One of the struggles I had when I first became Orthodox was discovering within the Church a tradition of congregational singing not unlike what I grew up with in the Protestant Church. What one often finds in a typical Orthodox Church either here or abroad is that the entire service is sung by a choir, either amateur or professional, that performs pieces from a place removed, either in a choir loft or off to the side. The unconscious message this sends, especially if they are singing from the loft, is that the rest of the people in the nave are off the hook, and that their work consists merely of silent prayer in their respective place.
One of my friends from college who observed this phenomenon early on in my contact with the Church confessed, “Well, this is all fine and beautifully mysterious, but what about the praise and worship music that the people sing to themselves when they are not in church, in the unguarded moments of their daily walk with the Lord?” It was a real zinger when I first heard it because up to that moment, I had never heard anyone sing Orthodox music outside of an Orthodox Church. Her words gnawed at me as I sought to acquire the ways and traditions of the Church; I told myself that the congregational and devotional singing I grew up with must exist somewhere in Orthodoxy as well. Perhaps it was only temporarily buried beneath all of the other rich things I was discovering.
Then the unmistakable moment came when I heard the Church’s hymns outside of a Divine Service. It was Great and Holy Friday almost 20 years ago and I was at the home of my priest just before the Matins for Holy Saturday (sung Friday evening) when the church sings the lamentations at the tomb of the Lord. He was on the floor with his 2 year old son, and, throwing him in the air, he began to chant the 3rd stasis of the lamentations when the faithful hear and almost feel the first whiff of the resurrection:
Every generation, chanteth hymns of praise at thy burial, O Christ God.
The solemn nature of the previous two stases of lamentations gives way to this exuberant expression of hope, as the Church eagerly strains toward the joy of the resurrection. And as I heard this sung prayer in the private home of another Orthodox Christian, I realized that the hymns of the Church do in fact spill out into the devotional lives of her faithful believers.
Tonight, we sing the lamentations at our parish. It is our custom and the local custom of many Orthodox Churches I know in America to sing these in a very congregational way. Our friends from Great Britain insist that it is a particularly American way to chant the hymns of the Church, not unlike the boisterous, acapella method known as Sacred Harp. And the lamentations you can hear on the youtube clip above lend themselves very well to this kind of full-bodied, participatory singing. It is a real answer to my prayer to hear and sing together with the whole parish these beloved hymns of Mother Church, and it is a constant reminder to us all that these hymns are not just for the professionals, but for the congregation of the faithful and should be taught diligently to our children, and sung when we walk by the way, lie down, and rise up.