03 August 2012

Liturgical Consummation, Part III: St John Damascene

This will be the final installment in my ‘Liturgical Consummation’ series of posts consisting of excised material from a forthcoming paper called ‘Likeness & Approach: M.M. Bakhtin, C.S. Lewis, & the Liturgical Consummation of Literary Genre’ (first post here, second here). The more time goes by since I wrote these, the less I like them, but here you go anyway. 

c) St John Damascene 

The Paschal Canon (Anastaseos emera) of St John Damascene (c. 655-c. 750) [1]—still sung at the Easter Vigil in all churches of the Byzantine rite [2]—is a supreme example of the paradoxical possibilities of Christian liturgical poetry. Egon Wellesz notes that this hymn is traditionally referred to as ‘The Golden Canon’ or ‘The Queen of Canons’, [3] and the great Modern Greek writer and painter, Photios Kontoglou calls it ‘immortal’. [4] The canon form, like the Ambrosian stanzas used by St Venantius, constitutes a divergence from the ancient genres stemming from the acceptance among Christian poets of the loss of the classical long- / short-vowel distinction in the ancient meters. Already with the kontakion, the generic predecessor of the canon, ‘A new system of versification had developed based on the principle that all the stanzas had to have the same number of syllables as the Hirmus [the eirmos, or model-strophe of the form] on which they were modeled and that the stress accents had to have the same place in all the stanzas as in the verses of the Hirmus.’ [5] It was a new prosody based on the changing sound-patterns of the living language—which had become ‘qualitatively a different thing for the consciousness that creates in it’ [6]—yet still requiring great skill to compose. [7] A canon consisted of eight or nine ‘odes,’ each made up of six to nine stanzas (or troparia), but later only two, based on the same eirmos. [8] 

Here are the first stanza of the ‘First Ode’ (the eirmos of that ode) and the third stanza of the ‘Third Ode’ (really the second of the odes, since there is no ‘Second Ode’ on Pascha) of St John’s Paschal canon: 

This is the day of Resurrection
let us be radiant, O peoples [laoi]:
Pascha, the Lord’s Pascha;
for from death to life
and from earth to heaven
Christ God
hath passed us,
as we sing the victory hymn. 
Yesterday I was buried with Thee, O Christ,
I arise with Thee today in Thy Resurrection.
I was crucified with Thee yesterday—
glorify me with Thyself, O Savior,
in Thy Kingdom. [9] 

The Subject of the first of these stanzas is appropriately Heroic, and the faithful rightly sing to Him a victory hymn. Note the contrasts, however, between death and life, earth and heaven: the poet is acknowledging the lowliness inherent in nearness to God by approach by describing human beings as being ‘passed’ [10] by Christ from the lowliness of death and earth to a share in the God-like categories of life and heaven. The poet addresses ‘peoples,’ the term laos, which St John uses in the plural. This apostrophe represents the intermingling of different cultures and classes in the assembly of the Church, St Ephrem’s ‘Church of the Nations’. [11] But while the laos certainly constitutes the ‘visible community’ that performs the ‘mysterious work (ergon)’ of the liturgy, [12] in a further dimension of the polyphony of the hymn, the apostrophe also calls upon the Church Triumphant, which is invisible, as it seeks ‘assistance for projects related to the vocation of the liturgical journey’. [13] More importantly, the second-person plural verb ‘let us be radiant’ (lamprynthomen) identifies the poet with the people, once again, in a chorus: Bakhtin almost seems to be speaking of this canon when he writes, ‘This expression of value [here, of the desire for life, for heaven] becomes strong and powerful (not naturally and physically, but axiologically strong and powerful, axiologically victorious and conquering) only in the chorus of others.’ [14] 

The second stanza quoted here recognizes the paradox by which it is in crucifixion and burial with Christ—by following the cruciform way of approach—that one draws near to God and puts on His divine qualities. Our nearness, the intermingling of the Highest and the lowest, is signified by the prefix syn- attached to each of the Greek verbs in the stanza and represented in English by the preposition ‘with’. But this sharing is only made possible by the Incarnation, the prior condescension of God Himself. [15] A reference to this hymn in the work of the nineteenth- and twentieth-century Greek writer, Alexandros Papadiamandis, should make a fitting coda to these observations: 

[Upon hearing the] allegro, the first hirmos, that is to say, of the canon of the day [Easter] . . . [little Toto] leapt for joy, and her little face lit up. Her eyes, her mouth, her cheeks, all became more beautiful and smiled an ineffable smile of joy. It moved me. It seems that those inspired songs of our holy Church truly have an ineffable fragrance and beauty, witnessed to from the mouths of babes and sucklings. [16] 

In the doxological mode of liturgical poetry, the poet is able to celebrate the humble and the lowly, that which is near to God by approach—‘For,’ as a Byzantine hymn for the Nativity asks, ‘what is meaner than a cave, what is humbler than swaddling clothes?’ [17] But through paradox these poets lose none of the solemnity, the ‘specific delightfulness’ of ritual, which is nearness by likeness—‘Yet therein shone forth the wealth of Thy divinity: glory to Thee, O Lord.’ [18] It is in this way—holding in tension the categories of nearness to God by likeness and approach—that liturgical poetry represents a ‘consummation’ of literature. 

[1] These dates are based on Fr Andrew Louth, St John Damascene: Tradition & Originality in Byzantine Theology (Oxford: Oxford U, 2002), p. 5. 

[2] It was also turned into a rather unimpressive English hymn by the great John Mason Neale: Hymn 132 in Hymns Ancient & Modern, standard ed. (London: William Clowes, 1916), p. 133. It is easy to see why even the ‘hymns ancient’ are not exempted from Lewis’s criticism of the book in Reflections on the Psalms, p. 94. 

[3] Egon Wellesz, A History of Byzantine Music & Hymnography, 2nd ed. (London: Oxford U, 1961), p. 206. 

[4] Constantine Cavarnos, Byzantine Sacred Art (Belmont, MA: Institute for Byzantine & Modern Greek Studies), p. 145. 

[5] Wellesz, p. 181. 

[6] Mikhail Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination, ed. Michael Holquist, tr. Caryl Emerson & Michael Holquist (Austin: U of Texas, 1998), p. 12. 

[7] Wellesz, pp. 181-2. 

[8] Wellesz, p. 198. 

[9] My translation. For the full Greek text with translation, see Wellesz, pp. 207-14. 

[10] This is a reference to the Hebrew meaning of ‘Pascha’ inspired by the Oration 45.10 of St Gregory of Nazianzus. For the passage in St Gregory see St Gregory the Theologian, On God & Christ: The Five Theological Orations & The Letter to Cledonius, tr. Frederick Williams & Lionel Wickham (Crestwood, NY: SVS, ), p. 170; for an analysis of St John’s use of the orations of St Gregory in this hymn see Louth, p. 260. 

[11] Sebastian Brock, The Luminous Eye: The Spiritual World Vision of St Ephrem, rev. ed. (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1992), p. 119. 

[12] Catherine Pickstock, After Writing: On the Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998), p. 159. 

[13] Pickstock, p. 193. 

[14] Mikhail Bakhtin, Art & Answerability, eds. Michael Holquist & Vadim Liapunov, tr. Vadim Liapunov (Austin: U of Texas, 1995), p. 169. 

[15] Louth, p. 262. 

[16] Qtd. in Anestis Keselopoulos, Greece’s Dostoevsky: The Theological Vision of Alexandros Papadiamandis (Thessaloniki: Protecting Veil, 2011), pp. 173-4. 

[17] The Festal Menaion, tr. Mother Mary & Archimandrite Kallistos (Ware) (South Canaan, PA: STS, 1998), p. 272. 

[18] Ibid., p. 272.

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