Christ is born; therefore glorify! Christ is come from heaven; go and meet Him. Christ is on earth; arise to Him. Sing to the Lord, all you who dwell on the earth; and in merry spirits, O you peoples, praise His birth. For He is glorified.
Casually reading the above quote, one might assume that I am merely repeating the opening lines to St. Gregory the Theologian’s Oration 38. That assumption would be incorrect, however. This quote comes from Ode I of the First Katavasia of Christmas.
The implications of this are rather mind boggling. Either the Orthodox Church has been signing this particular hymn long enough for St. Gregory to quote it circa A.D. 380 or Oration 38 became so well beloved that it is the origin of the hymn itself.
Without doing a bunch of textual analysis — something that I do not have the kind of training or resources to do — I cannot with any certainty tell which of these two possibilities is more likely. One thing I can say for certain, however, is that this hymn demonstrates why reading the Fathers of the Church and getting to know people like St. Gregory the Theologian is so important.
Every Christmas season the entire Orthodox Church sings these words — words used by St. Gregory in his Oration 38. Whether or not he is the origin of this hymn or he is quoting the hymn, these are his words. Thus, at this time every years we, as Orthodox Christians, have an opportunity not only to worship God with St. Gregory the Theologian as one of the cloud of witnesses, but to make these words — his words — our words.
We have an opportunity to stand before God to sing in a way that unites is in word and in mind with St. Gregory and with every single Orthodox Christian who has ever sung these words — at least 1600 years of continuous worship.
When one has read enough of the Fathers of the Church and has sung enough of the hymnody of the Orthodox Church, one becomes acutely aware of how closely linked these two are. The dogma of the Orthodox Church as expounded by the Fathers is found expressed in song throughout the hymnody.
Thus, whether we know it or not, we are embodying the teaching of generations of Church Fathers every time we gather to sing the hymns of the Church. We have an opportunity to unite ourselves to them through song, let alone through the partaking of the Body and Blood.
It demonstrates that the liturgical actions of gathering and singing are vastly more important than we might otherwise believe. Indeed, it is typical for a local parish to have virtually no one present at an Orthros where the Katavasias of Christmas are sung. When we pass up on this glorious opportunity we are not only denying ourselves of this union with St. Gregory and so many other Fathers of the Church, we are denying ourselves the opportunity to experience the true meaning of Catholic Church.
Modern man normally understands the word catholic to mean universal. On the contrary, its true meaning is whole. In others words, despite the fact the the vast majority of Orthodox Christians in 21st century America do not know Ode I of the First Katavasia of Christmas, every time the local parish gathers to sing this hymn (even if it is only the parish priest and a single chanter), the wholeness of the entire Orthodox Church is made manifest in this singing.
In other words, we are not just making words preached by St. Gregory the Theologian some 1600 years ago our words, we are singing these words with St. Gregory and every generation of Orthodox Christian.
Through the prayers of St. Gregory, may we all gain the wisdom to see this understanding of the One Holy, Apostolic and Catholic Church, that we take advantage of the services of that Church to make the words of generations of Orthodox Christians our words and to sing with all of those same generations as well as the generations to come. Amen.