Hymns to our Lord Jesus Christ

Within the sacred liturgy (Vespers, Matins, the Divine Liturgies, and so on), our prayers are usually directed to God the Father – through the Son, and in the Holy Spirit – while most of our liturgical hymns are directed to Jesus Christ, our Savior and the visible “face” of the Trinity.

Our paraliturgical hymns, on the other hand, surround the liturgy and meet other needs. Many are directed to the Mother of God, and to particular saints, or are sung within the community to bolster one another’s faith. Of course, many hymns ARE directed to God through the liturgical year, but most of those fall in a particular liturgical season, and so are treated separately in the Hymnal Project.

As we saw in the last post, Hymns to the Holy Trinity, there remain a few frequently sung  hymns to the Trinity and its  Persons which are not tied to a liturgical season.  Today, we will look at the hymns directed to our Lord, God, and Savior, Jesus Christ.  These fall into three basic categories.

Hymns for Holy Communion

Several of these spiritual songs are immediately directed to the reception of the Body and Blood of Christ, in Holy Communion.  (Click on the links for more details about each hymn.)

Of  course, each Divine Liturgy has one or more liturgical Communion Hymns – for example, “Praise the Lord from the heavens, praise him in the highest” on ordinary Sundays.  In the early Byzantine tradition, each of these hymns was sung as refrain to the psalm from which it was taken, with the singing continuing until all had received the Lord.

Over time, the reception of Holy Communion by the faithful became less frequent, while in large churches the Communion of the clergy in the altar could take some time. As a result, the practice arose in Slavic churches of the choir sing a konzert of sacred music at this point in the Divine Liturgy.  In churches such as ours with congregational singing, the cantor might lead any hymn(s) that seemed appropriate. This explains why the section of “Eucharistic Hymns” in our 1978 pew book includes hymns to God the Father and to the Holy Spirit as well.

With the 2006 promulgation of a new Divine Liturgies book, our bishops directed that during the Divine Liturgy itself, from the opening blessing to the dismissal, only liturgical and Scriptural texts should be sung. This has led to a much-needed restoration of the singing of the liturgical Communion Hymn(s) of the day, with psalm verses changed by the cantor or some other person. (See Singing at Holy Communion.)

Still, for large celebrations, there is sometimes a need for additional singing at Holy Communion. With this in mind, the Metropolitan Cantor Institute, in its book for Vespers with the Divine Liturgy on Great and Holy Thursday, pointed out that, in particular, the three hymns listed above might still  reasonably be sung at Holy Communion:

  • Accept me today – this is actually a liturgical hymn, from Great and Holy Thursday
  • Give me your Body, O Christ – a versification of the Paschal Communion Hymn, “Receive the Body of Christ”
  • I do believe and profess – a versification of part of the pre-Communion Prayer

Furthermore, these hymns really make no sense outside of the context of Holy Communion.  So we plan on submitting this proposal to the Inter-Eparchial Music Commission, and then to our bishops, as part of the Hymnal Project proposal.

Benediction Hymns

In this country, the decline in Holy Communion among Latin Catholics led to a liturgical devotion, the practice of Benediction (blessing) with the Body of Christ, which was placed in a special receptacle called a monstrance.  This provided a special blessing even for those who did not or could not receive Holy Communion; seeing the Body of Christ served as a substitute for partaking of it.  Numerous hymns were written for this service, and it was sometimes combined with parish missions, celebrated at the end of the Eucharist of Mass, and extended into hours of Eucharistic adoration.

While some of these practices were adopted in our church, they remained somewhat foreign to our theology and practice – and obscured the fact that the congregation is blessed with the Body and Blood of Christ at every Divine Liturgy, immediately after Holy Communion (“… the celebrant blesses with the chalice: Save your people, O God, and bless your inheritance.”) Still, our own parishes sometimes held Benediction and Eucharistic vigils, and hymns were translated or written for this service.

Most of these hymns for Eucharistic benediction can be identified by their emphasis on receiving a blessing, and on the Eucharist as a treasure whose proper place is in the tabernacle on the altar.  Still, since they sing of welcoming Christ, they could be used before the Divine Liturgy as an introduction to the service – after all, we DO hope to receive God’s blessing during the Eucharist, most especially in the form of Communion in the Body and Blood of Christ!

So even if we have long since abandoned  the Latinization of celebrating Benediction, we may very well want to keep these hymns in our  repertoire for singing before the Divine Liturgy.

Hymns to the Sacred Heart

Another Latin devotion which became popular in our church – one more way of proving that we were “real Catholics” – was devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, including First Friday devotions to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, molebens to the Sacred Heart, and so on.

Of course, if seem metaphorically as a devotion to the love of the Savior for us, this is perfectly consonant with our tradition, but as used in practice it often served as a distraction from our own Christological traditions, and also gave scandal to Orthodox Christians who saw these sorts of imports as proof that Eastern Catholics did not really believe or preserve Orthodox theology and tradition.

For these reasons, the feasts and liturgical services oriented toward the Sacred Heart of Jesus have almost entirely disappeared from our parishes. Some would argue that since they have fallen out of fashion in many Roman Catholic parishes as well, it is our job as Catholics to retain them. But the words of the Second Vatican Council and Pope John Paul II are clear: as Eastern Catholics we should focus on preserving and enlivening our own traditions, liturgical forms, and theology.

The 1969 collection Duchovni Pisni included seven hymns to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.  Of these, only one has really become popular in our churches:

This hymn borrows its melody from Kol slaven naš.  The first verse refers to us “who love your Sacred Heart” and “esteem this most precious treasure”, concluding “give us your blessing” (see the discussion of Benediction above). The second verse is simply an adaptation of the text of Kol slaven nas, and the English translation actually has it directed to the Father rather than to the Son.

For these reasons, I am proposing:

  • that the first verse of this hymn be quietly dropped from our repertoire, as a clear Latinization.
  • that the second verse (which is well known) be added a a second verse to So great is God, our English version of Kol slaven nas, where it fits admirably.

This is probably the most controversial proposal I have made so far in the Hymnal Project, but I think it is the best way to move forward on all these issues.

Titles, titles, titles

The discussion above does leave a bit of a problem.  Should we label some hymns “Holy Communion” if suitable  for singing at Communion, and others as “Our Lord Jesus Christ”?  (We will face the same problem with “O Holy Spirit, mighty defender” – should it be labelled “Holy Spirit”, or “Pentecost”?

I am not entirely settled on this, but I think it would be best to label the hymns to God as “Holy Trinity”, “God the Father”, “Our Lord Jesus Christ”, and “Holy Spirit.”  A footnote about use for Communion can be added, and there can be back-references from the section of hymns for the liturgical year to other hymns which might also be suitable for singing on particular feasts.

(We will see the exact same issue with hymns to the Mother of God: some of these are both general hymns sung throughout the year, AND connected with particular feasts. For example, the verses of “When the angel came” connect it to both the Annuncation on March 25, and the Dormtion on August 15!)

Please add your thoughts and comments below – any issues you have with particular hymns, hymns you’d like to see added, or the general questions I’ve just outlined.

 

 

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