Byzantine Hymns of Hate (Archimandrite Ephrem Lash, 2006)

NOTE: This article is taken from Byzantine Orthodoxies, pp. 151-164:

Byzantine Orthodoxies  Papers from the 36th Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies (2002)

The remote origin of this paper was a conversation I had nearly a quarter of century ago with a Coptic deacon in Oxford. He was optimistic about the prospects of an agreement being reached between the Chalcedonian and the non-Chalcedonian Churches. I remarked that one practical problem would be the fact that in a number of our liturgical texts we denounced by name some of the leading Saints of each others’ Churches. He said that the Copts had no such hymns. This is not however the case with the Churches of the Byzantine tradition, and I have vivid memories of the enthusiastic way the monks of the Holy Mountain sing hymns to lively and cheerful melodies denouncing leading heretics from Arius in the fourth century to John the Grammarian in the ninth.

On reflection I have come to the conclusion that such denunciatory hymns are a peculiarity of the Byzantine Orthodox tradition. I cannot recollect any such texts in the Latin missals and breviaries, while in the Book of Common Prayer I can only think of the splendid phrase in the Commination service for Ash Wednesday, ‘From the Bishop of Rome and all his detestable enormities’. This is quite general and can be applied to any Pope from Pius V to John Paul II, passing by Pio Nono and John XXIII.l The well-known English Catholic battle hymn, by Father Faber, ‘Faith of our Fathers’ merely alludes to ‘dungeon, fire and sword’ in so general a manner that it has even been adapted for use by Protestants, with the third verse,

Faith of our fathers, Mary’s prayers/Shall win our country back to Thee;/And through the truth that comes from God,/England shall then indeed be free,/altered to suit Reformation susceptibilities.2

We may see allusions to the Pope and his agents in Luther’s ‘Ein feste Burg? as one English version has it,

Though devils all the world should fill,/All eager to devour us./We tremble not, we fear no ill,/They shall not overpower us./This world’s prince may still/Scowl fierce as he will,/He can harm us none,/He’s judged; the deed is done;/One little word can fell him.

Nowhere do we find the detailed ‘naming and shaming’ that characterises the hymnography of the Byzantine Orthodox. I find it hard, and I imagine you will also, to envisage a Catholic congregation today lustily singing something like this:

Let Luther, Calvin, Zwingli too/Be cast out from the Church with shame;/With Cranmer and his godless crew,/Who marred Christ’s glorious, holy name.3

As an example of this from Byzantine hyrnnography, here is a Vespers sticheron from the feast of the Fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council in October:

As true Shepherds you bravely drove far from the Saviour’s flock the Macedoniusses, and Nestoriusses, the Eftychisses, and Dioscorusses, Apollinariusses and Sabellioseverusses, exposed as dangerous wolves in sheepskins, stripped of their fleeces, making them thrice-wretched; therefore we call you blessed.

The liturgical celebration of the Councils of the Church and the detailed doctrines they proclaimed is also peculiarly Byzantine. The nearest thing in western liturgy would, I suppose, be Trinity Sunday, Corpus Christi and the Immaculate Conception, but I know of no offices to celebrate Florence, Trent or Vatican I.

Nicea II, 7th Ecumenical Council 787 a.d.
Nicea II, 7th Ecumenical Council 787 a.d.

In the Byzantine calendar there are four feasts that are specifically devoted to the Fathers who produced the conciliar doctrines and definitions. In the Greek tradition these are the Sundays of the First, Fourth and Seventh Councils together with Sunday of Orthodoxy.5 The Slavonic tradition makes the second of these the Sunday of the first Six Councils. Many of the texts for these days, apart from those for the Sunday of Orthodoxy, are anonymous and impossible to date precisely. Many are probably of monastic origin and suppose a fairly detailed knowledge of both theology and church history.

There is also a number of texts denouncing heretics in the offices of individual saints, like Saints Athanasios and Cyril of Alexandria, but I will limit myself to the four ‘conciliar’ feasts.

athanasius and cyril

The Fathers of the First Council

The Sunday after the Ascension is celebrated as the Sunday of the 318 Fathers of the First Council of Nicaea, which means that the Fathers do not have a full office, since the Ascension is still being celebrated.

The four stichera for Great Vespers illustrate many of the characteristics of these offices. The principal villain in this case is, naturally, Arius, though on the ‘Widdecombe Fair’ principle common to many of these texts, other heresiarchs are not forgotten.

The first sticheron, grounding the Orthodox doctrine of the Word on Psalm 109, condemns Arius for making the Second Person of the Trinity a creature:

“You were born from the womb before the morning star, without a mother from the Father before the ages, though Arius dares to call you a creature, and does not glorify you as God, insanely joining with the creatures you, the Creator, and laying up for himself as treasure the fuel of the eternal fire. But the Council in Nicaea loudly proclaimed you, Lord, to be Son of God, equal in rank with the Father and the Spirit?”

The second recalls the famous vision of Peter of Antioch, in which Christ appeared to him as a young boy holding his tunic, tom in two, to cover his nakedness; a story is alluded to a number of times in these texts. Arius is also declared to theological mentor of Nestorios.

“Who divided your garment, 0 Saviour? ‘Arius’, you said, who cuts into divisions the Authority equal in honour of the Trinity. He it was who denied that you were one of the Trinity. He it was who taught Nestorios not to say ‘Mother of God’. But the Council in Nicaea loudly proclaimed you, Lord, to be Son of God, equal in rank with the Father and the Spirit.”

Vision of Peter of Alexandria
Vision of Peter of Alexandria

In the third sticheron Arius’ death is described in language which recalls that of St Luke’s description of Judas’s death, with whom Arius is compared. Some icons of the First Council depict Arius in the privy with an allusion to the tradition of his death. There is also a play on the word ousia.

“Arius fell into the precipice of sin, having shut his eyes so as not to see the light, and he was ripped asunder by a divine hook so that along with his entrails he forcibly emptied out all his essence [ousia] and his soul, and was named another Judas, both for his ideas and the manner of his death. But the Council in Nicaea loudly proclaimed you, Lord, to be Son of God, equal in rank with the Father and the Spirit.

There are similar allusions in the sixth Ode of the Canon:

“Escape the mystery of providence he could not, the sower of tares, who was called by the surname Lunacy; for having rivalled Judas, like him the wholly evil one was split asunder.”

The Council of Nicaea, with Arius depicted beneath the feet of the Emperor Constantine and the bishops
The Council of Nicaea, with Arius depicted beneath the feet of the Emperor Constantine and the bishops

“Burst open was the belly, the source which poured out the foul and undrinkable water of impious heresies, by the ploughshare of the intercession of the inspired Priests.”

The doxastikon of the Liti is a general hymn for the Fathers, which is used in the same place in the office of the Fathers in July, and names a number of heretics condemned by the first four Councils:

“You became strict guardians of the apostolic traditions, holy Fathers: for by teaching the orthodox doctrine that the holy Trinity is consubstantial, you overthrew in council the blasphemy of Arius; after him you refuted Makedonios, opponent of the Spirit, you condemned Nestorios, Eftyches and Dioscoros, Sabellios and the leaderless Severos; ask, we pray, that, delivered from their error, we may guard our life unsullied in the faith.

The canon at Matins is anonymous, despite its having an acrostic in the first person, I SING THE FIRST ASSEMBLY OF PASTORS. One of the troparia of the third Ode alludes to the traditional number of 318 fathers, who battled against the heresiarchs, by its reference to Abraham and his 318 servants who battled against the kings in Genesis 18:

“The holy heralds of God, all marching to battle like godly Abraham of old, mightily destroyed your raving foes, 0 Good One, by your sovereign power.”

At vespers for the 1st Ecumenical Synod,   Genesis 14:14-20 (the story of Abraham pursuing Lot with his 318 servants) is read.
At vespers for the 1st Ecumenical Synod, Genesis 14:14-20 (the story of Abraham pursuing Lot with his 318 servants) is read.

NOTE: The remainder of the article, which also examines the Byzantine chants for the 4th and 7th Ecumenical Synod, and Sunday of Orthodoxy, can be read here: