April 3, 2014

Saint Joseph the Hymnographer as a Model for our Lives

St. Joseph the Hymnographer ( Feast Day - April 3)

By Protopresbyter Fr. George Papavarnavas

In the List of Saints of the Orthodox Church the chorus of sacred hymnographers have an important place. These are those saints who composed the beautiful hymns that we sing in the sacred churches on Despotic and Mother of God feasts, as well as the commemorations of the saints. The feasts known as Despotic are so called because they make reference to the most important events in the life of the Despot Christ (Christmas, Pascha, Ascension, etc.). Mother of God feasts are those feasts that relate to events in the life of the Most Holy Theotokos (Nativity, Annunciation, Dormition, etc.).

In the elect chorus of holy poets and hymnographers of our Church is the biography of Saint Joseph, who came from Sicily from pious parents. As a young child he liked to recite and chant ecclesiastical hymns. Later, with the gift he received "from above" and which he cultivated and increased, he occupied himself with writing hymns and "sang honey-sweet melodies, moved by the Spirit, to the assembly of the saints."

His life was long and eventful. He lived for about a century. After the untimely death of his father he fled with his mother and sister to the Peloponnese. Then from there they moved to Thessaloniki, where he was tonsured a monk and ordained a Priest. During this period he dealt systematically with the calligraphic copying of hymns, but with a new composition. The liturgical book known as the Octoechos or Paraklitiki, in large part, is his work.

After some time he went to Constantinople, where he met and associated with Saint Gregory of Decapolis, with whom he cohabited for some time. From there he left to Rome after being persecuted, because he fought with boldness and vigor the heresy of iconoclasm. On the way to Rome he was ambushed by pirates, who forcefully took him to Crete. From there he returned once again to Constantinople, where he completed his life in old age, in 842.

The hymns of the Orthodox Church are, by common confession, immortal monuments of art and literature at the highest level. It is especially an unspent treasure and spiritual wealth of all those who not only love art, poetry and music, but especially prayer and theology. This is because the authors of these wonderful hymns were certainly orators and poets, but first of all they were theologians. They were people of prayer, and the hymnographic texts they authored were fruits of the vision of God. That is, the sacred hymnographers were made worthy to see the glory of God and to experience His uncreated energy, namely His providence and love in the limits of their personal lives. This is why their words pierce the soul and create a mood for prayer.

To speak about God is not an easy thing, if you haven't seen Him, if you haven't tasted of His uncreated grace, and if this grace hasn't flooded your entire existence. You are simply walking a fine line in writing the experience of the saints always with the fear you will be caught in a limbo, perhaps making an error and departing from your goal and purpose. Things are different however for the saints. For them Theology is a narration. They narrate whatever they saw, heard and touched. The sacred hymnographers also belong to this category. They experienced the birth of the Logos, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, as their personal rebirth, and His cross and burial as the crucifixion and death of their own sins and passions, and the Resurrection of Christ as their personal resurrection, exceeding the limits of death in their personal lives. For this reason their Theology, as we mentioned, is a narration. It is not the result of thought and reflection but an extract and fragrance of the "Holy Spirit spread" heart, which is why they speak straight to the heart gently applying to it consolation, a joyful disposition and an appetite for life. Basil the Great writes: "The state of gladness and sadlessness of the soul is given by the consolation of hymns." In other words, the hymns of the Church console us, whisk away sadness, and change the disposition of the soul for the better, causing gladness and tranquility.

Once I heard the blessed Fr. Paisios consult a monk and he urged him to chant during his service, that is during his work, which at that time was to cook and wash dishes. And I believe he did this for the reason stated above, mentioned by Basil the Great, because that monk, whom I knew, was inherently closed off and introverted and at that time was facing great temptations.

I would like to finish this article by borrowing the words of the wise Hagiorite, the venerable Nikodemos:

"And for those who hunger for the bread of wisdom, there is a spiritual table, (the hymnology of the Church) filled with a myriad of heavenly foods, and those who eat therefrom will never die, but will live unto the ages; for those who thirst for the nectareous and sweet water of the sacred Troparia, they will find a mellisonant and overflowing well, ... a paradise full of flowers and fragrant myrrh ... full of the sweetest fruits ... and in return illuminating the nous, enchanting the heart, and the entire inner man will rejoice" (Eortodromion or Commentary on the Great Feasts).

Source: Ekklesiastiki Paremvasi, "ΙΩΣΗΦ Ο ΥΜΝΟΓΡΑΦΟΣ", April 2001. Translated by John Sanidopoulos.