Orthodox Christmas — Reflection No. 1

Icon - Nativity of Christ

As we are now in the Christmas season I plan to take a more reflective approach over the next several weeks.  Excerpts from the various Orthodox service texts will be posted accompanied by a brief commentary.

One of the major sources of Orthodox doctrine are the hymns of the church.  These songs are often biblical commentary put to music or they may commemorate an important event or person in church history.

The hymns are also important for Orthodox discipleship.  In Orthodoxy our theology is shaped by our worship.  This follows the ancient principle lex orans, lex credens (the rule of prayer is the rule of faith).  Under this principle liturgical worship frames and defines our theology.  This is radically different from Protestantism where much of theology is expressed in terms of an elaborate system of propositions and definitions.  In Orthodoxy theology becomes doxology.  Doxology ultimately leads us to union with Christ and to life in the Trinity.

Many of these hymns are chanted during the Saturday evening Vespers or Sunday morning Matins services.  Together they provide the context of Orthodox worship.  Many people have the mistaken notion that the Liturgy is Orthodox worship.  While the Liturgy constitutes the high point and the core of Orthodox worship, it cannot be separated from the other services.  To do so would risk distorting the worship we offer to the Trinity.

Here is one such hymn sung every year on the Forefeast of the Nativity of Christ:

Let us sound the cymbals: let us shout aloud in songs.  The revelation of Christ is now made manifest: the preachings of the prophets have received their fulfilment.  For He of whom they spoke, foretelling His appearance in the flesh to mortal men, is born in a holy cave and is laid as a babe in a manger, and as a child He is wrapped in swaddling clothes.

With uprightness of mind let us lift up our voice in song, celebrating the Forefeast of Christ’s Nativity.  For He who is equal in honour with the Father and the Spirit, has from compassion clothed Himself in our substance, and makes ready to be born in the city of Bethlehem.  The praises of His Nativity past speech the shepherds and the angels sing.

The Virgin was amazed, as she beheld a conception past telling and a birth past utterance.  Rejoicing at once and weeping, she raised her voice and said: ‘Shall I give my breast to Thee, who givest nourishment to all the world, or shall I sing Thy praise as my Son and my God?  What manner of name shall I find to call Thee, O Lord whom none can name?’

“Forefeast of the Nativity of Christ – Vespers service” — Festal Menaion, page 199.

The first stanza tells how the Old Testament prophecies find their fulfillment in the Incarnation.  It also presents the Incarnation as a revelatory event when God who revealed himself through the prophetic word now reveals himself in human flesh.

The second stanza tells how the Christ child is one of the Holy Trinity.  The Incarnation is explained as Christ assuming the substance of our humanity.  He who is consubstantial with the Trinity is consubstantial with humanity.

The third stanza describes the Virgin Mary’s response.  She is overwhelmed by the seeming contradiction of her being pregnant with the Creator of the universe.  He who sustains all of creation with his providential care now comes under her motherly care.  As her son he is under her but as God he is over her.

The hymns of the church teach important lessons to the Orthodox faithful.  Here we learn about the Old Testament prophets, the Trinity, the Incarnation, and Mary’s love for Christ.

Let us like Mary be overwhelmed by God’s grace revealed in the birth of Christ.

Robert Arakaki

7 comments:

  1. In Orthodoxy our theology is shaped by our worship. This follows the ancient principle lex orans, lex credens (the rule of prayer is the rule of faith). Under this principle liturgical worship frames and defines our theology. This is radically different from Protestantism where much of theology is expressed in terms of an elaborate system of propositions and definitions. In Orthodoxy theology becomes doxology. Doxology ultimately leads us to union with Christ and to life in the Trinity.

    Again, Robert, this is not entirely accurate in terms of Protestantism. Originally, during the Reformation and going forward the Reformed sang from the Psalter and still do today. This is true also in the Anglican and Lutheran traditions and most early hymns were based on the Psalter. In that sense, the Scriptures in song definitely implements lex orans, lex credens and helps the church not only properly worship but lets “the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Colossians 3:16). And, recovery of such by Protestants in bringing sung worship via the Psalms back to their churches represents a return to catholicity reflected in Christian practice going back to the time of the Apostles and even before. The great hymns of Protestantism and the emphasis on congregational singing also mimic the use of the Psalter and merely provide additional sung worship that frames our thinking — teaching and admonishing one another by doing so. Our understanding of the faith, then, is not merely a matter of confessional subscription or something like that. For most people in Protestant communions I would say that the use of psalmody and hymnody in worship is more formative for our beliefs than the sort of propositional system you erroneously ascribe to Protestant faith and practice.

    All faiths have propositions that they value and systematize to a degree. This is true in Orthodoxy as much as in any other communion. I grant that certain segments of Protestantism tend toward an overly systematic and rigorous approach to theology but at the same time we can’t discount the impact of liturgy in those environments either. Your comment, then, just doesn’t play fair and take into account the great heritage and importance of congregational singing in Protestant faith and practice.

    1. Kevin,

      You wrote:

      For most people in Protestant communions I would say that the use of psalmody and hymnody in worship is more formative for our beliefs than the sort of propositional system you erroneously ascribe to Protestant faith and practice.

      Is that really so? Is that descriptive of the church you went to this past Sunday? What psalms did they sing? And what were the titles of the hymns used? I suspect you are describing Protestantism from the books and not Protestantism as it really is today. I’ve read what you described in the books, but it doesn’t match what I saw in Protestant churches.

      Robert

      1. Yes. It really is so and one reason why it’s the case is simply because what takes place in Protestant churches like any other is Christian worship. Lex orans is not copyrighted for use in the Orthodox Church only and wherever the Spirit is, we find such things happening in a community of believers to a greater or lesser degree. And, as I write above, Colossians 3:16 ff. makes that quite clear.

        But, speaking from a perspective of ignorance usually isn’t helpful to the discussion, Robert. You may suppose all you like that I am representing some sort of artificial book-inspired Protestantism but it is manifestly untrue. To answer your question, given the season we generally sang the traditional hymns known as Christmas carols. In any case, there is no reason to believe that lex orans is somehow something that doesn’t happen in Protestant churches. Maybe it didn’t where you went to church, but surely you’ll avoid universalizing your own experience in deference to others who point out otherwise.

        1. Kevin wrote:

          “Yes. It really is so and one reason why it’s the case is simply because what takes place in Protestant churches like any other is Christian worship.”

          LOL! This is an incredibly delusional statement. What takes place in many thousands of Protestant churches (Liturgical solos, worship songs, skits, puppet shows — who knows what the worship leader imagines the week or night before, might be “meaningful”? — often has little if anything to do with historic Christian worship and liturgy. LOL What happens in Protestant “lituries” is often too shamefully bizzar for SNL to parody!

          Now, if Kevin really means to say that the Psalm singing and carefully monitored hymn singing that goes on in some Reformed, Anglican & Lutheran Churches; or what was historically accepted several hundred years ago, is far closer to historic Liturgies of the Church –then I would agree he has a point. But this is far different than what he said.

          What might be interesting to ponder is root principle(s) beneath Recieved historic Liturgies — and the new-n-improved ones? Are ALL Christians really working from the same principle(s)? Another way to ask it is: How do Protestant prinicples of worship liturgies differ, if any, from Orthodox liturgical principles?

          1. No. David. My statement is not delusional.

            Christian worship is Christian worship and that is true even if it is inappropriate or bad expressions of Christian worship. Even in the places where “Jesus is my girlfriend” choruses are sung and other silliness goes on, such ridiculous things are most definitely formative in a lex orans sense no less than in a Protestant church where one of the many historic liturgies is respected and faithfully practiced. The way you can see the veracity of such a statement is by the behavior of the denomination. How long was the PCUSA or ECUSA still technically confessional and/or orthodox officially from a Protestant perspective but the behavior of such communions made it clear that real Christian orthodoxy left those circles a long time ago except in certain enclaves. The answer is that even wrong worship is formative for a church just as right worship is. If this was not true and all was as Robert claimed, then the formal subscription of the Church would take precedence over the life and worship of the communions in question. Clearly, however, that’s not what’s happened. That’s not to say that doctrine or other influences in the life of a church don’t exist but only that all Christian worship is formative as I’ve pointed out.

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