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Cosmetizing the Cosmos: Byzantine Hymnography on the Holidays

“If Pascha is Christianity’s most radiant feast, Christmas is certainly the sweetest and most touching, which is why it was always considered to be a quintessential family holiday.” That’s how Alexandros Papadiamantis, the Greek author perhaps best associated with Christmas because of his related stories, defines the feast.

According to Papadiamantis, “it is widely known that St. John Chrysostom established this feast in the Eastern Church when he was consecrated Patriarch of Constantinople on the 15th of the very same month of December around the end of the 4th century, after ‘some individuals had come from the West and told him of it.’” Ironically, the West today seems intent on marginalizing the holiday.

The Eastern Church did no less to honor Christ’s Nativity, with many of the greatest Church Fathers – some even predating the golden-tongued orator – from the 4th century having written sermons of praise and celebration in honor of the feast. In fact, the popular first Ode from the Katavasies of Christmas’ (“Christ is born, glorify Him…”), chanted during Matins, was inspired by one of St. Gregory the Theologian’s sermons. The Exapostilarion (“Our Savior, the dawn of dawns, has visited us from on high…”), also chanted during the Matins, comes from a sermon as well.

Some of the hymns and prayers contained in our Church services represent masterpieces of Greek language comparable to the works of Homer, Plato, etc. For example, those who attend the Matins on the feast of the Nativity will be fortunate enough to hear the 2nd Canon, written in iambic verse by St. John the Damascene, chanted much the same as it was those many centuries ago. The difference is that these hymns are still very much in use in our liturgical life and fulfill their original functional purpose.

In his article titled ‘Christmas’, published in 1887, Papadiamantis goes on to cite three hymns from the 8th Ode of the first Canon dedicated to the Magi’s adoration of the newborn Savior, which he considers “without hesitation” to be “among the most beautiful written masterpieces of all time.” Moreover, he emphasizes that he notes this for the sake of those who believe (out of bias) that the Greek language was not in use during the 7th and 8th century, and that only the language of his era constitutes Greek. Prophetically, he goes on to add that future generations will likely treat the Greek of his time (katharevousa), as his contemporaries treated those Byzantine hymns. And truly, many Greek teachers lament the fact that the average student in Greece today has a hard time understanding Papadiamantis because of the (politically motivated) reforms to the education system limiting the instruction of classical Greek.

It’s worth noting this because it emphasizes the fact that although the Greek language has changed and adapted over time, there remains an historical continuity that is indivisible.
Preservation of this continuity includes the musicality, meter, and prosody of the language, which must not be summarily dismissed on the pretext of comprehension. Thank God, there is no scarcity of resources today or want of technology that precludes preserving the original masterpieces of our language, while still being able to fully comprehend them through translations and annotations. In fact, this method could be said to reinforce the meaning of the hymns even further, as those interacting with them will cognitively process them; not just passively listen to them.

Another important thing to keep in mind is that many of these hymns were written by seminal Church Fathers – saints filled with the Grace of the Holy Spirit. Even the most skilled translator would feel a heavy burden having to accurately convey the meaning of a divinely inspired text, while also trying to capture its beauty. Many shudder from doing so even for less spiritual undertakings, which might explain why most operas are performed in their original language in opera houses around the world…and no one complains. On the other hand, their translated rendition would likely cause an uproar among audience members who paid hundreds of dollars in tickets.

With these thoughts, it’s worth questioning whether we should be so haphazard in adopting translations of our Church hymnology for liturgical purposes – especially when the purpose of comprehension can be seamlessly attained through technology, while preserving the ancient beauty of these masterpieces.

Rather, we should seek out the masterful rendition of these hymns by trained chanters and accept them as gifts bestowed upon us by the Savior and our forefathers’ burning desire to praise the Lord from the depths of their soul.

In doing so, we make our own unique contribution to cosmeticizing the cosmos (literally, a “thing of beauty”) and worshiping God’s Divine Logos – the wellspring of this beauty. Merry Christmas.

Follow me on Twitter @CTripoulas

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