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.

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Holy Friday thoughts

First, repeated from last Holy Week, some excerpts from the Orthodox services of Great and Holy Friday (from Fordham University), with apologies for formatting and with an inserted video of the beloved, now reposed, Bishop Job singing the 15th Antiphon.

TODAY JUDAS FORSAKES THE MASTER
AND TAKES THE DEVIL AS HIS FRIEND.
HE IS BLINDED BY THE PASSION OF AVARICE.
DARKENED, HE FALLS FROM THE LIGHT.
HE SOLD THE SUN FOR THIRTY PIECES OF SILVER.
HOW THEN, IS HE ABLE TO SEE?
BUT HE WHO SUFFERS FOR THE WORLD HAS RISEN AS THE DAWN FOR US!
TO HIM LET US CRY ALOUD:
YOU SUFFER FOR US AND WITH US: GLORY TO YOU!

TODAY JUDAS COUNTERFEITS PIETY
AND DEPRIVES HIMSELF OF THE GIFT OF GRACE.
THE DISCIPLE BECOMES A BETRAYER.
IN A GESTURE OF FRIENDSHIP HE CONCEALS DECEIT.
HE FOOLISHLY PREFERS THIRTY PIECES OF SILVER TO THE MASTER’S LOVE
AND BECOMES A GUIDE FOR THE LAWLESS ASSEMBLY.
BUT LET US GLORIFY CHRIST, OUR SALVATION!

HE WHO CLOTHES HIMSELF WITH LIGHT AS WITH A GARMENT
STOOD NAKED FOR TRIAL.
HE WAS STRUCK ON THE CHEEK BY HANDS THAT HE HIMSELF HAD FORMED.
A PEOPLE THAT TRANSGRESSED THE LAW
NAILED THE LORD OF GLORY TO THE CROSS.
THEN THE CURTAIN OF THE TEMPLE WAS TORN IN TWO.
THEN THE SUN WAS DARKENED,
UNABLE TO BEAR THE SIGHT OF GOD OUTRAGED,
BEFORE WHOM ALL THINGS TREMBLE.
LET US WORSHIP HIM.

THUS SAYS THE LORD TO THE JEWS:
MY PEOPLE, WHAT HAVE I DONE TO YOU,
OR HOW HAVE I OFFENDED YOU?
TO YOUR BLIND, I GAVE SIGHT, YOUR LEPERS I CLEANSED,
THE PARALYTIC I RAISED FROM HIS BED.
MY PEOPLE, WHAT HAVE I DONE TO YOU,
AND HOW HAVE YOU REPAID ME?
INSTEAD OF MANNA, GALL; INSTEAD OF WATER, VINEGAR;
INSTEAD OF LOVING ME, YOU NAIL ME TO THE CROSS.
I CAN BEAR NO MORE.
I SHALL CALL THE GENTILES MINE.
THEY WILL GLORIFY ME WITH THE FATHER AND THE SPIRIT,
AND I SHALL GIVE THEM LIFE ETERNAL.

TODAY THE CURTAIN OF THE TEMPLE IS TORN IN TWO
TO CONVICT THE TRANSGRESSORS,
AND EVEN THE SUN HIDES HIS RAYS,
SEEING THE MASTER CRUCIFIED.

THE CHOIR OF THE APOSTLES CRIES OUT TO YOU,
O LAWGIVERS OF ISRAEL, SCRIBES AND PHARISEES:
BEHOLD THE TEMPLE WHICH YOU DESTROYED!
BEHOLD THE LAMB WHOM YOU CRUCIFIED!
YOU DELIVERED HIM TO THE TOMB, BUT BY HIS OWN POWER HE AROSE.
DO NOT BE DECEIVED, O JEWS.
HE IT IS THAT SAVED YOU IN THE SEA AND FED YOU IN THE WILDERNESS.
HE IS THE LIFE, THE LIGHT AND THE PEACE OF THE WORLD.

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 YOUR PASSION, O CHRIST.
WE WORSHIP YOUR PASSION, O CHRIST.
WE WORSHIP YOUR PASSION, O CHRIST.
SHOW US ALSO YOUR GLORIOUS RESURRECTION.

Beholding her own lamb led to the slaughter, Mary followed with the other women, in distress and crying out: Where do You go, my child?
Why do You run so swift a course? Surely there is not another wedding in Cana to which You now hasten to change water into wine? Shall I
come with You, my child, or shall I wait for You? Give me a word, for You are the Word. Do not pass me by in silence, for You kept me
pure.

Second, an excerpt from another old post that reflects my 20 years as a Calvinist after nearly 30 years as an Evangelical and before I became Orthodox:

Will Campbell, formerly a hero of mine (I’ve not kept up with him), was taunted by a skeptical friend to summarize his “simple Gospel” in ten words or less.Will got tired of the taunts after a while (or maybe he just had to think a while to boil it down) and shot back “We’re all bastards, but God loves us anyway!”

But I recently encountered a school of theology, the leading proponent of which boiled the Gospel down by another 50%: “The Word became flesh.”

The theologian was John Williamson Nevin, a mid-19th century theologian, who together with his better-known colleague, Philip Schaff (whose name is associated with public domain English translations of the Early Church Fathers), considered himself a true Reformed theologian, in opposition to both Puritanism and Revivalism, then respectively the emeritzed and regnant errors pretending to the “Reformed” title.

But Campbell’s formulation is a relatively revivalist version compared to Nevin’s incarnational version. And the spirit of those two versions is vastly different.

In the revivalist version, The Fall really ticked God off, and the incarnation was merely a set-up; God the Son couldn’t be crucified for our sins, to cure God’s anger problem, until he became human and grew up. The center, the big deal, the only part that matters, is the atonement — viewed as the assuaging of God’s anger — at Calvary.

To Nevin, though, the incarnation is inseparable from the atonement, the “at-one-ment,” of God and humanity, as God the Son even took our glorified human flesh back to heaven with Him at His ascension. We are, in a real sense, united with Christ in His humanity, not just in His divinity — and that union is cemented again and again in the Eucharist, where we partake of His Body and Blood, not merely being reminded, in a heightened sense, of His divinity and His joining us for just long enough to die for us.

There’s little doubt that Nevin was much closer to Catholicism and Orthodoxy than are the Puritan and Revivalist counterfeit Calvinists ….

It would be disingenuous as well as speculative to say that “I would still be Reformed if Nevin had prevailed over [Revivalist Zwinglian Charles] Hodge.” The way I came to Orthodox Christianity doesn’t allow that kind of speculation readily, quite apart from it being based on an imaginary world. I would be more inclined to speculate that “if Nevin had prevailed, Reformed theology would be part of a ‘big tent’ Catholicism/Orthodoxy today.” If that had happened, I think I’d still prefer “Orthodox Orthodoxy” over “Reformed Catholicity.” But a Reformed Catholicity would be nothing to scoff at.

My older brother, by the way, holds to a Lutheran Catholicity that, although I don’t understand it, also is nothing to scoff at.

Finally, a mere link to yet another blog that reflects my Calvinist years: Calvinist Concessions Galore: Why Not Orthodoxy?

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Today holds three services for me: Royal Hours at 7 am, Unnailing Vespers at 3 pm, and Lamentations at the Tomb at 6:30 pm. I’ve had a lousy Lent, distracted by many, many things, but despite continuing juggling of responsibilities, Holy Week has been a very great blessing. I’m looking forward to St. John Chrysostom’s Pachal Homily which says, in effect, “even if you’ve had a lousy Lent, it’s now to to celebrate Christ’s glorious Resurrection.”

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Standing advice on enduring themes.