How Eastern Orthodox writers can help us write ancient new songs
Do you ever feel like you are stuck in a rut in your songwriting? Are your lyrics having trouble getting beyond declaring that God is worthy, that he should be exalted, and that you love him?
All are true sentiments: God is worthy of our worship, he is rightly loved by us, and he truly is exalted. But do those ideas put our songs in danger of the musical equivalent of recycling?
With over 3,000 years of songwriting praising the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, perhaps it is a bit much to ask for a completely new song that says something no song has ever said before. But what can we do to make sure our new songs are not just recycled from ideas that have begun to lose some of their power in our congregations? What can songwriters do to open up new vistas of God’s wonderfulness to worshipers?
One possibility is to aim intentionally for writing “old” new songs by imitating worship materials from the history of the Church. And one such source is the songs that come from the churches of the East. These songs can help a composer climb out of a rut and be inspired with ways to write songs that are both classic and new.
One ancient Eastern method for songwriting is to place Jesus Christ’s saving work within a larger biblical story of salvation. And one way to make connections across the Bible is to celebrate Christ reversing the Fall in the Garden of Eden and thus restoring—even elevating—humanity. Ephrem, an important songwriter from Syria in the 4th century, wrote many songs with this technique, all marked by a sense of the wonder of what people can now enjoy through Jesus. Ephrem’s songs speak of our current salvation in Christ in relationship to Adam, Eve, and to the original paradise.
Ephrem sings this reversal by highlighting what was lost or spoiled with Adam and Eve to contrast with the excellence of what Christ now provides us and original Parents in salvation. For example, one of his hymns on paradise, using images drawn from Leviticus on how a leprous person might be restored after a priestly cleansing, bemoans Adam’s sinful state as a form of spiritual leprosy:
Adam had been most pure
in that fair Garden,
But he became leprous and repulsive…
But there is hope since Jesus Christ, the Great High Priest, came to save: “He stooped down and came to him, He cleansed him with hyssop, and led him back to paradise.” In this way, Ephrem makes connections across the Bible to find a way to draw a picture of the repulsiveness of sin and the cleansing reversal of Christ’s ministry to sinners.
Ephrem is quick to see natural points of connection with the garden story and things in Christ’s ministry. Noting humorously that, after Adam had eaten of the forbidden fruit of a true, he then “blossomed like a tree” (since he began wearing fig leaves), Ephrem delights in humanity’s encountering a different tree, the “glorious tree of the Cross” through which we can be clothed in glory, acquire radiance, and find a way to return to Eden.
2. Romanos the Melodist
Sometimes even the most succinct of connections between Christ and the original paradise is enough to evoke wonder. In a poetic sermon (a lyrical sermon!) from 6th century Constantinople (now Istanbul), another composer, Romanos the Melodist, captures the awe of what Jesus has restored to us in a simple—yet profound—line: “Bethlehem has opened Eden, come, let us see.”
Romanos also demonstrates another fruitful path for pursuing classic ways of writing new songs: relying upon Christ as the Incarnation of God to speak of human repentance and the divine offer of salvation in very sensory, embodied ways. If the Savior, Jesus Christ, is fully human and also fully God (and he is), then the drama of salvation has been drawn into a very sensory world. Romanos’s approach is to read the Gospels theologically in theology’s most basic meaning: a word about God. And so, instead of subtly seeing Jesus only as human when reading the Gospels (with the accompanying notion that God is out there somewhere), Romanos interprets events in the ministry of Jesus as involving a Savior who is both God and man. Thus the “spiritual” can be described in very sensory ways.
Here’s how Romanos handles the story of the sinful woman who anoints the feet of Jesus with perfume (Luke 7:36). In Romanos’s lyrics, not only does the woman’s perfume have a sensory dimension but the woman’s sin and God’s grace in Jesus do as well:
The harlot once saw the words of Christ
Wafting everywhere like aromatic spice,
Giving a new breath of life to all who believed.
Then she despised the stench of her sins.
A theological reading of the Gospels (seeing Jesus Christ as fully God and a fully embodied man) allows a songwriter to set up some remarkable contrasts across Scripture. Thus another worship song sings about how this sinful woman adores the very same feet whose steps brought such dread to Eve as she heard them walk in the garden (Genesis 3:8). This use of biblical narrative allows us to find language that moves talk of salvation out of the abstract. The sensible and the concrete allow the worshiper to feel salvation in the body, not just grasp it with the mind.
3. John Chrysostom
A final idea for writing historical new songs is to place the scope of Christ’s saving work within a cosmic frame. As handled by Eastern worshipers, this poetic technique sparks awe in the breadth of what Christ has done for us.
Consider a passage from John Chrysostom’s (4th century) proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection. Using images of conflict and triumph, Chrysostom portrays Christ’s death, descent into hell, and resurrection as an epic story of cosmic conflict. The images underscore conquest and ravaging with respect to what Jesus Christ has accomplished, rather than judicial (“God pronounces me forgiven because Christ suffered the punishment for my sin”) or economic (“Christ paid the debt for my sin”) images.
First, Chrysostom laughs that hell was embittered when it met the crucified Lord because hell discovered that it had been annihilated, mocked, destroyed, and chained up. And then he punches home the awe-inspiring significance of what Christ’s death meant for hell: “It received a body, and encountered God. It received earth, and confronted heaven.”
Through this passage, the worshiper is carried to a new intensity of worship by the universal profoundness of Christ’s death and resurrection.
Chrysostom’s handling of the birth of Jesus uses a similar portrayal of the cosmic breadth of his saving actions. But, instead of battle-driven images, the language is carried along by the wonder of paradox as Chrysostom marvels at what has happened in the Incarnation: “A heavenly way of life has been implanted on the earth, angels communicate with humans without fear, and people now hold speech with angels.”
The fundamental paradox is that Jesus Christ is both divine and human. The spin-offs are that heaven and earth have found a meeting place in him and that he is the reason angels and humans can worship together. Chrysostom marvels at the paradox: “… the One whom heaven did not contain, a manger would this day receive” or “….the One by whom all things are nourished, ….(receives) an infant’s food from his virgin mother.”
In this way, Jesus Christ, as the Incarnate Savior, is the way to heaven and the One through whom humanity can truly have fellowship with God. His saving work is not confined to his death and resurrection. We are saved by his birth as well “because God is now on earth, and man in heaven; on every side all things commingle.” And that’s something we can sing an old new song about.
And so, if you want to find new ideas for your songs, go east, young songwriter, go east to find something new—and old—to sing.
About Lester Ruth:
Lester Ruth is a professor of worship history at the Robert E. Webber Institute of Christian Worship and the Lily May Jarvis Professor of Christian Worship at Asbury Theological Seminary. In July 2011, he departs Asbury to begin teaching worship at Duke Divinity School.