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Choral Corner #13: What is an antiphon?

In the Divine Liturgy, the antiphons are the first three hymns. Except on great feasts, the Sunday antiphons consist of portions of Psalm 102 (“Bless the Lord, O my soul”), Psalm 145 (“Praise the Lord, O my soul”), and the Beatitudes (Matt. 5:3-12); the weekday antiphons contain portions of Psalms 91, 92 and 94. However, the term “antiphon” describes the manner of intended performance, not the theological content or liturgical context; technically, any piece sung back-and-forth between two choirs or soloists may be called an antiphon. So, all of our services are, in a sense, antiphonal, as they consist of a constant dialogue between the clergy and the choir. 

The Orthodox antiphonal tradition originated with St. Ignatius of Antioch (“the God-bearer” — c.107), who had a vision of heavenly worship in which two angelic choirs sung hymns in this manner. There is also likely a connection with the opening of Isaiah 6, in which the prophet beheld two seraphim flanking the Lord on His throne, each crying out to the other: “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Sabaoth! Heaven and earth are full of Thy glory!” (Isaiah 1-3)

In his excellent presentation on the Divine Liturgy given at our most recent Nativity retreat, Fr. Victor Gorodenchuk from St. Stephen’s Cathedral noted that St. John Chrysostom (347-407) was another important early influence on the use of antiphonal singing in Orthodox worship. At the time, the Divine Liturgy began outside the church building, with a Cross-procession that eventually led indoors. St. John was concerned that some of the more simple in his congregation might be swayed by the loud singing of Arian heretics who worshipped in the open air just outside the Constantinople city walls, so he had his own liturgical singers drown out their false doctrine with antiphonal singing until all of the faithful were inside the temple.

So, why do we not sing our antiphons…well, antiphonally? It’s because in parish churches, particularly in America, it’s very rare to have enough singers to form two choirs.  😎

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