Great and Holy Friday Lamentations (Stasis 2)

Video

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7wrYdIRxM8E

“Right is it indeed,
Life-Bestowing Lord to magnify thee:
For upon the cross were thy hands out stretched,
and the strength of our dread foe hast thou destroyed.

They that hear Thee
shall see Thee and be glad
from Thy words have I set my hope. . .

Earth with trembling shook,
and the sun concealed his face with darkness;
for the light unwaning that shines from thee,
with thy body sank to darkness and the grave.

Let now thy mercy be my comfort
according to thy statement to thy servant.

That I may renew man’s lost nature now from beauty fallen,
gladly in my flesh I take death on me:
wherefore, mother, slay me not with bitter tears.

I am Thine, save me
For after thy statutes have I sought.

Ah, those eyes so sweet
and thy lips, O Word, how shall I close them?
How the dues of death shall I pay to thee?
So cried Joseph as he shook with holy fear. . .”

Great and Holy Friday Lamentations (Stasis 3)

Video

“Every generation offers Thee this hymn of praise at Thy burial, O Christ. . .”

“The host of angels tremble at the strange and fearful sight of Your burial, O Maker of all. . .”

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“Lamentations (Stasis 3)” is owned and distributed by Archangel Voices. The above link takes you to a Youtube video of the chant, which is number 16 on the choral group’s CD “Lamentations: Orthodox Chants of Holy Week”. The choir director is Dr Vladimir Morosan.

Dear Readers

“Blessed is the soul that knows her Creator and has grown to love Him, for she has found perfect rest in Him. The Lord bids us love Him with all our hearts and all our souls—but how is it possible to love Him Whom we have never seen, and how may we learn this love? The Lord is made known by His effect on the soul. When the Lord has visited her, the soul knows that a dear Guest has come and gone, and she yearns for Him and seeks Him with tears: ‘Where art Thou, my Light, where art Thou, my Joy? Thy trace is fragrant in my soul but Thou art not there and my soul yearns for Thee, and my heart aches and is sad, and nothing rejoices me because I have grieved my Lord and He hath hidden Himself from my sight.’” – St Silouan.
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Christ is with us! Wherever you are in the world, if you are observing the solemn liturgies of Holy Week, or if you have forgotten to attend them, were too busy, or are not yet Orthodox, I hope you are well! This Holy Week, my first as an Orthodox Christian, I have been thinking of my fellow Orthodox, especially those newly illumined in the Faith, like me, and also the catechumens preparing for their chrismations at Pascha. Yesterday’s service of the Anointing was absolutely remarkable, and the anointing at the end reminded me very much of my chrismation.
In these holy days, when God’s grace fills the hearts of all of us who are partaking in the beauty and majesty of the Holy Week services, I think constantly of my family members, both Catholics and lapsed Catholics, and how I so wish they could be a part of the fullness of this Faith, experiencing the incomparable richness and profound depth of our observance of Holy Week leading up to the Passion Gospels of Holy Thursday. In the Liturgy of St Basil’s Mystical Supper this morning, the Church remembered her Bridegroom Christ’s institution of the Eucharist at the Last Super two thousand years ago in Jerusalem.
The twelve Gospels of the Passion of our Lord which we heard tonight recall in vividly transportive and soul-stirring detail the dramatic final hours of Jesus’ earthly life as a Man: His betrayal by Judas for thirty pieces of silver, His trial and humiliation, Simon Peter’s denial of Him three times, the chief priest and the blood-minded crowd’s mockery and hatred for Him, Whom they would not know or believe, and His Crucifixion whereby, by submitting to death on the Cross, He opened the possibility of eternal life to all who believe in Him.
I’ve just returned to my flat from the chanting of the 12 Gospels of the Passion at St Andrew’s church here in Edinburgh. Holy Thursday is always profoundly moving for me, in part because it was two years ago at the Holy Thursday Liturgy at St Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Washington that I first experienced Orthodox worship and liturgical life. Since that day, my life has truly never been the same!
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Tonight I was more conscious than ever before of the words of the fifteenth antiphon of the Matins service for Great and Holy Friday. Here the Orthodox Church in America’s late Archbishop +Job (d. 2009, Memory Eternal!) sings the beautiful antiphon:
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. . . 
Show us also Thy glorious Resurrection.”
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The services of Holy Week so far has been so ethereal, so other-worldly, unlike anything I’ve ever experienced! In the kathisma chants tonight between the Gospel readings, I was struck by the enormity of the cosmic shift presented in the words of the Church’s fifteenth antiphon of the Matins for Holy Friday, which St. Andrew’s parish here chanted on Thursday night. As we all stepped forward to venerate the icon of Christ hanging on the Cross, I recalled the words of St. Paul in Romans 8:21-22:
“The creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now.”
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How the Crucifixion altered the cosmos, all of creation, I cannot hope to rationally understand, but only contemplate in wonder! What an earth-shattering contrast, what a horrifically awe-inspiring sight it must have been for those who believed in Christ as the Son of God and God Incarnate- His disciples, male and female, and His mother – to behold Jesus allowing Himself to be put to death on the Cross! That the God who created the heavens and the earth let Himself be nailed upon the Cross, that the God who led the Hebrews out of Egypt in the Exodus and protected them as His people is mocked, abused and condemned by the very chief priests of Israel and a Jerusalem mob! What an extraordinary, horrifying, fearfully awesome thing!
As we wait for the risen Lord, beseeching that He “show us also Thy glorious Resurrection”, I hope you know, wherever you might be, that right now, there are thousands of holy people, nuns and monks, priests and bishops praying ceaselessly for you. Every Orthodox Christian prays for you in the antiphons of the Liturgy- whether these people are your brothers and sisters in faith, or strangers unknown to you, they still pray for you. The saints pray continually for us. As St Silouan reminds us,
“The Saints grieve to see people living on earth and not knowing that if they were to love one another the world would know freedom from sin; and where sin is absent there is joy and gladness of the Holy Spirit. The Saints in heaven though the Holy Spirit behold the glory of God and the beauty of the Lord’s countenance. But in this same Holy Spirit they see our lives too, and our deeds. They know our sorrows and hear our burning prayers. When they were living on earth they learned of the love of God from the Holy Spirit; and he who knows love on earth takes it with him into eternal life, where love grows and becomes perfect. The souls of the Saints know the Lord and His goodness toward man, wherefore their spirits burn with love for the peoples. They were chosen by the Holy Spirit to pray for the whole world.” 
If you are not yet Orthodox, I earnestly hope you will seek out the fullness of the original Faith, a fullness which, in all my own searching, I have never experienced anywhere else, in any other faith tradition or community. I know many wonderful men and women living in the Roman Catholic faith in which I was raised, and I met many people in the different churches, synagogues and mosques I have visited who truly love God. But truly there is nothing like the Church’s liturgical worship and its Orthodox Faith.
The prayers of holy men and women especially are jewels to be valued above any other earthly thing (See James 5:16). These saints, living on earth and those now departed, alive in Christ, love each of you, Orthodox or not. Christian or not, believer or not. As St Silouan reminds us,
“The Holy Spirit is love; and the souls of all the holy who dwell in heaven overflow with this love. And on earth this same Holy Spirit is in the souls of those who love God. All heaven beholds the earth in the Holy Spirit, and hears our prayers and carries them to God.”
Wherever you are, I hope you have a joyous Pascha! If you are not Orthodox but want to experience the indescribable beauty and other-worldly mystical transcendence which the Orthodox liturgy alone offers, do not delay: visit your nearest Orthodox church and attend the Paschal Liturgy, the feast of feasts, the miracle of miracles! This time of year, more than ever, you will behold people exuding a quiet radiance, an inner joy which comes from participating in the full richness and mystery of this ancient Faith, the reservoir and the jewel of the timeless Church.
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“There are some who believe that the Lord suffered death for love of man, but because they do not attain to this love in their own souls, it seems to them that it is an old story of bygone days. But when the soul knows the love of God by the Holy Spirit she feels without a shadow of doubt that the Lord is our Father, the closest, the best and dearest of fathers, and there is no greater happiness than to love God with all our hearts, with all our souls, and with all our minds, according to the Lord’s commandment, and our neighbor as ourselves.” -St Silouan.

Lenten observations: repentance as the doorway to renewed faith

Video

Saint Kassia, the ninth century Byzantine abbess, poet and hymnographer whose beautiful Hymn of repentance features in the Matins/Orthros service for Great and Holy Wednesday during Lent’s Holy Week.

This links directly to the hymn of St Kassia.

As this is my first Lent as a chrismated Orthodox Christian, in all my uncertainty in how to approach the Great Fast as a ‘rookie’, I have come to two observations as we continue on through the transportive and mystical solemnity of Holy Week toward the Paschal joy of the Resurrection.

The first is that it seems like everyone observes the dietary restrictions to varying extents, and people do not stress about this nearly as much as I would have worried or expected.

Fr. Raphael, one of the archimandrites at St. Andrew’s parish church here in Edinburgh, was wonderfully helpful in urging me to ‘live’ my first Lenten fast above all in my conduct toward others, especially the Lord’s beloved poor, rather than adhering exactly to the Church’s dietary proscriptions. I have omitted all meat, which to my immense surprise has not been very difficult, and has kindled in me an unexpected love for falafel! While I do not under-eat to the point of illness or anything approaching that kind of severity, I find that always being a little hungry has actually sharpened my concentration and my resolve to accomplish goals in a timely manner, knowing that I am consciously avoiding what I would normally do in the event of creeping inattention: pause and refuel with a most likely unhealthy food choice.

Somehow, through the grace of God, eating less has opened my soul more and more to heartfelt prayer at all hours of the day. I am reminded in this daily encounter with the Holy Spirit, who seeks, despite all my iniquities and repeated failings, to find a place deep within my heart, of the beautiful words King David left us in Psalm 34:1, 8-10 (LXX):

“I will praise the Lord at all times, his praise shall continually be in my mouth. Taste and see that the Lord is good: blessed is the man who hopes in him. Fear the Lord, all ye his saints: for there is no want to them that fear him. The rich have become poor and hungry: but they that seek the Lord diligently shall not want any good thing.”

The second thing I have observed is that images and references to repentant women (usually prostitutes) are very common throughout Lent and, indeed, in Holy Week. These references challenge us to put ourselves – male and female – in their place, and witness the truly extraordinary changes God can effect in even those who seem the most ‘lost’. Two weeks ago, on Sunday April 1, the Church honoured St Mary of Egypt. This reformed prostitute spent the last half of her life as a desert ascetic after her conversion in Jerusalem when the Holy Spirit (or the Theotokos, depending on which account one reads) barred her from entering into the presence of a relic of the True Cross.

Then there is the Church’s observation today, Holy and Great Wednesday, in the very heart of Holy Week. Since the ninth century the Church has used the Hymn of Kassia (variously spelled Kassiani, Cassiane, Cassia, etc.) in today’s Matins or Orthros services. St Kassia is a remarkable figure. This mysterious Byzantine noblewoman (to whom an incredible thirty volumes of works are attributed) was a ninth century abbess, poet, composer and hymnographer who was a committed iconodoule.

Her defense of the veneration of icons aroused the ire of the iconoclast Emperor Theophilos, who, according to Byzantine chroniclers, had earlier rejected her at a ‘bride show’ when she allegedly repudiated an insulting comment he made. Approaching her, the emperor reflected that sin and death first entered the world ‘from woman’, e.g. Eve’s transgression, to which Kassia replied that then so too had the possibility of man’s redemption and eternal life through Christ.

Kassia’s beautiful hymn captures the lamentations of the “woman of many sins”, the repentant woman whose dramatic act of devotion and faith in Christ is recorded in Luke 7:37-50. As you will hear if you click on the link provided at the beginning of this post, it is one of the most challenging, slowly chanted pieces in the Church’s Lenten Triodion, chanted only once a year during the divine service for Great and Holy Wednesday.

For centuries the singing of the hymn has drawn many prostitutes to enter churches to listen to it so that they might “hear Kassia speak”. Today at the parish church of St Andrew’s in Edinburgh during the service of the Anointing, several prostitutes entered the chapel halfway though its duration. I felt a strong sense that these women were invisibly compelled, drawn by something – was it the Holy Spirit? – to enter the church and worship with us, their fellow sinners. Saint Silouan refers to the Holy Spirit as “love and sweetness to the soul”, and perhaps these women, some of them infrequent visitors to churches, longed to return to His love which “the soul without words feels” and of which “she is inexpressibly aware”. The soul, desiring above all to know God’s love, “would remain wrapped in its quiet tranquility forever.” (Wisdom from Mount Athos, pgs. 22-24.)

It was such a delight to see these women in church, and I felt a strong urge to simply smile at them and make them feel as welcome as possible with my actions so that they might come back more frequently. If God is truly the Physician of our souls, how can we not be possessed of a great love for these women, many of whom undertake their sad form of work to make ends meet and support children or family members, some to support terribly destructive drug habits, and still others suffering in fear, in desperation, and in general hopelessness caused by the twin alternating evils of abuse and neglect? How can we not love them deeply? We are called to respect and cherish the image of God alive in them.

These women did not stay for the anointing. The small chapel in the house church was filled to the brim with people standing around the two con-celebrating priests, and a young Russian woman and I were both pressed in near the back, she standing rather uncomfortably close to me. I do not think she realized I was pressed up against the back bench! When she asked me if I would be at Pascha vigil and liturgy, moving to the side of where I stood as she spoke, I assumed she was moving to put her coat down, or ask for me to switch places with her so that she could sit on the bench. I was rather startled to see her then walk out of the church, smiling as she moved toward the door.

As my mind refocused back on the Liturgy at hand, I was reminded of Luke’s account of the penitent woman’s profoundly emotional and reverential act of anointing Jesus’ feet with precious oils and with her tears of repentance. How He marvels at this treatment from her, when His disciples stand by with no such genuine or heartfelt offering! This parable conveys a powerful message – not only to prostitutes, male or female – but to all of us who sin. All of us fall short in a variety of ways, sometimes slightly, often gravely, of honouring and living to be worthy of the image of the Divine Person, of Christ Himself, present in each of us.

In her great faith, which Christ commended before absolving her of her many sins, the penitent woman is not closed off from the possibility of salvation. Rather, she embodies the very ideal of the Lenten journey, this mystical entry into the very innermost life of the living ancient Church. She – like any one of us – might appear as nothing in this world, ridiculed and rejected by the Pharisees of our time, but she – and therefore, all of us – have the blessing of the possibility of new life in union with the Saviour. It is this joy in coming back to God, seeking to enter again into the fullness of relationship with Him, which so animates her as she beholds the Incarnate Deity before her. It is this light which radiates from her very being and finds the most natural expression in her tears. Her tears call us to tears of repentance in the coming days and nights as we enter into the most sacred points of the Christian year.

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In union with the whole Church, those alive here and those ‘yet alive’ in the next world in Christ, we will partake of Communion and observe the moment of the institution of the Eucharist on Holy Thursday, and we enter into the mounting drama of Christ’s prayers in Gethsemane and His arrest, trial and abuse. On Good Friday we will behold and wonder at the cosmic shift which took place at Christ’s death upon the Cross, when the God Who created the heavens and all that is gave His life so that all might have life anew in Him.

Then on Holy Saturday we will wait, having buried in shrouds of grief the Eternal God who came to earth Incarnate as the Theanthropos, the God-Man, fully human and fully divine. We will ponder on Christ’s descent into Hades whereby, in His voluntary death, He conquered the power of Death, ending for all who believe in Him as God Incarnate the permanent passing unto eternal death which was before. At last, after we have waited eagerly for our Saviour to rise again from the tomb, and having striven to purify ourselves of the passions which so often rule over us, we will behold the miracle of miracles and partake in the Feast of Feasts, the Great Pascha, the Resurrection of our Lord, and sing the triumphant words of the Paschal stichera:

 “Let God arise, let His enemies be scattered; let those who hate Him flee from before His face!” (LXX Ps. 67:1)

“This is the day which the Lord hath made, let us rejoice and be glad in it!” (LXX Ps. 117:24)