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Archive for May, 2013

Orthodox Joy

Christ is risen! Truly He is risen!
Χριστός Ανέστη! Αληθώς Ανέστη!
Христос Воскресе! Воистину Воскресе!

I do not wish to pick on our non-Orthodox friends too much, but I have a very near and dear friend whose current belief system combines elements of Buddhism and modern Paganism, though he was raised in a family that is a mix of German Protestants, Sicilian Catholics and Russian Jews. He describes himself as having both “Catholic and Jewish guilt with a side of Protestant angst”. Having heard this, I was stumped when I tried to come up with the Orthodox equivalent. I could not fill in the blank in the phrase, “Orthodox (blank)”. Is there as much guilt in Orthodoxy as is attributed to Catholicism and Judaism? I had to think long and hard about the answer to this, and for some time, I was not able to come up with much of anything.

Another friend of mine, a fellow parishioner at the Orthodox parish which I attend, asked me why I did not invite my aforementioned friend to church some Sunday. I replied that my friend had issues with the whole of the Judaeo-Christian tradition because of his experience of “Catholic and Jewish guilt with a side of Protestant angst”. My fellow parishioner said that maybe he should experience some “Orthodox joy”. I had to stop and consider this for a minute or two, since I had assumed that Orthodoxy would naturally have emotional baggage similar to the Catholic and other liturgical/sacramental Christian traditions, perhaps a form of “Orthodox guilt” similar to the Catholic and Jewish forms thereof.

However, as I reflected on this, my experience of Orthodoxy, particularly in recent years, has not been one of guilt, but one of joy. Sometimes, I experience the joyful sadness of Great Lent, and at other times, the bright joy of Pascha. I have always assumed for most of my life that Catholicism and Orthodoxy were very similar, Why, then, is there this profound difference between “Catholic guilt” and “Orthodox joy”? Again, for some time I had not even the inkling of an idea as to why this should be so.

As I pondered this, my mind kept turning over and over again to Pascha. I thought back to a quotation by Archimandrite Lev Gillet, a “monk of the Eastern Church” and a French convert to Orthodoxy: “O strange Orthodox Church. so poor and so weak, and at the same time so traditional and yet so free, so archaic and yet so alive, so ritualistic, and yet so personally mystical, Church where the pearl of great price is preciously preserved, sometimes beneath a layer of dust – Church that has so often proved incapable of action, yet which knows, as does no other, how to sing the joy of Easter.” (Quoted in The Orthodox Church by Timothy [Bishop Kallistos] Ware, pp. 180-181.)

As I write this, I have just finished the long journey through Great Lent and Holy Week, having spent this weekend celebrating the most joyful and holy feast of Pascha. An online acquaintance, a priest in an independent jurisdiction of the Syriac tradition wrote, “Everyone who calls themself a Christian, regardless of denomination or liturgical tradition, should attend a Byzantine Rite Paschal service at least once in their life”. I would heartily agree, yet I still cannot put into words precisely why the Byzantine Pascha so effectively and powerfully expresses the joy of Christ’s Resurrection. Perhaps, someday I might be able to put words to my experience of the mystery of Paschal joy, but as of this Pascha, I have yet to be able to find the vocabulary to do so with any degree of justice or accuracy. For now, I must be content to experience the joy of Pascha, and in time, words may come.

¡Cristo ha resucitado! ¡En verdad ha resucitado!
المسيح قام حقا قام
Hristos a înviat! Adevărat a înviat!

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Well, I have very nearly reached the end of another Holy Week. Throughout the year, my usual spiritual practice is to pray simplified versions of Matins/Orthros and Vespers on a daily basis. One manual of which I make regular use is the Prayer Book of the Early Christians by Father John McGuckin, but there are other resources available as well. However, during Holy Week, there are services available at least twice daily. The advantage to this is that I can join in the full offices of Matins/Orthros and Vespers throughout the week. However, the challenge for me is that in the vast majority of parishes, including my own, the offices are celebrated “in anticipation”, that is to say, the morning office of Matins/Orthros is celebrated during the previous evening, and the evening office of Vespers is celebrated in the morning, throwing off my accustomed liturgical rhythm and inducing in me a kind of liturgical “jet lag”. This is particularly noticeable when one hears references to the morning chanted in the evening or vice versa.

In a sense, Holy Week is a “time out of time”, and in that spirit, I am able to adjust to the altered liturgical schedule. I am aware, though, that there are monastic communities which celebrate the offices of Holy Week at their appointed times rather than by “anticipation”. I would be curious to see what Holy Week would look like with Matins/Orthros celebrated in the morning and Vespers celebrated in the evening, as I am sure was originally the ancient custom.

I believe that the intention in parishes of celebrating the offices of Holy Week “by anticipation” is to ensure that some of the more prominent and popular services, such as Bridegroom Matins, Holy Unction, and the service of Lamentations, may be attended by as many people as possible, particularly those that must work during the weekdays. However, one service that I believe is of particular importance during Holy Week is the evening or Vesperal Liturgy of Great and Holy Thursday, which celebrates the institution of the Mystery of the Holy Eucharist. In some places, this may be celebrated Wednesday or Thursday evening, but the more usual practice, particularly in the Antiochian tradition with which I am familiar, is to celebrate the Vesperal Liturgy of Great and Holy Thursday on Thursday morning, which would seem to ensure a sparse attendance, since many people have to be at work at that time. I have to make a special effort to have Holy Thursday morning free so that I can attend this particular liturgy, which is rich in theological symbolism and depth. I feel that it is a shame that the Vesperal Liturgy of Great and Holy Thursday is typically celebrated at a time when so few of the faithful are able to attend.

In a few short hours after I finish this post, it will be time for me to celebrate Pascha. The paschal bells are already tolling in various other parts of the world, and soon they will begin to ring out in the Americas as well. “For this is truly the day which the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it. Let us preach the Saviour’s Resurrection, and shout our salvation from the rooftops.”

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