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The Song of the Seraphim: Paradise Lost and Restored (Part I)

Posted by Steve Turley ● Jun 7, 2015 4:56:38 AM

For nearly a decade now, my family and I have been part of the Eastern Orthodox communion. The particular church to which we belong, the Greek Orthodox Church, maintains one of the earliest Christian musical traditions: sacred chant. When one enters into such a soundscape, one is eventually struck by the unique duality of the chant. One cantor sings the melody while the other drones a single tone, called the isokratema. The purpose of the melody is to interpret the words of the hymn text, what the Greeks would call a melodic kerygma, the word for ‘preaching’ or ‘proclaiming.’ The purpose of the single-note drone is to represent the in-breaking of eternity into time, the infinite source of the kerygma.

The sonic interweaving of time and eternity in Byzantine song is indicative of a profoundly enchanting narrative of aural redemption, where heaven and earth come together into a musical harmony that is revealed through the transformative life, death, and resurrection of Christ.

The Sounds of Paradise

In addition to the canonical texts of sacred scripture, there are a number of early Jewish and Christian writings that contemporary scholars call pseudepigraphal and apocalyptic texts. Not many of us are familiar with these works, but they are profound windows into the kind of moral imagination taking shape among some of the Christians during the early period of the church. One of these texts is entitled The Testament of Adam, which scholars date to the middle or late third-century AD.[1] The Testament purports to be a transcript of the final words of Adam which culminate in his prophecy of the coming of Christ. Of interest is in how it begins by describing the sonic atmosphere to which Adam was privy in the garden before he sinned. According to the Testament, Adam was able to hear the praises of the seraphim and the angels in the garden, who sang at certain times in the day, which constituted a sonic manifestation of the unity of heaven and earth. But having been expelled from the garden, the heavenly music was silenced in our world, evidencing sonically our cosmic estrangement from Paradise.

This sacred sound is approximated, albeit in polluted form, in the various musics of the world. A common refrain in early Christian literature is that music, particularly instrumental music, has been perverted. The harmony of the cosmos has been interrupted, and thus the universe is experiencing dissonance and discord as found in the music of Jubal, the descendant of Cain, and developed by the Egyptians and Greeks. Cyril of Jerusalem (c.315-386) gives a particularly poignant example, where he sees the serpent reappearing into the world through music, musical instruments, and gestures:

In fact the aulos itself is an imitation of the serpent through which the Evil One spoke and tricked Eve. For it was in imitation of that type that the aulos was made, for the purpose of deceiving mankind. And observe the type, which he who plays the aulos represents upon the instrument. For the player throws his head back, then bows forward; he inclines to the right, then similarly to the left. (Panarion XXV, 4)[2]

The ancient Jewish world appears to concur. With the noise pollution of a fallen world, the soundscape of heaven could only be heard through divinely-granted visions of heaven or apocalyptics. Centuries before The Testament of Adam, Isaiah records a similar vision, where God’s throne is surrounded by seraphim calling out the Trisagion, “Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord of hosts, the whole earth is full of his glory” (Isa 6:3). Comparably, in the inaugural vision of Ezekiel, he hears the wings of the living beings surrounding God’s throne which sound “like the voice of God Almighty when He speaks” (Ezek 1:24), which he later equates with “the sound of the wings of the cherubim” (10:5).

Evidently inspired by Isaiah and Ezekiel, a subsequent Jewish tradition emerged which imagined Abraham encountering this heavenly music. The Apocalypse of Abraham, an extra-canonical text written around the time of The Testament of Adam, approximately in the second-century AD and preserved by Christians, tells the story of Abraham being caught up into heaven during his sacrificial worship and guided by an angel who is identified as the “Singer of the Eternal One” (12:4).[3] The angel proceeds to teach Abraham to sing the song of the angels:

And the angel said, “Worship, Abraham, and utter the song which I shall now teach you. Utter it without ceasing, that is, without pause, in one continuous strain from beginning to end. And the song which he taught me to sing had words appropriate to that sphere in which we then stood, for each sphere in heaven has its own song of praise, and only those who dwell there know how to utter it, and those upon earth cannot know or utter it except they be taught by the messengers of heaven. (Apocalypse of Abraham 17:19)

In teaching Abraham how to sing the song, the angel revealed the harmony of the cosmic order (Apocalypse of Abraham 18:11; 19:9).[4]

This connection between song and the presence of God in the apocalyptic imagination seems to have been nurtured in the music of the Levitical choirs of King David.[5] Upon the return of the ark of the covenant, the Levitical choirs burst into song heralding the return of God’s presence among his people (1 Chron 16:4). In 2 Chronicles 5, the completion of Solomon’s temple is accompanied by Levitical song that does not merely celebrate but actually invokes the presence of God:

When the priests came forth from the holy place … with cymbals, harps and lyres, standing east of the altar, and with them one hundred and twenty priests blowing trumpets in unison when the trumpeters and the signers were to make themselves heard with one voice to praise and to glorify the Lord, and when they lifted up their voice accompanied by trumpets and cymbals and instruments of music, and when they praised the Lord saying, “He indeed is good for His lovingkindness is everlasting,” the he house, the house of the Lord, was filled with a cloud, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud, for the glory of the Lord filled the house of God. (2 Chron 5:11-14)

And it is with the restoration of temple worship by Hezekiah that we are told that this music of the tabernacle/temple was by divine revelation:

And he [Hezekiah] stationed the Levites in the house of the Lord with cymbals, harps and lyres, according to the commandment of David and of Gad the King’s seer and of Nathan the prophet; for the commandment was by the Lord through his prophets. (2 Chron 29:25)

In our next post, we will discover the ways in which the New Testament and the church understood the coming of Christ as returning to the world the sounds of heaven. In the meantime, I would appreciate your comments. For example, what do you think a biblical theology of music ‘sounds’ like?

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[1] http://www.sacred-texts.com/chr/bct/bct10.htm.

[2] Cited in James McKinnon, Music in Early Christian Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 78.

[3] http://www.pseudepigrapha.com/pseudepigrapha/Apocalypse_of_Abraham.html.

[4] Margaret Barker, Temple Themes in Christian Worship (London: T&T Clark International, 2007), 224-5.

[5] See the fine study by Peter J. Leithart, From Silence to Son: The Davidic Liturgical Revolution (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2003).

Featured image credit: © 2013 Saint-Petersburg orthodox theological academy, Flickr | CC-BY-ND | via Wylio

Topics: music, blog, moral imagination, Paradise restored, sacred soundscapes, Patristic theology

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