Great and Holy Saturday

I have a soft spot for the hymn, from the Liturgy of St. James, Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence.

Although I grew up in a fairly “low Protestant” Evangelical Church (by which I mean, whatever others might mean, a Church in which there was little respect or regard for history, liturgy, lectionaries, or Church calendars), we had that hymn in our hymnals and sang it on occasion, though at this point, I couldn’t tell you whether the occasion was Good Friday (I’m certain we had no service on Great and Holy Saturday) or just whenever the Pastor or “worship committtee” wanted a solemn note. It might have been Christmas Eve, for the text would be appropriate there, too.

Here’s the version we sang, at least the tune (Picardy) and first verse.

And here is the versified hymn text:

Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
and with fear and trembling stand;
ponder nothing earthly-minded,
for with blessing in his hand,
Christ our God to earth descendeth,
our full homage to demand.

King of kings, yet born of Mary,
as of old on earth he stood,
Lord of lords, in human vesture,
in the body and the blood;
he will give to all the faithful
his own self for heavenly food.

Rank on rank the host of heaven
spreads its vanguard on the way,
as the Light of light descendeth
from the realms of endless day,
that the powers of hell may vanish
as the darkness clears away.

At his feet the six-winged seraph,
cherubim, with sleepless eye,
veil their faces to the presence,
as with ceaseless voice they cry:
Alleluia, Alleluia,
Alleluia, Lord Most High!

In the Anglophone Eastern Orthodox tradition, versified hymns with rhyme like this are vanishingly rare.  I’m neither musicologist nor poet enough to appreciate fully whetever “poetry,” like Dante’s internal rhymes and wordplay, our hymns contain. I suspect that Western Rite Orthodoxy is full of rhymed and versified hymns.

No Eastern Orthodox Church I know of still uses the Liturgy of St. James, though Wikipedia says a few do. But I sing this versified form of the hymn, which is appointed just once a year on Great and Holy Saturday (it carried over into our Liturgy of St. Basil for this day), and I’ll be doing so two hours after I’m typing this as this hits Facebook and Twitter. It’s the only thing I ever sing now in Church that I once sang in a Protestant service.

I have had no Lent and Holy Week as an Orthodox Christian when it more aptly could be said that I was “running on fumes.” In addition to professional obligations, I have a home remodeling actively ongoing and am watching (sort of a quasi-Chair of a building committee – it’s complicated) the construction of my Parish’s permanent, properly-Orthodox new home. And last weekend, I sang (in a concert I also sponsored) a different version of Let All Mortal Flesh.

Yet never have I felt such joy and anticipation of Pascha.

If I had a really skilled choir of 40 voices or so (and if I did, I’d be singing and someone with actual conducting competence would be conducting, so it wouldn’t be “my choir” any more), I’d be tempted to use Grechaninov’s setting from his Opus 58 Holy Week Meditations, where the Alleluias of six-winged “seraph, cherubim, with sleepless eye” are just glorious. I described it as somehow suspenseful or portentous; the conductor under whom I sang it pointed out that the effect is of a big Paschal Church bell ringing out beneath the Alleluias. The sequence I’m thinking of starts here at 6:22, but for full effect, back up to 5:12.

And buy the CD. The one I sang in won’t be commercially available. (Insert Paschal smiley-face here.)

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“The remarks made in this essay do not represent scholarly research. They are intended as topical stimulations for conversation among intelligent and informed people.” (Gerhart Niemeyer)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.