Sunday, March 27, 2016

Resurrectional ramble

I’m Greek Orthodox, so it’s not Easter Sunday for me today, not yet. I feel a bit cranky about this, that I have to wait another five weeks, while the rest of the Christian world is already there. The ‘Old Calendarists’ would say, they (the rest of the Christian world) aren’t Christians anyway, so it doesn’t matter. About the rest of us Orthodox that follow the ‘New Calendar’ for most of the Church year but give it up for the Easter cycle, some of them (the ‘Old Calendarists’) don’t think we’re really Christians either—no, they probably would say we’re not ‘genuine’ Orthodox, as they are. The idea of who is and who isn’t ‘Christian’ they might leave to God. That is, the humbler among them. Can you tell how cranky I’m feeling? Maybe it’s just the fast. Maybe it’s just the burden of my sins. I haven’t made my Lenten confession yet. But in my gut I just feel it’s wrong that Easter can’t be celebrated by all at the same time.

So, to those of you who celebrate the Lord’s resurrection, my Catholic and Protestant friends, and my Christ-loving non-Christian friends, I wish you again, ‘Happy Easter.’ As for me, it’s the Sunday of Saint Gregory Palamás, named in honor of the hero of the Hesychast movement in the Eastern Church, the champion of the prayer of silence, the Jesus Prayer (‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner’), and of théosis, deification. Since I missed church today (sick, but not too sick to complain) I have to read the service and the lessons at home. The Greek Orthodox on-line chapel is a quick source for the daily readings, and so I went there. To my consolation, this Lord’s day we chant, I chant (at home), my favorite of the resurrectional apolytikia, in the second tone,

Οτε κατήλθες προς τον θάνατον,
η ζωή η αθάνατος,
τότε τον Άδη ενέκρωσας,
τη αστραπή της θεότητος•
ότε δε και τους τεθνεώτας
εκ των καταχθονίων ανέστησας,
πάσαι αι Δυνάμεις
των επουρανίων εκραύγαζον•
Ζωοδότα Χριστέ,
ο Θεός ημών, δόξα σοι.

When Thou didst descend unto death, O Life Immortal, then didst Thou slay Hades with the lightning flash of Thy Divinity. And when Thou didst also raise the dead out of the nethermost depths, all the powers in the Heavens cried out: O Life-giver, Christ our God, glory be to Thee.

It is the phrase ‘τότε τον Άδη ενέκρωσας, τη αστραπή της θεότητος’—tote ton Hadhí enékrosas, ti astrapí tis theótitos—‘then didst Thou slay Hades with the lightning flash of Thy Divinity’ that throws me over the cliff of merely human hope that often I feverishly cling to, where in a free fall into the abyss I no longer struggle, because I know when I hit bottom, Christ is already there, He has already cleared the threshing floor of the chaff of death by ‘the lightning flash of His divinity,’ and His mercy awaits those who have themselves shown mercy, even scoundrels and complainers such as I.

For us Orthodox Christians, this Lenten time is lightened somewhat, at least for me, by the presence of the Theotokos, the Mother of God, yes, the Mother of Jesus. Like the lonely, old man I am, with crusty voice I chant the seasonal kondakion in the plagal of the fourth tone,

Τη Υπερμάχω Στρατηγώ τα νικητήρια,
Ως λυτρωθείσα των δεινών ευχαριστήρια,
Αναγράφω σοι η Πόλις σου, Θεοτόκε.
Αλλ’ ως έχουσα το κράτος απροσμάχητον,
Εκ παντοίων με κινδύνων ελευθέρωσον.
Ίνα κράζω σοι, Χαίρε, Νύμφη Ανύμφευτε.

To you, Theotokos, invincible Champion, having been delivered from peril, I, your city, dedicate the victory festival as a thank offering. In your irresistible might, keep me safe from all trials, that I may cry out to you: ‘Rejoice, unwedded bride!’

This is a strange one, I mean, this kondakion. It is a relic of ancient times when the whole population of the Queen City, Constantinople, would march around the city walls chanting this hymn to call upon the Theotokos to protect them from the barbarians besieging the City from outside. It must have worked, for the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire lasted almost a thousand years after the fall of ‘old’ Rome. For me, the deep sound of this kondakion (‘short hymn’) acts as an anchor to keep me from drifting away on the sea of my insecurities and fears. At our Greek church we used to be able to sing it congregationally during Lent, but now, especially during the Friday night Chairetismí, it has been taken from us as the prerogative of the chanters, whose Byzantine perfection is designed for an audience, not for participation. Can you tell I’m still cranky? A sore throat doesn’t help my chanting.

The gospel reading for this morning is one of my favorites, Mark 2:1-12,

At that time, Jesus entered Capernaum and it was reported that he was at home. And many were gathered together, so that there was no longer room for them, not even about the door; and he was preaching the word to them. And they came, bringing to him a paralytic carried by four men. And when they could not get near him because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and when they had made an opening, they let down the pallet on which the paralytic lay. And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘My son, your sins are forgiven’

This has always impressed me, perpetual paralytic that I am, that it isn’t my faith, but the faith of those who brought me to Christ, that placed me squarely before Him in a place where my personal faith became possible. I think this is the same for most of us, though we hardly ever give it a thought. We, I mean, I, almost never come to faith on our own. It feels like we did it, that we made the choice to believe, but actually it was others, ‘preparers of the way’ in our lives following the lead of their gracious Lord who says to them and to us, ‘You didn’t choose Me, I chose you…’ like the ikon I have hanging as a mezuzah at my front door is shown saying. Once you realize this humbling fact and know for sure that nothing you did brought you to the place where faith is possible, your defenses, my defenses, begin to melt. After all, who wants to prevent their own salvation by burning the bridges that will take them There, even though some of these bridges are tribulations?

Yes, I’m brought back to thinking how it’s Easter ‘out there.’ Well, on my street it’s hard to tell, because nature doesn’t look any different, and the neighbors are non-believers most of them. Several blocks away, there’s a house on the corner, a very large one that is somewhat walled in as are houses in the old world, that every year puts out a metal sign in the lawn at the street corner that reads ‘Jesus – He is Risen!’ I’ve never seen the people who live in that house. Perhaps they’re elderly and don’t get out much. The wording on the sign is not what I’m used to. We say ‘Christ is risen’ not ‘Jesus’ but it really comes down to the same thing. The Man ‘was crucified, died, and was buried; on the third day He rose from the dead according to the scriptures…’ and we all know who that Man was, whether or not we believe in Him, or think we do. What I always wonder is, do we really know what the resurrection of Christ means, and where He is at this very moment, now that we also know He ‘ascended’?

My heart is starting to ache, thinking about it. It’s that old, nagging pain that could let me turn into a permanent crank if not for the mercy of God. The chasm between what Christ has done for us, what He has made possible for us, and what we have done with it, especially what I have done with it. No priest would have the stamina to hear that confession from me, or from anyone else, yet we go to confess the trivia of our self-loathing, instead of what we have failed to do, when it comes to what Christ has made possible for us, and commanded us to do. Gregory of Nazianzus, like Gregory Palamás another great champion of Orthodoxy, states, ‘Man has been commanded to become God.’ And it is Christ Himself who has called us and given us this command, a command which at once seems both impossible and ludicrous. He never gives us a command that seems anything but impossible, yet along with it He alone gives us the power to fulfill it, to make what is impossible, possible, and the time in which to do it. Distinct days and seasons we have appointed fade away, and we realize that what we celebrate at Easter, or Pascha, is the reality that we face every day.

This is the day of Resurrection, let us be radiant for the feast, and let us embrace one another. Let us say, ‘Brother,’ even to them that hate us, let us forgive all things in the Resurrection, and thus let us cry out…
Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and on those in the tombs bestowing life.

No comments: