KOINONIKON: THE HYMNOLOGICAL CONTEXT OF HOLY COMMUNION
By Gerasimos Koutsouras
This manner of chanting the koinonikon is indicative of the shortcomings of soloist chanting as it exists in the Church today. Some of the characteristics of this monodic style of chanting are an undue emphasis on personal expression, excessive rubato (to the extent that no constant rhythm remains) and untraditional, exhibitionist ornamentation. The very same melodies sound entirely different when chanted by a choir singing with a flowing rhythm in the more traditional style of Byzantine chant. In this way the original musical phrases are not fragmented, but are rendered in a more fulsome and complete manner. In fact, there is no imperative to cling to the current individualistic style of chantng n church. The ancient Church used congregational singing which developed in the Byzantine Church into choral music. The dominance of soloist chanting emerged after the introduction of highly ornamental musical styles in late Byzantium and was cemented in the Ottoman period. This is because a highly ornamental musical style limits learning and practice to a professional few. Such exclusivity is of course contrary to the Chrstan spirit and it would be better if more communal and choral traditions of the first millennium were revived. This ethos of ecclesial communion is well illustrated by St. Ignatios of Antioch, who, after describing the church as a harmonious lyre said: “Make of yourselves a choir, so that with one voice and one mind, taking the keynote (chroma) of God, you may sing in unison with one voice through Jesus ChrIst to the Father, and he may hear you and recognise you, in your good works, as members of his son. It’s good for you therefore to be in perfect unity that you may at all times be partakers of God.”
The broken integrity of Communion.
Many a perceptive student of Byzantine Chant has asked the following question: ‘Why is the koinonikon (communion hymn) called this if it is not chanted during Communion?’ The question arises from a misunderstanding of the liturgical practice at that stage of the liturgy. To a lay person standing among the congregation, it may very well seem that Holy Communion begins when the priest emerges from the Sanctuary and invites the people to come forward to partake. In current practice this takes place at the end of the singing of the koinonikon. Contrary, however, to what may be commonly perceived, Communion of the body and blood of Chrst does indeed begin during the koinonikon and not after the invitational phrase ‘With fear of God…’ (Μετά φόβου Θεού…). In other words, the clergy proceed to commune before this phrase and the people are simply invited by this phrase to come forward and take part in an act that has already begun. Liturgical terminology distinguishes between ‘communion of the clergy’ and ‘communion of the faithful’. But there are not two communions, only one. Clergy are not separate from laity when it comes to the body of Christ but simply take their turn in a logical order of precedence. Since, therefore, the essence of the Eucharist has to do with unity and communion, then the hymnological context should also reflect this.
Current practice in many churches, however, shatters and fragments the unity of the Eucharistic act by various malpractices. These malpractices are, of course, recent introductions. Firstly, the shutting of the Royal Door during the communion of the clergy leaves the people oblivious to the fact that Holy Communion is in progress and furthermore induces the people to sit down and consider that moment unimportant. Secondly, the bringing out of donation trays at that most climactic moment of the liturgy which provokes noise and distraction among the people. Thirdly, the preaching of the sermon whose proper place and context is directly after the scripture readings. And, fourthly, which is arguably a symptom of the previous three, discontinuing the communion hymn by introducing another hymn altogether ‘Of your mystical supper…’ (Του δείπνου σου…); one hymn for the communion of the clergy and another for the communion of the people! Procedures such as these clearly sever the continuity of the communion rite.
By reverting to ancient customs the original integrity of the Eucharist could be restored. In other words, the communion hymn should cover the entire act of Communion without any disruption whatsoever. It would pause only momentarily for the priestly invitation, ‘With fear of God…’
When all have received communion, the priest seized by an urgency to place the chalice at the proskomide, censes it and then returns to the holy altar for the invocation: ‘Arse, having received…’ (Ορθοί μεταλαβόντες…). In the urban Greek practice there is hardly any time to do this. Indeed, matters are worse when a deacon is present. The unfortunate deacon is forced to rush unceremoniously out the Royal Doors (instead of the North door) in order to recite the next litany. In earlier times this urgency did not exist. Patriarch Sergus in 623 introduced the akroteleution troparion ‘Let our mouths be filled…’ (Πληρωθήτω το στόμα ημών…) to cover the required liturgcal actions. It was only during the Ottoman period that this troparion was omitted from the manuscripts. The transition back to the old practice would be very easy because this hymn is still used in Greek monasteries and in the Slavonc churches. In light of this, the hymn has been reinstated correctly in the official English edition of the Divine Liturgy published by the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia.
To be continued.