A lot of Christians in the west have grown used to hymns played and sung during Masses and other important events. But are we familiar with the Church music of the east, mostly used by the Eastern Orthodox Communion? Have we oriented ourselves with such chants and hymns—at least to an extent?
We know that the traditions of the Latin Church and the Greek Church differ in a number of ways—and this includes the different Byzantine chants of the Eastern tradition. Below are some of the chants used during the Divine Liturgy and other ceremonies.
The Trisagion is sung before the Epistle is read. The words “Agios o Theos, agios ischyros, agios athanatos, eleison imas,” (holy God, holy mighty, holy immortal, have mercy) are repeated throughout the chant as a way to describe the three divine qualities of God.
The Alleluia is a song of praise sung in the Eastern tradition after the Epistle is read. The chant is sung together with the Prokeimenon, a psalm or canticle which precedes the scripture reading. The practice is similar to the Latin tradition, where the Alleluia is also sung before the priest reads the gospel.
The Kyrie Eleison is used in both Latin and Greek traditions. It is the most often repeated phrase in the Orthodox tradition. The biblical root of the chant comes from 1 Chronicle 16:34 which reads, “...give thanks to the Lord; for he is good; for his mercy endures forever.” It is a simplified version of the passage and speaks of thanksgiving and petition.
Used during Eastern Orthodox Vespers, the Phos Hilaron is an ancient Christian hymn written originally in Koine Greek, the lingua franca of the east during the late antiquity. It is a song of praise and celebration of the glory of God’s light.
Marian in nature, the Agni Parthene is a hymn composed by St. Nectarios of Aegina in honor of the Theotokos or God-bearer, the Virgin Mary. It is sometimes performed in Orthodox churches as Vespers begin and after the Divine Liturgy as the cross is venerated.
The Byzantine tradition may seem entirely foreign to anyone in the west, but its customs and practices—including its hymns and chants—serve as foundations to one's faith.