One significant challenge that the average Christian faces when attempting to study theology is figuring out who and what to read. Even for those who take a Sola Scriptura view this can be challenging. What do you do with conflicting passages or with unclear passages(what did Paul mean when he refers to his teachings not recorded in his epistles)? There can be similar problems when studying the Church Fathers, who frequently are attempting to explain scripture. Yet, we know that there are contradictions at times between Fathers, or cases where we know they are in error on occasion( like Augustine). What are we to do if we are seeking to deepen our understanding of our faith?
One way, as I’ve mentioned before, is to look to the hymns of the church. For the Orthodox, hymns are a significant means of passing down theology. We have never been in the practice of arbitrarily adding in hymns written by someone just because they have musical talent. Hymns (and the prayers and other components of the services) are somewhat slow in being adopted. The one exception are the troparia for a new saint, in part because these largely recapitulate the life of the saint and frequently are adaptations of troparia for other saints. Even at that, the adoption of these hymns would likely seem slow by Western standards. This unwillingness to add new hymns means that many of the hymns are very ancient.
Unfortunately, it can be a bit challenging to locate a hymn that addresses a specific topic of interest – like here, where I address the question of why Moses needed to part the red sea. Of course, the best solution would be for all of us to spend time learning many of the hymns, but it would also be nice to have a reference collection with a topical index.
Someday I hope to be able to work on something like that. In the mean time, I hope to publish the occasional hymn with a brief discussion of its background and subject matter.
I’ll start things off with one of my favorite hymns, the 15th Antiphon from both Matins of Holy Friday (read on Holy Thursday), and from the Hours read on Holy Friday morning:
This hymn is typically chanted in a somewhat embellished variation of what is known as “reader’s mode”. Here is Bishop Job, of Blessed Memory chanting the hymn:
A nearly identical hymn to this chanted before the feast of the Nativity. The text clearly serves to make us ponder the very nature of Christ. It is obvious, from the opening verse, that we are discussing the very God who created the world. However, the juxtaposition of the events, especially coupled with the style of chanting primarily serves as a means of forcing us to meditate, and meditate deeply, upon what was done to the very God who created the world, in order to free us from the bondage of sin. Adding to this the weight of the self examination that takes place throughout Lent and Holy Week, we develop a greater sense of the enormity of the impact of our sin. As the hymn concludes, however, we are taken from the deep sorrow for our actions and receive one of the first glimpses of the coming resurrection to be celebrated in a couple of days. I can tell you, the power of this hymn is incredible. Having had the great privilege of chanting this from the center of the solea in front of the Iconostasis and altar, I find myself struggling to control my emotions long enough to get through the hymn.
Another perspective to be applied to this hymn is to look at the juxtaposition of events as a way to understand what God subjected Himself to for us. This is similar to the Nativity version of this antiphon, where we meditate on the great condescension of God towards us.