Splendour of the East: 5 Byzantine Hymns All Catholics Should Know

“We, who mystically represent the cherubim, and sing to the life-giving Trinity the thrice-holy hymn:let us lay aside all earthly cares, that we may welcome the King of All, invisibly escorted by angelic hosts. Alleluia.”

Eastern Church Byz

1. Axion Estin (It Is Truly Meet)

It is truly meet to bless thee, O Theotokos,
ever blessed, and most pure, and the Mother of our God.
More honorable than the cherubim,
and beyond compare more glorious than the seraphim.
Without corruption thou gavest birth to God the Word.
True Theotokos, we magnify thee.

The Axion Estin is the great hymn of praise to the glorious Theotokos, found in nearly every major service of the Byzantine rites. Believed composed in the 8th century by St. Cosmas the Hymnographer, it is ancient tradition that the first verse (“It is truly meet…”) was revealed by the Archangel Gabriel to a holy monk on Mount Athos, and this tradition is celebrated in a feast on June 11th each year.

2. Trisagion (The Thrice Holy)

Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us.

One of the oldest texts in the Divine Liturgy, it is believed that this hymn was supernaturally revealed by an heavenly voice during the reign of Emperor Theodosius II in the early 5th century. We know that it was used by the Fathers of the Council of Chalcedon, and it once had a presence in the ancient Latin-rite Gallican liturgy of France. Many modern Roman-rite Catholics will be familiar with this hymn through its inclusion in the popular Divine Mercy devotion of St. Maria Faustina.

3. Cherubikon (The Cherubic Hymn)

We, who mystically represent the cherubim, and sing to the life-giving Trinity the thrice-holy hymn:let us lay aside all earthly cares, that we may welcome the King of All, invisibly escorted by angelic hosts. Alleluia.

One of the most sublime hymns of the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, the Cherubic Hymn occurs during the procession of the Holy Gifts from the altar of preparation, through the nave, to the altar of sacrifice. It represents the uniting of ourselves with the hosts of heaven, in preparation for the great and awesome Mystery that will soon be made present in our midst. This hymn, of ancient origin, was added to the Liturgy by Emperor Justin II in the late 6th century.

4. Vasilieu Ouranie (O Heavenly King)

O Heavenly King, the Comforter, Spirit of Truth, Who art everywhere present and fillest all things, the Treasury of Blessings and Giver of Life: come, dwell within us, cleanse us of all stain, and save our souls, O Good One!

Part of the “Usual Beginning,” this hymn occurs in the midst of a number of prayers used to open most of the Byzantine Divine Services. It is also a proper hymn of Pentecost, and is thus not sung during the Easter Season, being instead replaced with the great “Christos Anesti”.

5. Phos Hilaron (O Gladsome Light)

O Gladsome Light of the holy glory of the Immortal Father, heavenly, holy, blessed Jesus Christ. Now we have come to the setting of the sun and behold the light of evening. We praise God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. For it is right at all times to worship Thee with voices of praise, O Son of God and Giver of Life, therefore all the world glorifies Thee.

This incomparable hymn, also known as the “Lamplighter Hymn” of Great Vespers, is the oldest recorded hymn in Christianity outside of the Scriptures. It was first referenced in the Constitutiones Apostolicae of the 3rd century, and St. Basil the Great considered the singing of this hymn to be one of the most cherished traditions in the Church. To this day, it is recited daily during Vespers by all those of the Byzantine rites.


More Music and Hymns from CL Davis:

5 English Hymns All Catholics Should Know
Glory of Rome: 5 Latin Hymns Every Catholic Should Know
4 Musical Analogies in the Writings of the Early Church

  • Hmm… Then what was the hymn to the Theotokos written by a Byzantine emperor? I thought that was “It Is Truly Meet/Proper…”

  • S McKiernan

    Great to know the origin of Wood’s “Hail Gladdening Light”… thanks for this list.

  • rick

    it is wonderful to hear and pray these wonderful hymns of our past and present

  • The Church in your photo is the now de-consecrated Cathedral of the Transfiguration in Markham, Ontario (north of Toronto). It was the seat for the Slovak bishop in Canada until a property dispute arose with the daughter of the builder and Slovakian immigrant, Stephen Roman.

  • Dr. Eric

    HEY! Where are the Maronite Hymns?


    • Joaco

      clearly not in a byzantine post.

  • Another one I’d probably add is Μονογενὴς Ὑιός(Only Begotten Son), sung in the Byzantine Liturgy after the 2nd Antiphon (or, in the current Ukrainian Catholic Usage which omits the 2nd Antiphon, after the 1st Antiphon). It was written by the Emperor Justinian

    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.

  • Matt L.

    Don’t forget the Gloria, known as the Great Doxology in the Byzantine rite.

  • Jonathan Arrington

    How about these two?

    Ὑπὸ τὴν σὴν εὐσπλαγχνίαν καταφεύγομεν Θεοτόκε, τὰς ἡμῶν ἱκεσίας μὴ παρίδῃς ἐν περιστάσει ἀλλ’ἐκ κινδύνων λύτρωσαι ἡμᾶς, μόνη ἁγνή, μόνη εὐλογημένη!
    The origin of the Latin “Sub tuum praesidium”

    Θεοτόκε Παρθένε, χαῖρε, κεχαριτωμένη Μαρία, ὁ Κύριος μετὰ σοῦ. εὐλογημένη σὺ ἐν γυναιξί, καὶ εὐλογημένος ὁ καρπὸς τῆς κοιλίας σου…
    The basis of the “Ave Maria” or “Hail Mary”