by Brad (Reader Irenaeus) Jersak, Ph.D.
“The primary means of theological education
in the Orthodox Church is through worship.”
~ Archbishop (ret.) Lazar Puhalo
Hymnody as Theology
I began my decade-long journey toward Orthodoxy in 2003 under the tutelage of Vladika Lazar, the abbot of All Saints of NA Orthodox Monastery (OCA) and my spiritual father. By the time he chrismated me in 2012, this living library of patristic thought had immersed me in key works of the church fathers, rarely without citing their words verbatim and in context. And yet my theological re-education was nevertheless deficient. How so?
Both he and my friend Fr. Michael Gillis (Antiochian Orthodox) insisted that I could study the works of the fathers, the councils and canons forever and still miss the tone and texture of Orthodoxy. Ethos matters. The great saints are essential to our interpretation of “the faith once delivered” but the heart of the church must be experienced in worship—in the hymns and choreography, the symbols and cycles of church fasts and feasts. The faith is not studied into our hearts, but prayed in, for Orthodox worship is the drama of redemption absorbed through the interactive prayers of the people.
After my chrismation, I was soon tonsured as a “reader” in the church and began to chant the church’s hymns through Vespers, Matins and the Divine Liturgy week after week. The effect of the 8-week cycle of repetition over the first year was like augering a hole through my icy heart until living water gushed up from within. What my mind could not conceive, my nous began to perceive. Not that I’ve arrived but I can say that one year in the courts of the Lord outpaced the previous ten in patristic studies and 50 years of modern Bible studies, colleges and seminary.
What I share below may seem irrelevant to those of other Christian traditions, but I would encourage them to think of them as “our hymns” in that many of them predate the great schism or Protestant Reformation. In other words, if what the church historically professed as gospel during worship matters, they belong to the whole church—to you.
When we come to discussions concerning apocatastasis—the “restoration of all things” or ultimate redemption—I understand how Catholics and Protestants must work out that debate on their own terms and with their own tools. The biblicist descendants of sola scriptura are, of course, concerned only with what the Bible says or doesn’t say. But “evangelical universalists” from George MacDonald to my friend Robin Parry think more broadly, historically and theologically, while maintaining a firm footing in Scripture. Roman Catholics must also work within their tradition, councils and catechisms—and through the ressourcement movement (Rahner, de Lubac, Balthasar, Ratzinger et al), attend seriously to the patristic tradition.
But in the Orthodox world, there can be no excuse for ignoring or displacing the centrality of worship to our theological education with reductionist debates about the fifth council or proof-texting the Fathers. And this is especially true when it comes to the question of apocatastasis. I am utterly bewildered by the apparent ignorance among Orthodox voices who overlook the universal implications of our hymnody. They cannot possibly be participating in our worship or if they are, must zone out as we sing or chant the ancient hymns week after week. Hundreds of these songs permeate our liturgy.
Fr. Aidan Kimel asked if I would write an article for Eclectic Orthodoxy detailing the “universal suggestiveness of Orthodox hymnody.” I regret that I cannot. There is nothing suggestive about it. Rather, our kontakia and troparia, our typika and canons, are a continuous bold declaration that what Christ accomplished through the Cross, his conquest into hades and his glorious resurrection, was for all humanity, affects all humanity and calls all humanity. They comprise the gospel announcement that Christ is victorious over death and has raised up humanity with himself. Therefore, “let every mortal leap for joy!”
At the reader’s stand, I don’t choose what to read … the prescribed readings are handed to me and I chant what I’m given without warning or rehearsal. The surprising statements that come from my mouth often lead me to take a quick screenshot on my smartphone for future reference before Dmitri can turn the page or switch books. The hymns that follow are taken from those moments of rapture when I’m undone by early Christian worship.
I will italicize key phrases and offer some commentary along the way. Please, do not skim through the hymns. In fact, I suggest standing up and saying these hymns out loud as prayers. While Orthodox believers are discouraged from teaching apocatastasis as dogma, the debate should not be without reference to our profoundly inclusive hymnody.
The Eight Tones
I understand that not all Orthodox churches hold Vespers or Matins services, or the priest and a few readers may find themselves chanting them alone. So, I’m going to begin with selections from the eight tones embedded in the Divine Liturgy, our primary Sunday service. Any Orthodox believer who attends the Divine Liturgy will hear or sing these words throughout the year many times.
Tone One – Kontakion
As God, Thou didst rise from the tomb in glory, raising the world with Thyself. Therefore, mortal nature praises Thee as God, and death has vanished, Now Adam exults, O Master, and Eve, freed from her bonds, rejoices crying out: Thou are the One, O Christ, who grants resurrection to all.
This is the Christian gospel. In the Incarnation, in his death and in his resurrection, Christ has united himself to humanity, to the one human nature and raised humanity up with himself. Adam and Eve represent fallen humanity, which Christ has freed through his Passion victory. That resurrection is granted to who? To all.
Tone Two – Troparion
When Thou didst descend to death, O Life Immortal, Thou didst slay hades with the radiance of Thy Divinity. And when Thou didst raise the dead from the lowest depths, all the hosts of heaven cried out: O Giver of Life! Christ our God! Glory to Thee!
We proclaim Christ’s descent into and victory over hades every week (or every day if you’re keen) in our prayers. There’s a double meaning here, referring both to (i) Christ’s descent into death (the grave) to retrieve the dead and (ii) Christ’s descent into the world (bound by death) to save all who were born in bondage to death. That is, hades is not only the underworld where the dead languish, but also death’s dominion in this world where we’re born into corruption (decay). As we’ll see later, Christ has already rescued us (the living) from the kingdom of hades.
Tone Two – Kontakion
Thou didst rise from the tomb, O Almighty Savior, and seeing the miracle, hades became terrified: and the dead rose, and at the sight of it, creation rejoices with Thee. And Adam is joyful, and the world, O my Savior, praises Thee forever.
Hades is often personified as the slain enemy of Christ, the result of which all its captives are freed. The dead rise, Adam (all humanity) rejoices and the (whole) world praises its Savior.
Tone Five – Kontakion
Thou didst descend into hades, O my Savior, and as the Almighty One, broke down its gates. As the Creator, Thou didst raise the dead together with Thyself, shattering the sting of death, and delivering Adam from the curse, O Friend of mankind. Wherefore we cry out to Thee: save us, O Lord.
Again, the hypostatic union has implications. Christ unites with all to raise all with himself. And in this context, how is Christ considered almighty? He is almighty by his victory over all and for all. Plundering hades for a remnant or even for most would be mighty, but not almighty. But he is All-mighty.
Tone Six – Kontakion
Christ God, the Giver of Life, raised the dead from the dark abysses, and by His life-bearing hand, bestowed resurrection upon the fallen race of man. For He is the Savior of all, the Resurrection, the Life and the God of all.
Does this sound like he came only for the saints or the faithful? Was it for the righteous alone that he descended? No. He came for the dead confined in dark dungeons, for the fallen, and became the Resurrection, the Life and the God of the faithful elect (?). NO! He bestowed resurrection life on ALL.
Elevation of the Cross
Another shared experience for all Orthodox worshipers is the celebration of the Elevation of the Cross. Many hymns were written concerning the Cross as Christ’s throne of victory and they trumpet his saving conquest.
Verily, death which befell the human race by eating from the tree, hath been abolished today by the Cross; for the curse of the first mother and all her descendants hath been undone by Him who was born of the undefiled Theotokos, whom all the powers of heaven do magnify.
The curse of death was undone for ALL her descendants. Here we introduce “the Theotokos,” Mary the Mother of God. This rattled me as a young Protestant, failing to understand it as a deliberate christological statement. Specifically, it was coined to counteract the Arian heresy by pushing them to answer this question: “Is the One in her womb God or not?” The title Theotokos was thereby an affirmation of the deity of Christ.
Today the Cross is elevated and the world sanctified; for thou who sitteth with the Father and the Holy Spirit, when Thou didst stretch Thy hands thereon, didst draw the whole world to Thy knowledge.
The Cross sanctified the world. What might that mean? And the whole world is drawn to “Thy knowledge” seems a deliberate echo of Christ’s words, “I will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32), where “knowledge” implies “saving knowledge” as in “this is eternal life: that they would know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, who you have sent” (John 17:3).
And now we commence with a host of hymns assigned by the Orthodox throughout the day, the week and the weekend prayer services (outside the 10am-noonish Divine Liturgy). These are in no given order, but let the consistent barrage of inclusive salvation wash over you in successive waves:
In bringing forth the Giver of Life, thou hast delivered Adam from sin, O Virgin, and hast brought joy to Eve instead of sorrow; and those fallen from life hath thereunto been restored, by Him Who of thee was incarnate, God and Man.
This song reflects on the birth of Christ where those fallen from life, symbolized by Adam and Eve but inclusive of all humanity, have been delivered. See the pun on delivery? The delivery of the Virgin’s child is the deliverance of humankind.
The Great Doxology and after it the Resurrection Troparion
Having risen from the tomb, and having burst the bonds of hades,
Thou hast destroyed the sentence of death, O Lord,
delivering all from the snares of the enemy.
Manifesting Thyself to Thine apostles, Thou didst send them forth to preach; and through them hast granted Thy peace to the world,
O Thou Who alone art plenteous in mercy.
Resurrection Troparion Tone 2:
When Thou didst descend unto death, O Life Immortal, then didst Thou slay hades with the lightning of Thy Godhead. And when Thou didst also raise the dead out of the nethermost depths, all the Hosts of the heavens cried out: O Life-giver, Christ our God, glory be to Thee.
Resurrection Kontakion Tone 2:
Thou didst arise from the tomb, O all-powerful Saviour, and seeing the marvel hades was with fear, the dead arose, and creation with Adam seeing this rejoiceth with Thee, therefore the world doth glorify Thee, my Saviour.
Kontakion, in Tone I
As God Thou didst arise from the tomb in glory,
and with Thyself didst raise up the world;
Human nature hymneth Thee as God, and death hath vanished,
Adam danceth, O Master, and Eve, delivered from bonds, now rejoiceth, Crying aloud: Thou are He, O Christ, Who granteth resurrection unto all!
Ikos: Let us hymn as God the Almighty Who rose on the third day,
Who broke down the gates of hades,
Who raised up from the grave those held there from ages past,
and Who appeared to the myrrh-bearing women, as He was well pleased to do, telling them first to rejoice and to proclaim joy unto the apostles,
in that He alone is the Bestower of life;
wherefore, with faith the women proclaimed the signs of victory to the disciples. Hades groaneth and death uttereth lamentation;
the world is filled with gladness, and all rejoice with it,
for Thou, O Christ, didst grant resurrection unto all.
Canon of the Cross & Resurrection
Irmos: All things are filled with awe …
Mindless hades seized Thee in its maw;
For having seen Thee nailed to the Cross, pierced by the spear, bereft of breath, It thought that Thou, the living God, wast a simple man.
But testing the might of Thy divinity it understood.
The grave and hades divided the ruined,
O Thou Who lovest mankind,
And both were against their will compelled to pay a fine:
The one by giving up the souls of the saints, and the other their bodies,
O Immortal One.
Ah, now in that hymn, it sounds like hades only gives up the saints. And yes, some hymns (a minority) specify the resurrection of faithful believers. But in the broader context of our hymnology, these lines don’t function as limits to the scope of salvation but are encouragements to be faithful and enter the experience of what Christ has done. For example,
Theotokion: Behold! Now that the prophecy been fulfilled!
For though, O Virgin who knewest not wedlock,
Didst have within thy womb Him Who is God over all,
And gavest birth to the timeless Son for all,
Who giveth peace unto all who hymn thee.
See how the birth of the Son is for all. But for those who respond to this good news, an experience of peace comes. The truth of our salvation is experienced through a willing response. The response doesn’t make it true. It makes it existential, like so:
Theotokian: Most blessed art thou, O Virgin Theotokos;
for through Him Who was incarnate of Thee, hades was taken captive,
Adam was recalled, the curse was annulled.
Eve was freed, death was put to death, and we were brought to life.
Wherefore, with hymns we cry aloud:
Blessed art Thou, O Christ our God,
Who hast been thus well pleased; glory be to Thee.
Salvation has already been secured. The curse of death is already annulled. Humanity in Adam and Eve has already been brought to life. Wherefore is old English for “from where” or “because of this.” It is because we have been freed that we bless Christ through these hymns.
Troparia: The veil was rent when Thou wast crucified, O our Savior, and death gave up the dead which it had devoured; and hades was stripped bare when it saw Thee coming into the nethermost parts of the earth.
“Stripped bare.” How so? Both of its power and of its captives. As St. John Chrysostom will say in his Paschal homily, “No one dead remains in the grave.” This also reflects how the first Christians understood Christ when describing how he would bind the strong man, invade his house and plunder his goods (Matt. 12:29), both in this realm and in his descent into hades.
Before Thy Passion Thou didst allow Thyself to be vested in a robe while being reviled, O Saviour, that Thou mightest clothe the uncomely nakedness of the first- fashioned man; and, naked, Thou was nailed to the Cross, disrobing Thyself of the garment of death.
That’s a seriously deep two-fold analogy. First, when the soldiers put the royal robes on Christ (to mock him), he simultaneously robes the nakedness (i.e. shame) of humanity from Adam and Eve and all their descendants. Second, as he allows himself to be stripped naked for the crucifixion, so he strips humanity (in his own body) of the shroud of death.
Having risen from the tomb, Thou hast raised with Thyself the dead who were in hades, and, since Thou art compassionate, Thou has enlightened them that glorify Thy Resurrection.
This is another example of how Christ raises all the dead in hades while enlightening those who glorify him. This enlightenment means that in our worship, fear of death is washed away in the glory of his Life. They are called to share this Light to the world—to those who are still blind to the good news. They need to know Christ came for them too:
Matins of Holy Saturday
You descended to earth to save Adam, but you did not find him on earth; And so You descended to hell in order to search for him.
This applies to everyone, qualified only by our need for forgiveness. Note how in our hymns interspersed with the beatitudes, we first proclaim universal salvation, then ask to be included with the prayer of the thief. That is, we respond in faith to the good news with assurance that the thief’s cry of faith is sufficient for us as well:
Forgiveness Sunday / Tone 4
Beatitudes on 10; Octoechos 6; Triodion 4, from Ode 6
3. On the Cross thou didst tear asunder with the spear the record of our sins; and, numbered among the death, Thou didst bind the tyrant of hades, O Lord Who lovest mankind, Who by Thy resurrection hast delivered all from the bonds of hades. Thereby we have been illumined, and we cry to Thee: remember us also in Thy kingdom.
Those who believe in ultimate redemption do not deny the summons to respond, but we see a faith response as our participation in the victory of Christ. Repentance is our wholehearted reorientation to the cruciform love of God:
4. O Thou Who alone art immortal, Who wast crucified and as almighty, didst arise from the tomb on the third day, and hast raised up Adam, the first created: Vouchsafe that I also may turn to repentance with my whole heart, and may ever cry out to Thee with fervent faith: Remember me, O Savior, in Thy kingdom!
And here is the great truth we’re reoriented toward:
5. For our sake He Who is without passion became a man subject to the passions; and, nailed of His own will to the Cross, He has raised us up with Himself. Wherefore, we glorify His Cross, passion, and resurrection, whereby we have been refashioned and whereby we are also saved, who cry out: Remember us also in Thy kingdom!
“Have been refashioned.” “Are saved.” When? How? In Christ’s passion, wherein he united humanity to himself and re-headed the human race—formerly all in Adam, now all in Christ. And yet the truth of our being must become the way of our being. Our new ontological reality becomes a new existential reality. This salvation is neither transactional nor unilateral. There is a synergy of reciprocal love: “we love him because he first loved us.” We are being saved by him because he has saved us. Join the dance of risen Adam! Let every mortal leap for joy!
6. O ye faithful, let us entreat Him who hath risen from the dead, hath made captive the dominion of hades, and wast seen by the myrrh-bearing women and said to them: “Rejoice!” that He delivers from corruption the souls of us who ever cry out to Him with the voice of the noble thief, “Remember us also in Thykingdom!”
Canon of the Cross & Resurrection
Irmos: As a natural image of a sojourn …
Having been tested by wounds by Thy suffering of the Cross,
Thou didst raise up with Thyself those wounded by hades.
Wherefore, I cry out: Lead up my life from corruption,
O Thou who lovest mankind.
The gates of hades opened unto Thee in fear,
And the vessels of the enemy were plundered.
Wherefore, the women met Thee, receiving joy instead of grief.
Here there can be no equivocating. Those freed are not merely the saints of old but especially those “wounded by hades” and even regarded as “vessels of the enemy.” It is precisely those who Christ came to save and plundered from their captor!
Kontakian, in Tone II
Though didst arise from the tomb, O all-powerful Savior;
and hades, beholding the wonder, was stricken with awe, and the dead arose.
Creation, seeing Thee, rejoiced, and Adam was glad,
and the world, O my Savior, ever hymneth thee.
Ikos: Thou art the light of those in darkness;
Thou art the resurrection of all and the life of men,
And has raised up all with Thyself, O Savior,
Abolishing the dominion of death and breaking down the gates of hades, O Word.
And the dead, beholding the wonder, marveled, and all creation rejoiceth in thy resurrection, O Thou who lovest mankind.
Wherefore, we all glorify and hymn Thy condescension;
and the world, O my Savior, ever hymneth Thee.
I started wondering if I had accidentally copy-and-pasted the above text more than once, but no, the repetition is purposeful, because I guess it needs to be. Our weekly communal prayers announce salvation for those who mindfully hymn Christ and the whole world and all of creation. So how is it that this never-ending celebration of universal salvation and ultimate redemption escapes the Orthodox infernalists?
Yes, I get that there are also songs of dread judgment. I don’t negate those. Like David Bentley Hart, I place them in their proper stanza within the divine rhapsody—in the age to come, on the Day of Judgment—before the All-Merciful Lamb, whose mercy triumphs over judgment and who delivers us through the fire to his Father and into the end of the ages where God is all and in all. All the hymns belong. I just don’t know where these universal hymns belong for the denouncers of apocatastasis.
But wait, we’re not quite done.
Canon of the Theotokos
Irmos: O ye faithful, with hymns let us magnify…
In thy womb, O pure one, the Word of God was given to corrupt nature as a staff of strength; and He raised it up which had fallen headlong into hades …
O Master, mercifully accept as advocate for us Thy Mother, Whom Thou didst choose. All things will be filled with Thy goodness, that we may all magnify Thee as our Benefactor.
That’s our new Exodus for hades’ slaves. That’s the lost sheep. That’s the wandering son. Humanity, corrupt in nature, fallen face-first into the pit, dragging creation down with us—now raised up and filled up, along with all creation, with Christ’s goodness.
Ode 5 – Canon of the Akathist
Irmos: All things are filled with awe at thy divine glory; for thou O Virgin who hast not known wedlock, didst contain within thy womb Him Who is God over all, and gavest birth to the timeless Son, granting peace unto all who hymn thee.
All things filled with awe. God over all. But peace also to those who proclaim it. Maybe this is not just a distinction between “the saved” and “the lost.” What if it also delineates those who proclaim salvation for all vs. salvation for some? Knowing Christ’s saving work is not for us only, but for the whole world, gives a special gift of peace. The hymn may not mean that, but it’s certainly been my experience as I’ve sung it.
Rejoice, O all-immaculate one who didst bear the Way of life, thou who hast saved the world from the deluge of sin! Rejoice, O Bride of God, awesome rumor and report! Rejoice, O dwelling-place of the Master of creation!
Back to Matins
In Thy mercy Thou didst withstand wounds and stripes, O Christ, enduring the malice of blows to Thy cheeks; and with long-suffering deigning to be spit upon, Thou didst thereby accomplish salvation for me. Glory to Thy power, O Lord!
Thou didst partake of death in a mortal body, O Life, for the sake of the suffering of the poor and the groans of Thy paupers; and having brought corruption upon the corrupter, O All-glorious One, Thou didst resurrect all with Thyself, in that Thou hast been glorified.
Tone Four Kontakion
As God my Saviour and Deliverer has raised up the earthborn, from the grave and from their bonds, and He has broken down the gates of hades, for, as Master, He rose on the third day.
Who is included? Who has been raised up and delivered? The “earthborn” entombed and chained in hades. And I repeat, this is not only talking about those who’ve fallen asleep. It describes my personal history—my testimony. It’s about rescuing the living from death’s prison.
Canon of the Cross & Resurrection
Irmos: Let every mortal leap for joy …
Having deceitfully caused me to fall, the serpent took me captive away from Eden; But on the hard stone of Golgotha the Lord Almighty dashed him as he were a babe, and through the tree of the Cross opened the entrance to delight again to me.
#deathmetal. But also, watch how the hymnist sees his life on earth as “the wastelands of hades” from which he’s been raised in Christ:
The mighty fortresses of the enemy hast Thou now brought to desolation; And with Thine almighty hand Thou hast plundered his riches, O Christ Who raised me up with Thyself from the wastelands of hades;
And an object of scorn has Thou shown him to be who of old boasted beyond measure.
Canon of the resurrection – Ode 6
Irmos: The uttermost abyss hath engulfed us, and there is none to deliver us. We are accounted as lambs for the slaughter. Save they people, O our God, for Thou are the strength and correction of the weak!
We were grievously wounded by the offense of the first-created man, O Lord, but we have been healed by the wounds wherewith Thou wast wounded for us, O Christ; for Thou art the strength and correction of the weak.
Thou hast led us up out of hades, O Lord, having slain the all-devouring monster and set his power at naught by Thy might, O Omnipotent One; for Thou art Life, Light and Resurrection.
Having descended to me, even unto hades,
And made resurrection a way for all,
Thou didst ascend again,
Taking me with Thee on Thy shoulder,
And didst bring me to the Father.
Wherefore I cry out unto Thee:
Hymn the Lord, O ye works, and exalt Him supremely for all ages.
The great hymns of the church thus proclaim universal salvation as a done deal, not so much focusing on what will happen after we die, but on what has already become reality through the Cross and Resurrection of Christ. This is not an eschatology or an atonement theory. This is the gospel of the historic church … what Christ has accomplished (tetelestai) has implications for what Christ will accomplish (at the telos)—God’s gracious and glorious end game.
Singing these truths over and over functions as a call to:
- Remember and proclaim what Christ has accomplished, conquering death by death and raising humanity in himself.
- Respond to the good news in worship and recapitulate our new ontologythrough repentance, so that the truth of our being in Christ would become the way of our being in our life experience.
- Educate and in my case re-educate the church with the gospel theology of the apostles and the early church fathers and mothers whose message they received and stewarded.
I’ve framed this article to address Orthodox believers who hadn’t noticed our apocatastasis-drenched hymnody. But I’ve also deliberately written it to appeal to other Jesus-followers who, like me, have conservative impulses, desiring to root our hope in something firmer than progressive trends or personal preferences. As if we don’t already have enough warrant from the dozens of biblical texts that foresee ultimate redemption, please understand that the church has also interpreted those texts, boldly proclaiming them in public worship even while her theologians haggled over split ends in ivory towers.
So yes, for sure, study the scriptures and the fathers. But on something so grand and so deep, worship may get you to convictions that they couldn’t.
* * *
Brad Jersak serves as a reader and monastery preacher at All Saints of North America Orthodox Monastery. He is the Dean of Ministry Studies (as of Sept 2019) at St. Stephen’s University (ssu.ca in NB, Canada) where he teaches New Testament, Theology, Patristics & some Philosophy. He is the author of several books, including A More Christlike God and Her Gates Will Never Be Shut.