Liturgica has been kind enough to send me complimentary copies of all of Fr. Apostolos Hill's recordings of Byzantine Chant in English. These are the most beautiful recordings of Byzantine Chant I've ever heard and some of the most beautiful recordings I've ever heard of music in general. The liner notes are so thick that they are hard to get back inside the case. They contain lots of information including the lyrics to all the songs. I do have some theological problems with the album but that is because I have some theological problems with Eastern Orthodoxy.
Byzantine Chant is monophonic but often accompanied by a bass drone called an "ison." The ison adds beauty to the recordings and really made some of the chants stick in my head. I had a hard time getting the following from track 12 out of my head while I was trying to take an insurance exam:
God is the Lord and has revealed Himself to us, blessed is he that comes in the name of the Lord.
This particular album is a collection of hymns from Great Lent and Holy Week. Samples can be heard on the website. The album begins by asking God to grant us repentance, rightfully recognizing that repentance itself is a gift from God. My favorite songs on the album compare the singer to a Biblical character. Track 4 places the singer in the place of the Publican:
Mine eyes are weighed down by my transgressions, and I cannot lift them up and see the height of heaven. But receive me, Savior, in repentance as the Publican and have mercy on me.
Track 5 uses imagery from the story of the Prodigal Son:
When I disobeyed in ignorance Thy fatherly glory, I wasted in iniquities the riches that Thou gavest me. Wherefore, I cry to Thee with the voice of the prodigal son, saying, I have sinned before Thee, O compassionate Father, receive me repentant, and make me as one of Thy hired servants.
Track 21 is based on the Parable of the Ten Virgins. Track 22 is based on the Parable of the Wedding Feast:
I see Thy Bridal chamber adorned, O my Saviour, and I have no wedding garment that I may enter therein. O Thou giver of light make radiant the vesture of my soul and save me.
Track 26 identifies the singer with the thief on the cross:
When the thief beheld the Origins of Life suspended on the Cross, he said: were not He is crucified with us incarnate God, the sun would not have hidden his rays, nor the earth quaked with trembling. But You who endured it all, remember me, O Lord, when you come into Your Kingdom.
Track 19 speaks of Christ defeating death already in the resurrection in the resurrection of Lazarus:
By means of Lazarus has Christ already plundered you, O death. Where is your victory, O Hades?
Track 22 is a profound meditation on the crucifixion of Christ:
Today is suspended upon the Tree, He who suspended the land upon the waters. A crown of thorns crowns Him, who is the king of the angels. He is wrapped about with the purple of mockery, Who wrapped the heavens with clouds. He received smitings, He who freed Adam in the Jordan. He was transfixed with nails, Who is the Son of the Virgin. We worship Thy Passion, O Christ. Show us also Thy glorious Resurrection.
There were also some tracks that caught me off guard. Track 20 speaks of God sending fire to devour our adversaries and contains this imprecation:
Bring more evils upon them, O Lord, bring more evils upon them who are glorious upon earth. Alleluia.
Track 25 is the most politically incorrect of the tracks:
The Jews, O Lord, condemned You to death, O Life of all, and they whom You did cause to cross the Red Sea nailed You to the Cross. They to whom You gave honey from the rock to eat, offered You gall.
Although there is nothing false in the statement above, I think it would be better to say, "We, O Lord, condemned You to death..." and continue the same pattern of placing the singer in the place of the villain.
When the songs on the album stick to the Biblical events they are superb. When they deviate I start to question their theological accuracy. The album contains songs which are prayers addressed to Mary and the saints. I don't believe it is necessarily always wrong or sinful to call upon Mary or the other saints to pray for the church because we are told in Scripture that the saints do pray for the church. However, we do not have the promise that they hear our prayers. But I don't believe it is necessarily wrong in a general way to call out to the saints to pray to the church the same way perhaps that the Psalmist calls upon every creature that has breath to praise the Lord. If I chant that Psalm I don't expect all or even any of the creatures to hear me or understand what I am saying. In the Lutheran Service Book we have a hymn written by an Anglican based on the Orthodox liturgy that calls out to Mary and all the saints in heaven to praise God:
Ye watchers and ye holy ones, Bright seraphs, cherubim and thrones, Raise the glad strain! Alleluia!....
O higher than the Cherubim, More glorious than the Seraphim, Lead their praises. Alleluia! Thou, Bearer of the Eternal Word, Most gracious, magnify the Lord. Alleluia...
I believe that all of the above is entirely appropriate. Mary is higher than the angels because she was given the great privilege of the Theotokos (God-bearer). Mary was given a special calling far above that given to any man. I am convinced from the Scriptures and the tradition of the church that Mary remained a virgin throughout her life on earth and that her virginity even remained intact through the birthing process. She is rightly honored by the church and all generations should call her blessed.
However, some of the songs on this album go to far. Track 2 calls upon the Theotokos for purification. An Orthodox Christian might say that they are really calling upon Mary to pray for their purification but it really sounds like Mary is the one doing the purification. Track 6 refers to Mary as the "Queen of virtues" and that she is bringing us "fortune of good deeds" making it sound as if the good deeds of Mary are contributing to our salvation. Wasn't the work of Christ enough? We are called to wash ourselves in the blood of the Lamb, not the blood of Mary. Track 13 refers to Mary as the "Champion Leader"
To thee the Champion Leader, I thy servant ascribe thank offerings of victory, for from all terrors hast thou delivered me; and since thou hast that power which is unassailable, from all dangers set me free, that I may cry out unto thee, "Hail, O Bride without bridegroom!"
With songs like that it's no wonder Mohammed thought that the Trinity consisted of God, Jesus, and Mary. Discernment is definitely required for listening to this CD but it is well worth it. There is so much beautiful and unique music.