Singing a New Song

“SING TO THE LORD A NEW SONG: His praise in the assembly of saints. Let Israel rejoice in their Maker; Let the children of Zion be joyful in their King” (Psalm 149:1-2). This psalm is heard at every Orthros service throughout the year. We may know the words by heart, but do we know why we should sing a “new song” – won’t the old favorites do?

A new song is, in a sense, like a new outfit. It expresses a new beginning in the life of a person or a community. Thus some commentators think this psalm was written to celebrate King David’s conquest of Zion where he established his capital of Jerusalem – certainly a new beginning for David and his kingdom.

Other new beginnings in the Old Testament, such as the bringing the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem and the establishment of regular worship there (Psalm 95, 1 Chronicles 16:23-33), occasioned new songs. In Isaiah 42:10 people are enjoined to “Sing to the LORD a new song, His praise from the ends of the earth” as the Jews prepare to return to their homeland after their captivity in Babylon. But the newest of the new songs in the Bible are found, not in the Old Testament but in the New where they celebrate new beginnings that surpass any others in the history of Israel.

New Songs in the Gospel

The Gospel of Luke records four “new songs” which have become part of our Church’s liturgy since the earliest days. All of them are connected with the coming of Christ into the world. They are:

The Canticle of Mary (Luke 1:41-56) – This song is placed in Mary’s mouth in the Gospel story of her visit to Elizabeth. It is reminiscent of several Old Testament hymns, especially the “song of Hannah” (1 Samuel 2:1-10), a prayer giving thanks to God for the birth of her son, Samuel.

Mary’s Canticle gives thanks because God “has regarded the humility of His hand-maid; for behold from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed because He that is mighty, has done great things to me; and holy is His name,” alluding to her conception of Christ. Its last lines – “He has received Israel his servant, being mindful of his mercy: as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his seed for ever” – received new meaning in light of the Gospel. The promise to Abraham is fulfilled in Christ.

This Canticle is thought to be the earliest Marian hymn used by the Church. It is found in the daily services of all the historic Churches of East and West. In the Byzantine rite this hymn is regularly sung at Orthros.

The Canticle of Zachariah (Luke 1:67-79) – This song of thanksgiving is uttered in the gospel by Zechariah on the occasion of the birth of his son, John the Baptist. Like the Canticle of Mary, this hymn also refers to “The oath, which he swore to Abraham our father” which is now fulfilled as God has “visited and wrought the redemption of His people; and hath raised up a horn of salvation to us, in the house of David his servant.” This image, a “horn of salvation,” probably alludes to the might of a steer, the leader of a flock. Applying this image to John indicates that he fulfills the biblical prophecy that “I will make the horn of David grow; I will prepare a lamp for My Anointed” (Psalm 131:17, LXX). As the Forerunner of Christ John would be “the burning and shining Lamp” as Jesus described him (John 5:35) powerfully calling the people to repentance.

The canticle employs another image, this time for Christ whom John announced. “The Orient from on high has visited us; to give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” (Luke 1:78-79). The One who rises from the east is the sun, enlightening those in the dark. The ultimate sun, we may say, is the Lord Jesus, the Sun of Righteousness. This image is also used in the troparion for Christmas, alluding to Christ as the One who led the Magi from the East to be the first Gentiles to worship Him:

Your nativity, O Christ our God, has shed the light of knowledge upon the world. Though it those who had been star worshippers learned through a star to worship You, O Sun of Justice, and recognize in You the One who rises from on high. O Lord, glory to You!

The Canticle of Zachariah may be heard at Orthros on certain days.

The Hymn of the Angels (Luke 2:14) – The announcement of Christ’s birth to the shepherds concludes with these words: “And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying: ‘Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!’”

The prophet Isaiah foretold that “For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given…and His name will be called … the Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6). And so this proclamation that Christ, our peace, is on earth resounded through the early Church. “He Himself is our peace, who has made both one, and has broken down the middle wall of separation” (Ephesians 2:14).

The Hymn of the Angels would be expanded into one of the most solemn chants of the Church by the third century. We find it in expanded form in the Great Doxology, sung at festal Orthros and in another form at daily Orthros. It was introduced in the West in the fourth century and is heard in a slightly different form at festal Masses. In a sense this song represents the entire liturgy of the Church as now reconciled to God and one another in Christ, we join the angels in the worship of God.

The Canticle of Simeon (Luke 2:29-32) – The fourth New Testament canticle is uttered by Simeon the Just when he greets the infant Christ in the temple. Here too we see Christ proclaimed as the One who reconciles Jew and Gentile in a new people of God. Simeon declared Him to be “A light to bring revelation to the Gentiles, And the glory of Your people Israel.”

This canticle is sung every day at vespers. It also forms a part of the conclusion of the Divine Liturgy, said as the priest removes his vestments.

The Ultimate New Songs

The New Testament records two other “new songs.” We find them in the Book of Revalation. The first is Revelation 5:9 where hosts of angels and all creation with them cry out: “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom, and strength and honor and glory and blessing! “Blessing and honor and glory and power be to Him who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb, forever and ever!” (Revelation 5:12-13).

Finally we are told there is another song – the Song of the Chaste, who have died to the world to follow Christ. “They sang as it were a new song before the throne, before the four living creatures, and the elders; and no one could learn that song except the hundred and forty-four thousand who were redeemed from the earth. These are the ones who were not defiled with women, for they are virgins. These are the ones who follow the Lamb wherever He goes. These were redeemed from among men, being first fruits to God and to the Lamb. And in their mouth was found no deceit, for they are without fault before the throne of God” (Rev 14:3-5).