Warning: Extensive use of italics in this posting.
Recently I’ve been very impressed with the traditional content of Eastern Orthodox hymnography. By traditional I’m referring to the root Latin verb, tradare, “to hand over.” In this sense, we can creatively use the English word as a verb, to tradit: “I tradit this to you.” It’s not very literary, but it gets the idea across that tradition isn’t meant to convey the idea of a mere static custom. It’s meant to convey the idea of holding onto something once given with the imperative to, in turn, give it on to someone else. Like a family heirloom, one generation receives it and then gives it to the next, who then give it to their progeny, and so on. This is a much more active concept. I suppose we could say bequeath, but it doesn’t carry the relational aspect with it, that that which was bequeathed was received at the hands of another once-upon-a-time.
So, when I say that I’m impressed with the traditional nature fr Orthodox hymnography, I’m saying that it is a major instrument in the handing-on of Orthodox Faith.
I suppose most people who care at all about these things would think this rather obvious, and maybe it is. That song is a primary means of handing on understanding to others is pretty universal. But stop for a moment and consider: What song is going through your head right now? I’ve a song from a children’s play of Pinocchio going through mine. It’s mainly moralistic, teaching about the virtue of honesty and the vice of dishonesty.
That’s certainly something worth handing on, and it’s a darn sight more interesting to a kid than merely being given the perennial rule, “Don’t tell a lie.” In this story, the lies have consequences: Pinocchio’s nose gets embarrassingly longer with each lie, and his dream to become a “real” boy diminishes. Leaving aside the implication that those with longer noses are less “real than the rest of us”, this story and it’s attended songs – at least in this production – drive the point home that simply being human doesn’t make one so completely. That humanness is something to grow into. In this story, a wooden, stringless puppet can become human by his will to be good and some decisive action following.
The story and the songs actively and dramatically – far more effective modes of communication than mere rule-recitation and lecture-giving – present these truths. They hand on from teller to hearer the story and its foundational values. This is tradition, and it’s precisely what church song is for.
The fathers of the Church had this in mind when they approved of church song, so that the psalms and divine words would be accompanied by attractive (read: catchy) melodies. This would accomplish two things. First, attract people more readily to the services; and, second, to stick tunes with divine words into the heads of the people. In this way, the people would be accompanied by bits and pieces of praise and prayer throughout their daily work and not just the secular songs about love and lust heard in the marketplace. Or even songs with competing versions of the Faith itself.
Next: According to the Scriptures