The Divine Liturgy, Part Five: the Hymn of the Incarnation.
Rom. 10:10-10 (for Sunday) & Heb. 13:7-16 (for the Fathers); Matt. 8:28-9:1 (for Sunday) & John 17:1-13 (for the Fathers).
The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, known as the Fifth Sunday of Matthew; also, the Sunday of the Memory of the Fathers of the First Six Ecumenical Councils.
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11:48 AM 7/17/2011 — Last week we had spoken of the Great Ektenia or Litany of Peace, which is the first audible part of the Liturgy; and immediately following this come what are referred to in your pew books as the antiphons. Early on in the history of the Ruthenian Church, these antiphons were so mitigated and shortened that it is now practically impossible to see, from what we do today, what their original structure was like. The way the thing is structured today in our present Liturgy, we have the priest singing a prayer, which is followed by the people singing what has come to be called the First Antiphon: “Sing joyfully to the Lord all the earth...” During the singing of these verses the priest is saying two more prayers silently to himself.
Obviously, these antiphons are Psalms. When originally introduced into the Liturgy, the psalms were chanted in full. Later, they were shortened to three or four verses. Then, later still, when the Ruthenians began to tinker with the Liturgy to make it more practical for parish use, they were chopped down even further by making the parts of the priest silent. The way these antiphons were originally done had the people singing the Psalm—in the case of the first Antiphon, Psalm 65—which was followed by a short Litany lead by the deacon, to which the people responded “Lord, have mercy,” followed again by a prayer sung by the priest. Then the next Antiphon would begin, and so forth. What the Ruthenians did was take the prayer of the priest which concludes the first antiphon and transplant it to the very beginning, immediately following the Litany of Peace. Directly following this prayer, the priest says the concluding prayers to the next two antiphons silently to himself, while the people sing the Psalm verses of all three antiphons all lumped together, with the litanies disappearing altogether.
Exactly when the antiphons began in the Ruthenian Church to look like they do today is a matter of ongoing debate, and there’s no reason for us to go into that. What I really want to look at today is the hymn which seems to be inserted artificially in between the second and third antiphons, and with which we are so familiar, which we like to call “The Hymn of the Incarnation” or “The Hymn of the Only Begotten” because of its first few words.
It’s proper title is actually the Monogenes Hymn, and the Byzantine Churches have always attributed its authorship to the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I.* In fact, in some early Greek liturgikons it’s actually labeled “The Hymn of Justinian”; and it is believed to have been written in the year 528. The Syrians, however, dispute this: they claim the Monogenes was written in the year 512 by Patriarch Severus of Antioch, who visited the Emperor Justinian in Constantinople in 528; and Justinian simply adopted it for use in the Byzantine Liturgy. What we do know for sure is that the use of the Monogenes spread from Constantinople to most of the Churches of the East, including the Slavonic Churches. What remains unclear is how this hymn ended up in the Byzantine Liturgy sandwiched in between the second and third antiphons. If the usage of the Syrian Church, which claims the earliest use of the Monogenes, is any indication, it would seem that it was originally intended as some sort of entrance hymn, which is how the Syrians use it today—they begin their Liturgy with this hymn.
Now, all of this is purely academic and probably doesn’t mean spit to you. What I would like you to think about are the words themselves. To a student of church history it is very clear that the Monogenes, whoever wrote it—whether it was Emperor Justinian or Patriarch Severus or the emperor’s pious wash-woman—it was clearly written in response to a heresy: in point of fact, the heresy of Nestorius. Nestorius was a priest—all troublemakers in church history seem to be priests, don’t they?—who had a very novel idea. Most of the time, when we think of heresy, we think of someone, like Arius, denying the divinity of Christ: Jesus was a nice man, but he wasn’t God. Nestorius was just the opposite. He believed Jesus was God all right; he just didn’t believe Jesus was really a man. He thought Jesus was an apparition, a kind of artificial projection of God into this world. He didn’t believe that Jesus had two natures—human and divine—like we believe; he believed Jesus had only one nature, a divine nature; that he wasn’t really a human being. Now, the implications of this are crucial, because if Jesus wasn’t really a man, then his suffering wasn’t real, he never really died, thus he never really rose from the dead, thus we are not saved. The Monogenes—the Hymn of the Only Begotten—is a celebration of the incarnation; a celebration of the humanity of Christ.
O only-begotten Son and Word of God, Who, being immortal, deigned for our salvation to become incarnate of the holy Theotokos and ever-Virgin Mary, and became man without change: You were also crucified, O Christ our God, and by death have trampled death....
In other words, “Yes, Jesus, we know you are God; but because of your love for us, you became a real man without losing any of your divinity. You really suffered on the Cross, and you died a human death; and, by dying as a man, you paid the price for our sins.”
Heretics come and go in the life of the Church. Some claim that Jesus wasn’t a man; while others claim he wasn’t really God, just a nice man whom God had blessed. Sometimes the old heresies come back in different forms, like denying the virgin birth or denying the resurrection of Christ. The heretics of the early Church were not bad men; their mistake was that they were attempting to explain in human words what the human mind can never fully understand; and, in so doing, twisted the truth about Christ. It takes us back to the very beginning of our discussion about the Divine Liturgy, and our old friend, St. Germanus of Constantinople, who reminded us that God, himself, is a mystery whom we will never fully comprehend so long as we remain in this world. I suppose one could say that the personal fault of the heretics was that they were just too proud to accept that.
The Monogenes or Hymn of the Incarnation is a good example of one of those parts of the Liturgy that we sing so routinely, week after week after week, without thinking about what it really means. And when we sing it, we might be wise to remember how easy it is for us to make the same sort of mistake that Nestorius and Arius and so many others made in the Church’s early centuries: the mistake of not being humble enough to accept the fact that God has answers and reasons for things that he chooses not to share with us. It could be an illness, or the loss of a loved one, or any kind of hardship at all. We wrack our brains trying to figure out why. We get mad at God because we don’t understand. And then, like Nestorius, we end up inventing our own answers, which are always wrong.
Jesus is God. Jesus is man. How is that possible? Who cares? All that’s important to understand is that God’s love makes it so.
Father Michael Venditti
* The icon shown is a detail from a mosaic recently uncovered during restorations in Hagia Sophia, depicting the Emperor Justinian presenting the newly completed church to the Mother of God.