On Sunday, October 20 His Beatitude, Metropolitan Tikhon celebrated the Divine Liturgy at St. Nicholas Orthodox Cathedral in Washington D.C. The responses to the Divine Liturgy, which were comprised of the newly composed Divine Liturgy by Benedict Sheehan, were sung by The Saint Tikhon Choir, together with members of the cathedral choir, under the direction of Benedict Sheehan. [Read more below.]
The evening prior, The Saint Tikhon Choir offered a concert of Sheehan’s composition at the Church of Saint Peter on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. His Beatitude, Metropolitan Tikhon offered these words as an introduction to the concert.
A little over one thousand years ago, Prince Vladimir the Great, the Grand Prince of Kievan Rus’, sent emissaries throughout the known world to study the faiths of other nations to find the one that he might adopt for his nascent empire. The impressions of the emissaries upon their witnessing of the Divine Liturgy at Hagia Sophia in Constantinople is recorded in the Chronicles of Nestor in the following well-known passage:
“Then we went to Greece, and the Greeks led us to the edifices where they worship their God, and we knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. For on earth there is no such splendor or such beauty, and we are at a loss how to describe it. We only know that God dwells there among men, and their service is fairer than the ceremonies of other nations. For we cannot forget that beauty.”
This account, as with many literary renderings of the experience of the Divine, is often relegated to the realm of ancient history, as something beyond our reach here in our modern 21st century. And yet, this evening, we will enter into this very same experience – not an intellectual or even an auditory experience, but rather a liturgical experience – and we will be immersed in the very same splendor and beauty through the powerful and ascetical hymns that will fill this sacred space.
The texts that form the basis of these hymns predate the experience of the Kievan emissaries by another 600 years, and in the case of the psalms, even many centuries more, and are brought together in one of the most sublime expressions of Orthodox liturgical poetry: the Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom. The purpose of this poetry is theological and ascetical in the most positive understanding of those word, that is, it is the expression of the relationship between God and man. This relationship is a mystery, often moving from the relationship between an ailing patient and the kind physician to one between a grown person walking with his heavenly Father back to their ancestral home, heaven itself. In this sense, the experience of the Kievan emissaries is universal
Though originally written in Greek, the Liturgy of Saint John Chrystostom has long been translated into other languages, including English, but not until this year has an entire Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom in English been newly composed. We are grateful to Benedict Sheehan, the Musical Director at St Tikhon’s Seminary, and the Saint Tikhon Choir for bringing this particular gift to life for us, as a commission from the PaTRAM Institute, and with the blessing of Archimandrite Sergius, the Abbot of the Monastery, represented here this evening by Archimandrite Alexis. It is truly a great offering to the Church in North America and throughout the world.
In many ways, this work is the fruit of the North American Orthodox mission, a mission that has blossomed over the past 225 years, since the arrival of St Herman and his monastic missionary companions to Alaska in 1794. That mission continues to be the vision of the Orthodox Church in America which is called to give living expression to the universal Orthodox Christian Faith here on this continent, not obliterating or destroying the multiplicity of strands that compose the global Orthodox Church, but weaving them together into a whole, just as the music you will hear this evening weaves together various chant traditions – slavic, byzantine, and even contemporary – into a single melody.
Like the emissaries in the great Church of Constantinople one thousand years ago, those of us gathered here this evening may be at a loss as to how to describe our experience. But like them, we will certainly not forget the beauty of what we will experience and I pray that you will receive it with gladness of heart.