I. What are the biblical canticles (odes)?
II. The fifth biblical canticle as an example
III. The link hymns (irmoi) of the fifth biblical canticle
I. What are the biblical canticles (odes)?
A body of Old Testament texts almost as important in Orthodox Christian worship as the Psalter are the nine biblical odes or canticles. These are sung at matins (orthros). The first 8 are from the Old Testament; the only one from the New Testament is the 9th, which actually consists of two canticles from Luke 2.
1. The (First) Song of Moses (Exodus 15:1-19)
2. The (Second) Song of Moses (Deuteronomy 32:1-43)
3. The Prayer of Hannah (1 Samuel 2:1-10)
4. The Prayer of Habakkuk (Habakkuk 3:1-19)
5. The Prayer of Isaiah (Isaiah 26:9-20)
6. The Prayer of Jonah (Jonah 2:2-9)
7. The Prayer of the Three Holy Children (Daniel 3:26-56)
8. The Song of the Three Holy Children (Daniel 3:57-88)
9. The Song of the Theotokos (the Magnificat, Luke 1:46-55); the Song of Zacharias (the Benedictus, Luke 1:68-79)
Originally, these 9 odes were chanted in their entirety every day, with a short refrain inserted between each verse. Later, the refrains were replaced by short hymns (called "troparia"). At each of the 9 odes, the first of these short hymns is a special one called a "link" (in Greek, "irmos", also spelled "heirmos"; plural "irmoi") which is based on the theme of the biblical canticle and therefore serves as a link to it.
Later, the verses of the biblical canticles themselves were dropped, being read only on the weekdays of great lent.* They were replaced by short refrains which preceded each of the composed troparia. The irmos still provides a link to the original canticle.
Unlike the other biblical canticles, the first of the two New Testament canticles, the Magnificat, was not dropped. It is chanted almost every day of the year, being replaced by other hymns on certain special days: the great feasts and their leave-takings, in Bright Week, on the Sundays and leavetaking of Pascha, and at the feast of Midpentecost.
Each of the 9 odes has 14 of the troparia (each preceded by a refrain) and may close with another irmos called the "katavasia" (which is sometimes the same as the irmos sung at the beginning of that canticle). The 9 biblical canticles, irmoi, refrains, troparia, and katavasias together comprise a large body of hymnography called the "canon," which fills the middle of matins. The canon is different almost every day, as there are different canons for different seasons, tones, and feasts. These are found in the different service books. The biblical canticles, of course, are always the same.
On Sundays and major feasts, there is a katavasia (sometimes two) after every ode; on lesser days, a katavasia is sung only after odes 3,6,8, & 9. The small litany is sung after odes 3, 6, and 9. Often special hymns are inserted after odes 3 and 6; these are the kontakion (pl. kontakia), ikos, and sessional hymns (a.k.a. kathisma hymns or sedalen).
An inspection of the canon in various service books of the Church shows that canticle 2 and its associated troparia appear only during great lent. This is because of the severe nature of the second biblical ode.
*Though usually omitted outside of lent, the biblical canticles are still technically prescribed throughout the year except at Pascha and Bright Week according to the church typicon, and form part of the rule of prayer in some monasteries.
II. The fifth biblical canticle as an example
The Prayer of Isaiah (Isa. 26:9-20). This is the fifth of the nine biblical odes or canticles used in the Orthodox Church. The Alleluia verses sung at the beginning of matins (orthros) on the weekdays of Great Lent (in place of "God is the Lord") are also taken from this prayer.
"My spirit rises early in the morning to you, O God, for your commands are light upon the earth. Learn righteousness, you who dwell on the earth. The ungodly man ceases; he will not learn righteousness on the earth; he will not do the truth; let the ungodly man be taken away, that he may not see the glory of the Lord. O Lord, your arm is exalted, but they did not know it. But when they know it, they shall be ashamed, for jealousy will seize an untaught people; and now fire will devour the adversaries. O Lord our God, grant us peace, for you render everything to us. O Lord our God, possess us; O Lord, we know no other besides you; we name your name. The dead will not see life; neither will physicians raise them. Therefore, you brought evils upon them and destroyed them and took away every male of theirs. Bring more evils on them, O Lord, on the glorious of the earth. O Lord, I remembered you in my hard circumstances. Your chastening to us was a small affliction. As a woman with child is in pain and cries out in her pangs, when she draws near the time of her delivery, so we became your beloved because of the fear of you, O Lord. We have been with child, we have been in pain, and we have given birth. We brought forth the spirit of your salvation on the earth. But the inhabitants of the world shall fall. The dead shall rise up; and those in the tombs shall arise. Those in the earth shall be glad, for your dew is a healing for them, but the land of the ungodly shall come to an end. Come, my people, enter your closets and shut your door; hide yourself for a short while, until the anger of the Lord is past." (from the Orthodox Study Bible)
The above is the Septuagint version, which is the one used in the Orthodox Christian worship.
III. The link hymns (irmoi) of the fifth biblical canticle
As an example of the way the link-hymns (irmoi) connect with, and remind us of, the themes of the biblical canticles (which are usually omitted), here are many of the irmoi written for the fifth canticle -- the prayer of Isaiah, whose text is provided above. The irmoi are short hymns, prayers typically inspired by the text of the biblical ode, reflective of its themes and ideas, and linking to them. In essence, they are short meditations on the text of the biblical canticle. Specifically, in the fifth canticle and the irmoi written for it, the salient theme is that of light, including the day and the dawn; but other themes and words harking back to the canticle are found as well.
The fifth canticle and its irmoi are used here as an example to show the order and spiritual richness of our worship. Similarly, for each of the nine odes there are irmoi written, that reflect its themes. Ode One typically relates thematically to Israel's escape from Egyptian bondage and the crossing of the Red Sea. Ode Six, like Jonah's prayer, typically speaks of the deep, the depths, the abyss, and rising, escaping from them. The experiences of Israel and of Jonah are projected to a larger canvas of human experience in which we have escaped from evil and the devil through the sea (baptism), yet often still seem to be drowning in sins. The other odes as well have their respective special themes.
Here, then, are the irmoi for Canticle (Ode) Five, in all eight of the tones:
O Christ, who enlightened the ends of the world with the brightness of your presence, and who cleansed and made them bright and joyful by your Cross, enlighten with the light of the knowledge of God the hearts of those who praise you in the Orthodox manner.
As you are God of peace and Father of mercies, you have sent to us your Angel of great counsel who bestows peace. So are we guided towards the light of the knowledge of God, and rising early out of the night we glorify you, O lover of man.
Grant us your peace, O Son of God, for beside you we know no other God. Your name do we name, for you are God of the living and the dead.
Shine your everlasting light in the hearts of those who hymn you with faith, granting us the peace that passes understanding, O Christ, so that, running from the night of ignorance towards the dawn of your commandments, we may glorify you, O lover of man.
With your radiant and everlasting light, illumine us who rise early at dawn for the judgments of your commandments, O Master, lover of man, Christ our God.
Rising early out of the night we hymn you, O Christ, who with the Father are unoriginate, and the Savior of our souls. Bestow peace upon the world, O lover of man.
Illumination of those lying in darkness, the salvation of the despairing, O Christ my Savior, I rise early to you, O King of peace. Enlighten me with your radiance, for I know no other God than you.
You became a mediator between God and man, O Christ our God. For through you, O Master, out of the night of ignorance, we have access to your Father, the source of Light.
The sun that was foreseen as a coal by Isaiah, has from a virginal womb dawned upon those gone astray in darkness, bestowing the radiance of the knowledge of God.
O Lord, bestower of the light and author of the ages, guide us in the light of your commandments, for we know no other God than you.
Having scattered the mist from my soul, O my Savior, enlighten me with the light of your commandments, as you alone are the King of peace.
When Isaiah saw, in figure, God upon an uplifted throne, escorted by angels of glory, he cried: Woe is me! For I have seen beforehand, incarnate, God of the light that knows no evening, and Lord of peace.
To you I rise early at dawn, O Maker of all, and peace that passes all understanding. For your commandments are a light: in them guide me.
On earth you who are invisible, were seen; and of your own will you who are infinite lived among mortals. So rising early to you at dawn, we praise you in hymns, O lover of man.
Your light that knows no evening, O Christ God, shine unto my lowly soul, and guide me in the fear of you; for light are your commandments.
Rising early at dawn we praise you, O Word, only begotten Son of God; grant us your peace, and have mercy on us who sing your praises and faithfully worship you.
The whole world was amazed at your divine glory, for you, a Virgin who had not known wedlock, conceived in your womb the God who is over all, and brought forth a timeless Son, who grants salvation to all those singing your praises.
You have come, my Lord, a light into the world, a holy light which turns from the darkness of ignorance those who in faith sing your praises.
Now shall I arise, said God through the Prophets. Now shall I be glorified; now shall I be exalted. Having taken on myself from the Virgin him who was fallen, I will also elevate him to the wondrous light of my deity.
Bring to light for me the daylight of your precepts, O Lord, for my spirit rises early to you at dawn and praises you. For you, O Christ, are my God, and to you I have fled for refuge, O King of peace.
Send down to us, Lord, your enlightenment, freeing us from the murk of errors, and granting, O Good Jesus, your peace that comes from heaven.
The ungodly will not see your glory, O Christ, Only-begotten radiance of the glory of the father's deity; but as for us, rising early from the night, we sing your praises, O lover of man.
O Light which dawned forth and illumined the morning and revealed the day: glory to you, O Jesus, Son of God, lover of man, glory to you.
Tone 5 (Plagal of Tone 1)
O Christ, who clothes yourself in light as in a garment, to you I rise early and to you I cry aloud: Illumine my darkened soul, as you alone are compassionate.
Rising early we cry to you, O Lord: Save us, for you are our God; beside you, we know none other.
From the night my spirit rises early to you, O true light, Christ my God, who shines your face on me.
Take pity on my wretched soul, which fights by night with the darkness of the passions, and shine on me, O spiritual Sun, your rays, which shine by day, that your light may cut through the night.
Tone 6 (Plagal of Tone 2)
With your divine light, enlighten, I ask you, the souls of those who in love rise early to you, that they may know you, O Word of God, as the truly good God who recalls us from the darkness of sins.
When your theophany, O Christ, came to pass in sympathy for us, Isaiah, seeing the light without evening, rose early out of the night and cried: The dead shall arise, and those in the tombs shall be raised, and all those born on earth shall greatly rejoice.
O Light dawning to the world, O Christ, enlighten the heart of me, who cry to you out of the night, and save me.
Enlighten me as I rise early out of the night, I pray, O lover of man, and guide me in your commandments, and teach me, O Savior, to do your will.
Early in the morning I rise to you who out of compassion, without change, emptied yourself for the fallen one, and bowed down even to the point of sufferings, without passion, O Word of God. Grant me peace, O lover of man.
Tone 7 (Grave tone)
Night is without light for the faithless, O Christ, but there is enlightenment for the faithful in the delight of your divine words. Therefore I rise early to you, and I sing in praise of your divinity.
O Lord my God, rising early from the night I entreat you: grant me remission of my transgressions, and guide my paths to the light of your commandments, I pray.
We who rise early to glorify and praise you, O Word, unceasingly hymn the image of your Cross, which you gave us as a weapon for our help.
I rise early to you, the Creator of all, the most excellent peace surpassing mind. Therefore your commandments are a Light; guide my paths in them.
Dispersing the night of the passions, kindle the light of my intelligence, O Creator of all, who drove the primordial darkness out of the abyss, and illumined the world with the first-created light.
My spirit rises early to you, O God. Therefore you are a light, and your commandments have become healing for your faithful servants, O lover of man.
Tone 8 (Plagal of Tone 4)
Why have you cast me away from your face, O never-setting light? And why has this alien darkness covered me, poor wretch? But turn me back and direct my paths, to the light of your commandments, I pray.
Illumine us with your commandments, O Lord, and with your uplifted arm grant us your peace, O lover of man.
Rising early, we cry to you, O Lord: Save us, for you are our God, and beside you, we know no other.
Dispel the melancholia of my soul, O lifegiver Christ our God, who expelled from the abyss the primordial darkness; and give me, O Word, the light of your commandments, that rising early at the dawn I may glorify you.
Out of the night of ignorance enlighten me, with the dawning of thy love for man, O Christ who enlighten all the world with thy knowledge divine.
My spirit rises early to you, O God, for a light are the commandments of your coming. With them, therefore, illumine our mind, O Master, and guide us in the way of eternal life.
From the night of ignorance I am always wandering on the pathways that destroys the soul. Guide me, O Lord, with the light of your wisdom, and direct me in the path of your commandments.