Today was full of the Lord! The first thing I did on rising was go to church and take a turn reading Psalms by candlelight next to the “tomb” of Christ that had been erected on Friday and bedecked with Easter lilies. It is a special icon representing our Lord lying in the grave, and from the end of Friday night’s service the Psalms are read continuously until the next service, which was at 1:00 today.
The Orthodox also read Psalms all night by the casket of any church member at death. And if one is all alone in the church in the near dark — well, one is not alone, because God is there always, and not only He, but the saints who live and form that great Cloud of Witnesses, who are praying with us. It’s a very intimate and loving hour, and a blessed opportunity to participate in such a work.
In the middle of the Vesperal Liturgy of Holy Saturday we had baptisms. Once again we are at the anniversary of my own baptism on this day, four years ago now, and that adds to the gravity and joy of standing with those who are being newly illumined. During Lent the catechumens have been preparing for Holy Baptism, and the rest of the church pray extra on their behalf, and in our hearts and in repentance rededicate ourselves, remembering our own illumination.
Today there were six people baptized, praise God! Two couples, each with a very young boy-child, and they used our new sunken baptismal font that is just outside the church, filled with 90° water, which I’m sure made it easier for the little guys to suffer being immersed. The skies were dry, which made watching easier for all of us. In spite of the momentary displeasure and crying of the babies, everyone was beaming with smiles and songs.
Also during the service today we heard 15 Old Testament readings that have been familiar to me most of my life, but they are becoming even more beloved every year, as we hear passages as long as the whole book of Jonah and as short as the couple of paragraphs from Jeremiah that it has been my lot to chant three years in a row now. When Tom started reading the account of Abraham taking Isaac to the mountain to make a sacrifice, I realized that I have heard him read it every year, and from now on will never be able to read that moving story without hearing his voice.
We change all the altar cloths from purple to white in the middle of this service as well, two or three people nearby stepping up to do the quick work at the same time as men are lighting the chandelier and the choir is singing. Of course the choir is singing! There is rarely a quiet time during our services, filled as they are with prayers, Scripture, and hymns.
Mr. Glad went with me on Thursday evening for the Matins of Holy Friday, during which 12 Gospel passages are read, including the whole of several chapters of John, by the clergy in the center of the church. It’s a kind of total immersion in the events of Christ’s Passion, and requires three hours to get the full effect — but you get it.
Last night was Matins and Lamentations for Holy Saturday. The Lamentations consist of the whole chapter of Psalm 119, its verses interspersed with poetic verses pertaining directly to the Passion of Christ. But I didn’t go to that. I’m too old to stay up past my bedtime several nights in a row, and I wanted to be sure to make it tonight.
|At my baptism, anointing with Holy Chrism|
Tonight about midnight we will process around the church with candles — and maybe in the drizzle, if the weather doesn’t change quickly. Once we are back inside, a large portion of the first chapter of John will be read, often in more than one language. We will begin the happy shouts and songs of “Christ is risen!” and hymns that are the most rousing of the whole church year.
The priests and deacons will make the rounds among the people innumerable times with censing and with recitations of “Christ is risen!” and “In truth He is risen!” in many different languages in turn. Sometimes I see a cheat sheet floating around that shows these phrases, but I’m always a little too scattered to make up for my lack of preparedness right then. It’s very chummy, because we get a lot of visitors or once-a-year-ers and we fill the house. One has to pay attention to the candles to be sure that they don’t catch someone’s hair or long white scarf on fire.
Many children fall asleep on the floor as the festivities continue. The day of my baptism I was so thoroughly done-in that I couldn’t help looking again and again at the sleeping children and wishing that I were a child so that I could conk out, too. Perhaps I was being obvious; eventually a man offered me his chair, and with sleeping babe in arms moved to sit on the floor.
Of course, the highlight of the service is receiving the Holy Mysteries of Communion. When we have broken our Lenten fast with that heavenly food, and are giddy with fatigue, many of us go into the hall to share rich earthly treats that we’ve been doing without for many weeks. I’m not sure I will want to do that this year; I might need to come home and treat myself with sleep. We have a picnic Sunday afternoon with meat and everything one could want, when we are more rested.
So that’s where I’m going after I finish writing this and don my festal garments. I wanted to post at least something in commemoration of this pivotal point in history, and in our salvation history, and then I got carried away. What I first thought to share are these lines that Fr. L read to us instead of a homily this afternoon, words of the risen Christ that I hope will keep echoing in my heart.
I am the First and the Last. I am He who lives, and was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore. Amen. And I have the keys of Hades and of Death.
The charming children we get to know in the recent documentary “Babies” are, at the end of the film, struggling to become toddlers, persons enjoying the upright posture that is a mark of homo erectus. They don’t even think about it, because it seems to be a given that children want very much to stand up and walk.
That is, unless you are Lazy Tommy Pumpkinhead, who lives in an electric house that does everything for him; Tommy can’t bring himself to get out of bed or even stand up without assistance. But his story is meant to teach any self-respecting child to be self-respecting, to be human, and not lazy. He is the hero of a children’s book I liked to read to our children.
In the chapter on “The Human Form,” in his book The Hungry Soul: Eating and the Perfecting of our Nature, Leon Kass examines how the erect and forward-facing posture that distinguishes us from most of the animal world contributes to our outlook and coordinates with our calling to be lords of creation, as it were. He takes many of his foundational ideas on this subject from the neurologist-psychologist Erwin Straus, and from his essay titled “The Upright Posture.”
In my reviews I’m skipping around in the book, but I should explain that the first chapters make a case for the primacy of form. That is, all living beings are more than a collection of the same kinds of particles. Even though absolutely all our material is replaced during our lifetime, we retain the same recognizable form. And as this is a book about the human soul, the subject is next narrowed to the human form. From there the author goes on to discuss what humans do with these bodies.
The uprightness of our form is what I am trying to stick to in this post. I think of this a lot now, when I wake up in the mornings and am lying in bed for at least a few seconds. Rarely do I have to get up with an alarm clock, for which I am grateful. And at this time of my life no baby is demanding that I get up to feed her and no child will be late for school if I linger a bit. This morning when I woke I realized that God had answered my prayer to be wakened in time to go to Bridegroom Matins, so I hopped out of bed.
But it isn’t always so easy. Wouldn’t it be lovely if we could keep that verve that children have, that makes them get up, or cry to be let out of their cribs, as soon as they wake up? It seems that God gives us a special grace, when we are new to the world, to work hard at standing before we know what work is.
Though upright posture characterizes the human species, each of us must struggle to attain it. Our birthright includes standing, but we cannot stand at birth. Feral children who have survived in the wild were not found upright but were able to become so. As with other distinctively human traits (speech, for example), human beings must work to make themselves do or become what nature prepares them to be or do. Upright posture is a human, and humanizing, accomplishment.
Kass quotes Straus:
Before reflection or self-reflection start, but as if they were a prelude to it, work makes its appearance within the realm of the elemental biological functions of man. In getting up, in reaching the upright posture, man must oppose the forces of gravity. It seems to be his nature to oppose nature in its impersonal, fundamental aspects with natural means. However, gravity is never fully overcome; upright posture always maintains its character of counteraction.
And Kass elaborates:
Effort does not cease with rising up; it is required to maintain our uprightness. Automatic regulation does not suffice; staying up takes continuous attention and activity, as well it should, inasmuch as our very existence is at stake. Awakeness is necessary for uprightness; uprightness is necessary for survival. Yet our standing in the world is always precarious; we are always in danger of falling. Our natural stance is, therefore, one of ‘resistance,’ of “withstanding,’ of becoming constant, stable.
It doesn’t get any easier, does it? As we get older and weaker, the temptation is to sit down more often. I notice that tendency in church, where in my tradition we stand during the services, which means for one or two hours at a time we stand. What better attitude could we take toward The Holy Con-substantial Life-Creating Trinity?
Yes, we can prostrate ourselves, and I know people who do that when their ailing backs prevent their standing in prayer. But I notice in the Bible that after people fall on their faces before messengers of God, they are told to stand up. The Psalms speak of standing in His presence, and in the New Testament we are told, “…having done all, to stand.”
Stand firm, stand in the gap, stand still and see the salvation of the Lord…The posture is both a metaphor for and a support to our efforts, the whole Christian life being a struggle against laziness, even to the point of, “Let us labor therefore to enter into that rest.” (Hebrews 4) Perhaps if I stand a little longer than is comfortable in church, or work a few more minutes at my household chores before sitting down, it will make me call out to God and ask for help to be the kind of person He wants.
And if I doubt my ability, let me remind myself, “You’ve been doing this your whole life, resisting gravity, walking this precarious walk against natural forces that want to pull you down. You can keep doing it, you can!” I will call to mind the words of T.S. Eliot: “Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.” And not forgetting the difference between the metaphor and the reality, I’m only too aware that some people who are no longer able to stand with their bodies are standing in the gap for me.
As to lying in bed, for most of us it is a near necessity, though the saints’ lives testify that some of them avoided it like the plague. One wants to avoid the condition described in Proverbs 26, “As a door turns on its hinges, so a sluggard turns on his bed.” I haven’t yet figured out how exactly it fits in without spoiling my thesis, but I have to mention my dear G.K. Chesterton’s delightful essay, “On Lying in Bed,” in which he cautions tongue-in-cheek against legalism and hypocrisy, mostly about how early one rises:
A man can get used to getting up at five o’clock in the morning. A man cannot very well get used to being burnt for his opinions; the first experiment is commonly fatal. Let us pay a little more attention to these possibilities of the heroic and the unexpected. I dare say that when I get out of this bed I shall do some deed of an almost terrible virtue.
This drawing of Lazy Tommy illustrates what happens after he is all dressed and fed, and the long afternoon stretches ahead of him with nothing to do but propel himself up the stairs — not walking, but crawling, it should be noted — but his bed is the attraction that gives him that much energy.
I like this picture, only because it shows that even Tommy is capable of struggling. Maybe we could think of him as a late bloomer, crawling when he should have learned to walk — but at least he is showing some spunk. At the end of the book he experiences enough discomfort resulting from an electrical outage and the failure of technology that he resolves to “turn over a new leaf.”
As I finish this post we are in Holy Week. All through Lent I wanted to write something about the wonderful midweek services that we have (and at which I hope to worship tonight), but it seemed to be beyond my ability to capture even a bit of the sweetness in words. One thing I love about them is that all the Psalms that are called Songs of Ascent are read at each service. And the last of those, Psalm 134, provides a fitting picture of our souls’ posture before our God.
Behold, bless ye the LORD,all ye servants of the LORD,which by night standin the house of the LORD.Lift up your hands in the sanctuary,and bless the LORD.The LORD that made heaven and earthbless thee out of Zion.