Saturday, 14 November 2015

Homily on the Seventh Tone Resurrection Hymns, Heavenly Hundreds, the Justice of Christ and the Massacre in Paris, 14/15 November 2015

The Byzantine Divine Liturgy, in the view of many Western people, is ornate and richly complex. In fact, while the prayers are longer than those in the Latin tradition and an obvious difference is the cumulative and insistent effect of the numerous litanies, its basic shape is quite similar to those of the mass of the Latin rite, suggesting a common tradition in the Church’s early days in the Roman Empire. In the core of the service there is even less variation than at a Roman Catholic Mass. The prayers hardly ever vary; the Introit is always the same – The Trisagion which is the response to Psalm 79; the Great Entrance or Offertory is nearly always the Cherubic Hymn, being the refrain to Psalm 23; and set verses from Psalms 22, 56 and 113 are sung every time –  "Save Your people and bless You inheritance"; "Be exalted, O God above the heavens"; "Blessed be the Name of the Lord!" The Scripture readings and the psalms linked to them for the Sunday or Feast are almost all that changes. This is how it developed in the Great Church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, and this is the Liturgy that was shared across the Eastern Roman Empire and up into Eastern Europe, and now across the world.

Except to say that in the ninth century, a monastic renewal flowered in a monastery in the south-western corner of the vast City of Constantinople, the famous Stoudion, or the Studite monastery led by St Theodore, who with his collaborators gathered together all the Christian hymns from the Greek, Syrian, Jerusalem and Sinai desert monasteries and cathedrals they could find, including those of St Romanos the Melodist, St Ephrem Syrus and St John Damascene. They arranged them into great cycles of weekly, daily, festival and seasonal hymns, mostly to add rich variety to the unchanging psalms of the monastic offices, but also so that great Christian poetry could bring out the meaning of the Scriptures and canticles as they reflect upon Christ and teach reveal His power of redemption. Each Sunday, we notice that these hymns are grouped according to one of the eight tones of Byzantine liturgical musical theory. Today we use Tone 7, which is known as the Grave Tone on account of its sweet but sometimes plaintive tone. In the west, for instance, this is the scale used for the gentle melody that opens the Requiem Mass. But in the East, the eight sets of Sunday hymns, are always about the Resurrection; and they glorify Jesus Christ for being risen from the dead and being the conqueror even of our destruction. So it makes no difference if the Tone uses a musical scale that to our modern Western ears sounds major, or minor, subdued, exotic, plaintive or joyful – each mood is a lens through which to view the Resurrection. Each kind of “mood music” thus becomes yet another way for the Resurrection to approach us and make itself understood whatever our disposition, whatever our circumstances, whatever our personality.

So it is no surprise that the main chants for each Sunday, weekday and feast gained popularity among the faithful. They were borrowed from the services of the monks and added to the Divine Liturgy with the highest place of honour in their own right – the very last of the songs to be sung as the priest arrives at the Altar itself. Thus it has been for over a thousand years; thus we have sung them today. It is as if a different way of praising Christ sets us up each Sunday to hear His Word, to behold Him in His Mysteries, to welcome Him in His Temple, to receive Him Who is our God into our human lives - as He once took the flesh that he raised from the dead, and as He will more and more receive us who are humans into His own life, the very life of God the Trinity.

I cannot help but feel that the chants for this Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, a Sunday of the Seventh Tone, are so deeply poignant this weekend, as we pray in shock at the murder of 127 innocent people in Paris, with many other critically injured too, by cowardly members of a psychopathic death-cult pretending to follow God and the path of Islam. At the same time, we remember the millions displaced and degraded by false Muslims across the Middle East, including our own brothers and sisters who have been called upon to give their lives for others and for Christ.

So today’s Troparion speaks of lamentation, but also how the Cross of Christ destroys death.  Once death has done its worst, what is left is mercy, capable of opening the door of Paradise, just like the stone rolled away from the Tomb that shows to the mourners that God’s new reality for humanity has prevailed, and in the midst of lamentation there can be signs of hope and joy.

Likewise, the Kontakion realises that death has no hold over us. Christ too, it says, “went down”; but the collapse shattered the power that drags humanity down, and falls in on top of it.

Then the Theotokion, the hymn to the Mother of God, confronts the fact that, if all that is true, then it is not just something that happened to Jesus in ancient history, nor is it purely something that we have to look forward to after we have ended life here, and passed upon our way: it turns everything inside out now. For Mary is the treasury of Christ’s Resurrection from before she gave birth, through to this very moment and beyond. It was then that she brought us up from the pit, when our Salvation – not an idea or an act but a Person - was born; and it is now that we are saved as she pushes us out, by our own hope, from the depth, towards the Resurrection. And, again, the Resurrection is no mere idea, nor an act, but a Person. So He says to us, as our hope turns toward His voice, “Come forward – come to the Resurrection”.

The Catholic and Orthodox Churches of Ukraine are conscious of a special bond with “those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness”, by those who “insult… and utter every kind of evil word falsely” (Matthew 5), because less than two years ago 130 defenceless, civilian protesters in Kyiv, mostly Christians seeking a peaceful resolution to their society’s problems - and demonstrating for nothing more than you and I in Britain take for granted as our birth-rights of honesty, truth, freedom and democracy - were killed by the forces of a corrupted state. In Ukraine these innocent, brave and hope-filled people are revered as the Heavenly Hundred. So very many of them were Eastern Christians, Catholics and Orthodox, whose spiritual life was constantly animated by the rhythms, hymns and music of the Byzantine tradition of the Church’s worship. Every eight weeks they will have heard the same songs we have sung today and taken them to heart, living with the Cross, with Salvation, with the Resurrection as second nature - the simple truth of what it is to live in this world as in the next, on earth as it is in heaven, in my own skin as if in Christ’s, joyful in Christ’s life because on my own I can do nothing.

And now in France, as in Iraq and Syria, Egypt and Libya - and also as in London ten years ago and New York in 2001 - more people are being robbed of their lives and hopes, by the enemies of righteousness and the Kingdom of Heaven (The Beatitudes, Matthew 5, Third Antiphon). What does our confidence in Christ say to them and to the devastated friends and family who love them, as well as to the fear of the rest of us who wonder what more lies ahead? There is a message that not many will want to hear at the moment, but it is the message that dwelt in the heart of the Heavenly Hundred in Kyiv and richly with our fellow Christian Copts who, on the seashore of Libya moments before their martyrdom, calmly prayed, “Lord, have mercy.” It is the message of our salvation, the message of the Cross, the message of the Resurrection, the message of the Person who is our life, our hope. Here it is in the readings that, providentially, our Church has appointed for the Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost in uneven years:
"If you want the world to change and for the Kingdom of God to come:

-         Love your enemies and do good. Be children of the Most High who is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful as your Father is merciful. (Luke 6. 35-36)

Why? Because you must never forget, even when you pray for the thorns in the flesh to be taken away:

-         My grace is sufficient for you. For my power is made perfect in weakness. (II Corinthians12. 8-9)

So, "blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness. For theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven." May this Kingdom come on earth, as it is in heaven.

“O Mother of God, all-praised treasury of our Resurrection, we hope in you; bring us from the pit… for you have given birth to our Salvation.”


No comments:

Post a Comment