Friday, August 06, 2021

The Byzantine Canons of the Transfiguration

The number of proper texts which the Byzantine Rite has for any given liturgical day is far larger than those of the Roman Rite. When I write something that highlights them, I usually choose the ones which are most frequently used: the tropar and kontak, which are said at most Hours of the Office as well as at the Divine Liturgy, or the proper hymn to the Virgin Mary sung during the anaphora. Today, I thought I would focus on something different, namely the Canon, a set of compositions based on a series of nine Biblical canticles, eight from the Old Testament and one from the New. (These canticles are called “ᾠδαί – odes” in Greek, “пѣсни – songs” in Church Slavonic.) The feast of the Transfiguration, which originated in the Byzantine Rite, has two Canons, with a total of over 70 texts, so obviously, this will be just a selection.
An icon of the Transfiguration, attributed to Theophanes the Greek (called ‘Feofan’ in Russian), the teacher of the famous iconographer Andrei Rubliev; early 15th century. Originally painted for the Cathedral of the Transfiguration in Pereslavl, now in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.
The presence of Old Testament canticles in the various rites of the Divine Office, both Eastern and Western, is one of the things which is so ancient that we cannot tell its precise origin. The Byzantine ones already appear as a group in the 5th century, in a Bible known as the Codex Alexandrinus, the provenance of which is unknown; they subsequently appear in almost every Greek Psalter and Bible. In their current order of use, they are:
   1. The canticle of Moses in Exodus, 15, 1-19
   2. The canticle of Moses in Deuteronomy, 32, 1-43
   3. The canticle of Anna, the mother of Samuel, in 1 Samuel 2, 1-10
   4. The canticle of the prophet Habakkuk, 3, 2-19
These four are also used in the Roman Rite, at Lauds of Thursday, Saturday, Wednesday and Friday respectively. The next two are not used in the Roman Rite, but are sung at Matins in the Ambrosian Rite on Sundays and feasts of the Lord, the first (Isa. 26) all year round, the second (Jonah 2) from Easter to mid-October.
   5. The canticle of Isaiah, 26, 9-20
   6. The canticle of Jonah, 2, 3-10
   7. The Prayer of the Three Children in Daniel 3, 26-56 (The largest part of this deuterocanonical section of the book of Daniel is more properly known as the Prayer of Azariah, and is not used in the Roman Office. A version of the last part, verses 47-56, is sung at the Masses of the Ember Saturdays of Advent, Lent and September, with the addition of several verses not in the original Biblical text.)
   8. The Song of the Three Children, Daniel 3, 57-88, known in the West from its first word as the Benedicite. (This is sung at Lauds of Sunday in the Roman Rite, and prior to the 1911 reform of the Office, on all feast days. The Byzantine version, unsurprisingly, does not omit the many repetitions of the words “praise Him and exalt Him above all forever” as the Roman one does.)
   9. The canticles of the Virgin Mary and Zechariah, the Magnificat and Benedictus, both in Luke 1 (46-55 and 68-79), sung as a single canticle.
In theory, these canticles are appointed to be said every day at the longest and most complicated of the Hours, known as Orthros, from the Greek word for “morning.” This service corresponds in some ways to Roman Matins, and in some ways to Lauds, but the majority of its features have no real analog in the West. The second ode, which is by far the longest, Moses’ reproof to the children of Israel for their infidelity to the Lord, is only said in penitential seasons. I will explain further down why I write that the odes are said “in theory.”
One of the greatest and most important composers of liturgical texts for the Byzantine Rite is a Saint named Andrew, who was born in Damascus around 650 AD, and died in 740. After becoming a monk in one of the most famous monasteries of the East, the Lavra of St Sabbas, he served as the archdeacon of Patriarch Theodore of Jerusalem, and represented him at the Sixth Ecumenical Council in Constantinople. He went on to become first archdeacon of Hagia Sophia, and then archbishop of Gortyna, the metropolitan see of the island of Crete, whence he is generally known as St Andrew of Crete.
St Andrew is traditionally credited with the invention of the liturgical form known as the Canon, a series of compositions designed to be sung between the verses of the odes, commenting on their text in reference to the liturgical day. To give a simple example, the first words of the Canon of Christmas are as follows: “Christ is born, glorify Him; Christ comes from the heavens, go to meet Him; Christ upon earth, be ye exalted. Sing to the Lord, all the earth, and in gladness, lift up the hymn, ye peoples, for He is glorified.” The words “Sing to the Lord” and “glorify” (in two forms) here come from the opening words of the canticle of Moses in Exodus with which this was written to be sung, “Sing to the Lord, for He is greatly glorified.”
The crossing of the Red Sea, depicted in a Psalter made in Constantinople in the mid-10th century. The upper register shows the personifications of Night and of the Desert, out of which Moses leads the Israelites as he strikes the water with his rod, led by the column of fire. In the lower register, the nude personification of the Deep (here a male, since the Greek word ‘Bythos’ is masculine), looking very much like a classical statue, drags Pharaoh down into the water, as the personification of the Red Sea looks on from the lower right-hand corner. (Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des manuscrits, Grec 139)
The composers of canons exercised much ingenuity to draw a connection between the liturgical day and the text of the odes, with varying degrees of success. Some of the results are magnificently beautiful, and as beloved in the churches of the Byzantine Rite as things like Tenebrae or Midnight Mass are in the Roman Rite. The Paschal Canon of St John of Damascene is a deservedly famous example. Others can seem rhetorically rather tortured, and employ a lot of odd vocabulary that makes them very difficult to read. The entry for St Andrew in the revised Butler’s Lives of the Saints (July 4) includes the statement that “the canon is a form that lends itself to empty verbosity”; and lest this seem too intrusive a criticism from outsiders, no less a figure than Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann, one of the most respected figures in Orthodoxy in the 20th century, said something very similar about the “meaningless rhetoric” of many Byzantine liturgical texts.
Whatever the literary merits of any individual canon, or lack thereof, as a liturgical form it became extremely popular in the Byzantine church; so much so, in fact, that over time, it displaced the odes themselves, and the various chants of the Canon are now almost always done without them. (The exception is the Magnificat, which is generally not omitted.) Of course, the odes have never been removed from the liturgical books, and are still occasionally sung in the larger and more liturgically energetic monasteries. In their place, brief interjections such as “Glory to thee, o our God, glory to thee,” or “Have mercy on me, o God, have mercy on me” are usually said. Many days have two or even three canons assigned to them, and these in turn are also often shortened by singing only a selection of the texts.
Here then are the first texts for each ode from the two Canons of the Transfiguration. The first canon is attributed to St Cosmas of Maiuma, and the second to his foster-brother, St John Damascene, both of whom were prolific hymnographers. (Many of the authorial attributions given in Byzantine liturgical books are considered dubious.)
First canon, first ode The choirs of Israel, having crossed the watery deep of the Red Sea with dry feet, on seeing the enemy riders and captains under the waves, sang in rejoicing, ‘Let us sing to our God, for He is glorified.’
This text obviously makes no reference to the Transfiguration, so the one that follows develops the connection with the feast:
Openly speaking the words of life to His friends, concerning the kingdom, Christ said, ‘As I shine forth with inapproachable light, in me ye shall know the Father, sang in rejoicing, “Let us sing to our God, for He is glorified.” ’
Second canon, first ode Of old, Moses at the sea prophetically saw in the cloud and in the column of fire the glory of the Lord, and cried out, “Let us sing to our Redeemer and God.”
First canon, third ode The bow of the mighty grew weak, and the weak were clothed in might; wherefore my heart is strengthened in the Lord. (referring to the first words of the canticle of Anna, “My heart is strengthened in the Lord.”)
Here again, the first canon makes no reference to the Transfiguration, and the connection to the feast is supplied by the second one.
Second canon, third ode The overshadowing glory that in the former tabernacle did converse with Moses, thy servant, has become a type of Thy Transfiguration that ineffably shined forth on Tabor, o Lord.
Anna, the mother of the Prophet Samuel, from the same manuscript as the previous image.
After the Third Ode, the canon is interrupted by a chant called the “kathisma – sessional hymn”, because the two choirs would sit while it was sung by a group of cantors.
Kathisma On Mount Tabor Thou wast transfigured, o God, between the wise Elijah and Moses, with James and Peter and John, and Peter, being there, said to Thee, “It is good here to make three booths, one for Moses, and one for Elijah, and one for Thee, Lord Christ.” Thou who didst then shine Thy light upon them, enlighten our souls.
First canon, fourth ode I heard of Thy glorious dispensation, Christ God, for Thou wast born of the Virgin, so that Thou might deliver from deception, those who cry out, ‘Glory to Thy might, o Lord.’
Second canon, fourth ode The sun which is felt by the senses was hidden by the rays of the divinity when it saw Thee transfigured on Mount Tabor, o my Jesus. Glory to Thy might, o Lord.’
First canon, fifth ode Thou who didst divide the first-begotten chaos of the light, as Thy works sing of Thee, their maker, in light, o Christ, straighten Thou our ways in Thy light.
Second canon, fifth ode The tongue of the orator cannot proclaim Thy great deeds, for Thou who holdest life, and hast rule over death, brought Moses and Elijah to stand beside Thee on Mt Tabor, and bear witness to Thy divinity.
First canon, sixth ode In my tribulation, I cried out to the Lord, and he heard me, the God of my salvation. (This repeats the opening words of the canticle of Jonah, “In my tribulation, I cried out to the Lord, and he heard me.” The Byzantine Rite focuses very much on the fact that in the Transfiguration, Christ is revealed as the Savior, which is here emphasized by the words, “The God of my salvation.”)
Second canon, sixth ode How great and fearful a sight has been seen today! The sun of justice, made known from heaven, incomparable upon the earth, has shone forth, and is known upon Mt Tabor.
Here the canon is again interrupted by two chants of older genres, the kontakion and the ikos, the latter of which was created as a rhetorical commentary on the former, and almost always ends with the same words.
Kontak Thou was transfigured upon the mountain, and Thy disciples beheld Thy glory as much as they could, o Christ God, so that when they saw Thee crucified, they might know that Thy suffering was voluntary, and proclaim to the world that Thou art truly the radiance of the Father.
Ikos Rise up, ye slothful thoughts, that bend my soul down towards the earth, do not crawl forever on the ground. Be lifted up and raised to the height of divine ascent! Let us run to Peter and the sons of Zebedee, and together with them go forth to Mount Tabor, that we may see with them the glory of our God, and hear the voice which they heard from on high; and they preached the radiance of the Father.
There follows the Synaxarion, the equivalent of the Martyrology. As with so many things Byzantine, the official text of it is very long, and it is often reduced to just a notice of the day’s feast, and a few lines of poetry that comment on it.
The Synaxarion On the sixth day of the same month, the commemoration of the divine Transfiguration of Our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ.
Verses Thabor was glorified above every part of the world, / on seeing God’s nature shining in glory; / Christ changed the form of man at the sixth Hour, to Him be glory and power unto the ages. Amen.
First canon, seventh ode The children of Abraham did once trod upon the flame of the furnace in Babylon, and with a hymn they sang, Blessed art Thou, god of our fathers.
Surrounded on all sides by the light of unapproachable glory, on Mt Tabor the Apostles, o Christ, cried out, Blessed art Thou, God of our fathers.
Second canon, seventh ode Now things unseen have been seen by the Apostles; in the flesh, the divinity shining forth upon Mt Tabor to those that cry out, “Blessed art Thou, o Lord, God unto all ages.”
A Greek icon from the second half of the 18th century, signed by the painter, Konstantinos Adrianoupolitis, now in the Benaki Museum in Athens. The whole lower part of the image shows the episodes of the third chapter of the book of Daniel: the adoration of the Emperor Nebuchadnezzar’s golden statue, and the Three Children in the Furnace. In the upper right, the representation of the Three Children follows the opening words of Psalm 136, “Upon the rivers of Babylon, there we sat and wept, when we remembered Sion: on the willows in the midst thereof we hung up our instruments.” To the left of them, and further back within the image, is the episode of Daniel in the Lion’s Den, with the Prophet Habakkuk bringing him food.
First canon, eighth ode The children in Babylon, burning with divine zeal, manfully trod down the threats of the tyrant and the fire, and being seen covered in dew in the midst of the flames, sand, “Bless the Lord, all ye works of the Lord.”
Second canon, eighth ode Having heard Thee, o master, witnessed by the Father, and not bearing to the brightness of Thy face, as something mightier than the sight of men, Thy disciples fell down upon the ground, singing in fear, “Bless Christ, ye priest, exalt him, o people, forever.”
First canon, ninth ode Thy incorruptible birthing was shown forth, God came forth bearing the flesh from Thy womb, and appeared upon the earth, and dwelt among men; where we all magnify Thee, o Mother of God.
Second canon, ninth ode Every hearing shuddered at God’s unspeakable condescension, since the Most High willingly came down, even unto the body, and from the virginal womb, became a man; wherefore we faithful magnify the immaculate Mother of God.
At the Divine Liturgy, there are several places where the priest sings a part of the anaphora out loud, and the choir makes a response, while he continues the anaphora silently. In the liturgy of St John Chrysostom, the priest commemorates the Saints after the consecration and epiclesis, praying in silence “Again we offer unto Thee this rational service for them that in faith have gone to their rest before us: the Forefathers, Fathers, Patriarchs, Prophets, Apostles, Preachers, Evangelists, Martyrs, Confessors, Ascetics, and for every righteous spirit in faith made perfect.” He then sings out loud, “Especially for our most holy, immaculate, blessed-above-all and glorious Lady, the Mother of God, and ever-Virgin Mary:” The choir then sings a hymn to the Virgin; on the major feasts, the daily hymn is replaced by the ninth Ode of the canon (in this case, the first one, “Thy incorruptible birthing...”)

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