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April 7, 2018

The Transmission of Liturgical Joy in Byzantine Hymns for Easter

"The Transmission of Liturgical Joy in Byzantine Hymns for Easter"

By Derek Krueger


A fifth-century Greek Christian hymn for the last Sunday before Lent describes how “Adam sat and wept opposite / The delight of Paradise beating his eyes with his hands.” The entire congregation joins in the kontakion’s refrain “O Merciful One, have mercy on the one who has fallen.” The cantor even calls on Paradise to join in the weeping, bidding its trees to shed tears from their leaves and to bend earthward in postures of repentance. A closely related ninth-century kanon hymn for Morning Prayer on the same day has the entire choir singing in Adam’s voice, “I weep, I groan, I lament, / as I look upon the cherubim ... set to guard the gate of Eden ... / Woe is me! I cannot enter.” Eleventh-century books of liturgical melodies indicate a mournful melisma on the word “lament.” On Good Friday, a kontakion hymn of the sixth-century master Romanos the Melodist encourages all in attendance to join with the whole of creation to “shudder and groan at the Creator’s suffering,” recoiling in terror at the crucifixion. But Christian affect shifts over the course of the year from lamentation to joy, and by contrast, the seventh-century kanon hymn for Easter attributed to John of Damascus encourages listeners to “sing [Christ’s] praises” and take communion “in divine joy.” “Let us be radiant,” the singers declare to themselves. Christ himself commands them to “Rejoice!,” just as he once greeted the women who had come to his empty tomb. In celebration of the resurrection, Christians should even “leap” or “dance.” This Paschal Kanon thus transmitted ebullience, encouraging appropriate sentiments in response to the salvific deeds of God.

Working at the intersection of Byzantine liturgy, the history of emotions, affect theory, and ritual and performance studies, I explore one aspect of Byzantine Orthodox liturgy as an affective environment,a cycle of performances that both expressed and shaped emotions. I do so by focusing on hymnography for Easter, both by looking at individual compositions and by considering their integration into larger prayer services. This essay traces the Paschal Kanon from its composition in Jerusalem in late antiquity to a performance context in ninth-century Constantinople to pose questions about the role of liturgy in the formation and transmission of affect. Liturgical services interweave readings, prayers, declarations, and hymns, thus creating intertextual or interliturgical environments where liturgical texts comment on each other and together shape the experience of ritual.