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Who Has “Found the True Faith”?

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Written by Basil on 06/4/2015 9:33 PM. Filed under:


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“We have seen the true light…![1] We have found the true faith…!” These words appear in a hymn that Byzantine rite Christians sing after communion in the Divine Liturgy. They are a source of pride for many, a source of embarrassment for others. Many Orthodox interpret “the true faith” to mean the entirety of the Eastern Orthodox faith in all of its peculiarity, and converts in particular often take pride having found this “true faith” and abandoned their “former error.”[2] But it may be worthwhile to ask: Is that what the hymn itself says? We do not always sing this hymn after communion: We do not sing it from Pascha to Pentecost.[3] This fact hints that perhaps the hymn’s meaning lies deeper than the surface reading.

On Pentecost, the fiftieth day of the Pentecost period which begins with Pascha (Easter), this hymn retakes its usual place after communion. During the previous forty-nine days, two other hymns were sung instead: During the thirty-nine days between Easter and Ascension, we sing the Paschal Troparion instead: “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling death by death, and on those in the grave bestowing life!” And from Ascension until the Saturday before Pentecost, we sing the troparion of Ascension: “You ascended in glory, O Christ, our God, granting joy to your disciples by the promise of the Holy Spirit. Through this blessing, they were assured that you are indeed God’s Son, the redeemer of the world!” Finally, on Pentecost, this hymn takes the place it occupies for the rest of the year: “We have seen the true light; we have received the heavenly Spirit! We have found the true faith—worshipping the undivided Trinity, who has saved us!” But this is not the first time we hear this hymn at Pentecost.

We hear it first in Great Vespers on the eve of Pentecost, at the incense psalms (which begin “Lord, I cry to you, hear me!”). We sing it twice, in fact. The hymns of Pentecost celebrate two things, often in the same hymns: the descent of the Holy Spirit “which appeared to them in tongues as of flame” and empowered them also to speak in other tongues (Acts 2.3),[4] and the holy Trinity, now completely revealed by the gift of the Spirit to all humankind, who enables us to share in the life of the Trinity.[5] Slavonic sources even call Pentecost “Trinity Sunday.” One hymn for Pentecost famously extols the Trinity in a gloss on the ancient thrice-holy hymn (trisagion): “We worship one power, one essence, one divinity, and we say: ‘Holy God: you created all things through your Son with the cooperation of the Holy Spirit. Holy mighty: through you we know the Father; through you the Holy Spirit came to dwell in the world. Holy immortal: consoling Spirit, you proceed from the Father and rest in the Son. O holy Trinity, glory to you!’”

In the history of the Divine Liturgy, singing “We have seen the true light” after communion comes at a very late date. None of the manuscripts that we have prescribe singing it after communion; it does not appear until the seventeenth century, after even some of the earliest printed editions.[6] The hymns for Pentecost, by contrast, are much older. The hymnbook in which we find the hymns for Pentecost (a Pentecostarion) received its present form by the fourteenth century.[7] It is a safe guess that the hymnography for Pentecost is even older, because more solemn occasions tend to hold on to older usages much longer.[8] The Pentecostarion quite likely puts down in writing earlier practice. “We have seen the true light” first appeared as a Pentecostal, Trinitarian hymn before it found its present place in the liturgy.

So what is “the true faith”? The hymn itself and its origin in the hymns for Pentecost tell us: the true faith is “worshiping the undivided Trinity, who has saved us!” Eastern Orthodox Christians do not have a trademark on Trinitarian faith and worship. It certainly shows up more often in our worship than in that of some other confessions, but it is not our sole property. The next time a visitor asks in horror about this hymn that seems so exclusive,[9] you can share with them that it is truly about faith in and worship of the holy Trinity, a faith which in fact we share with other Christians.

Linknotes:
  1. This incipit is Εἴδομεν τὸ φῶς τὸ ἀληθινόν/Eidomen to phos to alethinon.
  2. This phrase, also translated as “former delusion,” appears in various euchologies in rites for receiving non-Orthodox Christians into the Orthodox Church.
  3. Archimandrite Robert Taft, sj, cites A. A. Dmitrievski and L. D. Huculak that this hymn is also replaced by the festal apolytikion on dominical feasts. [A History of the Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom, vol. VI: The Communion, Thanksgiving, and Concluding Rites. Orientalia Christiana Analecta 281. (Rome: Pontificio Instituto Orientale, 2008) 472.] I am not familiar with this variant custom, which is not prescribed in the standard English-language source on East Slavic liturgical practice, The Order of Divine Services by Peter Fekula and Matthew Williams [(Liberty, TN: St John of Kronstadt Press, 2007.)].
  4. The wordplay on “tongues” is also present in the Greek.
  5. At the Theophany, which celebrates the baptism of Christ but also the revelation of “Trinitarian worship,” the Spirit only descends on the Lord. It is at Pentecost that the Spirit is given to us.
  6. Taft, ibid. 469.
  7. Archimandrite Job (Getcha), The Typikon Decoded. (Yonkers: SVS Press, 2012) 37.
  8. This principle was first formulated by Anton Baumstark.
  9. There are plenty of elements of the orthodox and catholic faith which are necessary, and we are right to defend them when the time is right. However, none of those other elements are the subject of this hymn.


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