Every so often I’m brought up short by the profundity that lives in Byzantine hymnography. Amidst the poetic hyperbole and grandiloquence, deep truths and observations are nestled like gems. As I was rehearsing the choir for the Wednesday presanctified liturgy of the sixth week of Lent, three lines presented themselves as worthy of note, which I pointed out to the choir so we could be attentive in singing them.

They concern the death and raising of Lazarus, which Byzantine liturgical historicism marks daily throughout the week as it approaches the Saturday of the raising of Lazarus. Byzantine devotion sees in the raising of Lazarus a foretaste of the messianic victory to come by the Passion and Resurrection of Jesus. In this first hymn, the announcement of coming destruction is made to death itself in the Lazarus’ raising. This presages the rich hymnographic reflections made on Holy Saturday, patterned on the magisterial konakion of St. Romanos in which Satan and Death converse about the Passion of Christ, with Death lamenting his destruction because of it.

Tone 5 (from the Triodion, by Joseph)

When Jesus was walking in the flesh beyond the River Jordan,
He said to His companions:
“My friend Lazarus is already dead and buried,
but I rejoice for your sake, my friends.
By his death you will learn that I know all, for I am God,
even though I appear by nature as a man.
Let us go and give life to him,
so that death may truly know my victory
and the total destruction I shall make of it,//
as I grant to the world my great mercy!”

In the next sticheron, we are encouraged to follow the example of Mary and Martha (contemplation and action – which St. Andrew of Crete in his Great Canon allegorizes from the figures of Rachel and Leah in the Old Testament). In this stich, our “minds,” the center of our intellect and will, are admonished to be offered to God so that they may be raised from the death of “no fear of God” and no “vital energy.” Their sloth is even unknown to themselves.

Interestingly enough, our minds are “unaware.” For Byzantine spirituality, the center of God-inspired knowledge is the heart, from which the life of God deifies our whole person, including our minds. Also, our “vital energy” is meant to be enlivened by God’s energy – His uncreated grace which enlightens and sanctifies, and which was our meditation on the second Lenten Sunday.

Let us imitate Mary and Martha, O faithful!
Let us offer divine deeds to the Lord as intercessors,
so that when He comes He may raise up our minds,
for now they lie dead and feel no fear of God.
They are deprived of all vital energy,
unaware of their own inaction.
Let us cry: “O Lord, Who once had compassion on Your friend Lazarus,
and raised him up by Your awesome presence and authority,
so now give life to us all,//
and grant to us Your great mercy!”

Notice, by the way, the hymns’ author, Joseph, who was a 9th-c. monastic of the monastery of Studios and wrote hymns in the conflict of the icons.

Theodore was an earlier contemporary of Joseph and abbot of the Studite monastery. He reflects on the raising of Lazarus in cosmic terms: Lazarus’ raising is not only an announcement of the victory to come, but Lazarus himself is the prefigurement of the universal resurrection:

Tone 6 (from the Triodion, by Theodore)

Now Lazarus has been in the tomb two days,
seeing the dead of all the ages,
beholding strange sights of terror:
countless multitudes bound by the chains of hell.
His sisters weep bitterly as they gaze at his tomb,
but Christ is coming to bring His friend to life,
to implement in this one man His plan for all.//
Blessed are You, O Savior! Have mercy on us!

Notice the “strange sights of terror.” A unique (?) aspect of Byzantine devotional reflection is the dynamic take on Christ’s sojourn among the dead “bound in chains” in Hades/Sheol/Hell and His leading them forth to Paradise. The images of this sacred “myth” (not legend or fiction but myth – concrete expressions of spiritual realities in story form) are drawn from the Gospel of Nicodemus, poeticized in the hymns of St. Ephraim, filtered in St. Romanos, and focused in the Palestinian and Byzantine hymnographers, especially St. John of Damascus. This sacred myth of Jesus’ bodily entering the cavernous dark of Death as Light and destroying it and thence leading out the “souls” of the righteous (or all, depending on who is contemplating it) is acted out liturgically in Orthodox churches on Pascha night.

Another hymn from the Lazarus Saturday cycle, from vespers, presents the image of Christ’s voice resounding through Hades to call Lazarus forth, who must be let go by Death at the divine command. But Lazarus is not going to the New Life, but the old one from where he will die again. But the command of Jesus the Messiah over Death is made manifest.

I remember as a child the preacher at my church often making the point that if Jesus had not said, “in a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come forth!,’ but merely, “Come forth!,” all the dead would have raised.

What a thought.

Liturgical texts for this service represent modified versions of translations provided by Holy Myrrhbearers Monastery, Otego, New York and St. Tikhon’s Monastery, South Canaan, Pa. The Department of Liturgical Music and Translations of the Orthodox Church in America expresses its gratitude to Holy Myrrhbearers Monastery and St. Tikhon’s Monastery and to those translators whose work has been consulted at times in the course of reviewing and modifying these texts to their present form: Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware), Archimandrite Ephrem (Lash), Archimandrite Juvenaly, Father Benedict Churchill, Isaac Lambertson, St. Vladimir’s Seminary, and Holy Transfiguration Monastery, among others.

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Two Hymns

From the doxasticon for Lent III, Veneration of the Precious Cross:

Burning with boundless love for man,

You took the quill of the Cross in Your hand;

dipping it in ink of royal crimson,

You signed our release with blood-stained fingers.

From Frederick F. Lehman’s hymn, “The Love of God”:

Could we with ink the ocean fill, and were the skies of parchment made,

Were every stalk on earth a quill, and every man a scribe by trade,

To write the love of God above would drain the ocean dry,;

Nor could the scroll contain the whole, though stretched from sky to sky.

Enough said.
Blessed Lent to all.

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Blog After a Long Hiatus

This has been an eventful and difficult year for me. Which is why I haven’t written. I probably shouldn’t be writing now because I’m not sure that my mind is right. But I have some thoughts to share, only slightly related to the past year and three months (which I won’t be writing about).

From Psalm 63, which is read at the beginning of Matins proper daily —

O God, You are my God;
Early will I seek You;
My soul thirsts for You;
My flesh longs for You
In a dry and thirsty land
Where there is no water.
So I have looked for You in the sanctuary,
To see Your power and Your glory.

From Psalm 73, speaking of the seeming success of the wicked —

When I thought how to understand this,
It was too painful for me—
Until I went into the sanctuary of God;
Then I understood their end.

From the Song of Jonah, within the belly of the sea monster –

“When my soul fainted within me,
I remembered the LORD;
And my prayer went up to You,
Into Your holy temple.

From Habbakuk, decrying the makers of idols –

Woe to him who says to wood, ‘Awake!’
To silent stone, ‘Arise! It shall teach!’
Behold, it is overlaid with gold and silver,
Yet in it there is no breath at all.
“But the Lord is in His holy temple.
Let all the earth keep silence before Him.”

Somewhere I heard that we attend Church, and especially the Divine Liturgy, in order to regain our sanity, to reorient our perspective, to receive a reality check.
In the words of Luther’s Small Catechism, “This is most certainly true.”
When life overwhelms with disappointment and dread, when failure looms large, when confusion reigns and we are sore perplexed, when wickedness (as much within as without) abounds seemingly unchecked, one must at some point take recourse to God’s dwelling, His holy temple. It is in the divine worship of the Church — tempered by generations of prayer and thousands of holy souls bent on repentance and expressed in words inspired by the Spirit of the Word made flesh – that we find meaning, answers, consolation, truth (which is a Person), and courage.

No wonder that we begin, in Orthodoxy, “Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.”

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Nearer, Still Nearer

I listened to a lecture by Fr. Robert Taft (the renowned Byzantine Catholic liturgical scholar) in which, discussing relations between Catholics and Orthodox, he opined that the Orthodox habitually highlighted the differences at the expense of the commonalities, that differences were regularly being tossed up as barriers that hadn’t been in previous times.

I think that this is true. And I find myself sensitive to it for two reasons: (1) I grew up in a protestant “sect” that had this kind of attitude. Since “we” were right about everything (seemingly the only group in all Christendom who actually cared about the New Testament!), every difference between “us” and “them” became insurmountable. I had to actually broaden my ecclesiastical horizons in order to be prepared to embrace Orthodoxy. So, I’m rather sensitive when I see this same attitude regularly reflected within Orthodoxy. (2) I have close friends who are Catholic and family who are protestant, and being unable to commune together is painful. Of course, this is true for many Christians.

I’ve discovered over the past few years that many Orthodox are quite keen on these differences. I’m not at all sure what is gained by this. I believe in a Faith – defined, common, personal – that is robust and confident and not self-conscious. The Faith – The Faith – grew by interacting with the life and culture in which it developed. It adopted and adapted words and ideas and images. This is called “inculturation,” and it seems many Orthodox believe that the process ended after the Seventh Council. Rubbish. It’s time Orthodoxy accepted it has entered into Protestant lands, and studied it with an eye to inculturation as well as “conversion.”

This is why I periodically refer to protestant hymns in this blog. Hymns I grew up singing, in retrospect, prepared me for Orthodoxy. In fact, they are often quite “orthodox.” Other hymns have taken on a new meaning for me as I’ve traveled the Orthodox way. In my last blog I briefly presented some lines of hymns and scripture that expressed the idea of journey “from glory to glory.” Today on a hike, I realized that another hymn from my youth expressed the same idea but in more personal, almost-but-not-quite sentimental terms.

The hymn contains the phrase “nearer, still nearer” at the head of each verse, and is a hymn about the Christian soul’s ever-increasing closeness to the Savior. I realized today that going “from glory to glory,” “further in and further up” is growing “nearer, still nearer” to God in His life and Kingdom.

Allow me to repeat several lines from this hymn (by Mrs. C. H. Morris) which I find to be scriptural and hopeful:

Nearer, still nearer, nothing I bring; Nought as an offering to Jesus my King,
Only my sinful, now contrite heart; Grant me the cleansing Thy Blood doth impart.

The next time I go to Communion, I’ll remember this line as I, quite literally, “draw near” to the chalice, and remember the prayers of preparation which ask for this cleansing as well as the frequent prayer of the Liturgy: “To You, O Lord.”

Nearer, still nearer, Lord to be Thine; Sin with its follies I gladly resign;
All of it pleasures, pomp and it pride; Give me but Jesus, my Lord crucified.

The first part is a veritable quote from the oaths offered when we become Catechumens: “Do you renounce Satan, all his pomp and his pride?” “I renounce him!” The second part is from St. Paul, who resolved to “know nothing by Christ Jesus, and Him crucified,” which is, of course, why crucifixes figure prominently in the décor of Catholic and Orthodox churches.

And finally,

Nearer, still nearer, while life shall last, Till safe in glory my anchor is cast,
Thro’ endless ages, ever to be Nearer, still nearer, my Savior, to Thee.

Even in this protestant hymn, Mrs. Norris (knowingly?) expresses our hope in, not only salvation, but an eternal drawing-near to God – that the journey is truly “from glory to glory” into the infinite Love of God.

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Glory to Glory: David, Paul, Wesley and Lewis

One of my favorite lines from the psalms is from Psalm 84:5-7 –

 Blessed is the man whose strength is in you,

Whose heart is set on pilgrimage.

As they pass through the Valley of Baca,

They make it a spring;

The rain also covers it with pools.

They go from strength to strength;

Each appears before God in Zion.


“Pilgrimage…they go from strength to strength.”

 St. Paul says, “eternal life to those who by patient continuance in doing good seek glory…” (Rom. 2:7); and “we all, with unveiled faces, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory…” (2 Cor. 3:18).

He also writes in Rom. 1:17 that “in [the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith.”  The NIV says “faith from first to last.”

In his great hymn, “Love divine, all loves excelling,” the great Methodist hymnwriter, Charles Wesley, pens, “Changed from glory into glory, till in heav’n we take our place.”

And C. S. Lewis in his story “The Last Battle” has the hosts of Narnia, having waged and won the great final battle, going “further in and further up.”

These lines attract my attention often, thanks to the Orthodox Faith.  I think that they succinctly and beautifully express the idea of progression – a progression that the whole kosmos has experienced through the great evolutionary cycles; that the human race has experienced in its maturation over time and place; that the Faith has experienced in its unfolding through the history of salvation; that the Church Militant has experienced in its pilgrim advance; that the individual Christian soul experiences in its life in grace; and that we hope progresses throughout eternity into the very heart of God – infinite being, infinite beauty, infinite love.

  further up and further in

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Authenticity in Worship

evangelical worship

“The time is coming – and now is – when the true worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and in Truth.”

Christians must return to this saying of the Lord again and again. We must “examine ourselves” to see if, in fact, we worship “in Spirit and in Truth.” As Orthodox Christians, we must ask whether or not we live out our Tradition in this teaching, this charge. And we must also ask how our Tradition has maintained it. The reason is that, as fallible and sinful humans, we no doubt come up short – again and again. Yet, we confess with the Apostle that the Church “is the pillar and ground of the Truth.” We not only can but must trust that the Church has passed on to us that way of worship – both in outward form and in internal attitude – which allows us to fulfill the Master’s command.

Of the posts I’ve written, this has been the most difficult.  I don’t trust what I’ve written, because the subject is illusive, even dangerous.  But I’ve attempted a beginning, at least.

I’ve attached to this posting a picture which troubles me. It troubles me because it represents a way of worship which I strongly believe is seriously flawed and misguided. It’s not misguided because the worshipers are “heretics” who don’t accept the Blessed Trinity and the true Incarnation of our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ. If they didn’t, I wouldn’t be troubled. So much.

It is precisely because they do that I’m troubled. (We are often most at odds with those nearest and dearest to us, no?)

I consider such approaches to worship to be inauthentic, not in terms of intent or heart-status.  But the outward manifestation does reveal something of the interior. It must. We are embodied beings, and we live in a physical world. It counts. It matters, not only in the moral disposition of our actions, but in what the exterior manifests and, maybe more importantly, what it cultivates.

What is cultivated in a worship-setting which makes use of digitally-projected images of far-off places? In this picture, a song comparing the action of the Holy Spirit to rain (very biblical: read Joel the prophet) is being sung while the coordinators have projected a picture –a very pretty one – of a forest, no doubt with rain. The assembly is in an auditorium, not a window to the actual world outside to be seen. (They are actually in Texas in July.) What’s wrong with a little mood-setting? And how is that different from Orthodox liturgical mood-setting?

How, indeed?  A very good question, and one which the Orthodox and like-minded Christians ought to ask. Because there is a very real difference between traditional liturgical worship and mere mood-setting techniques. They do cross paths but they are not the same.

Let me illustrate from the Orthodox Tradition.

It is a custom for the lights in the church building to be dimmed for parts of services and raised at other parts.  Usually the raising of the lights occurs when a particular hymn is sung having to do with the light of God being manifest and praise being given.

This use of lights is illustrative and dramatic. It assists the worshipers to have the right frame of mind: penitence or joy. But in those acts we aren’t offering to God dimness and light. We are, in effect, setting a mood.  We coordinate the physical space with the spiritual space: We’ve arrived at a certain point in the service, and we adjust the light of the room accordingly, helping us to ourselves adjust.

Now, when we offer incense, we are not merely setting a mood. Traditional Christian worship understands and supports our physicality. Our minds and emotions and sensibilities often follow our senses. (Which is why the passions are so, so hard to overcome.) When I smell incense, I more quickly get into a frame of liturgical prayer, even humility. It’s very helpful, and the sense I have is not sentimental, though it could be.

However, we offer incense; we don’t just light it. The Copts actually call the morning and evening prayer services “Offering of incense,” after the Jewish custom. This is entirely appropriate. We offer our prayers to God with mouths and hearts and minds, and we offer incense. The incense is just as real as the prayer, and perhaps more trustworthy. The mind wanders, the heart fails, the mouth is impure. The resins of the herbs, however, are quite innocent, and stand with us and speak for us. Even as does the Holy Spirit, who breathed and brooded over this world.

How about icons? Icons do, indeed, set a mood. Anything and everything can and does set a mood. The mood may be helpful or unhelpful. In the Church, we have things which, over time, will train our senses to correctly bend toward the Truth.  Icons may draw someone immediately into a state of prayer and contemplation. Just as often, they may weird people out.  All of us, though, through time and experience, can be moved by them toward God. Because of our trust in the Tradition of the Church, we can know that these icons can move us in the right direction.

Icons are authentic. They represent very real people, events and spiritual realities. Icons teach us about these events and people and make them present to us.  They move us to praise and prayer, gratitude and penitence, and they help form a fitting physical environment for worship.

Icons may or may not be “pretty.” They ought to be beautiful. They ought to be real: actual works of a man’s creativity, actual reproductions of the Church’s Tradition. They might, on the surface, get us to feel a certain way for prayer. In the end, they draw us deeper.

A picture of a forest with rain as I sing about the Third Person of the Blessed Trinity can only offer a feeling of being in that forest. It may be a real feeling. It may be a good feeling. It may link for me the idea of refreshment and nurture, which may be appropriate when considering the activity of the Holy Spirit. But such a link is not made by the prophet Joel. Neither is it made by the Lord or His Apostles. It’s a sentiment that is manufactured for me by the technicians and planners of that event. No matter how good it feels or how connected it all is, it’s sentiment and not prayer. My soul is then trained to link sentiment and prayer, and prayer usually becomes dependent on sentiment rather than sentiment on prayer.

The picture is chosen because it’s the perfect forest with the perfect shade of green at the perfect time of day with the perfect amount of rain. It’s not a storm or at night or in winter. Sentimental pictures such as this excite an idealistic feeling but not one that is grounded in the reality of where we are at the time. We may be moved to gratitude by a rain forest, or to awe by the Grand Canyon, or to prayer by an ocean sunset. All well and good; we should be. But in Christian worship, we are moved by the realities of God’s nature, His work, and His Spirit’s manifestation in His people, not by idealistic scenes.

Another way of thinking of this is that in worship we are moved by the reality of the Kingdom to come made manifest now. The reason for the beauty in traditional Christian worship – a beauty that can be lavishly wrought in a great Russian cathedral or very simply in a small Alaskan village church – is to reveal the reality of that worship to us who probably don’t see it.

In reality, we worship with the angels. Most of us don’t see them. So, we have icons representing their presence. In reality, we enter Heaven and Heaven comes to Earth. Most of us just see the priest who made us mad last week and hear the choir who sings woefully out of tune. So, we reveal the beauty of Heaven with vestments. That obnoxious priest or stupid reader is really a minister of the Kingdom. In temporal reality, we may not feel like praying. We’re distracted by tomorrow’s doctor’s report or a friend’s failure. But the incense rises heavenward anyway, and we know that the “Spirit intercedes for us with groaning too deep for words.”

The icons, the vestments, the incense, the music – all of these reveal a certain reality. Whatever my state of mind and heart, they don’t trick me into feeling grandeur now, elation then, warmth another time… The deacons, priest and choir director haven’t sat down to choreograph a dance of emotions that illustrate bible lessons. These things, these liturgical objects and gestures are always here. The choreography always goes the same way. There is movement, of course. There is progression. But these realities and truths stay the same, as does God. It is we who move and progress, we who are ready to receive or reject God’s grace now as it is revealed to us in the actions of the liturgy.


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Stomping Feet

At our parish, as with most Orthodox parishes, we sing the Paschal hymn, “Christ is risen,” to several melodies. Our favorite by far is a Galician tune that has rhythm, a definite meter and repeated bits of text. We don’t normally go for those type of “folksy” settings, but this one is long-standing and does the job very well.

One of the reasons people enjoy it is that it has a very march-like, predictable rhythm. In fact, at “trampling down death by death,” the melody puts quarter notes on “death by death” on three repeated notes. It’s rather driving. It’s no surprise that, over the years, the exuberant among us (me included) have quite naturally begun to stamp their feet three times there. One can hardly help it. In fact, I’d argue that one has to keep oneself from it. Of course, the kids really like it, as does one of our adult Serbs and old Russian.

Others don’t.

Now, this isn’t a parish that stands on much ceremony. I think that if there were a low church Book of Common Prayer version of the Orthodox liturgy, they’d take it in a heartbeat. It’s not an especially quiet parish. They frequently have to be reminded that we enter and exit the church quietly. But it’s hard to get Oregonians to not chit-chat, even during Lent when we pray against “idle words.”

So, what about the exuberance of others’ – who are normally quiet in church — stamping when singing about Christ Jesus trampling on death annoys them is beyond me. But annoyed they are, though thankfully not to the point of making a public deal of it.

True, we take the liturgy of the Church seriously. Even at its most joyous it is not to be a flippant and foolish spectacle. But we do need to be careful about taking King David’s (first) wife, Michal, as a model. In 2 Samuel 6 (2 Kingdoms LXX), David is festively bringing the Ark of the Covenant into the city, and David is joyously dancing before it. And Michal doesn’t like it. She sarcastically remarks about “how the King of Israel got himself honor today!” And berates him stripping off his robes and dancing in naught but an ephod. (You can go figure that out yourself.)

The point is, that David’s exuberance was not appreciated by Michal for the praise that it was. And the Church is not beneath exuberant signs of praise and mercy. When holy water is used, it is usually sprinkled by the priest with a brush. Fwip – fwip – fwip. I find that amusing. When we receive Communion, we receive it like little children being fed by a doting parent — open mouth, spoon in. Not very dignified! When the Thrice-holy is sung at the Anaphora, the priest often dings the Star on the Paten for each “holy”: ding-ding-ding. And what of the jingle bells on censers at so many churches?! “Here comes Santa Clause…” can’t be far from many visitor’s minds! Furthermore, on Pascha, the clergy move through the church more quickly and, in many places (appropriately) shout, “Christ is risen!” as the choir sings the Paschal Canon. I understand that Greek women stamp their feet during the reading of the wedding epistle, as “submit to your husband” is read. And what of the spitting – our priest takes this very literally! – on the Devil when Catechumens are exorcised?!

So, a little stamping in praise of the defeat of Death and the Devil has got to have a place in the praise of the Church that honors our human bodily existence. It certainly drives the point home.

kid stomping feet

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A Reflection on Holy Saturday


As I write this, it’s mid-summer, and for some reason I’m surfing a Chaldean Church of the East website. Actually, it’s not odd. It’s Transfiguration, and I was looking for hymns on the subject, and, lo! up came this site. In trolling, I came across this church’s primary “basilica hymn” for Holy Saturday. I reproduce it in full here (I trust it’s legal), because it is so awesome (a word I don’t use much, believe me!):

Holy Saturday

An Uncommon Commentary
The tradition of the Catholic Church is the richest spiritual heritage in history, and it provides, by the grace of Christ, the strongest link to Christ himself, the one Savior and Mediator between us and the Father. But the richness of the One Catholic Church is not monotone; it is nuanced and varied, and spread out over the various branches of the one Church – the traditions and “particular churches” which form it together, each contributing its part.
The contribution of the Chaldean Church of the East to the entirety of the Catholic Faith is second to none, and the Basilica Hymn of Holy Saturday, “The Saturday of Light,” is a contribution that no other particular church has accomplished. It is a commentary on a verse of the Bible that is avoided by most commentators, both because it is difficult to explain as a historical circumstance and because even its spiritual significance is obscure. The verse is Matthew 27:50-53: “And Jesus cried again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit. And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom; and the earth shook, and the rocks were split; the tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many.”
No other church has had the courage to interpret with such depth such an odd passage, claiming that many of the dead were raised and came out of their graves when Christ died on the Cross. What could the significance of this event be for the souls of the faithful who read the Gospel?
Sleep No More
Every event in history had led up to the passion, death and resurrection of Christ. This was the climax of everything that had happened before, which had been prefigured and prophesied by the entire Old Testament. Therefore, the Chaldean Church made an attempt to tie all of history together into this one moment, by “waking up” all the “sleeping” prophets who had awaited the Messiah, and to point out to them the fulfillment of all of their hopes. Beginning with Adam and ending with Zechariah and John the Baptist, one by one, the most significant of the prophets are “awakened” and shown the dead Messiah hanging upon the Cross.
Holy Saturday
Basilica Hymn
The earth trembled and was shaken.
All the foundations of the earth trembled
The foundations of the mountains shook and were disturbed
When you were hanging on the Cross, O Christ,
creation saw you naked and trembled:
heaven darkened the light of the glorious lamp of the sun,
the temple showed its lamentation in the torn veil,
and earth quaked as well, for it saw the insolence of the crucifiers.
Even the sleeping, in a great marvel,
were awakened and arose from their graves,
lifting up praise to your great power, O Lord!
Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit.
(repeat the hymn above)
From age to age, amen, amen. In our Lord’s passion there was real suffering, and awe seized angels and men. The dead who had been buried arose and left their tombs while singing: “Glory to the Son who was brought low and, for our sake, hung on a piece of wood, and who cried out with his living voice and shook heaven and earth!”
Awake O First Adam, and see the Only-Begotten Son who suffered like a sinner at the hands of sinful people!
Awake and arise O cheated Abel, killed by the unjust brother, and see the Savior of the world, who dies for the life of the world!
Awake and arise O innocent Noah, who was an intercessor for the world, and see the Son of the Most High, who hangs on wood today!
Awake O sons of blessings, Shem and honorable Yafeth, who covered the nakedness of their father who was fast asleep: come and see the light of the sun and the beautiful lamp of the moon wearing a gloomy darkness, so that their Lord might not be seen disgraced!
Awake O high priest Melchezidech, who did not offer flesh on the altar: come today and see the Son who gave us his Mysteries in bread and wine!
Awake O Abraham, and see the Son who was shown to you in a revelation: for today he was hung on a piece of wood, like that mystery that was revealed to you!
Awake O blessed Isaac, saved by a lamb in a tree, and see that true mystery fulfilled by your Lord today!
Awake O righteous Joseph, who was spat upon by his brothers, and see Jesus the Savior who is spit upon by their sons!
Awake O Moses, head of the prophets, and see the Lord of the prophets, who suffers at the hands of the sons of the prophets, as was foretold by the prophets!
Awake O heroic Joshua, who stopped the sun and the moon: see that they wear a gloomy darkness today, because of the death of the Son!
Awake O David, O Psalmist, come out of the grave today; take up your harp and lyre, and preach, speaking in a Psalm: “They divided his clothes between them, placed their bets on his robes, and were like dogs around the Lion who did not speak to them.”
Awake and arise from the dirt O Solomon, sea of wisdom, and see the Lord of wisdom who is mocked by ignorance!
Awake O glorious Isaiah, look and see Christ the King; behold him bearing murder like a sacrifice, without opening his mouth!
Awake O blessed Joel, and see the darkness and gloom, the blood and the cloud of smoke, which reign over the world today!
Awake O Jonah, who for three days was like a dead man, and showed Judaism the resurrection after three days!
Awake O Micah, and see the Shepherd who came to return the stray, whom the Jewish nation has risen against and crucified like a sinner!
Awake and arise O blessed one who made judgment with the Lord, and see the marvel today: the Judge becomes the one condemned!
Awake O Zephaniah, and see the Church which was saved by the crucifixion; the distant became the close, and the assembly became scattered!
Awake O blessed Haggai, who was so diligent in building, and see that today the veil of forgiveness is ripped open!
Awake O Jeremiah the priest, who was thrown into the pit of mud, and see your Lord today, for whom a tomb has become a bedroom!
Awake O blessed Zechariah, and his beloved son the Baptist, and see today your Lord made into a sacrifice and offering!
Awake and arise O Fathers who died in the hope of the resurrection, and see, atop Golgotha, the Lord of all creatures!
Awake and arise all you deceased, and see the dead among the living, who bring forth to the house of the dead, the Lord of the living and the dead!
Awake O deceased from ages ago, and see the Son who is from of old, who took your form in his love, and in whom all Scriptures are fulfilled!
Awake O you who are dead in sin, see the Son who does not know sin, who dies with the slaves of sin, in order to kill death and sin!
Awake O deceased, and see the marvel on the cross of the first-born Son, who by his murder has rent the earth, and by his death has abolished death!
O Conqueror whose friends abandoned him and whose servants judged him, by his choice: give victory to those whose sins have conquered them, in your mercies which brought them into existence! Blessed is your death, glorious your resurrection! Have pity and forgive, by your grace, your servants who confess your Divinity. In your power, be an aid for us, and make your mercies flow at every time upon the assemblies of the Church who confess that you have risen in truth. To you, with your Father be glory and adoration, and to the Holy Spirit, at all times.

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Liturgy & Seriousness…Play & Merriment

“We must play.  But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously – no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption.” — C. S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory”

My friend, Susan, and I just recently had a little exchange on a video she’d forwarded (along with attendant comments from others) which showed an Ontario Anglican parish serving a “Cat in the Hat”-themed Eucharist.  These types of events abound, and have for a good 30+ years.  After the first blush of seeing the Rector process to the altar wearing a large hat in a rather playful manner, a person like me gets rather put-out because I’m by personality a conservative.  I don’t like seeing things I enjoy and respect toyed with in what seems to me a foolish manner.

 On the video, the Rector and his youth pastor, in interview-format, offer comments as to why they planned and executed such an event.  (It seemed to have been done rather well.) It was all about inclusivity and invitation and playfulness and merriment.  The congregation was full of older people who are clearly enjoying themselves, if a bit bewildered.  The worshipers go to the altar rail reverently at communion-time to receive Communion from the en-hatted priests.  It was hard to judge the reaction of the children.  But that’s not odd.

Time for a couple questions:  Why are traditional liturgies traditionally performed (I mean normal and usual) considered unfit for children?  We don’t pave children’s streets, build children’s houses and construct children’s airplanes?  They seem to do just fine.  Children always aspire to be adults.  They like to approach adult-dom.  I’m not sure how much they like adults to approach kid-dom.  Kids assume that the realm of adult life is stable, and that kid life is in flux.  Why do adults think that kids want adults to go backward and make their world the status quo?  Did you, as a kid?  I didn’t.  I consider that issue now closed.

A second question to my theme:  Why are traditional liturgies traditionally performed seen as unconducive to play and merriment?  “Play” in current English is used to denote make-believe and games.  It may also refer to physical exertion that is recreational, usually sport.  That includes games.  Since Christian liturgical worship isn’t about make-believe and games as such, I suggest that “play” is rightly excluded from the realm of liturgy.  “Merriment” usually implies “having fun” for its own sake.  I might host a party simply for the sake of gathering, setting aside “earthly cares,” and enjoying a cold one or two with congenial companions.  No object.  No commemoration.  Just enjoyment.  Christian liturgy excludes this, also, since it has an Object.

A third question is begged:  Why do so many try to make liturgy the realm of “play” and “merriment” as I’ve defined them above?  We don’t try to make hide-and-seek liturgical.  And we don’t ritualize parties.  Neither should we.  Games and sport don’t need to be sacralized; they are accepted as legitimate in and of themselves. And while parties introduce many dangers (drunkenness, idle talk, gossip), even the Amish gather socially as do monks.  They simply don’t require defending; they are accepted as completely natural.  Why is liturgy, almost alone amongst human activity, not accorded this natural status?  Why, for it to continue into contemporary life, does liturgy need to be constantly tweaked, molded, fiddled with, and combined with other endeavors in order to have its legitimacy?

It does not.

Liturgical action is natural to human beings.  Ritual itself is natural, from how we bathe to how pitchers prep their pitches to how we conduct birthday celebrations.  And owing our thanks and praise and devotion to the Creator is, of course, highly ritualized due to its universal character.  (The most ardent individualist Protestants aren’t without public worship ritual.  Rituals are developed in order to stave off ritualism.)  Rituals are necessary in order to pass along habits of life and mind to another generation.  It goes without saying.  Kids are hugely ritualistic in their play.  They love habits and set behavior.

The busy-bodyness, ever-meddling style of modern life insists on making all of life alike.  Few things are allowed to stand on their own.  Work must mix with recreation must mix with worship must mix with family must mix with work-mates.  Employers are concerned about our psychological health while ministers are concerned that we get enough “down time.”  It’s assumed, it seems, that all spheres of life must be integrated or we are “compartmentalizing.”

Now, I’m very much for a holistic view and working-out of life.  I’m not in favor of over-rigid categories that lead to lack of cross-pollenization, isolation and loneliness.  I’m not in favor of the return to over-formal stratification in personal and public life.  I am in favor, however, of areas of life retaining their proper authority and integrity.

If people want “play” and “merriment” in liturgy, it can only be because they’ve lost Joy.  Joy is a definite liturgical virtue.  We bring it with us to liturgical observance and we take it away.  We bring to liturgy the joy we have in life fostered by family, work, experience, forgiveness, belonging and hope.  We take away a renewed sense of joy as we encounter divine forgiveness, beauty, eternal perspective and the ground of faith.

A wonder of Joy is that it is not dependent upon “program” and planning.  It does not submit to personality.  True joy is based upon Truth.  Truth, to be sure, can be veiled and suppressed.  But when Christian Truth – the reality and ends of Creation, Incarnation and Restoration in the real Person of our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ – is proclaimed and celebrated in forms that rise above mere currency, joy will not be suppressed.  It cannot because it is a gift of the Holy Spirit.

Seriousness is not antithetical to Joy.  Dourness is no servant of seriousness.

Formality does not invite coldness.  When it is distant and unfeeling, it is not cured by changing a text because the sickness is not the form but the heart.  Conversion is wanted.

In Orthodox sensibilities, “joy” takes many forms that include noise and quiet, stillness and movement, affirmation as well as penitence.  We call repentance “bright sadness.”  Lent is termed a “feast.”  On Pascha we still pray “Lord, have mercy.”


If in our liturgical observances and celebrations we are getting bored, the Cat in the Hat will provide no cure.  If our children aren’t aspiring to be grown-ups, and are not feeling welcomed and invited in our celebrations, introducing flippant “merriment” and out-of-place “play” isn’t going to rectify that situation.

If Joy is a fruit of the Spirit, it cannot be manufactured or devised, planned or contained.  It can be sinned against by hypocrisy and idolatry.  It can be suppressed by the legalist and judgmental.  But where the Truth is proclaimed and lived with integrity and authenticity, it will abound. And it will spread.

And children will catch it.

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Imitation and Creativity: part II


So, what does the Tradition demand?  What is ostensibly maintained and cultivated by those in the strict camp, guaranteed by reproducing the past?  What are those of us who are not in strict practices to do?  We say we are in the Tradition, but so many of our practices (especially our music) are – let’s be honest – not very old, at least in their surface forms.  What values are we to honor to guide us so that our practice cultivates what the others say is cultivated in their practice?

 I labor under the guidance of two basic principles:

First, music in the Church needs to be beautiful.  It needs to be well-crafted after some manner of artistry.  Of all the music I have to choose and reject, in the end, it has to reflect some quality of beauty.  This includes strength of structure as well as quality of character.  It also includes some attractiveness, that “pleasing” quality which invites the hearer to listen and even to listen again and again.

It’s a cinch that not all of our melodies need to be exquisite.  A certain amount of rather plain naturalness goes a long way toward filling the quality of beauty.  Even the simple formula do-re-do contains a beautiful quality to it for reasons I’ll not go into here, since this is not an essay on the philosophy of musical beauty.  But that short formula is very simple, quite natural and lends itself to liturgical responses.

Second, music in Church needs to be objective.  The rigorists seek to achieve this through the principal of never introducing anything new, even in the manner of performance.  The idea behind this is the exalting of community forms: it’s our melody.  How this keeps itself from idolatry, I’ve no idea.  But those of us outside the strict camp have to practice the virtue of objectivity in less obvious and mechanistic ways.

A musician needs to develop the discipline of discernment.  There are musical qualities which do make for subjective and even sentimental character.  Again, that is quite beyond the scope of this essay, and probably beyond the scope of this blog.  But a musician who has not developed a reasonably strong set of musical values and the ability to judge music at some level will probably not judge music for the Church really well.  Perhaps he has a good natural sense, and this might go a long way.  But how will he pass it along to others?

This does not mean unexpressive music.  It means expressiveness within the realm of liturgy, which is the external celebration of a commonly-held Faith.  Within the expression of penitence, joy, lamentation, exultation, triumph, humiliation, trust and need there is a universal sense that the worshiper adopts for herself.  The individual’s experience doesn’t become universal.  A gospel song I grew up singing, goes, “Oh, what a wonderful, wonderful day!  Day I shall never forget!  When after wand’ring in darkness away, Jesus the Savior I met.”  This is really not the sentiment of the Church.  It is the sentiment of a believer.  It could even be St. Paul, for that matter.  Many have had this experience.  Many have not.  (Indeed, the fewer who have had the experience of “wand’ring in darkness away” the better.)  At any rate, it is a particular experience interpreted, not by the community, but by the individual.  The song goes on to exult in a salvation experience I quite emotive terms – terms derived from early-2oth century American secular songs.

Instead, the universal is meant to become individual.  The experience of the blind man in the Gospel conveys a universal experience meant to be made individual.  An Orthodox songs says,  “I come to You, O Christ, blind from birth in my spiritual eyes, and cry to You in repentance: You are the most radiant light of those in darkness!”  No one comes to the Savior already seeing.  If so, “your sin remains,” He says.  In effect, the Church in appointing this hymn for all to sing says, “If you’ve not had this experience, if you’ve not felt this way, you need to.  Seek it.”

The music of the Church, while conveying the sentiments listed above – both in text and music – does so from the high ground of universal experience.  It must have a certain arms-length quality to it.  Again, this quality is sensed by a musician who has developed his sensitivity and ability to judge musical sensibility.  (I’m using “sense” words intentionally.)  Without it, how does one choose or create music to accompany the text, “Woe is me, my Divine Child!”  This text must be communicated truthfully, and humanly.  But it cannot be conveyed literally as though the despair weren’t redeemed and glorified.  There is real loss expressed here.  But in the liturgy all – all – is done in the light of the Resurrection and Ascension.  We preach Christ crucified, but we don’t preach Christ reduced to a bloody pulp.  That misses the point.

A good and appropriate analogy here is that of the Church’s icons.  Take the icon of Christ crucified.  He’s clearly suspended on the Cross.  He is clearly bleeding.  He is clearly dead.  But it is the serenity of that self-sacrifice that is communicated.  It is a death that exists in all eternity.  It is all-embracing and includes the heroic and bloody death of the martyr as well as the peaceful death of grandma in her bed.  All are invited to make this death their own, to “die with Christ.”

The music of the Church must carry this iconic quality as it meditates on both life’s suffering as well as Life’s Triumphs.


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