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"Whoever attunes himself and studies the meaning of sacred songs from the beginning to end, will find himself approaching God." ~St. Gregory Palamas

Title: Hymns

Subject: Liturgical hymns

Age: 8 to 18 years

Liturgical Time: Any

Direct Aim: This lesson intends to define hymns and their function throughout the various services of the Orthodox Church. A brief history of authors of hymns is included as well as suggested hymns to learn each week so that students may participate more fully in the Orthodox Church.

What is a hymn?
A hymn is a way we respond to God when He touches our heart. It is a prayer or meditation set to music. It is a conversation with God. Hymns allow us to connect with God in a very special way, one that involves our body, our senses, and our mind. When we sing a hymn, it is as though we are praying twice, once with the words that we say and once with the song that we sing!

What are we saying when we sing hymns?

  • We are giving glory to God.
  • We are giving thanks to God.
  • We are asking Him for blessings.
  • We are learning about our faith and what we believe about God.
  • We express the full range of our emotions from joy to sorrow by calling out to our God.

When were hymns first invented?
We know from reading the Holy Bible that hymns were sung in the Old Testament. We read in the Book of Exodus that after God parted the Red Sea, Moses and the Israelites crossed over to safety and immediately sang a song to God to praise Him and thank Him for saving them (Ex. 15:1-21).

King David is said to have written at least half of the Psalms in the Old Testament. These beautiful poems became the hymnal (songbook) of the Jewish people. When they went to the temple to pray, there were cantors who chanted the Psalms and all of the people would sing with them.

The tradition of people singing in the Temple carried over to New Testament worship as well. It is recorded in the Gospel of Mark that after the Passover meal, Jesus and the disciples sang a hymn before they went out (Mk. 14:26).

Hymns to review this week:
By the Prayers of the Theotokos
Only begotten Son and Word of God
Come let us bow down

Divine Liturgy Hymnal (green book)
GO Telecom Video: Music for our Souls

Using the Resource Packet, review the hymns for each week.
Think about the words in each hymn and pray them as you sing.
Choose one hymn and memorize it each week.

Hymns: Lesson 1

"And they were calling to one another: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory." Isaiah 6:3

We Sing with the Angels- Holy God! Holy Mighty! Holy Immortal!
Among the many blessings that Jesus wants to share with us is a special place in Heaven, close to Him. By His sacrificial death and resurrection, Jesus has given us the privilege of being with Him and with all the saints and angels. To celebrate this joyous event, we join our voices with the chorus of angels in heaven who continually sing praises of God (see Isaiah 6:1-4). We sing Holy God! Holy Mighty! Holy Immortal! three times, indicating our belief in the Trinity. Let us see what the words of this beautiful hymn mean.

When we sing Holy God!, we mean that God is different from us and our world in a very special way. He is pure and spotless. He is awesome and majestic. When Moses approached the burning bush, he was told to remove his shoes because the ground that he was walking on was holy; God was present there (Exodus 3:5). Singing the words Holy God! helps us to remember that during the Divine Liturgy we are in God's presence.

God is Mighty! There is nothing that is as strong as our God. The parting of the waters of the Red Sea was one such instance when God proved His might. Our God is the chief source of our strength when we need help. When we sing Holy Mighty!, we remember that we cannot do anything by ourselves, but with and through God, all things are possible.

God is Immortal! This means that God cannot die. Everything in the world is created, and sooner or later everything dies. Only God, who is the source of all life, has no beginning and has no end. As the Creator, He alone is eternal and immortal. When we sing Holy Immortal! we are reminded that if we believe in Him, follow Him, and unite our lives with His, we, too, can live forever with Him.

It is interesting to note that the word for holy in Greek is ayios. The prefix a- means not, and the root word –yi means earth. So the Greek word for holy, literally means not of this earth. The Thrice Holy Hymn is a beautiful reminder that during the Divine Liturgy, we are experiencing a taste of "heaven", something not of this earth.

Hymns to review this week:
Holy God! Holy Mighty! Holy Immortal!
The Cherubic Hymn
Holy Holy Holy

Hymns of the Divine Liturgy by Eikona
Joyful Feast by John Chakos

Think of how you can be holy (not of this world)
Learn to sing each hymn, using them in your daily prayers
Sing along with the choir during Divine Liturgy

Hymns: Lesson 2
The hymns of the church are based on 8 tones or modes. Each tone has its own distinctive scale, melodic line, and phraseology, and all hymns of the church fall into 1 of the 8 tones. Many hymns are also based on a "model" hymn. A model hymn, while being set within 1 of the 8 tones, has its own distinctive melody. A good chanter will memorize the scales and melodic lines of the 8 tones as well as many of the "model" hymns. This allows them to sing any hymn without music. In order to sing a hymn, all they need to know are the words to the hymn and what tone or model hymn to sing.

Apolytikion: (from the Great "dismissal")
This is the hymn of the day. Each Sunday during the Orthros and at the Small Entrance of the Divine Liturgy, one of the eight Resurrection Apolytikia is sung in its proper tone. (See Divine Liturgy Hymnal pp.80-89). Beginning with Pentecost, we start with the first Apolytikion and cycle through all eight, singing one each Sunday, and then repeating the cycle. Below is a list of the 8 Resurrection Apolytikia:

Name of Hymn


The Stone Was Sealed

First Tone

When You Descended

Second Tone

Let All Things Rejoice

Third Tone

The Tidings

Fourth Tone

The Eternal Word

First Plagal Tone

The Angelic Powers

Second Plagal Tone

O Lord By Your Sacred Cross

Third Plagal Tone

From On High Did You Descend

Fourth Plagal Tone

In addition, an apolytikion in honor of a feast day (ex. Christmas or Pascha), or in honor of Christ, the Virgin Mary, or a saint on the occasion of their feast day may also be sung.

Go to to find your saint and their apolytikion.
Go to to learn to chant.

Sing the 8 resurrection apolytikia and try to distinguish some of their differences.
Locate your feast day and find your saint's apolytikion; learn to sing it.

Hymns to review this week:
We praise, we bless
Truly it is Proper
One is Holy

Hymns: Lesson 3

"What then is more blessed than to…hasten to prayer at daybreak and to worship the Creator with hymns and song?" ~St. John of Damascus

Who wrote the hymns of the Orthodox Church?
When people first started to worship the God of Abraham, they believed that their worship service was prescribed from heaven. As descendents of those early Jews, it is our belief even today that when we worship our Lord, we are being inspired by the angels who praise Him continuously in heaven. With this in mind, many of our hymns were written by people who did not wish to have their names made known. They preferred that all of the glory go to God. Even though there are hymnographers who remain anonymous to us, today we will study three who contributed greatly to the way that we worship our Lord through song.

Saint Ephraim was the first Christian to use poems and songs as a vehicle for teaching Orthodox theology. He lived in the 300's during a time when people were spreading untruths about the Christian faith. St. Ephraim composed beautiful hymns so that people could learn and remember the correct teaching of the Church. It is for this reason that he is called the "Harp of the Holy Spirit." He is rightly known as the first and greatest hymnographer of the Church, since he set the pattern for those who followed him. He especially inspired Saint Romanos the Melodist.

St. Romanos the Melodist (491-518) was from Emesa of Syria, and apparently was born of Jewish parents, for a hymn written in his honor in Greek says he was "of Hebrew stock." He was baptized an Orthodox Christian, and at some time became a deacon in the Church of Beirut. He was the first to compose a type of hymn called a kontakion. The most famous kontakion he wrote was for the feast of Christ's Nativity which we continue to sing during every Christmas season.

St. John of Damascus lived in the late 600's and early 700's and is considered to be one of the greatest Orthodox hymnographers and theologians. He is especially known for his eloquent writings in defense of the veneration of icons. St. John adorned the Church of Christ with his hymns. There are eight tones or modes in Byzantine music. We sing one tone each week, cycling through all eight, then we begin with tone one again. These tones are attributed to St. John of Damascus. He also composed many of the sacred hymns for the feasts of the Lord and the Theotokos. It is interesting to note that St. John was considered a great theologian and hymnographer, and to some extent the two go hand-in-hand.

Learn the basics of one of the Saint's lives above and be prepared to share with others.
Hymns to review this week:
Praise the Lord
We have seen the True Light
Blessed be the Name of the Lord