Tag Archives: hymns

The honey and the harp.

St. Ephraim the Syrian, c. 306-373

One of the church book clubs I currently try to keep up with met recently to discuss our current selection, Christ the Conqueror of Hell: The Descent into Hades from an Orthodox Perspective, by Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev. It is an impressive compendium of material on the subject from Scripture, patristic tradition, and early Christian liturgical texts and poetry. I was intrigued by the section on liturgical poetry from the 4th-6th centuries, especially the verses of St. Ephraim (or Ephrem) the Syrian.

While St. Romanos the Melodist, who lived in the 6th century, is considered by most to be the preeminent poet of the Byzantine period, he “was familiar with Ephrem’s works and drew from them. He learned from Ephrem’s poetical artistry as well as from his handling of particular literary plots and theological themes.”

The author of Conqueror explains how Ephraim and the Syrian tradition differed from that of the Greek fathers and their Ecumenical Councils. While he also formulated dogmatic teaching for his flock, he “clothed theological truths not in the armor of precise dogmatic definitions but with the bright garments of poetic symbols and metaphors …. to theologize for Ephrem meant to glorify God rather than talk about or reflect upon God. He believed the truths of Christianity should not only be comprehended, reflected upon, defined, and established but also experienced by the faithful through prayer. This same avenue was followed by most of the writers of the liturgical texts in the tradition of the Orthodox Church.”

The subject matter of Christ the Conqueror of Hell is especially appropriate for Holy Saturday and Pascha, and maybe I will post some of the liturgical poetry in that season; at this time I wanted to mention the part about Saint Ephraim because January 28th is the day we commemorate this poet and theologian. I found an enjoyable historical video about his life, using the title that has been given to him: “The Harp of the Holy Spirit.”

You may be familiar with his Lenten Prayer we use daily during the Great Fast; also, hymns and meditations of St. Ephraim were collected by St. Theophan the Recluse into A Spiritual Psalter. I have this on my shelf and could stand to spend some time perusing it, especially after reading today’s entry in The Prologue of Ohrid, where there is a hymn to Ephraim by St. Nikolai opening with the words,

Ephraim’s heart burns
With love for Christ,
And Ephraim’s tongue speaks
Of the pure wisdom of the Gospel.
Ephraim, the honey-bearing bee;
Ephraim, the fruit-bearing rain!

Just as God sends the bees and the rain to work for our joy and profit, so He sends people like this man. Let me keep that image of a buzzing and busy bee in my mind a while; let me drink holy nectar and refresh others the way God uses His creatures and creation to constantly renew my spirit.

And for today, one morsel of honey from this holy bee:

The chutzpah of our love is pleasing to you, O Lord,
just as it pleased you that we should steal from your bounty.

-Saint Ephraim the Syrian

We plough the fields and scatter,

I have always loved this hymn since singing it in the Presbyterian church of my childhood. I included it in a booklet of Thanksgiving hymns I put together some years ago, for our family to sing when we gathered for the feast. Here is John Rutter conducting a choir singing it: We Plough the Fields and Scatter. The lyrics have undergone some adaptation over the decades, which you can read about on Wikipedia where the hymn has its own entry.

Matthias Claudius published this poem in Germany, where it was set to music attributed to Johann A. P. Schulz, in 1800. I also like this bold instrumental version: We Plough the Fields and Scatter.

WE PLOUGH THE FIELDS AND SCATTER

We plough the fields and scatter
the good seed on the land,
but it is fed and watered
by God’s almighty hand;
he sends the snow in winter,
the warmth to swell the grain,
the breezes and the sunshine,
and soft refreshing rain.

He only is the Maker
of all things near and far;
he paints the wayside flower,
he lights the evening star;
the wind and waves obey him,
by him the birds are fed;
much more to us, his children,
he gives our daily bread.

We thank thee, then, O Father,
for all things bright and good,
the seed-time and the harvest,
our life, our health, our food.
Accept the gifts we offer
for all your love imparts,
with what we know you long for:
our humble, thankful hearts.

All good gifts around us
are sent from heaven above;
then thank the Lord, O thank the Lord
for all his love.

-Matthias Claudius (1740 – 1815) Germany

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Struggling and singing and floating to Pascha.

CHRIST IS RISEN!

It is the theme of the week, “Bright Week” for us Orthodox Christians who struggled and floated through Holy Week while practically living at church. In the ten days starting with Lazarus Saturday and rolling us along through Bright Monday, we had 19 unique services at my parish, including several that were 2-3 hours long. No one participates in all of them, but some people come very close.

Because of frequent changes in the last year as to who can and may sing and chant at which of our services, it fell out that during this Lent and especially Holy Week I had more chanting duties than ever, and all of that reading of Psalms and other prayers contributed to my joy — and fatigue! What time I wasn’t in church in the last twelve days, I gravitated to my bed, or accomplished minimal garden duties.

The service of Matins of Holy Friday, on Thursday evening, is a highlight of the week. Twelve separate Gospel passages are read, seemingly everything written about Christ’s passion. We stand holding candles, and most people sit down after each of the twelve readings for the prayers and hymns that set apart the Gospel passages. The first reading is more than four chapters long: John 13:31 – 18:1. Every year is a little different for me — I’m sure it’s like that for everyone — but whether you are distracted a lot or hardly at all, there is a blessing in just being there in body, and in hearing so many words of Good News, Christ’s willing self-sacrifice for us.

By Friday afternoon we have had three Holy Friday services by which to enter in to the Crucifixion. On Friday evening the services of Holy Saturday begin; Saturday afternoon is the radiant commemoration of Christ’s descent into Hades to free the faithful of the Old Covenant, and His victory over death. The choir leads us in singing “Arise O God; Judge the earth, for Thou shalt have an inheritance among all the nations,” while all over the church people switch out the purple cloths for white.  The Old Testament story of Jonah three days in the belly of the whale is read at this service, because Jonah is seen in the Church as a type of Christ Who was three days in the tomb. It’s just one of fifteen Old Testament readings that are interspersed with two long and exultant hymns.

Afterward we go home to rest and eat a little, before returning a few hours later for the culmination of Great Lent and Holy Week, the celebration of the Holy and Glorious Resurrection of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Parishioners have been taking turns reading the Acts of the Apostles continuously since the end of the afternoon service, and do so right up until the beginning of the Pascha services just before midnight. Then all the lights in the church are turned off, and at midnight:

The Light of Christ’s Resurrection “breaks through” when the priest takes the vigil light from the altar and gives it to the faithful, while singing: “Come receive the light, that is never overtaken by night, and glorify Christ, Who is risen from the dead.”

From there the people process out of the church building, where the Gospel account of the empty tomb is read; verses from Psalm 68 are sung — “Let God arise, let his enemies be scattered; let those who hate him flee from before his face!”; and the famous Paschal hymn is joyously chanted by all: “Christ is risen from the dead, by death trampling down upon death, and to those in the tombs He has granted life.” In this way the Church announces to the entire world the glorious news of the Resurrection. The Festal Midnight Liturgy of Easter is celebrated and the faithful partake of the Eucharist in the “Light of the Resurrection.”

The spiritual striving of the Lenten season and the blessed travel through Holy Week has been accomplished, and thus the Joy of the Resurrection is inexplicably palpable for all who have participated in this grace-filled journey.

We missed so much of this experience last year! It doesn’t break neatly into parts, a couple of which can be torn out of the whole and doled out over the Internet on a screen. But our deprivations made us all the more jubilant and grateful this year for our traditional over-the-top way of celebrating. The Death of Death is surely a reality we want to know in our hearts and lives. Somehow all of these Lenten and Holy Week labors empty us and humble us in mysterious ways to make us able to receive the grace of divine Life that is poured out at Pascha.

I stayed to break the fast with a few others afterward, with cheeses and meat, wine and chocolate, and didn’t get home until 4:00 a.m. Then we were back for Paschal Vespers at 1:00 — such a bright service! We couldn’t have our usual big barbecue this year but a few families stayed to picnic and visit all afternoon, and their children had an egg hunt.

Our bishop was with us on Bright Monday for Divine Liturgy, plus friends and deacons from a “sister parish” nearby. It was interesting how I began that hour of worship with so much verve, but about fifteen minutes in felt the weight of the residual exhaustion pulling me into a chair, where I tried to keep my mind awake, please God, for just a few more minutes!

At the end of Bright Monday’s service several of our men singers treated us, in English, to this Georgian Paschal hymn that has become one of my favorites. It must be getting more popular among the Orthodox worldwide, if the number of YouTube videos compared to last year is any indication. I found so many good versions, from cathedral to country folk to quarantine virtual choir, I am going to share several with you, in English and in Georgian.

Georgian Hymn in English – Virtual Choir

Kriste Aghdga – family in country

Kriste Aghdga – in English and Georgian

Kriste Aghdga – in a cathedral in Georgia

IN TRUTH HE IS RISEN!

The season we dread.

The California “wildfire season” has gotten off to an early and roaring start. In this era, mailings from the power company and other agencies remind us ahead of time that here, in addition to the usual four seasons, we have Fire, which can overlap both Summer and Fall. Others of you have Hurricane, which is another season that could be nicknamed “Scary.”

I don’t enjoy writing about flames and destruction, loss of buildings and human lives, and I trust that we all see plenty of horrific images of such things already. But because the location on my home page says “Northern California,” you might wonder if I’m okay. Yes, I am. I don’t live in a hilly, woodsy area, and my town has its power lines underground, so generally this is a less fire-risky place to live.

friend on bulldozer

But many of my friends nearby have been evacuated, as the same ones were last year. In the Santa Cruz Mountains, the homes of other dear people are in danger, or may be gone. I pray that they are saved! I wrote about that area in a couple of posts here; this one, Bridges and Streams, has the most photos that will give you an idea of the terrain. It’s where my husband and I honeymooned, where his grandma had two cabins at different times, and of which most of our children retain strong memories.

Currently the only direct effect on me seems silly to mention. Smoke drifts through from nearby fires; I keep checking the AirVisual app to see if I am in the “Good” green range, or if the Air Quality Index has jumped past “Moderate” to “Unhealthy.” Daughter Pippin is not close to a fire, but has been suffering from unremitting high smoke levels for days and is on her way to Oregon in hopes of being able to breathe at least a little better up there.

If Green seems likely to last an hour or more and it’s not midday, I open the windows to cool off the house; most homes around here don’t have AC. So far we’ve had a Green period once or twice a day, and the recent heat wave has ended, so all is tolerable. But I did just order air purifiers, so that if evacuees need to come here, it will be a reliable refuge from smoke as well as danger.

This morning I woke thinking of a blogger I’d been missing. When I looked her up on my little phone, for some reason the first post that came up was from April of ’19. This was one of those Divine Meetings that angels can arrange, evidently even by means of WordPress Reader. Because it is about the Notre Dame fire, and includes a video (best to click through from her site) of the people who gathered to sing as they watched the devastation. I knew about that response but hadn’t seen any footage before. It was just what I needed, a connection to the prayers and sorrows of people everywhere, a reminder to sing myself. I know quite a few hymns that are appropriate.

Lord, have mercy!