In the Eastern tradition, all the rites of the Church are sung. Since the melodies are generally easy to pick up, a person who attends these services regularly will undoubtedly get certain hymns stuck in their head, especially the ones that are sung every day. Chances are that if you have ever attended an Eastern Vespers service, you remember “O Gladsome Light,” which is sung at the procession. As a child serving during Vespers, I remember taking great care to make sure I did not trip over my words when I was in front of everyone. This hymn has been a constant reminder of God’s Providence in my life, being at its core an exaltation of the Trinity upon seeing the sunset.
While much could be said about the hymn, I would like to focus on the last half, which runs: “We praise the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, God. It is proper at all times to worship you with voices of praise, O Son of God and Giver of Life, therefore the world glorifies You.” I never paid much attention to the last part, assuming that “therefore the world glorifies You” was one of those statements of the Church from the days gone by when “everyone” was a Christian and all was well.
I was somewhat surprised to find out that the hymn was known by a more ancient name, as the “Hymn of Athenogenes.” St. Basil of Caesarea mentions this hymn in as one of the instances where the worship of the Holy Spirit as God is attested by those who “utter the ancient form” of the Trinitarian invocation (On the Holy Spirit, 29) . Traditionally, the hymn is attributed to St. Athenogenes, who was martyred by fire in AD 196. Basil recounts that Athenogenes left the hymn as a farewell gift to his companions on the eve of his martyrdom. But surely, this is a problem. Christianity was not wide-spread in 196. The world wasn’t exactly glorifying Christ back then, because it was far too busy persecuting His Church. What are we to make of these words in this context?
First, let me consider my own bias. I assumed what perhaps we all assume, that ‘world’ was shorthand for “all the people in the world,” because, after all, who else would be doing the worshiping? The Bible sees things quite differently. The Psalmist declares. “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands” (Ps. 19:1). To clarify that that he is not using ‘heavens’ and ‘skies’ metaphorically, he continues, “They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them. Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world” (Ps.19:3-4).
It is possible that St. Athenogenes was reflecting on these very words when he wrote down his hymn. Here he was, the end of his life fast approaching, Christians around him suffering for their confession of Christ and yet, he gazed beyond our limited perspective of human affairs to triumphantly proclaim the glory of God, Who gives life and Who is glorified by the whole of the cosmos, the heavens and the skies, the Sun and Moon and stars, the waters and the plants, and finally by those who love Him.
Prayer, therefore, is not a merely human affair. All of creation bows down before the Creator in exaltation, presided over by intelligent creatures. In this time of confusion, when scandals seem to be unceasing, it can be easy to feel isolated. When will the next scandal break? Who will be involved in it? As I write, both the Eastern and the Western Churches are in the middle of grave crises which threaten to divide the faithful. Our fathers in the faith seem to continually fall short of their duties. In such times, it might feel increasingly easier to turn away, to stop praying, to just give up. But where can we go? If we look with our spiritual eyes, the very heavens still declare the glory of God, as does the ground beneath us. All of creation beckons us to bow the head to God and join them in the hymn of praise: though the filth abounds, the sound of this praise is yet greater.