The Greek squad

Today we’re talking about the early church, in the post-apostolic era when they were trying to sort out how this whole Christianity thing worked. Like the church of every age, the early church sang, and there are remnants of their congregational music, their Greek hymns, in our hymnals today. It’s really cool to me to think that we’re singing the same hymns that the early Christians did centuries ago.

The post-apostolic church is also sometimes referred to as the Eastern church; the division of “Eastern” and “Western” in reference to the church stems from cultural and political divisions between the Hellenistic east and Latinate west, though it would be several centuries before the Western church formally split to form its own communion. This Western tradition eventually evolved into the Roman Catholic church… from which the modern Protestant denominations were derived, first with the Lutherans and Presbyterians, then the Church of England and the traditions that came from that Anglican heritage such as the Episcopalians and the Methodists, then all of the dissenters during the 18th-century Great Awakening: the Congregationalists, the Baptists, the Unitarians, who defined themselves against the Church of England, which had defined itself against the Roman Catholic church.

My point is, those of us who live, breathe, and work in the major denominations of the Christian church in America are surrounded primarily by the history and traditions of the Western church, frequently stemming from the Lutheran or Anglican traditions, which both have very strong identities within our church. Sometimes it can seem as if the history of the Christian church began with Martin Luther’s posting of his 95 Theses, and we forget there even was a church before the Protestant Reformation and the rebellion against the excesses of the Roman Catholic Church.

But despite all of this, despite the modern church in American completely ignoring the existence of the Eastern church and forgetting its heritage, the traditions of the Eastern church have a presence in our worship that most people aren’t aware of: our hymns and songs.

The earliest known hymn recorded outside of the Bible is Phos Hilaron, written sometime around 375 CE. It was sung in the evening at the lighting of the lamps, and is sometimes called The Lamp-Lighter’s Hymn; in today’s Eastern Orthodox Church it is typically part of the Vespers service.

The hymn was translated into English as O Gladsome Light in the 19th century by Robert Seymour Bridges, and can be found in The Hymnal 1982, #36, and The United Methodist Hymnal (UMH), #686. It is one of the oldest texts in continuous use in the Christian church.

1. O gladsome light, O grace of our Creator’s face,
the eternal splendor wearing:
celestial, holy, blest, our Savior Jesus Christ,
joyful in your appearing.

2. As fades the day’s last light, we see the lamps of night
our common hymn outpouring;
O God of might unknown, you, the incarnate Son,
and Spirit blest adoring.

3. To you of right belongs all praise of holy songs,
O Son of God, Life-giver;
you, therefore, O Most High, the world does glorify
and shall exalt forever.

The hymns of the early church were somewhat different from our modern understanding of hymns; they were more akin to extended poetic songs than the rhythmically metered, rhyming hymns we’re comfortable with. Two types of these Greek hymns were kontakions and kanons. There are no original kanons in our modern hymnody, at least none that I could find, but there are some textual paraphrases, such as “The Day of Resurrection,” UMH #303 and Hymnal 1982 #210; and “Come, Ye Faithful, Raise the Strain,” UMH #315 and 1982 #199, both of which were written in the 8th century by John of Damascus and translated in 1859 and 1862, respectively, by John Mason Neale.

However, there is one kontakion that has been preserved in both text and melody, and this can be found in The Hymnal 1982, #355:

Give rest, O Christ, to your servant(s) with your saints,
where sorrow and pain are no more, neither sighing, but life everlasting.
You only are immortal, the creator and maker of mankind;
and we are mortal, formed of the earth, and to earth shall we return.
For so did you ordain when you created me, saying,
“You are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song:
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.
Give rest, O Christ, to your servant(s) with your saints,
where sorrow and pain are no more, neither sighing, but life everlasting.

When Greek texts were translated for use in English-speaking churches, they were by and large adapted into the metered rhyming system that the Western church was comfortable with (which, if we’re honest, usually happened whenever hymns were translated from other languages into English). You can find many of these texts by looking in the back of your hymnal in the “Index of Composers, Authors, and Sources,” under “Greek hymns”, including:

– “Father, We Thank Thee/You”: UMH #563, 1982 #302

– “Strengthen for service, Lord”: 1982 #312

– “Lord Jesus, think on me”: 1982 #641

And my personal favorite hymn from the early Greek tradition: “Let all mortal flesh keep silence,” UMH #626 and 1982 #324.

let all mortal flesh

Like all eras of music in the church, there are specific characteristics found in Greek hymnody that reflect the state of the church, and its theology and core beliefs during that era. In most Greek hymnody:

– the voice is objective, praising God without making it dependent on human perspective

– it uses a corporate voice that represents the larger community

– it’s concerned with the nature of God, not the human response to God

– the subject is more frequently praise than lamentation

– there’s a significant use of imagery of “light”

By studying the hymnody of a specific era of the church, we can understand who the church was at that time, what was important to them– a community’s relationship with God, as opposed to the personal relationship with Jesus that many churches prioritize today; God as sovereign and not affected/influenced by our response; God as the source of all that is good and worthy of praise, rather than the laments that are found in the Psalms or in the African-American spiritual tradition.

The next time your church sings “Let all mortal flesh keep silence,” imagine what the church was like in the 4th century. What were they singing about, and why? How can their relationship with God be seen through the music of their church– and what can we learn from that, about our church and our faith?

As ever, your hymnal is one of the best theological guides, second only to the Bible. And you can learn so much about the church, past and present, by opening it up and exploring. Happy singing! 🙂


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