Apr 18, 2014

Great and Holy Friday

Today He who hung the earth upon the waters is hung on the tree,
The King of the angels is decked with a crown of thorns.
He who wraps the heavens in clouds is wrapped in the purple of mockery.
He who freed Adam in the Jordan is slapped on the face.
The Bridegroom of the Church is affixed to the Cross with nails.
The Son of the virgin is pierced by a spear.
We worship Thy passion, O Christ.
We worship Thy passion, O Christ.
We worship Thy passion, O Christ.
Show us also Thy glorious resurrection.
15th Antiphon, Great and Holy Friday Orthros

I am in touch with my emotions, but I am not given to sentimentalism. That is why I was stunned when, on hearing the above hymn for the first time in 1996, I found myself sobbing. This evening, as I knelt in a darkened church with tears running down my face, I tried to articulate the reason for this very out of character response. Here's what I came up with. (It may seem rather abstract, but that's the way I interact with the world.)

The crucifixion of Christ is much more than the execution of a failed insurrectionist. Mel Gibson's movie did a great job of showing the gory details of a Roman crucifixion, but as ghastly as it was, such atrocities have been part of the human experience up to this day. If the gore in The Passion of the Christ bothered you, you likely don't follow international news. Yes, it's horrible, but it happens every day to men, women, and children -- innocent people who love their families (and are loved by them) are brutally snuffed out of existence. This is the world we live in. What makes the death of Christ different for me is hinted at in the hymn. The source of Life is killed. The ordering principle (Logos) of all creation is erased. Meaning is extinguished, the abyss of nihilism gazes into each human heart.
The insane man jumped into their midst and transfixed them with his glances. "Where is God gone?" he called out. "I mean to tell you! We have killed him, you and I! We are all his murderers! But how have we done it? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the whole horizon? What did we do when we loosened this earth from its sun? Whither does it now move? Whither do we move? Away from all suns? Do we not dash on unceasingly? Backwards, sideways, forwards, in all directions? Is there still an above and below? Do we not stray, as through infinite nothingness? Does not empty space breathe upon us? Has it not become colder? Does not night come on continually, darker and darker? ... God is dead! God remains dead! And we have killed him! How shall we console ourselves, the most murderous of all murderers? The holiest and the mightiest that the world has hitherto possessed, has bled to death under our knife - who will wipe the blood from us?
-Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science

What makes this hymn on this day tolerable is the final line. Show us also Thy glorious resurrection. It points beyond death and despair. In just a few more days, we will be celebrating Christ's victory over hades, the fact that He has trampled down Death by death. I'll conclude with a few lines from the Paschal Homily (Hieratikon) of St John Chrysostom:
Let no one fear death, for the Savior’s death has set us free. He that was held prisoner of it has annihilated it. By descending into Hell, He made Hell captive. He embittered it when it tasted of His flesh. And Isaiah, foretelling this, did cry: Hell, said he, was embittered, when it encountered Thee in the lower regions. It was embittered, for it was abolished. It was embittered, for it was mocked. It was embittered, for it was slain. It was embittered, for it was overthrown. It was embittered, for it was fettered in chains. It took a body, and met God face to face. It took earth, and encountered Heaven. It took that which was seen, and fell upon the unseen. O Death, where is your sting? O Hell, where is your victory? Christ is risen, and you are overthrown. Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen. Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice. Christ is risen, and life reigns.

1 comment:

  1. "I was stunned when, on hearing the above hymn for the first time in 1996, I found myself sobbing. "

    Good Easter to you, Peter. (And I hope to lay eyes on you sooner rather than later.)

    This story of yours brought to mind an evening in 1970 when I was sitting in a Baptist church basement on a folding chair listening to missionaries I didn't know and watching a typical showing of slides from their visit to the Holy Land. One said casually something like "Our guide told us that this was the tomb of Jesus. And, as we all know, death could not hold him and after three days he rose again." Then the missionary continued on as though he had said nothing more unusual than if he had announced what movie he had attended last weekend. Now, though this statement about the empty tomb of Jesus was a message that a boy who had attended Sunday School regularly had heard a bazillion times before, THIS time it landed on me as though the church above had caved in. I guess it was just time for it. I didn't think of anything else or hear anything else for quite sometime that evening as the presentation continued. I sat overcome with the realization that someone - just some ONE of anyone I and known or heard of - had died but then beaten death and lived again. And I was overcome with the confusion that although I "knew" this from my upbringing, I did not KNOW it at all until that moment.

    By the time the presentation was over and I walked out into the night, I had started trying to answer the question of how this news might mean something and what, if any, it's implications might be. Mostly I was stunned, for a long, long time that summer. By that fall I had gathered my wits a Iittle and started to think I had some work to do to think this through. I recall that there in my first semester of college I one day gave myself 3 months to focus on this matter and to figured out what the work of Jesus might mean. You know, so I could get back to living a more normal life and leave this new obsession behind. Have you eve heard a funnier punchline?

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