Liturgical hymns before the Divine Liturgy – your comments requested!

Recently, as part of the Introduction to the Divine Liturgy course for cantors, I added an article on what to sing before the Divine Liturgy to the MCI website. In particular, I have some real reservations about the practicality of using some of the liturgical hymns in the Divine Liturgies book for this purpose.

Rather than put those observations (which are purely my own!) into the article, I have decided to post them here for comment and discussion. What do you think? (Here is the article itself, without my personal thoughts.)

Pages 451-461 of the Divine Liturgies book contain a selection of hymns from liturgical and scriptural sources, which were commended by the bishops for use before or after the Divine Liturgy. However, some of these work better than others.

  • “Make us worthy, O Lord” and “Now you may dismiss your servant” (the Canticle of Simeon) are from Vespers, and while they are suitable for an evening service, they are not as easy to sing as some other hymns, and might perhaps be better used in a celebration of Vespers itself.
  • The Polyeleos (“Praise the name of the Lord”) and the Great Doxology (“Glory to God in the highest”) are from Matins, and in particular, the Polyeleos is sung on particular Sundays and feasts days, while the Great Doxology is somewhat difficult to sing correctly and easily. Again, these might be better sung in the context of Matins rather than before the Divine Liturgy.
  • “Beneath your compassion” is our most ancient hymn to the Mother of God, but it is connected liturgically with evening worship on fast days, and so may seem out of place before a festive celebration; and “Accept me today” is connected very closely with Great and Holy Thursday.

This leaves two liturgical hymns that are admirably suited for singing before or after the Divine Liturgy: “Rejoice, O Virgin Theotokos” (the Byzantine equivalent of the Hail Mary) and “This New Commandment” (a hymn version of John 13:34). Still these are fairly short, and by the time the faithful have found the page they are on, the hymn is half over.

There are some better options for liturgical hymns, however. Stichera from Vespers, or a portion of the canon from the day’s Matins, could be sung before the start of the Divine Liturgy by the cantors. Of course, the faithful will only be able to participate if they have texts in front of them, or if they have memorized them from frequent use. Still the music for these hymns is fairly straightforward when led by a trained cantor, and these changeable hymns can present the theology of the day’s celebration in advance of the Divine Liturgy.

The article proceeds to commend the singing of NON-liturgical hymns before the Liturgy – of which we have many, and of course MCI classes have traditionally provided advice about which ones to sing.  But at the same time, do you sing these liturgical hymns before the Divine Liturgy, and how well do they work for you?

One thought on “Liturgical hymns before the Divine Liturgy – your comments requested!”

  1. In general, it is preferable to sing the divine praises, rather than extracting hymns from them to provide an “opening hymn,” a trait peculiar to Ruthenian worship. That being said, I know matins can be a formidable feat for some parish communities. I would consider singing the stichera appropriate to the resurrection gospel at matins as an opening to the divine liturgy. This way, the feast of the resurrection is respected and at least some vestige of the matins resurrection gospel is heard by the majority of the people in the church.

    It wouldn’t be a bad idea to do the third hour or the prayers of preparation before the Divine Liturgy. It gives people the ability to sing along to easy psalm tones and get a first practice run of the troparion and kontakion of the day. The order prayers after the divine liturgy could also be taken in this way, perhaps even singing the Canticle of Simeon and the troparia to their appropriate melody.

    As I write this, I do ask myself: where does this leave the spiritual song tradition of the Ruthenian tradition? these hymns are something peculiarly our own and while the theology of the hymns–especially in translation–is questionable, we have a responsibility to maintain and cultivate them. In my experience, these songs still really get people singing in a way that other selections do not. I think pilgrimages really are the venue for these things–something the Byzantine Catholic Church can afford to do more of. Some fresh translations of the hymns would be helpful. Some have already been done in the Anthology for Worship published by the Sheptytsky Institute.

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