Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Biblical Typology for Christmas in a Liturgical Hymn: Words, Music and Art

I am unusual among Christians, perhaps, in that, I have no fondness for the traditional Victorian Christmas carols that are commonly sung around this time of year. I always hated them as a child, and today I find the texts superficial, and the music saccharine and sentimental, although perhaps appropriate to the text.

Here is a hymn that we have been singing at my church over Advent which I do like. You can click the link below to hear the audio file.
First, the key of the music is Byzantine Tone (Mode) 1 and sung with a drone. The combination of chant melody with a drone has a strong spiritual quality (I discuss why I think this is in a past post here: Using Drones As Harmony - A Simple Way to Add to the Spiritual Effect of Sacred Music). Second, the way in which this is sung, in natural voices, invites the congregation to participate in the singing. As it is repeated several times during the season (we sing twice each Sunday) they have a chance to learn the melody and join in. This is a style that invites both men and women to sing along with melody or drone. Our pastor sends out this recording and the score out to the congregation in our weekly mailing.
Biblical typology: this hymn teaches us how the Old Testament points to the New, and the New fulfills the Old. These are images that should be in people’s minds as they sing the hymn, and ideally will be presented to them in the schema of art in the church building so that they know precisely where to look as they sing. In this hymn, we have, for example, the Tree of Jesse, Jonah and the Whake (or “Sea Monster”), and the three children in the fiery furnace from the book of Daniel.
This presentation of biblical typology is important in so many ways. Aside from deepening our faith by impressing upon us in a profound way the grand narrative arc of salvation history, it builds up in us the facility for connecting perceptible realities with the imperceptible truths they reveal. The triple effect of art, music, and words here, in harmony with our worship of God, will transform us.
In his little book Of Water and Spirit - A Liturgical Study of Baptism, Orthodox theologian, Alexander Schmemann describes (on page 152) the essence of Mystagogia as the harmonious teaching of Scripture, doctrine, liturgy, and spirituality. This deepening grasp of the mysteries of the Faith must be taught so that we put it all into practice in the daily living of our Faith. A liberal arts education on its own cannot do this. However comprehensive it may be in its content, and however skillfully a curriculum is transmitted in the classroom, it isn’t a Christian education unless the student is simultaneously formed as a Christian so that they integrate what they learn into their lives in a Christian way. This liturgical pedagogy will do this almost regardless of the intellectual capabilities of the person.
To come back to Christmas carols, I would rather see them replaced with the traditional liturgical hymns and propers presented in the context of the liturgy itself, than the concocted Lessons and Carols service that is so much more common and superficial in its effect.
The words in the caption below are taken from the Katasavia itself.
“Rod of the Root of Jesse and flower that blossomed from his stem you have sprung from the Virgin.”
The sea monster spat forth Jonas as it had received him, like a babe from the womb, while the Logos having dwelt in the Virgin and taken flesh did come forth from her yet kept her uncorrupt.
The children who were brought up together in godliness scorning the impious decree feared not the threat of fire but standing in the midst of the flames they say: “O God of our fathers, blessed are You. We praise, we bless and we worship the Lord.” The furnace moist with dew was the image and the figure of the supernatural wonder, for it burnt of the children whom it had received, even as the fire of the Godhead consumed not the Virgin's womb into which it has descended.

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