June 4, 2020

Fr. Ernesto on Music in Orthodox Worship

Note from CM: Fr. Ernesto Obregon has been one of IM’s “liturgical gangstas” for a long time. He practices his faith in the Antiochan Orthodox tradition. We turn to him when we want insight into the theology and life of the Orthodox church. He blogs at OrthoCuban.

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Orthodox worship involves the whole body and all its senses. One quote from an Orthodox website says, “Orthodox Church art and music has a very functional role in the liturgical life and helps even the bodily senses to feel the spiritual grandeur of the Lord’s mysteries.” In many Orthodox worship settings throughout the world, there are literally almost no spoken words. All words are chanted (sung). In fact, chanting styles have developed to try to guarantee that what is said is understood.

This is because in an Orthodox worship, the words that are being chanted are of supreme importance. There are different chanting styles, but they all have as a goal the making the words of the chant to be fully understandable. In fact, the words of an Orthodox worship have not varied in centuries, though sometimes certain words have been omitted. (Note: the translation of the words has obviously varied, but not the general words themselves.)

But, you need to understand that at its heart, the Orthodox see their music as connecting them to the music that is being sung by the angels and the elders at the foot of the throne of God (Rev. 4:8-11, Isa. 6:1-4, Eze. 3:12). Exodus 25 claims that the worship of Israel followed a heavenly pattern. The Book of Hebrews confirms that and further alludes to Christian worship also following that same heavenly pattern. “We have an altar from which those who minister at the tabernacle have no right to eat.”

Music is not an option for the Orthodox or frosting on the cake. It is something which ought to be a part of every believer’s life. Saint Ignatius of Antioch wrote, “You must every one of you join in a choir so that being harmonious and in concord and taking the keynote of God in unison, you may sing with one voice through Jesus Christ to the Father, so that He may hear you and through your good deeds recognize that you are parts of His Son.”

When we chant, we chant Truth. When we sing, we join with the angels in heaven and the elders before the throne and the multitude from every tribe, nation, people, and language. When we chant, we pray to God. When we sing, we express our oneness and our fellowship is with God the Father through Jesus Christ so that He may hear us. When we chant we join ourselves to the Old Testament patriarchs and prophets, to the New Testament apostles, to the historic saints and martyrs of the Church, to both the Church Triumphant and the Church Militant. When we sing we join our Earthly experience to the heavenly realities.


  1. Thanks for sharing your insights on Orthodox chanting as a form of worship, Father Ernesto. Cool stuff to read about and ponder.

  2. Mary Anne Dutton says

    Thank you Fr. Ernest, for your instruction. We must preserve our reverence for the sacred rather than our current focus on the sensual.

  3. It’s a pleasure to hear from you, Fr. Ernesto. What you say is so profound: “When we sing we join our Earthly experience to the heavenly realities”. Christian worship should be undertaken in the awesome realization that we join in singing with the Church Triumphant and Universal, and God is in our midst. Worship is, as CM once pointed out, Caol Áit; a “thin place” where the veil between the natural and the supernatural becomes slender. As a long term evangelical, worship singing for me has always been “to”, and not “with”. Considering worship as imbued with the proximity of heaven and God’s immanence adds a dimension to sacred music-making that somewhere along the way, we lost in the West.

  4. Fr. Ernesto,

    How are the Psalms integrated into your singing/chanting? I know almost nothing about the Orthodox tradition. My question comes from thinking about what joining earthly experience and heavenly realities might include.

    • “Each of the divine services contains fixed portions of the Psalter that are read or chanted each time the service is celebrated. In addition, certain services of the Daily Cycle contain prescribed kathisma readings. These prescribed readings rotate daily so that outside of Great Lent the Psalter is read through once in its entirety in a single week.

      During the lenten fast, the kathisma readings are accelerated so that the Psalter is read through in its entirety twice each week.”

      Obviously, that is only in a place that can do 100% of the services of the hours – monastaries, seminaries, etc, but I think that should give you some idea. There is a whole heap of psalm chanting and singing both.

      • @Tokah is entirely correct. Various portions of the Psalter are found throughout the Divine Liturgy. But, to hear the entire Psalter you would need to be able to attend every day, or read the worship at home as part of your devotions.

        • Isaac (or possibly Obed) says

          Wow, once a week? I thought we Anglicans were doing good with reciting the Psalter once through in a month! My hat (a Canterbury cap, of course, unless it’s the Anglo-Catholic zuchhetto) goes off to my Orthodox brethren!

      • Thanks for the information. I’ll have to look up the Divine Liturgy.

  5. But, you need to understand that at its heart, the Orthodox see their music as connecting them to the music that is being sung by the angels and the elders at the foot of the throne of God (Rev. 4:8-11, Isa. 6:1-4, Eze. 3:12).

    This is a beautiful approach to worshiping God.

    Thank you.

  6. I love that worship is an objective, heavenly reality. Not something that can be invented or improved upon by man, only entered into.

  7. For those of you with a puckish sense of humor, you can go to http://www.wittenburgdoor.com/your-guide-contemporary-christian-music.html and see a rather satirical take on “contemporary” Christian worship.

  8. Thank you, Father Ernesto. Since I was a young child, I felt that singing or playing in harmony, creating beauty with the perfect cooperation of others who loved it as much as I did, was as close to heaven as I could get on earth. Now I realize that I wasn’t just imagining the closeness!

  9. Randy Thompson says

    Years ago, at the conclusion of an Eastern Orthodox service–a funeral, in this case–a friend of mine from the Salvation Army said something very perceptive about the service: “Wow, that was right out of the Book of Revelation.” He nailed it.

  10. (This has nothing to do with this post, per se, but is something I’m curious about. I notice most people are addressing Fr. Ernesto as “Fr. Ernesto.” Took the “Fr.” to mean “Father” and addressed him as such, but now I’m not sure that is correct. Fr. Ernesto, if you read this could you give me a quick clarifying comment? Thanks.)

  11. Fr. Ernesto is indeed Father Ernesto. He is an Eastern Orthodox priest.

  12. One of the things I admire about Eastern Christian worship is that though it is very mystical, it is also very focused on Christ. I combines the zeal and emotional ecstasy of charismaticism with an emphasis on scriptural texts as meditative devices.

  13. Well Miguel, if you come back to read any more,

    I would beg to differ with you on the descriptors you used. I suppose some people have zeal, but the point is actually not to have a bunch of emotional ecstasy. Worship, like all of Orthodox life, is to be sober – absolutely not dour or down-in-the-mouth, but primarily connecting with God in the innermost center of our being – which in Orth. Theology is the heart, but please do not understand this as having to do with emotionalism. The heart – also described as nous, which also does not mean bare intellect – is the aspect of our being created by God to connect with him. The mind is found in the heart, as is the will, the emotions, the intellect etc. They are all to be in their proper place, “overseen” as it were by the heart in connection with the Godhead. So sobriety and nepsis – alertness, the ability to be wholly present in every moment, is the ideal for Orth. worship. There is no dualistic pitting of intellect against emotions. And sometimes, for whatever reason, people find themselves in tears, but it is nothing like worship in Charismatic churches, with which I have experience, having been involved with the Vineyard for several years. I have found it intensely liberating.

    There has not been one Sunday since I began attending my parish church that I have not had the sense of having worshiped God, including the Sundays where a man unknown in the church wandered in off the street and right up to the Holy Doors, or when a dear elderly man had a spell and had to be taken to the hospital, with the emergency crew coming right into the nave and strapping him on the gurney during the Great Entrance. Of course, not everyone is focused all the time 🙂 This is not a new problem – see this from the writings of a 7th century priest from what is now Iraq (noted by Fr. Ted Bobosh at his blog):

    “I shudder to mention something else that is the most dreadful thing of all done by people who show contempt: at that dread moment which makes even the rebel demons shake, I mean at that awesome point when the Divine Mysteries are consummated, when angels and archangels hover around the altar in fear and trembling, as Christ is sacrificed and the Spirit hovers, many of these people will, on one occasion wander about outside, on another will come in according to their whim and stand there, showing their contempt by yawning as though at their excessive burden, being tired of standing up. At the moment when the priest is making this great supplication on their behalf, deep sleep gets the better of them, so slack are they; at this moment which causes even the dead to awaken, here are these people, fully alive and supposedly running after perfection, nevertheless sunk in sleep, or wandering about, waiting expectantly for when they can quickly leave their place of confinement; for the Jerusalem of light and life is like a prison to these people — the place where Father, Son and Spirit dwell, where spiritual beings and the bands of saints together give praise and glory before God in holy fashion. And once they have received the Living Sacrament they push their way out in haste, before the communal thanksgiving is made.”

    You should go to an Orthodox Divine Liturgy some time, if you haven’t already.
    Best regards-

    • I agree with you’re differing with my chosen descriptors. I like how you put it much better. My terms were quite sloppy, but you describe quite well what I was trying to get at. But I still think that the experience Charismatics are seeking is what you have in spades.

      I’ve visited Armenian Orthodox so far, but it’s really hard for me to get free on Sundays. The service was mostly not in English, but they had translation for visitors. My experience with Orthodoxy has mostly to do with conversations with Orthodox friends (even music leaders), reading their books and other writing on the subject, and of course much listening to Ancient Faith Radio. I’d love to sit through a St. John Chrysostom liturgy sometime. A lady in our choir is married to an Egyptian Coptic, so I’m hoping to catch some of their Easter related extra services this year. Apparently they can go longer than 6 hours.

      If you could point me to any good tomes on the Eastern liturgies, especially comparative works, I’d be much obliged!

  14. Miguel,
    There are books on the Eastern liturgies out there, but I’m not all that familiar with them. I know Fr Alexander Schmemann’s “For the Life of the World” but that is more about how everything is centered on the Eucharist. For Orthodox, books are good, but secondary. The advice is, Go to the Liturgy…

    You can look here for the texts of the liturgies of St John Chrysostom and St Basil. I love them both, and St Basil’s anaphora (prayer of offering) is a precis of “salvation history” – so much scripture and scriptural allusion. In the Greek tradition, the 2 psalms of the antiphons at the beginning of the service are not usually sung, or if they are, they are abbreviated.

    Email me ldames at pacific dot net and tell me your city, and I can give you some specific churches to check out, where the Liturgy is mostly in English 🙂