December 2016

The Apolytikion of the Nativity of our Lord

Why are we talking about stars at Christmas?

In the Orthodox liturgical tradition, the Divine Liturgy of Christmas day commemorates the arrival of the Magi to offer their gifts to the Christ Child. The role of the star in this story helps to reinforce the theme of the Divine Light coming into a world of darkness.

The Greek Text

Ἡ γέννησίς σου Χριστὲ ὁ Θεὸς ἡμῶν,
ἀνέτειλε τῶ κόσμω, τὸ φῶς τὸ τῆς γνώσεως,
ἐν αὐτῇ γὰρ οἱ τοὶς ἄστροις λατρεύοντες,
ὑπὸ ἀστέρος ἐδιδάσκοντο,
σὲ προσκυνεῖν,
τὸν Ἥλιον τῆς δικαιοσύνης,
καὶ σὲ γινώσκειν
ἐξ ὕψους ἀνατολήν,
Κύριε δόξα σοί.

The Transliteration

I yennisis sou Christe o Theos imon,
anetile to kosmo to phos to tis gnoseos,
en afti gar i tis astris latrevontes,
ipo asteros edidaskondo,
se proskinin
ton Ilion tis dikeosynis,

ke se yinoskin
ex ipsous anatolin,

Kyrie, doxa si.

The English Translation

Your birth O Christ our God
raised upon the world the light of knowledge
and to those who worshiped the stars
through a star learned
to worship You the sun of righteousness
and came to know You the Orient from on high.
Lord, glory to You.

The Apolytikion sung in English by the Boston Byzantine Choir

(Not) Blinded by the Light

The hymn of Christmas is full of light; not just any light, but the light that casts out the darkness of the world. The poetry of the hymn reinforces this image. The idea itself comes from two New Testament sources.

The light that overcomes the darkness comes from the Prologue to the Gospel according to St. John (John 1:4-5)

In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend (or overcome) it.

What is the light that overcomes the darkness? Naturally, it is the rising sun! This connection becomes clear in the hymn which Zacharias sang at the birth of his son, John the Baptist (Luke 1:76-79).

And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the face of the Lord to prepare His ways, to give knowledge of salvation to His people by the remission of their sins, through the tender mercy of our God, with which the Dayspring from on high will visit us; to give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.

The Morning Star

This complex of images underlies the poetry of the first part of the hymn. The birth of Christ causes the light of knowledge (to phos to tis gnoseos) to rise up. The verb anatello is the common word for the rising of the sun; it is used transitively (i.e. it conveys the action of a subject to the object) for raising something up. In Matthew 5:45 it is used in connection with the sun: “…so that you become sons of your Father in heaven, because he causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good…”

Like the Light in John 1, the birth of Christ causes the light of knowledge to rise over the world. The image invokes the natural phenomenon of the morning star pointing to the rising of the sun. The birth of Christ becomes the morning star whose rising heralds the coming of the light of knowledge. This knowledge, as we have seen in the hymn of Zacharias, is the knowledge of salvation, which is the revelation of the true God through the God-man Jesus Christ. 

Star-Gazers and the Star

The initial image of sun and morning star leads naturally to the star which guided the astrologers from the East to find the newborn Christ Child. It is in the light of knowledge that the Magi, who were ancient astronomers, began their search for the newborn King of the Jews. Although they had worshiped the stars (oi tis astris latrevondes), God sent them a star which shone with light of knowlege (iper asteros edidaskondo). The roles are now reversed: the sun has become the morning star, pointing beyond itself to the greater truth.

How can the star teach? Every Christmas we are subjected to endless speculation about the nature of the star that the Magi followed. Was it a miraculous, moving star? Was it a confluence of planets? Was it some unusual astrological sign that had meaning for the astrologers? In the Orthodox tradition, none of these questions are meaningful. The true nature of the star lies beyond the simple physical phenomenon. We see what the star truly is in the icon of the Nativity. There the star is more than an astronomical event; it is a manifestation of the Holy Spirit Himself.

At the top of the icon is the dark blue semicircle which is the iconic symbol of the Father. From this circle emanates a ray which terminates in the star over the head of the Christ Child. This symbolism shows that the star is one of the Trinity, pointing to the incarnate Word. We see the same arrangement in the icon of the Baptism, where the Spirit is symbolized by a dove.

Ultimately, then, the Magi are led by the Spirit, who always points us to Christ. The Holy Spirit is the true light of knowledge.

Two Things to Learn

The third part of the hymn tells us the two things which the Magi learn through the star, the light of knowledge: to worship you (se proskynin) and to know you (se yinoskin). The order is the opposite of what we expect. Our rational, post-Enlightenment society has been taught that knowledge comes first.The debate about infant Baptism, for example, revolves around the objection that infants are too young to understand what is going on. For the Orthodox, however, worship always comes first, because the mystery always exceeds our intellect. When we are faced, like the Magi, with the pre-eternal God now lying in the food trough of dumb animals, all we can do, like the Magi, is to fall down and worship the mystery. The morning star has led us to the rising of the true Sun of Righteousness (ton ilion tis dikeosyne). The light that heralded the coming of the light of knowledge has now become the sun, and the light of knowledge yields to worship.

From worship follows knowledge. The true Sun is not just light of day, but the rising sun. In this way, the Holy Spirit leads us not only to the Christ Child, but moves immediately to the “other end” of the story, the Resurrection. The rising sun is the image of the risen Christ, and, for this reason, from the beginning, Christians face East when they pray, and especially at the ultimate meeting with the risen Christ, the Divine Liturgy. For the Orthodox, Christmas can never remain the sentimental meditation on a baby in the manger. It points to the entire plan of salvation. The hymn for Christmas takes us to the culmination of that plan through the beautiful image of the morning star leading us to the rising sun.





Resurrection Apolytikion in the 1st Tone

What would it have been like to be there that first Pascha? We can well imagine being witnesses to a massive burst of energy, of life, coming out of the tomb. The recent restoration of the sacred tomb in the Church of the Resurrection (Holy Sepulcher) hints at that burst of energy (see the description of the strange electromagnetic field from the slab on which our Lord’s body lay:

We can experience this same burst of energy in the Resurrection Apolytikion in the 1st Tone.

Greek Text

Τοῦ λίθου σφραγισθέντος ὑπὸ τῶν Ἰουδαίων, καὶ στρατιωτῶν φυλασσόντων τὸ ἄχραντόν σου σῶμα, ἀνέστης τριήμερος Σωτήρ, δωρούμενος τῷ κόσμῳ τὴν ζωήν. Διὰ τοῦτο αἱ Δυνάμεις τῶν οὐρανῶν ἐβόων σοι Ζωοδότα· Δόξα τῇ ἀναστάσει σου Χριστέ, δόξα τῇ Βασιλείᾳ σου, δόξα τῇ οἰκονομίᾳ σου, μόνε Φιλάνθρωπε.


Tou lithou sphrayisthentos ipo ton Ioudeon,
ke stratioton philassonton to achranton sou soma,
anestis tri-imeros Sotir, doroumenos to kosmo tin zoin.
Dia touto e Dinamis ton ouranon evoon si Zoodota:
Doxa ti Anastasi sou Christe,
Doxa ti Vasilia sou,
Doxa di ikonomia sou,
mone Philanthrope.

English Translation

While/Although the stone was sealed by the Judeans,
and while/although the soldiers were guarding Your immaculate body,
You arose, O three-day Savior, granting life to the world.
For this reason the Powers of heaven were crying out to You the Giver of Life:
Glory to Your Resurrection, O Christ,
Glory to Your Kingdom,
Glory to Your plan of salvation,
O only Friend of Humanity.


A Burst of Energy!

The hymn divides into 2 parts:

  • The event of the Resurrection with its surrounding description
  • The result of the Resurrection in angelic songs of praise

The energy of the Resurrection is captured by the only active verb, anestis (You rose) in the center of the section. The strength of the active verb cuts through the background described by the three participles, and is nearly shocking to the ear which had been lulled into a sense of normalcy.

The Background “Noise”

The first two phrases set the seen. This setting is accomplished grammatically by a wonderful Greek construction called a genitive absolute. This construction is only loosely connected with the main sentence, and describes the circumstances under which the main verb takes place. That relationship can take a number of different forms: it can indicate simply the circumstances present when the main verb takes place; it can indicate cause or it can emphasize time; it can also indicate an adversative although relationship. In English we like to have these relationships specified and often translations will only give one possibility. The beauty of the Greek construction is the ambiguity; it can indicate a number of different types of relationships all at once.

Here, our hymn begins by setting the scene. We see the large stone rolled against the entrance of the tomb. It is not, however, just a stone: it has been sealed with the seals of the High Priest to make sure that the stone is not tampered with. At the same time, the temple guard has been stationed at the door of the tomb to make sure no one enters the tomb or breaks the seals. There is a quietness about these two phrases; everything seems to be in place; nothing has been disturbed.

A Burst of New Life-Energy

Against this background the anestis burst onto the scene. The “while” indicating the background circumstances has suddenly been transformed into an “although”! Despite all the precautions, the seals are broken and, as we know from St. Matthew’s Gospel, the guard collapses unconscious.

This burst of life-energy is followed up immediately with its consequences. The life which bursts from the tomb bestows this same life on the world. The participle doroumenos which has a more dynamic feel than the participles of the first two phrases, since it is wholly integrated into the main action by modifying the subject of the verb anestis: the one who has risen is the one who has the power to pass this life energy along. This participle comes from the verb doreomai which means more than simply granting. It signifies something given or presented; it implies not that the giver is superior to the receiver, some authority granting a special privilege to an underling, but rather it indicates a gift given in love.

Singing Angels

The second half of the hymn changes venue entirely. Now we are given a vision of the heavenly reaction to the actions of the first half.

The cause and effect is made clear by the conjunction dio (for this reason; therefore). The gift of new life on earth prompts the angels to offer glory to God. Their hymn consists of 3 parts:

  • Praise of the Resurrection
  • Praise of the Kingdom
  • Praise of the Divine Plan of Salvation

We are presented with an ever-widening vision of God’s work on earth. The kernel is the Resurrection; the angelic praise jumps directly from the narration in the first part. The Kingdom (or more properly, the royal power) looks to all those who have received the new life of the Resurrection. Finally the oikonomia or the whole divine Plan of Salvation tells us that the life-giving Resurrection and the establishment  of our Lord’s royal rule are actually parts of a larger whole, one that stretches back to the very beginning and forward to the consummation of the world. But, the essence of this plan is not wrath or fear, but the loving gift of true and eternal life.

What about Us?

What is unusual about this second half of the hymn? Although it technically narrates the glory given to God by the angels in heaven, yet we are, in fact, the ones who are singing this hymn and therefore singing the hymn of the angels with them! Because our Lord has presented us with the great gift of true and eternal life, the life of the Resurrection, we have become fellow citizens with the angels, and have already begun on earth to join in the angelic chorus glorifying God for all that He has done.

The hymn tells us, then, that since we are filled with the new life-energy, our whole life must be transformed into a life of doxology. Just as with the angels, so with us there can be nothing else of such importance in our lives that should prevent us from offering glory to God constantly. What an amazing vocation we are called to!


Resurrection Apolytikion in Plagal 4th Tone

They say, “Less is more.” This is certainly true of the Resurrection Apolytikion in Plagal 4th Tone. The story of our redemption is reduced to the bare minimum of words; the melody is also simple and somewhat standard for this tone. And yet, the whole mystery of redemption is contained in these few words!

Greek Text

Ἐξ ὕψους κατῆλθες ὁ εὔσπλαγχνος,
ταφὴν κατεδέξω τριήμερον,
ἵνα ἡμᾶς ἐλευθερώσῃς τῶν παθῶν.
Ἡ ζωὴ καὶ ἡ Ἀνάστασις ἡμῶν, Κύριε δόξα σοι.


 Ex ipsous katilthes, o efsplachnos,
taphin katedexo tri-imeron,
ina imas eleftherosis ton pathon.
I zoi ke i Anastasis imon, Kyrie doxa si.


From on high You descended O Merciful One,
You accepted the three-day tomb,
In order to free us from the passions.
Our Life and Resurrection, O Lord, glory to You.

Sung in English


What’s in a Title?

 The hymn is structured around titles of our Lord:

  • Efsplachnos—Merciful One
  • Zoi—Life
  • Anastasis–Resurrection

The hymn opens with an address to “The Merciful One”. The ancients Greeks believed that the center of pity was the bowels, the efsplachna. This is not an unreasonable assumption; if we reflect on feelings of pity or empathy, the physical aspect of this emotion seems to arise from the center of our bodies. And so, someone who is “full of pity” is literally, a “bowel person” or “Efsplachnos.”

By opening the hymn with this title, then, the author wants to emphasize for us that God became a human being and underwent death and burial out of pity for us, for our condition of slavery to sin and death.

The other two titles, Life and Resurrection, reflect “the other end” of the story. When God undergoes death according to the flesh out of pity for us, He destroys death for us, and replaces it with life. The second title, Resurrection, is not simply another way of saying that. God does not grant us some abstract “eternal life” which is spiritual and disembodied. No—He grants us complete life as we were created—soul and body. Just as He rose from the dead physically and not just spiritually, so also He raises us to life, recreating and renewing us as a unity of soul and body.

How Do We Get There?

 In between these titles, we have the story of redemption. The balance of the first two lines of the hymn reveals the whole story. The phrases each consist of three words, balanced in the center by the verb.

              Ex ipsous                     katilthes                       o Efsplachnos

             Taphin                         katedexo                      tri-imeron

Both verbs—katilthes and katedoxo—are compounds of the simple verbs erchomai (to come) and dehomai (to accept) with the prefix kata, which indicates a downward motion. The first line takes us down from the spiritual realm of heaven into the earthly realm by God taking on our human nature and becoming a human being. The second takes us down farther into the tomb and, by extension, into the underworld and the realm of death, where Christ won the victory of life over death.

The nouns and the modifiers are also balanced in a chiastic manner (i.e. ABC—CBA), so that the realm of eternity (ex ipsous—from above) yields, ultimately, to the temporal confinement of the tomb (tri-imeronof three days). The balance of efsplachnos and taphin shows that God in Jesus did not die by accident, but planned the working out of our salvation through His pity for us.

Why Did It All Happen?

The next phrase adds the purpose, the way that our redemption works itself out in our daily lives. This third phrase consists of four words (an expansion from the previous pattern, indicating a completion of the action), balanced by the verb.

Ex ipsous                     katilthes                       o Efsplachnos

            Taphin                         katedexo                      tri-imeron

            Ina imas                      eleftherosis                  ton pathon

God takes pity on us, descends into time and space by taking our nature and then further descends into death and the grave. By freeing us from death (giving us life and resurrection), He also frees us from our passions. Here, the chiasm reaches its fulfillment: efsplachnos  in the first line (indicating the giver of freedom) is balanced with imas (us) in the third (indicating the receiver of the freedom). The ex ipsous (the heavenly realm) by descending into the earthly and fallen realm enables the slavery of ton pathon (the passions) to be broken.

The Holy Fathers saw the passions and the roots of sin, the expression of our fallen nature which pervert and warp the gifts which God originally gave us in creation. They are our desires gone wild, which then enslave us to sin, which we commit by following them.

(For a good discussion of the Patristic idea of the passions, please see Deacon Charles Joiner’s blog Orthodox Way of Life: Walking the Path to Theosis:

When God enters our human nature and descends to death, in order to free us from the passions, it does not mean we are reduced to a state of emotionlessness. Rather, when God frees us from death, He also frees us from the slavery to these passions, and through His own life, transforms them into their original good state, a state in which they serve us in order to bring us to that true life.

So Where Does That Leave Us?

When we contemplate the great, cosmic truths which these few simple words contain, there is only one response: Doxology. Because of His pity for us, He entered our world, entered our death, destroyed its slavery and the slavery of the passions. Now, as free men and women we can only bow down in worship and thanksgiving: Kyrie, doxa siLord, glory to You.