Only Begotten Son and Word of God
Fr. Thomas Hopko · December 4, 2012
In his continuing series on the Divine Liturgy, Fr. Thomas reflects on the hymn sung at every Liturgy with its origins attributed to Sts. Justinian and Theodora in the sixth century.
We are reflecting now on the antiphons, the part of the Divine Liturgy following the Great Litany and the prayer that ends that litany. We mentioned last time that we have three antiphons. They’re called antiphons, very often sung in a responsorial manner or with two choirs, that they consist of lines from the psalms and then short refrains of a hymnological nature that are inserted between the lines of the psalms. Then the third antiphon, the normal one would be the beatitudes of our Lord Jesus Christ from the Sermon on the Mount, and then often, again, hymn verses, instructional verses, put in between the various beatitudes at the Liturgy.
So we have three antiphons. The first antiphon is a psalm, and the response is, “Through the intercessions of the Theotokos; through the prayers of the Theotokos, O Savior, save us.” Then the second antiphon, you have again a psalm, “Praise the Lord, O my soul,” usually, or a specific psalm for the specific occasion, feast day, time of the year, etc., and then the refrain there, “Save us, O Son of God, who is risen from the dead,” on Sunday; “who was crucified in the flesh,” on feasts of the Cross; “who is wonderful in the saints,” on feasts of the saints; “save us who sing to you: Alleluia.” And you have that “Alleluia” there which is the quintessential victory proclamation of the Gospel as the victory of God over all his enemies, the Alleluia.
We saw how there are these three sets, and they have that particular order, but that they vary. We definitely urge that the priests and the people and the cantors and the singers would work very hard to make that part of the Liturgy as deep, as full, as effective, as instructive, as inspiring and illuminating, enlightening, as they possibly can; and that there are different practices and different traditions about how that part of the Liturgy actually would be done.
What we want to do today is to note that after the psalm and the refrain, the responsive verse, of the second antiphon, a hymn is sung. A hymn is sung at every single Divine Liturgy, no matter what the occasion, whatever, whether it’s a Sunday Liturgy celebrating the Resurrection of Christ, a festal Liturgy on a feast day, whether it’s Great Lent, whether it’s Pascha season, whether it’s St. John Chrysostom Liturgy or St. Basil Liturgy, in the Eastern Orthodox Church today at the second antiphon that is setting the stage and introducing us and initiating the believers into the mystery of the Gospel—a hymn is always sung. It is never not sung. Sometimes even if there’s a vesperal Liturgy at the ninth hour in the Typika service before the Liturgy, this particular hymn will be chanted when you have a vesperal Liturgy where it will not be in the Liturgy itself because that Liturgy will begin with Vespers—it happens a few times a year—but still this hymn is never, ever dropped.
Let’s talk about this hymn today. That’s our topic for today: this particular hymn, sung always, at every Liturgy, on every occasion, after the psalm lines and the refrains of the second antiphon. In the translation of the Orthodox Church in America, this is how it is translated:
Only begotten Son and immortal Word of God, who for our salvation didst will to be incarnate of the holy Theotokos and ever-virgin Mary, who without change didst become man and was crucified, who are One of the Holy Trinity, glorified with the Father and the Holy Spirit, O Christ our God, trampling down death by death, save us.
The translation done in Great Britain for the Ecumenical Patriarchate translates into English this hymn in the following way, and I think this translation follows more carefully how this hymn is constructed in the original Greek language, and this is how it goes:
Only begotten Son and Word of God who, being immortal, accepted for our salvation to take flesh from the holy mother of God and ever-virgin Mary, and without change became man. You were crucified, Christ our God, by death trampling on death, being One of the Holy Trinity, glorified with the Father and the Holy Spirit. Save us.
Now we can see also, just for the sake of greater reflection here, how it was translated by the Greek Orthodox Church in America, the translation done at Holy Cross Theological School. This is how it’s translated there:
Only begotten Son and Word of God, although immortal, you humbled yourself for our salvation, taking flesh from the holy Theotokos and ever-virgin Mary and, without change, became man, Christ our God. You were crucified, but conquered death by death. You are One of the Holy Trinity, glorified with the Father and the Holy Spirit. Save us.
I think it’s a quite acceptable translation, but it’s probably the poorest, I think, because they have things there like “although immortal, ... you were crucified, but conquered death,” and it’s just questionable whether that was the spirit and the intention of the original Greek text.
Let’s talk about the prayer itself now, and let’s take a look at it in Greek, because it will help us. The Slavonic translation is just literally, absolutely, clearly following the Greek text, in actually the structure, the form. There’s not much… In English, some verses are moved around and so on, as you noticed in the different translations I read, where the OCA in America and the Greek Orthodox in Great Britain [translations] actually have significant differences.
Now, beginning the prayer: Ho monogenēs Hios kai Logos, and that is: “Only begotten Son and Word”—the only begotten Son and Word. It’s a definite article in Greek. There is only one only begotten Son, and there is only one Word of God. So it says, “Only begotten Son and Word of God,” and that, of course, means Jesus Christ himself. And then: athanatos hyparchōn. I think if you translated that absolutely literally, but not very beautifully, it would be: “immortal existing, existing immortal,” and it would not be “although immortal”; it’s “existing as immortal.” In the service book from Great Britain, it seems that, I believe, it has a very good rendering of that particular text, very, very close to the original. They translate it: “who, being immortal”: “Only begotten Son and Word of God, who, being immortal…”
Then it continues—I won’t read it in Greek, because it’s just the same as in English: “You have accepted for our salvation.” In that translation it says, “To take flesh from the holy mother of God and ever-virgin Mary.” In the OCA book, it would say, “Who was incarnate, who for our salvation didst will to be incarnate of the holy Theotokos and ever-virgin Mary.” In Greek, that’s sarkōthēnai, becoming flesh, or being incarnate. Of course, “incarnate” literally means enfleshed: carnis in Latin; English is “flesh”; sarx in Greek is “flesh.”
It says very clearly, “For our salvation” this is done. That’s a very important line there, because what we believe is that absolutely everything that God has done in Christ and the Gospel to redeem and save and sanctify and glorify all of creation and especially the human race and [us] human beings to be saved, it’s all for us. As the Nicene Creed will say, for us human beings and for our salvation. So everything is done for our salvation. The only begotten Son and Word of God did nothing for himself. Everything that he came on earth to say and to do and to effect and to show and to reveal is for us. It’s all pro nobis, as they say in Latin—for us—and for our salvation.
Again we see “salvation.” That’s a Gospel word: sōtēria, which means “victory, triumph, healing.” In [the] Hebrew language, it does mean “conquering, being victorious.” It’s all the same word in Greek. “Sōtēr,” which means “savior,” also means “victor” or “conqueror.” So it’s for our victory, and that again is a kind of very evangelical, ringing word all the time. The Gospel of God in Jesus Christ is for our salvation, for our victory over all the enemies of God, the last of which is death itself, sin and death itself.
So in Greek it says: sarkōthēnai ek tēs hagias Theotokou—taking flesh or being incarnate from the holy Theotokos—kai aeiparthenou Marias—and ever-virgin Mary. So you have the ever-virginity here again affirmed. I don’t think I mentioned it so directly and strongly as I perhaps should have, but at the end of the Great Litany, where you have: “Remembering our all-holy, pure, most-blessed and glorious Lady Theotokos,” you also have the expression, “Theotokou kai aeiparthenou Marias” in the genitive case: ever-virgin. So the ever-virginity of Mary is affirmed always in that particular exhortation in all of the litanies, because that exists even in the small litanies, as we’ll see, that Mary is Theotokos and ever-virgin.
And then it says: atreptōs. That’s an adverb in Greek in this hymn: unchangedly, without change. That is one of the adjectives from the Council of Chalcedon, that the Word of God who is divine and who is God from God, becomes human and is enfleshed without change to his divinity. He remains divine and he also takes on human flesh and becomes man. So it says in Greek: atrepōs enanthrōpēsas.
Sarkōthēnai… kai enanthrōpēsas, that he took flesh and [un]changedly was made human, and that word there, of course, would be “human.” Enanthrōpēsas: anthrōpos is a human being. It doesn’t mean a male; it means a human person, a human being. So it says in this hymn that the Son and Word of God, who, existing immortal, who for our salvation, without any change, from the holy Theotokos and ever-virgin Mary, has become human. And then it says stavrōtheis, crucified: “You were crucified, O Christ, God.” Christ God: Christe ho Theos, with a definite article, Christ, God.
Then you have this line which is reminiscent of the Paschal troparion: thanatō thanaton patēsas, trampling down death by death. In Great Britain they say, “By death, trampling on death.” In the OCA, it says, “trampling down death by death.” And then it says, “sōson hēmas, save us.” So you have again that verb that is connected to “sōtēria”: sōson, which means to save. As we pointed out, almost all the time in the gospels, when Jesus heals someone, it says they were healed, they were cured, they were made whole, but in Greek this verb would be used. They were saved. For us, the Son and Word of God took flesh from the holy Theotokos, the ever-virgin Mary, without change, became human, and was crucified. And this is Christ, ho Theos, the God of us. He tramples down death by death, thanatō thanaton patēsas.
Then he says, “heis ōn tēs hagias Triados, being One of the Holy Trinity.” Then it says, “co-glorified, syndoxazomenos, being co-glorified together with the Father and the Holy Spirit.” In Britain they simply say, “glorified with the Father and the Holy Spirit.” In the OCA it says, “glorified with the Father and the Holy Spirit.” But I think there’s more of an emphasis in Greek, because it says co-glorified, together with, syn-. That’s a prefix meaning “with.” Who is co-glorified with the Father and the Holy Spirit, and that will come in the Nicene Creed later on, that he was crucified for us and for our salvation, and then it says, “trampling down death by death, being One of the Holy Trinity, glorified with the Father and the Holy Spirit: save us.”
We can ask this question: Is there a reason why this hymn is put in there at that time of the Liturgy? What is the origin of this hymn? Where did it come from? And why is it there, and there in every single Divine Liturgy, whether Chrysostom or Basil, whether on Pascha or during Great Lent or whatever, that this would always be sung? And even if we have a vesperal Liturgy, it would be chanted at the Typika before the Liturgy. Well, we can only guess, so to speak. We can only try to find out. We can have our theories of why that is there and where it comes from.
What we should know about this hymn, beside the fact that it’s always there, is that, number one, it is virtually certain that this hymn was composed by or written by the emperor Justinian, who is numbered among the saints of the Eastern Orthodox Church. The emperor Justinian had a very long and powerful reign in the sixth century. He was one of the greatest of the Byzantine emperors. He, with his wife who was a former circus girl, Theodora, who had a very bad reputation for being very lecherous and so on and even scurrilous books were written about her… But when she was chosen by Justinian and she became his wife and converted so spectacularly, she herself was very much concerned with theology.
Justinian and Theodora were very much concerned with theology and trying to keep the imperial Church united and so on, because what had happened as we probably know from other places is that in the fourth century and the fifth century, you had these great controversies about Christ as the Logos, Christ as the Word of God, the Son of God, truly divine, addressed by Thomas in the gospel as “The Lord of me and the God of me—ho Kyrios [mou] kai ho Theos mou,” God/Theos with a definite article: “the God of me,” which is also in this hymn: “the God, Christ the God.”
What happened is that at the Council of Chalcedon in the fifth century, 451, it provoked a schism in the Church. All of the churches except the Latin and Greek Church, the imperial Church, went into what we still call to this day heresy. Right now we’re thinking about all these things again and taking a look at what really happened and trying to create the unity of the Church, but at that time the Church of Egypt, Alexandrian Church, the Syriac Church in Antioch, the Ethiopian Church, the Armenian Church, and then those who came from those churches, like the Indian Church, the Church in India. They rejected the Council of Chalcedon, and they even thought that it was a Nestorian statement which was dividing Christ into two, that the Son of God and the son of Mary were two different persons. Our Eastern Orthodox tradition says, “No, no! It’s one Person that’s there. He becomes human atreptōs,” and that “atreptōs” in this hymn is from the Council of Chalcedon: “without change” he became human. He was en-humanized. He was enfleshed. He became man, became human being: “enanthrōpisanta,” it will be in the Creed.
This affirmation is being made at this point in this hymn because those churches separated from the imperial Church. One of Justinian and Theodora’s great desires was to try to reunite those churches to the Chalcedonian Church and to try to convince the members and the leaders of those churches, which is still going on today in the 21st century and which has never really completely happened, but to convince them that the Chalcedonian Eastern Orthodox Church, the Church that I belong to and Ancient Faith Radio belongs to and so on, that they were not Nestorians, that we accept that the Virgin Mary is Theotokos; we accept that the Son of God and the Son of Mary is the same Son. We confess that he became human atreptōs, without change, and also without division, and also without mingling—the four adjectives of the Council of Chalcedon: asynchytōs, atreptōs, adiairetōs, and [achōristōs]. We have these: without change, without mingling, but also without division and without separation. There is one Christ: the Son of God, the Son of Mary, one and the same Christ.
Justinian and Theodora were trying very hard to convince these people that we should be together; we have the same faith; we are not Nestorians; and that you yourself have to recognize this because you do believe that, according to the flesh, the Word of God really became human. That is the teaching of the Coptic Church, the Syrian Church, the Armenian Church. So there was a lot of problems here about language, about translation, about Semitic way of teaching as opposed to Latino-Greek way of thinking. So Justinian and Theodora were trying to bring these people back together in union, to reunite the Church in the sixth century. The scholars tell us that this particular hymn, attributed to Justinian himself by tradition, was an attempt to show the so-called “monophysites,” those who had left the imperial Church, particularly in Alexandria, Ethiopia, Syria, Antioch, and other places, India, Armenia that: No, no, we should be together; we believe the same thing you do, and we put it in our Liturgy and we sing it, and this is what we believe.
What happens is that this hymn is a kind of a hymn stating how we understand Christ as the only begotten Son and Word of God, who became man and was crucified in the flesh, how this is the faith of the Church, and that we should never forget it. Perhaps also we could say that this particular hymn became a kind of a credal statement. You see, in the Liturgy of the Faithful we’ll have the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed being chanted or said—we’ll get to that in due time, of course; it’s an essential, absolutely always-present part of the Liturgy of the Faithful is the recitation of the Nicene Creed, the singing of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. So it’s not, how can you say, out of line or implausible to say that what this hymn’s function was, so to speak, was to put it in the Liturgy, and perhaps it was Justinian himself who insisted that it be inserted into the Liturgy, that it be there for everyone including catechumens and everybody to hear every time the Church gathers as Church in the common act of the Divine Liturgy, the holy Liturgy, the synaxis.
In that synaxis we want to have a credal statement. We want to say who Christ is. My own opinion is that—and I spoke about this already on Ancient Faith Radio—the Liturgy of the Word has a very similar structure to the Liturgy of the Faithful. We had one whole podcast on this, that the Liturgy of the Word, the Liturgy of Catechumens, begins with the Great Litany, intercessory prayer, psalmody, a credal statement, an Alleluia, a “Holy, Holy, Holy”—we will see, because the Trisagion will be sung at the Liturgy of the Word, and probably in our next couple of podcasts we’ll get to the Trisagion Hymn at the Divine Liturgy, at the beginning. Well, that’s also in the Liturgy of the Faithful, the “Holy, Holy, Holy.” And then the first part of the Liturgy is crowned with the communion with Christ as the Word of God in the reading of the epistles, the acts of the Apostles, and also the reading from the holy Gospel, a Gospel reading, and a sermon. So the high point of the Liturgy of the Word is where we are led into the altar by the gospel book that is carried in procession, a victory procession, so you have the climax there of the Liturgy of the Word: the proclamation and explanation of the Gospel, of the Christian faith.
Then in the Liturgy of the Faithful, you have actually the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed being recited or chanted, which was the creed which was necessary for all of those who are baptized into Christ to say. So every time we say this credal statement, we are affirming our baptism. We are affirming that we have the faith of the Church, the faith of the Councils. And that’s what Justinian and his co-workers, and maybe perhaps even more Theodora, who—she seemed to be more sympathetic to the so-called monophysites; she really liked them; she liked Severus of Antioch and so on—but the two of them really did their best to try to reunite the Church in the sixth century.
They did not succeed, but this hymn, “Only begotten Son and immortal Word of God,” at every single Divine Liturgy is a reminder of that, and it’s a kind of a credal hymn. It’s a pedagogical, instructive hymn. You might even say that it’s a kind of sung version of the Creed. It’s like a credal statement that, while we’re chanting the psalms and singing the refrains and doing so differently on every different occasion, every single time we sing this particular hymn. It seems to me that that is the very reason why that hymn is at this part of the Divine Liturgy without exception ever.
Again, it contains, in a very concise form, the statement of the Christian faith. It states in a very concise form the Christian faith. It’s all there in that one hymn what the Christian faith is and what we believe. It confesses the divinity of Christ; it confesses the humanity of Christ. It confesses that Mary is Theotokos, because the One born of her is the Word of God who is God, but then it confesses that he really becomes flesh; he’s really incarnate. Without changing his divinity, he becomes really human. He is really crucified—and by the way, that’s going to be important also, around the time of Justinian and later, because the Muslims who are going to honor Jesus Christ, Jesus of Nazareth, and he’s in their Quran, he is not divine, he is not one of the Holy Trinity—there is no Trinity; there’s only one monad god, Allah—and Jesus Christ and others can be called his son, but they’re not his divine Son, and then in the Quran, Jesus is not even crucified. The prophet of God cannot be put to shame, and so they claim that Jesus was never really crucified.
So you have this very strong credal statement that he is really divine, he is really human, he is really enfleshed, and he is really crucified, yet he is Christe ho Theos, O Christ the God, our God, and that he does all this to trample down death by his own death, and that he is One of the Holy Trinity. It’s not the whole Holy Trinity that’s incarnate. God the Father’s not incarnate. He did not take flesh. The Holy Spirit is not incarnate, but the Logos of God, the Son of God, the Icon of God, the Wisdom of God—he is incarnate. He is a real Man, and he is always, together with the Father and the Holy Spirit, co-glorified.
The Nicene Creed’s going to say that as well and had already said it; that’s where Justinian got it, because: “We believe in the Holy Spirit and Giver of life who together with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified.” Co-worshiped and co-glorified. And that all of this is for our salvation, and the prayer ends: Save us, an imperative, sōson ēmas. We already sing that in the antiphonal responses: “Save us, O Son of God, who is risen from the dead, who was crucified in the flesh, who was born of a virgin, who is glorified in the saints. Save us, O Son of God.” That again is a proclamation of the Gospel.
This hymn again ends with “sōson ēmas, spasi nas, save us.” So it’s an evangelical proclamation. It’s a very beautiful hymn, and a very compact symbol of the Christian faith. A symbol of faith, which is already in the Liturgy of the Word, and very important for all those who are gathered together who are considering the Christian faith, who are preparing to enter the Church, who are trying to decide whether or not they should be baptized. It’s important that if they are present at this part of the Liturgy that they would hear this particular hymn as a kind of a synopsis, a bringing together of all the major important elements of the Christian faith.
We see that being done already in the Liturgy of the Catechumens, so this hymn, “Ho monogenēs Hios kai Logos tou Theou,” is a very, very important part of the Liturgy of the Catechumens. It prefigures what will be done again in greater detail at the Divine Liturgy in the Liturgy of the Faithful. And then it is remaining there always as a statement of the faith of the Church. So we could say that if a person can’t sing this hymn and if a person cannot proclaim this doctrine, then we would simply say they’re not Orthodox. It’s necessary to be able to sing this hymn with sincerity, with authenticity, really believing in it, really identifying with what it says as this synopsis of the Gospel itself, of all the major elements of the Orthodox Christian faith.
So every Liturgy we sing this hymn which dates, probably, virtually certainly, from the time of Justinian and maybe even from the hand of Justinian himself. Here I want to make just another little comment. There’s a third Liturgy that’s sometimes served in the Orthodox Church, called the Liturgy of St. James the Brother of the Lord. It’s done in some churches on the feast of St. James. Well, I would just want to say here for the record, when you look at the Liturgy of St. James, you see that it could not possibly have been coming from the time of St. James, because there’s so much in that Liturgy that comes from later centuries, much later centuries, things that are already in Chrysostom and Basil are in the St. James Liturgy, which could not possibly have been there at the time.
The reason why I mention that is because this hymn, “Only begotten Son and Word of God, existing immortal, who for us and for our salvation became incarnate, took flesh, was become human”—that’s in the Liturgy of St. James. It’s also sung in the Liturgy of St. James, so it must have been added to it through the centuries, because it certainly dates from no earlier than the sixth century, the 500s, at the time of the reign of the Emperor Saint Justinian and his wife Saint Theodora, and all of their theological interests in that century, together with the Fifth and the Sixth Ecumenical Councils which affirm exactly this particular faith.
So this is with us at every single Liturgy, and it’s even there at the Liturgy of the Catechumens in this particular hymn, which is always sung at every Liturgy.