From Old Golden Mouth Himself

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:

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