On the apolytikion of the honourable Cross

In Orthodox Christianity: liturgics on February 25, 2009 at 7:06 pm

Recently, as one of the two ecclesiarchs in my diocese, I was discussing the English translation and exact musical chant of a very well known apolytikion in the Holy Orthodox Church, “Soson, Kyrie…”   We sing this on all Wednesdays, Fridays, and on all feasts in which the honourable and life-creating Cross is featured. Therefore, it is very important to Orthodox Christians.

Our Antiochian Archdiocese in North America offers this English translation for the apolytikion:

O Lord, save Thy people and bless Thine inheritance, granting unto Thy people vict’ry over all their enemies, and by the power of Thy Cross preserving Thy commonwealth.

Fr Alban West, our senior ecclesiarch, offered these thoughts, which with his permission, I set forth here:

“I agree that translation presents a challenge both in this hymn and the kontakion of the Cross. In the original, the hymns beseech imperial victory over “barbarians” (apolytikion) and “enemies” (kontakion).   As you rightly point out “grant our king victory over barbarians” had a whole host of theological connotations within the Romaiosyne that are lost (and even subject to gross misconstrual) in the present age. Some translations (such as Nassar) leave in the kings, barbarians and adversaries; possible misconstruals be damned. Others, such as the translation of the kontakion on the Archdiocese Sacred Music Dept. site, replace “kings” with “Orthodox hierarchs” and “enemies” with “false teaching”. I don’t strongly object, though I think this is a bit of a stretch too far from the original to be the most desirable course. Then there is the middle ground occupied by translations such as the Apolytikion on the Archdiocese SMD site, where the “king” becomes “people” and the “barbarians” become “enemies” This is perhaps a bit misleading because it is so general, but I think it is the best course. I think (or I hope) that most people hear this as a plea for divine assistance as the Church battles against unseen, spiritual adversaries (and not a plea for victory in our upcoming volleyball game against the Unitarians). 
Ultimately, it seems to me that the question at issue is “where is the cultural inheritance of the Romaiosyne to be found and how would the inhabitants of such a survivng Romaic culture interpret the hymn?”   I would argue that with the fall of the Polis the unique cultural heritage that was the essence of the Romaiosyne was passed on in its most complete form to the monastic communities of Athos and thence to Orthodox monasticisim generally. It is my impression that in this monastic setting the forces of darkness that were at one time embodied in the encroaching, barbarian hordes were acknowledged in their true essence as the “spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places”.  In the monastic consciousness (which is, in my opinion, the present day locus of the Romaic consciousness) the veil of political symbols has been torn away and the true spiritual nature of the struggle has been revealed. 
The beauty of the original is that it places the struggle of “us against them” in a very concrete setting that is equally amenable to a spiritualized understanding (where Christ is the essential Basileus and the demons, passions and death are the essential barbarians or adversaries). It is my suspicion that “people” and “enemies” is as close as we can get to this material denotation with a spiritual connotation in our modern era. 
Forgive the rambling nature of this; it is to be taken in the the spirit of “thinking an idea out via email.” Suffice it to say, at the end of this all, I vote for the translation and setting of the apolytikion as found on the SMD site. 
In Xp,  +Alban

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  2. “O Lord, save Thy people and bless Thine inheritance, granting unto Thy people vict’ry over all their enemies, and by the power of Thy Cross preserving Thy commonwealth.”

    There is a context here that should not be overlooked. These specific words are recited and listened to by Americans in American churches. The “American Commonwealth” is currently in the midst of a serious and violent war against enemies probably best described as militant Islamists (not Unitarian volleyball players!). Regardless of the original Greek wording and the implication in the current wording that “Thy people” are the Orthodox faithful of the entire world, most Orthodox American laity are likely to see in this prayer a call for victory over militant Islamism, just as a generation ago they were likely to see in it a call for victory over Communism.

    • Bill,
      Your response represents exactly the very interpretation of this hymn which I would like to discourage. In the end, it is not about worldly politics, as much as we would love to line all that up (“barbarians” = Communists, Muslim radicals, etc.); rather, it is about the defense of a Christian polity against all worldliness, in any and all of its forms.
      Fr Patrick

  3. Father Patrick —

    Should the hymn be reworded, or can we trust the ability of Orthodox congregations to understand it is not aimed against the political threats and concerns of the times they live in?


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