Historical Meaning of Antiphons Sung during Liturgy

In the Divine Liturgy, after the Great Litany, come the three antiphons and their litanies/ prayers. These antiphons exist in several forms. The original Greek practice is to use psalms for the antiphons, interspersing the verses of the psalms with repeated refrains. For the first antiphonal psalm the refrain is, “Through the prayers of the Theotokos, O Saviour, save us!” The refrain for the second antiphonal psalm is the refrain, “O Son of God, save us who sing to You, Alleluia!” The refrain for the third antiphonal psalm is the troparion of the feast or day. (In the original antiphonal sequence, the Emperor Justinian’s troparion “Only-begotten Son and immortal Word of God” was the refrain for the third antiphon.) The Slavic use substitutes the hymns of the Typica service, namely Psalm 103, Psalm 148, and the Beatitudes, normally sung without any refrains, though it retains the original usage of psalms and their refrains for feasts. The origin of the practice of singing these antiphons is to be found in the streets of Byzantium.

After the Peace of Constantine, the Church was allowed to emerge blinking into the bright sunlight of a new day. One benefit of this emergence from the (metaphorical) catacombs was that the Church could express its faith publicly without fear of arrest, imprisonment, or martyrdom. And so, in certain large cities such as Jerusalem, Rome, and Constantinople, the practice began of taking to the streets and holding parades—i.e. liturgical processions. In Jerusalem these processions were centered around the holy places consecrated by the Lord’s presence. Rome had the shrines of many martyrs. In Constantinople, despite the lack of plentiful martyrs’ shrines and the lack of places the Lord had visited, there were still many processions (a tenth century Typikon mentions 68 processions a year). The procession would begin at a set place and then proceed singing to the Church where the Liturgy would be held. They did not walk in silence. They sang hymns, the cantor chanting the verses of the psalms and the people chiming in with the refrain. That was why the refrains were so short—they had to be brief enough to be sung by a crowd of people while walking to church. These three processional antiphons were so popular that they continued to be sung in Church even on days when there was no procession to the Church.

These processions fulfilled an added purpose apart from the devotional love of singing. They also served to express the ascendancy of the Christian Faith, including its triumph over heretical alternatives (in the Theodosian Code of law, heretics were forbidden to hold such processions). Formerly the Christians had to keep their heads down and their mouths shut and to mind their place. Now they could safely hold their heads high and praise Christ in public. The processions were a way of proclaiming that “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof” (Psalm 24:1)—including the city streets. The streets and the city containing them also now belonged to the Lord. Everyone loves a parade, especially if it is your own victory parade.

In those days it was the whole city which served as liturgical space. That is, the city as a city, held festival and exalted Christ, for the city now lay under His care and protection. The cities were smaller than our modern metropolises, and one could easily walk from one part of the city to the other. Processions through the city or from one church building to another were quite possible, unlike today where cities are often so large that one could not walk through them. Now most people must drive to church of necessity. It was otherwise in Byzantium; at that time its cities could still serve as liturgical space.

This change from the original practice of singing the antiphons as a crowd on the way to church to our modern practice of singing the antiphons only once we have reached the church also symbolizes a radical change in our situation. In Byzantium the whole city was regarded as liturgical space. Now the urban spaces and city streets are emphatically secular, and Christian worship must be confined to one’s own property. Christians may sing their songs within their churches, but may not simply take to the streets en masse to sing of the supremacy of Christ. At very least, a parade permit is required, and sometimes the city may not be happy to grant one. It is significant that Gay Pride Parades are part of the annual festivities of most cities, and are an established tradition; Christian parades are not. Christian prayer, praise, preaching, and proclamation are allowed, but are restricted and may only take place within the privacy of Church property. If you doubt this, try and hold a large mass parade to Christ today down the routes used for Gay Pride Parades as you sing to Jesus. You will find out quickly enough that Christendom has fallen, and that Byzantium is dead. Increasingly we are being herded back to the catacombs. The pre-Constantinian degree repression is of course not complete. But it often seems well on its way. This observation is not based on alarmist paranoia (though one remembers the aphorism of Dr. Johnny Fever of WKRP, “When people are out to get you, paranoia is just good sense”), but on a regular reading of newspapers and social media. The war against faith is real, even if it is undeclared. The fact that the war is undeclared of course makes it worse: when you know people are likely to shoot, you are prepared to duck. It is when one is unsuspecting of being fired upon that victims can multiply. The lesson for us in the twenty-first century is that we must raise our children and grandchildren to live counter-culturally, and to recognize that pretty much everything in our culture pushes them in the wrong direction. This is not to inculcate paranoia, but realism. Byzantium has fallen; the streets no longer belong to Christ.

The second lesson to be learned from the antiphons is the primacy of praise. A saying often ascribed to St. Augustine is, “We are an Easter people, and alleluia is our song”. That remains true regardless of whether or not the bishop of Hippo said it. We are the people whom God has formed for Himself through baptism; we must declare His praise (Isaiah 43:21). We are His royal priesthood, His holy nation, created to proclaim the excellencies of Him who called us out of darkness into His marvellous light (1 Peter 2:9). We have a choice, since spiritual reality abhors a vacuum just as does physical reality—we can either spend our time praising God or we can spend it fuming, worrying, and grumbling. It is too easy for us fallen sinners to do the latter, forgetting how much God has given us already. But why fume and fret? How much better to open our eyes to see His wonders in our daily lives, and open our mouths and declare His praise! Singing the antiphons sets us up for the coming week. Though Christendom has fallen, we need not fear or cower. We can still hold our heads up and bless the Lord. We are an Easter people, and whatever the condition of the city streets, alleluia is still our song.

By Fr. Lawrence Farley

Source: https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/nootherfoundation/commentary-divine-liturgy-antiphons/