Irmosi sung at Matins are some of the most beautiful pieces of liturgical poetry we have in the Byzantine Tradition. They serve as a bridge between two worlds, making the hymns of the Old Testament speak to the celebration of the Feast at hand in Church.
We often pass over these hymns as quickly as cantors turn the page to the next hymn, but today I want to focus in on one hymn in particular. The Irmos of the first ode for the Feast of the Nativity of John the Baptist is especially enlightening. It reads:
“O You, who were born of the Virgin, drown the three powers of my soul in the depths of dispassion as you did the chariots of pharaoh, I pray you, so that with the mortification of my body as a timbrel, I may sing to you a hymn of victory.”
The “hymn of victory” spoken of at the end gives us the context. We are at the banks of the Red Sea, where God, through Moses, will part the waters for Israel to flee, then send the waves crashing back onto the Pharoah and his army.
But what the hymn writer has done is set the stage of this drama in a much more intimate space—the human heart. Here the biggest threats are not an oppressive people pressing from outside of ourselves. Rather, they are from within us, the passions of our soul. The hymn writer here is clearly making a comparison between Pharoah and his chariots and the soul based on the famous image of Plato’s image of the soul in Phaedrus. Here, Plato imagines reason’s role is to guide the two lower parts of the soul, the spirited, and the iracable parts, toward the heavens to contemplate the forms.
The hymn writer, in borrowing Plato, contorts the image to fit Christian categories. First, the direction of the steeds is not up, but down, “drowned in the depths of passionlessness.” This concept, known as apatheia, whence we derive the term apathy. It’s meaning, however, is far from its English derivative. Apatheia is the absence of vicious emotions—like anger and lust. It hardly means, disintrest, but rather the presence of Good emotions, like zeal to do good works or desire for the love of God.
The second change in this metaphor is more striking. In Plato’s vision, reason guides the steeds of the soul to safety. In this image, the principal actor is Christ, “the one born of a virgin.” Notice that no part of the soul is exempt from the bath. Even reason, once exalted by Plato’s metaphor, needs to be submerged in the waters of the red sea. Here the hymn writer acknowledges the Christian perspective of the human condition. All of our humanity is fraught with original sin, and no part of him is exempt from the metanoia called for by Christ. One cannot help but apply the baptismal imagery the Early Church saw in the image of the crossing of the red sea. What this hymn emphasizes is how the baptismal waters of Christ descend down to the depths of our soul to transform every aspect of us into the image of our Divine maker. As an aside, the next time someone exalts “freedom of conscience,” this hymn is an example that even our conscience is in need of conversion and cannot be trusted.
Third, the hymn writer suggests, in agreement with the entire ascetic tradition of the Christian East, that the mortification of the body is necessary component of this activity. The mortified members of our flesh become a timbrel, the very instrument of praise struck on the palm of Zipporah and Miriam on the further side of the Red Sea.
These words conjure up two thoughts. First Baptism allows us to cast off the old man, where we truly die to rise in new life with Christ. We continue that daily death through asceticism woven into the daily life of a Christian.
Second, we are not likely to think that the emaciated flesh of an ascetic is the romantic object of poetic musing. But, if our minds need the bath of regeneration, our hymns show us the way to do this. We use our bodies to train our minds. That process of mortification, while it sounds ghastly, is what turns us into a well-calibrated instrument of praise of God.
That this Irmos is set for the feast of the Nativity of St. John is important both for his role in Baptism and model of asceticism. He was doing this long before monks were around and therefore, shows us how biblical, beautiful, and while counter intuitive, the finest truths of the Byzantine Catholic faith are.