Saturday, September 20, 2014

'O Lord Save Thy People' — for Us Today

Dear Parish Faithful,

If there is a troparion (other than the Paschal troparion) that the Orthodox faithful are familiar with, it is the one appointed for the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross:

O Lord, save Thy people,
and bless Thine inheritance.
Grant victories to Orthodox Christians
over their adversaries;
and by virtue of Thy Cross,
preserve Thy habitation.

I am not sure that even scholars can tell us with precision when this troparion first emerged and then entered into our liturgical life.  But it certainly is "ancient" and clearly reveals its Byzantine origins by its very content.  "Byzantine" refers to that long historical epoch when the Orthodox Christian Faith was the "official" religion of the Eastern Roman Empire, centered in Constantinople (now Istanbul), and when the Orthodox Church was the dominant religious and cultural force of the Christian oikoumene (the "civilized world" of the Eastern Roman Empire).  That long-lasting epoch can be dated from 330 - 1453.  These are the years of the "Byzantine legacy" of the Church (Fr. John Meyendorff's term). These are more specifically the years that Constantinople was consecrated as the capital of the Empire as established by the emperor Constantine the Great; and the year that the city was conquered by the Ottoman Turks, then to be re-named Istanbul.

The "Christian Empire" (a rather ambiguous concept) of the Byzantine world was surrounded by enemies that coveted the great city of Constantinople and the cultural and material wealth of the Empire.  These "enemies" posed a constant political and military threat to the well-being of the Empire.  Looking back over this long, and at times tumultuous history, we know of the Persians, the Avars, the Slavs and Bulgars (both eventually evangelized and converted to the Gospel), the Arabs, Pechenegs, and Turks, to mention the main protagonists of this ongoing historical drama.  The Eastern Romans - or Byzantines as they are now called by historians - were in an almost constant state of warfare or at least of vigilant preparation for war, as these various peoples and hostile empires impinged upon the borders of the Empire from many directions.  When the Byzantines went into battle their banners and shields bore the signs of their Christian faith - primarily the sign of the Cross.  This practice was established during the reign of the emperor Constantine the Great when he won a decisive battle after beholding a vision of the Cross and heard the command "In this, conquer." (We are not here analyzing the integrity or veracity of that vision). Following his victory, he established the Christian Faith as the Faith of the Empire (313 A.D.).

Returning to our troparion of "O, Lord, save Thy people .. " we now realize that this was something of the "national anthem" of the Empire.  Christians were praying for "victory" over precisely those "enemies" that threatened the Empire and its population - the "habitation" of the troparion.  When a city or village was under attack, the Christian inhabitants must have sung that troparion with real feeling and faith! In defense of the Byzantine Empire, most of those wars were defensive in nature, and not the result of expansionist polices. 

Thus, to use terms familiar to us, this troparion combined religion and politics.  In fact, we take a certain liberty in how we even translate this hymn today, for a more literal translation would yield the text:  "grant victories to the Orthodox emperors over the barbarians!"  That would hardly work in today's world. Yet, this translation is already a sign of re-interpreting the troparion, at least to some degree.  Since the political reality of the time of the troparion's origin is long past (and the Christian Empire of Byzantium collapsed), a certain process of allegorizing (finding a symbolic meaning for) this hymn has begun.  Our real "enemies" are sin and death.  These are the twin realities that haunt and trouble our minds and hearts unceasingly.  Yet these are the twin realities that Christ proved to be victorious over in His death and resurrection.  Christ has won that victory and we now pray to appropriate that paschal victory through a living faith in Christ, the Vanquisher of Death.  I believe that this is how we must now interpret this troparion in the context of our contemporary world and in then context of our ultimate concerns.

We have to be careful about what we sing and chant in the Church and why we do so.  The troparion "O, Lord, save Thy people ... " is so much part of Orthodox tradition that it is highly unlikely that it will be changed any further -and certainly not eliminated.  Therefore, I am convinced that we should not try and find a contemporary application that is political for this particular hymn. Let us concentrate on our real enemies - sin and death. 

But we also need to be aware of the contemporary reception of this troparion in a wider setting than our liturgical assemblies.  How does that text sound today to a guest  or "outsider" visiting our parishes on any given Sunday?  Will it perhaps sound a bit narrow-minded?  In Byzantium, everyone at the Liturgy was an Orthodox Christian.  That is not the reality today for us in North America.  We need to be able to communicate a deeper meaning to this popular troparion beyond its original and now outdated meaning.  Actually, this can prove to be an evangelical moment, for if called upon to offer an explanation, we can present the words of  this troparion as a prayerful plea to the Lord that we appropriate His victory over sin and death.  We will then find ourselves witnessing to the Gospel in all of its depth and power - and to the depth and power of the Orthodox Christian Faith.

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