[from a chapter on the Divine Liturgy] …Next come three short hymns known as the “Antiphons.” In the earliest centuries, these hymns were sung by people as they were on their way to worship, or waiting outside church for the official entrance of the clergy. The hymns (which, despite the name, aren’t necessarily sung antiphonally) are composed of verses from the Psalms or Beatitudes, or offer brief prayers of intercession (such as, “Save us, O Son of God, who rose from the dead”). After the second antiphon we sing a hymn attributed to the emperor Justinian (AD 483–565).
O Only-begotten Son and immortal Word of God,
Who for our salvation willed to become incarnate
Of the holy Theotokos and ever-virgin Mary,
Who without change became man and was crucified,
Who is one of the Holy Trinity,
Glorified with the Father and the Holy Spirit,
O Christ our God, trampling down death by death,
As we saw before, theological controversies in Christianity tend to circle back to the person of Jesus himself. How can he be God and human at the same time? Wouldn’t the divinity overwhelm the humanity? Was the humanity an illusion, like a mask God put on? Today, the most prevalent challenge to classic Christianity is that Jesus was not God at all, but a human being who attained a very high level of spiritual insight; in this view, the most important thing about Jesus is his teachings.
The “Only Begotten” hymn aims to settle things once and for all, putting the Orthodox view in short, emphatic, and singable lines. It’s so crammed and compact that you might think it unlikely that you could retain anything useful, but recall how much of the Divine Liturgy stays the same from week to week. You would sing this hymn every Sunday, year after year, and it would take root.
This hymn wasn’t added to the liturgy until the sixth century, which brings to mind our earlier discussion of what it means for a church to be “unchanged.” The Orthodox faith certainly does accumulate—like a snowball rolling down a mountain. It never occurs to anyone that less might be more; more is always, gloriously, more. The centuries pass and the worship is continually elaborated, increasingly adorned. But the new must match the old. New additions that don’t support transformation in Christ are shed, sooner or later (like those Western-style icons we saw in chapter 5).
This way of doing things, in which we keep accumulating more of the same, is different from two other approaches that allow for more variation. The first is the idea that our theological understanding is always increasing, so our way of expressing the faith is continuously evolving and becoming more precise. The second is that, though the faith remains unchanged, we must find new ways of expressing it for each generation.
The first idea, that the faith is always being expressed more explicitly and in greater detail, might seem like common sense at first. But if “theology” is not just abstract discussion but literally “the knowledge of God,” is there any evidence that we today know God better than any previous generation? If theological knowledge had been steadily and uninterruptedly increasing all these centuries, we’d all be walking on water.
Conversely, this would also mean that the earliest Christians had the least accurate understanding of their faith. Compared to us, they must have had the barest sliver of the knowledge of God—even though we trust them to have written the New Testament and chosen which books to include in it, even though they died for their faith with a courage we’d find hard to match. That doesn’t sound likely, either. While it’s true that each generation of scholars wrestles with the theology they receive (or, at least, they wrestle with each other), it’s not evident that the result is always progress.
The second approach is to say that we must keep reframing eternal truths for a changing culture, presenting the Lord in new ways. But we’re not smart enough to do that. We’re so immersed in our own culture that we can’t view it clearly enough to make accurate alterations.
There’s also a danger of mixing up, with this noble impulse, a desire to please popular opinion and make Christianity look more contemporary, more cool. That project inevitably bears a self-defeating air of desperation. Studying what the culture approves, then copying it, guarantees that you will always be a step behind. There’s a saying, “If you can see a bandwagon, it’s too late to get on it.”
We just don’t have sufficient perspective to take this great mystery, this Lord whom we love more than life, and say anything both cool enough and true enough to be persuasive to the contemptuous or uninterested. Instead of straddling two worlds, we can keep our focus entirely on the Lord, and let the fire of our faith express what we have found.
So there’s something to be said for old-fashioned “unchanging.” If we attract people to Christian faith by means of clever wording, we aren’t being fair to them. They have a right to know that this path includes a cross; anything else is false advertising. Bearing our own crosses well, in humility and kindness, is more eloquent than the coolest ad campaign.