Rock Island, IL
Eastern Holy Week is pretty grueling. If you’re going to do it right you might as well bring a sleeping bag to church. You’re hardly anywhere else.
The week includes the Bridegroom matins on three successive mornings or evenings, depending on the local custom, the Holy Unction service at midweek, the twelve passion gospels (an appropriately endless service on Thursday), two Friday services, including a procession and the Lamentations, a Saturday morning liturgy, and a Paschal Resurrection Service at midnight or sunrise, again depending on the local custom.
In some parishes, given sufficient will, the psalter is chanted around the clock from Good Friday to Pascha. My experience is that a man can do worse than pull a one- or two-hour candle-lit solo shift beneath the icons at three o’clock in the morning.
The week ends with a service called the Agape Vespers, which at my parish is held at noon on Sunday. This short service includes the gospel lesson concerning St. Thomas, who will not believe until he sees with his own eyes and touches with his own hands the wounds of the risen Lord. To express the universality of the good news, the Church customarily appoints a reading of the lesson in several languages. We generally cover Greek, English, Swedish, Spanish, French, Russian, Latin, Romanian, and German. This represents but doesn’t exhaust our local linguistic diversity. At the end of such a week a body doesn’t want to be in church forever, after all.
When the service is over—at the singing of Christos Anesti—we pop open the wine, carve up the lambs that have been turning outside on the spits, and break the Lenten fast. The day lingers until we’ve talked ourselves down, emptied the bottles, cleaned the kitchen, and put away the pans and dishes.
But for me the day ends with the walk home—a mile in the sun and the remembrance of the week’s demands (as opposed to entertainments).
And what always rings in my head during that walk is the Paschal sermon of St. John Chrysostom, the homily appointed for the Resurrection service. It is a sermon like no other, a rhetorical performance non pareil. I know of nothing like it in all the ars praedicandi.
Most of us have seen or heard shadowy rhetorical flourishes masquerading as substance, as when, for example, Polonius uses more “art” than “matter” (though he uses little of either). St. John Chrysostom’s sermon, by contrast, is a superb example of the fusion of high form and content. It exemplifies the complexity of thought necessarily dressed in a concomitant complexity of language.
Or, again, it is the complex and paradoxical reality of death’s vexing death expressed in the dazzling and paradoxical clarity of a complex and vexing rhetoric. There is no ornament of discourse anywhere that is not also an essential expression of thought. All so-called “tricks” of rhetoric are necessary idioms manifesting life’s tricking and cheating and subduing death. This is the work of a profound theologian who is also a sophisticated rhetorician; it is the work of a profound rhetorician who is also a sophisticated theologian.
Because no one should go to his or her grave without having read this great sermon (it is better to hear it read well, but, given the limits of the medium, this will pass for the nonce), I reprint it here–in the hope that, by letting Old Golden Mouth himself do the talking, I will cause less trouble this week:
Whosoever is a devout lover of God, let him enjoy this beautiful bright Festival. And whosoever is a grateful servant, let him rejoice and enter into the joy of his Lord. And if any be weary with fasting, let him now receive his recompense. If any have toiled from the first hour, let him receive his due reward. If any have come after the third hour, let him with gratitude join in the Feast. And he that arrived after the sixth hour, let him not doubt; for he too shall sustain no loss. And if any have delayed to the ninth hour, let him not hesitate, but let him come too. And he that hath arrived only at the eleventh hour, let him not be afraid by reason of his delay; for the Lord is gracious and receiveth the last even as the first. He giveth rest to him that cometh at the eleventh hour as well as to him that toiled from the first. Yea, to this one he giveth, and upon that one he bestoweth. He accepteth works as he greeteth the endeavour. The deed he honoureth and the intention he comendeth.
Let all then enter into the joy of our Lord. Ye first and last receiving alike your reward; ye rich and poor, rejoice together. Ye sober and ye slothful, celebrate the day. Ye that have kept the fast and ye that have not, rejoice today for the Table is richly laden. Fare ye royally on it. The calf is a fatted one. Let no one go away hungry. Partake ye all of the cup of faith. Enjoy ye all the riches of his goodness. Let no one grieve at his poverty; for the universal Kingdom hath been revealed.
Let no one mourn that he hath fallen again and again, for forgiveness hath risen from the grave. Let no one fear death, for the Death of our Saviour hath set us free. He hath destroyed it by enduring it. He spoiled Hades when he descended thereto. He vexed it even as it tasted of his flesh. Isaiah foretold this when he cried, ‘Thou, O Hades, hast been vexed by encountering Him below.’
It is vexed, for it is even done away with! It is vexed, for it is made a mockery! It is vexed, for it is destroyed! It is vexed, for it is annihilated! It is vexed, for it is now made captive!
It took a body, and lo! it discovered God. It took earth, and behold! it encountered Heaven. It took what it saw, and was overcome by what it did not see. O death, where is thy sting? O Hades, where is thy victory? Christ is risen, and thou art annihilated! Christ is risen, and the evil ones are cast down! Christ is risen, and the Angels rejoice! Christ is risen, and life is liberated! Christ is risen, and the tomb is emptied of the dead; for Christ, having risen from the dead, is become the firstfruits of those that have fallen asleep!
To him be glory and power forever and ever. Amen.