and Romans 16:25, St. Paul speaks of this as “the mystery hidden from the ages,” a mystery hidden also from the angels. This is expanded on quite a lot in Ephesians 1-3.

The “burning eye” of Bridges’ stanza is surely a reference to Psalm 104:4, “He makes his angels spirits, and His ministers a flame of fire.”

The image of these heavenly beings, who never cease to praise God and adore His majesty but who, nonetheless, are ignorant of His grace, astounded at the condescension to the point of “death on the cross” of God the Word, stooping from their lofty perch, as it were, to gaze on that love made manifest, is awesome.

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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.

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When delving into biblical – Hebrew – poetry, one primary characteristic makes itself immediately clear, and that is the ubiquitous couplet structure.  I’m sure – I know – there is a lot that can be said about Hebrew poetry, and I’m not the one to say it.  But I do want to point out an almost universal trait: that lines come in pairs.  It’s so common a trait that when they don’t, it stands out, at least to those of use chanting them aloud.  In any form of rhetoric or art, repetition is important, and the nature of that repetition must be attended to.

I’m a musician, and I teach piano and choral music.  I’m constantly at pains to point out to players and singers when there are repetitions in the musical score.  And I’m at constant pains to get them to do something about it.  Things don’t repeat just to fill up space.  (Or at least they oughtn’t!)  They repeat for purposes of expression, rhetoric, maybe balance (which does not concern me here).  When you repeat an instruction to a child, you repeat it for a reason (unless you’re just a nag), usually to make it more clear.  Maybe you repeat it to emphasize an implicit warning or promise.  We repeat expressions of affection and love to add feeling and emphasis.  In the psalms and canticles of scripture, these repetitions add poetic nuance.  They heighten the picture and feeling.  Sometimes they state the opposite, for contrast.  Sometimes they extend the meaning.

Let’s look at some examples:

 Praise the Lord, all you nations. / Laud him, all you peoples.

The second phrase simply restates the first.  They mean the same thing.

 The Lord is my shepherd. / I shall not want.

We could deduce the second from the first, but the second clause extends the meaning of the first and drives the point home.  In the second verse, the repetition not only extends the meaning, it adds to it:

 He makes me to lie down in green pastures. / He restores my soul.

Examples of opposites are more readily come by in the Proverbs, which also follow this verse-couplet construction:

 For my mouth shall speak the truth, / But false lips are an abomination before me.

An example of a three-line grouping is:

 I will give thanks to you, O Lord, with all my heart, / For you hear the words of my mouth; / And I shall sing to you in the presence of the angels.

Of course, not all psalms are so simply arranged.  But you get the idea.

 Orthodox hymnody often follows a similar structure.  I’ll be using examples from the heirmosi (heirmos, pl.) of Nativity.  More of what an herimos has to do with anything in the next posting.  For now, let’s just look at these psalmic lines:

 Christ is born, glorify him! / Christ is from heaven, receive him! / Christ is on earth, be exalted!

Three lines which are dual in nature.  The next are a bit meatier:

To the Son who was begotten of the Father before all ages, / and in the last times was without seed made flesh of the Virgin…


 Rod of the root of Jesse, / and flower that budded forth from his stem, O Christ, / Thou hast sprung from the Virgin.


 As Thou art God of peace and Father of mercies, / Thou hast sent unto us Thine Angel of great counsel, granting us peace.

Now, if you’ve been paying attention – and I’m sure that you have – you’ve noticed that Orthodox hymns don’t merely repeat for emphasis, but the repetitions often contain contrasts and paradoxes.

 In the first set above: born – glorify / from heaven – receive him / on earth – be exalted.

In the second: begotten of the Father – made flesh of the Virgin.

In the third: Rod – flower – sprung.

And in the last: Thou art God – Thou hast sent and God of peace – granting us peace.

And so forth.

Get used to that.

In the next post, we’ll look at the biblical canticles to which these irmosi are, literally, linked.

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ODES & LINKS, part I

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)

Psalms 148-150

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.

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I’d like to explore in this posting two terms that key off of one another. They are both integral to understanding Orthodox worship and the role that hymnography plays in it. The first term is communal. As a product of American evangelical Protestantism, the communal nature of life and salvation wasn’t stressed as much as individual responsibility. It was stressed. I was brought up in a body of Christians that believed that the Church was an integral institution, and, unlike most evangelicals, that the Church was visible. Accepting the Orthodox faith was truly a completion of my up-bringing in ways more specific than my Baptist or Pentecostal fellow-Orthodox. But it wasn’t stressed to the degree that Orthodox Faith teaches.

There is a saying, evidently from the Latin theologian, Tertullian: “unus Christianus, nullus Christianus” – “one Christian is no Christian.” I won’t attempt an exegesis of that statement here or anywhere. Obviously it can only be taken literally in a certain way. A solitary Christian finding herself in the middle of Antarctica is not thereby condemned! Even if she is the only confessing believer alive in the world, she is not, in fact, solitary. To be a Christian is to believe in the “communion of saints,” which happens to include all the righteous from all times and places together with the angels, and, if I understand things aright, the whole of God’s creation, which includes plants and animals.

I think, then, that the focus of this dictum is me and how I look at and think about myself as a Christian and a human being. It’s not “just me and Jesus,” a 1970s-type statement that I think has all but died out even among evangelicals. It’s so obviously wrong. As a believer, I belong to a “communion,” a communal body of fellowship and mutuality. Which brings me to another dictum: No one is saved alone but one is lost alone. The theologian, Khomiakov in his book The Church is One, section 9, says “We know that when any one of us falls, he falls alone; but no one is saved alone. He is saved in the Church, as a member of it and in union with all its other members.”

It’s probably true that when I sin, I sin because I’ve lost within myself my identity as a member of the Body of Christ. I’ve stopped functioning as a member and started functioning in isolation, which puts me at the mercy of my impulses and fears – my passions. Thus it is said that Hell is the loneliest of places. But when I am saved, I am saved together with — in communion with — the angels and saints, my fellow brothers and sister, the whole of creation.

This communality is not just a mental recognition or an attitude of the heart. It is a reality in the Church’s life which, in the Orthodox Church, is lived out liturgically. Some of you will already know that the word liturgy derives from common work and in the ancient world referred to public, civic service. In the Church, our common worship is liturgical; we do it together. It expresses our common faith in “one Lord.” In the Church, our common prayer and thanksgiving is the root of all other activity, the very ground of our common effort.

The worship of the Church in daily prayer is grounded in time, and in the celebration of the sacraments, the mysteries, it ushers us into the realm of God’s time. This worship images out the communal life of the Church and expresses itself in thanksgiving and praise, penitence and holiness. We pray together words that have a shared meaning, and make gestures that have a shared understanding. We partake of substances of this world that lead us together into a greater depth of holiness. That we individually are not the same and don’t understand things at the same level and aren’t at the same proximity to God in our personal holiness is accepted. But these things are shared. Holiness and wisdom as well as humility and sacrifice radiate out and touch all. I benefit from your growth in holiness, and you from mine.

Thus it is that our communal life is primarily a liturgical one. The Church house is the theater in which we share the words and actions of our Faith, and the Liturgy itself is the script by which we share its content.

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