MANY OF US, it’s fair to say, learned the alphabet as children by singing the Alphabet Song. Some of us learned the notes of the major musical scale by singing “Do-Re-Mi” from The Sound of Music. The principle is an obvious one: we learn through singing.
The principle is also an old one. Psalm 78 recounts the Exodus story for children in song form, “Telling to the generation to come the praises of the Lord” (Psalms 78:4). In the fourth century ad Arian controversy songs were used to popularize the doctrines of the Arian and Orthodox parties. And in the eighth century St Cosmas of Miouma used a music form – the canon – to make memorable patristic teachings on the Incarnation by St Gregory the Theologian (“Christ is born – glorify Him.”) and St John Chrysostom (“A strange and wondrous mystery I behold”). Cosmas’ approach worked: we still sing these words today.
What Is a Canon?
This form of poetic hymnody originated in the seventh century and was popularized by St Andrew of Crete, whose Great Canon is a feature of Byzantine Lenten services to this day. Canons have become a standard part of orthros and compline services as well as occasional services such as paraklesis and akathist services, as well as burials. One frequently used canon is part of the service of preparation for Holy Communion. Other canons, such as the Canon of Repentance, are frequently read as part of a Byzantine Christian’s daily prayer.
A canon consists of a number of stanzas called odes (three, four, eight or nine), each consisting of five or six troparia separated by a refrain such as “Glory to You, O our God, glory to You” or “Most holy Theotokos, save us.” The first troparion of each ode, called the Hirmos, is based on one of the biblical canticles from orthros. Apart from the ninth canticle (the Canticle of the Theotokos or Magnificat), these biblical texts are only sung during the Great Fast. At orthros in parish use, the canon may be abbreviated or eliminated completely, apart from the ninth ode.
Many canons were composed as acrostics, in which the first letter of each troparion spells out a verse or phrase appropriate to the theme. St Cosmas of Maiouma’s canon for the Nativity, for example, is written with the following acrostic: “Christ made man remains the God that He was.” Acrostics were used in some of the psalms and in early Greek poetry as well in secular poetry in the Byzantine Empire. English translations rarely seek to duplicate the meters or acrostics of the Greek originals.
The Nativity Canons
Our service books today contain two canons for the Nativity, one by St Cosmas of Maiouma and the other by his half-brother, St John of Damascus. Parts of them are sung during the Nativity Fast, with the entire canons being sung during the feast. The best known troparia are the hirmoi of the first and ninth odes respectively:
CHRIST is born: glorify Him! Christ has come down from Heaven: go out to receive Him! Christ is now on earth: exalt Him! Sing to the Lord, all the earth! Praise Him in joy, O peoples, for He is gloriously triumphant.
A strange and wonderful mystery I behold: the cave is Heaven, the Virgin a cherubic throne, the manger a noble place where reposes Christ the Uncontainable God. Let us praise and magnify Him!
As could be expected, the canons contain allusions to the Gospel accounts of Christ’s birth. They also expound the meaning of the Nativity as taught by the Fathers. The following troparia reflect these themes:
Christ’s Coming Reverses the Fall ~Man fell from the divine life of grace. Though made in the image and likeness of God, he became completely subject to corruption and decay through sin. But now the wise Creator re-creates man again, for He is gloriously triumphant (from Ode 1).
~When He saw man perishing, whom He had made with His own hands, the Creator bowed the heavens and came down. He took man’s nature from the pure Virgin and He truly became a man, for He is gloriously triumphant (from Ode 1).
~Plainly foreshadowed by a burning bush that was not consumed, a holy womb has brought forth God, the Word, who has taken our mortal nature. He takes away the bitter sorrow of Eve’s ancient curse. We mortals glorify Him! (from Ode 1)
~Though formed from dust, Adam shared in the breath of life from God; yet through the beguilement of a woman, he slipped and fell into corruption. But now, seeing the Lord born of a woman, he cries aloud: “For my sake, You have become like me! Holy are You, O Christ our God!” (from Ode 3)
~In His compassion, the Ruler of Heaven has become one of us, born of a Virgin who knew not man. In these last times, the Word, who is totally above all matter, has taken on our human nature and flesh, so that He might draw back to Himself Adam, the fallen father of our race (from Ode 3).
~By your own will, O Most High, You were born as a man, taking flesh from the Virgin, in order to cleanse away the poison from the serpent’s bite. Since You are God by nature, You lead us all from darkness into the life-giving Light (from Ode 4).
Kenosis (self-emptying) ~O Virgin sprung from the root of Jesse, you have passed the bounds of human nature, for you have given birth to the eternal Word of the Father. By His will, through a strange self-emptying, He passed through your womb, yet left it sealed (from Ode 4).
Theosis ~Obedient to the decree of Caesar, You were registered on the census of his servants, O Christ; and You have set us free, when we had been servants of sin and the devil. Sharing completely in our poverty, You have made our nature God-like through Your union and participation in it (from Ode 6).
~O Christ our Defender, You have put to shame the Devil, the adversary of man, using Your holy incarnation as a shield. When You took our nature, You gave us the joy of sharing in Your nature. It was Adam’s disobedient attempt to gain this which had made us fall of old (from Ode 7).
The Kondakion and Oikos
The Kondakion, associated with St Romanos the Melodist, was a lengthy composition in the same form as our Akathist to the Theotokos. As Canons displaced the Kondakion in Orthros, only the first verses, given below, were retained.
Today the Virgin gives birth to the Transcendent in Essence, and the earth presents a cave to the Inaccessible. Angels with the shepherds sing His glory, and the Wise Men with the Star travel on their way, for to us is come a newborn Child, who is God from all eternity.
Bethlehem has opened Eden! Come, let us see! We have found joy in a secret place hidden from the eyes of the world. We can take possession of Paradise that is within the cave. There the unwatered Root has appeared, flowering forth in pardon. There too is the undug well, from which David longed to drink of old. There the Virgin has brought forth a Child who will quench the thirst of Adam and all his descendants. Come, then, let us hasten in spirit to the place where has come for all mankind a newborn Child, who is God from all eternity.