The Three Antiphons
At the beginning of the Orthodox Divine Liturgy, three hymns called antiphons follow the Great Litany and precede the Little Entrance. Traditionally, antiphonal singing in the Orthodox Church consisted of two choirs singing, alternately, one or more verses from the Psalms. In modern Orthodox practice, especially in the Russian tradition, one choir generally sings the three Antiphons, with Little Litanies between them. The first two antiphons, “Bless the Lord, O My Soul” and “Praise the Lord, O My Soul” are taken from the Psalms (Psalm 102 and Psalm 145, respectively). As we will see below, the Psalms, of great importance to the life of the Church and to all Orthodox Christians, became the hymnbook of the Church, inherited from Judaism. The third antiphon consists of the Beatitudes, taken from the Gospels (Matt 5:2–12; Luke 6:20– 26). The Beatitudes are considered to be the most concise form of the teachings of Christ, and have a prominent place in the Divine Liturgy, right before the procession of the Gospel book, called the Little Entrance.
In addition to the succession of antiphons and litanies, the “Hymn of Justinian” is sung after the second antiphon. Many know this hymn as “Only Begotten Son,” after its first three words. It was composed sometime in the 4th or 5th century and was spread and popularized by the Emperor Justinian (527-565 A.D.), who recognized its importance. The significance of this beautiful hymn is its affirmation of the Christological formula developed during the First Ecumenical Council (325 A.D.), including its description of Christ as the Only Begotten Son of the Father, taken from the Gospel of John (John 1:14, 1:18, and 3:16).
The text of the hymn is very specific, with each word rendering deep theological truths which are necessary to correctly ascribe to Jesus his identity, attributes and actions in the world:
Only Begotten Son and Immortal Word of God, Who for our salvation didst will to be incarnate of the holy Theotokos and ever virgin Mary, Who without change didst become man and wast crucified, O Christ our God, trampling down death by death, Who art one of the Holy Trinity, Glorified with the Father and the Holy Spirit, save us!
How is it that such an understanding of God the Son came to be? What is the meaning of “Only Begotten?” And if Jesus is indeed the Only Begotten Son, what does this tell us about the Father?