The paradoxes displayed in the hymnody of the final days of Holy Week are a tribute to the brilliance and sobriety of Byzantine Church poetry. Indeed, the hymns of the Church are both poetry and theology bound together—given to us in melodies that are engrained into our hearts and minds for a whole lifetime and over many generations. Whether we know the Byzantine or Slavic melodies—and hopefully we learn both—these settings become an ongoing catechesis about what it means to be an Orthodox Christian believer.
In truth, we don’t need “Church School” or well bound catechisms to know what we believe, to understand what our faith teaches. We can simply learn the poetry of our hymns and services and inscribe their words into our hearts. It is precisely the ability to learn the faith by singing it that made it possible for regular Orthodox people to survive the most brutal persecutions of the last twenty centuries (some of which continue to this day). The songs and theological paradoxes of our faith have been woven into the very fabric of the Orthodox Christian consciousness and they cannot be taken away by any earthly power. This is especially important for us to remember as we enter into the mystery of Holy Week, into those awesome days when we are confronted with the incomprehensible humility and majesty of God in the Flesh—crucified and risen.
How do we comprehend the incomprehensible? How do we make sense of the events that we commemorate during Holy Week? We don’t certainly don’t do it by means of long theological commentaries or brilliant demonstrations of “scientific” logic. The mystery we encounter in the Passion of God in Christ can only be “understood” by means of paradox. And that paradox is best delivered when it is sung.
A paradox is not a contradiction; it is not the placing of mutually exclusive terms in opposition—rather, it is the reconciliation of things normally thought to be exclusive of one another. Thus we are confronted with the Immortal One who created the world (“he who hung the earth upon the waters”) dying on the cross (“hung on a Tree”). How can He who is, by definition, eternal and uncontainable, be made subject to death and to the limits of the grave? Our mind cannot contain what appears to be a total contradiction. And, in fact, it is utterly impossible to describe this event in logical terms. It can only be resolved in paradox—that the God who made heaven and earth, Who created the ordered universe and initiated all things in beauty also came to experience rejection, hatred, and scorn by those for whom He made it. We are confronted with the heart-rending juxtaposition of Love answered by hatred, of Beauty defiled by ugliness, of Goodness opposed by wretched evil, of Life being consumed by death. And in the paradox of paradoxes, we will discover Love overwhelming hatred, of Beauty transfiguring ugliness, of Goodness overcoming evil, of Life destroying death.
The supreme paradox of this universe is found in the incarnation, passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God-with-us as one of us in the flesh. By taking on our limited existence, He has given us unlimited life. By accepting our hatred, He has enabled us to love. By accepting the ugly, death-dealing sorrow of the cross, He has transformed it into the beautiful, life-giving source of salvation. One cannot speak of these things using the narrow categories of philosophy and science; to embrace such mysteries we need to sing with tears of sorrow, repentance, hope, and joy.
Recently, I watched and listened to a recording of the late Archbishop Job, of blessed memory, singing Antiphon XV. The somber beauty of the words, sung in the Byzantine melody, cut right to the heart. It was made even more beautiful because I knew the man who sang it; he brought my family into the Orthodox Church and ordained me to the diaconate and priesthood. He sang, with profound compunction, a hymn of great reverence and love. Perhaps this reveals something the mystery of the paradox, too—that the voices who sing, our friends, our parents, our mentors, the whole Orthodox community around us, incarnate the paradox of mere human beings being touched by Divinity. We, who once struck the Lord of life in the face, who spat on Him and hung him on a cross to die, are now embraced by His love. Our spitting is turned into kisses of adoration; our striking is turned into prostrations of worship, our hatred is transformed into deep love. We cannot speak of it, we can only sing it.