The Lenten Chiaroscuro
Written By: Aidan Wilson
Column: A Flashback in Orthodox History
Issue: Set to Appear in the April Issue of the Newsletter
The Contrasts in the Hymnography of Lent, Holy Week, and Pascha
This time of year in the calendar is a season of great contrasts. The solemnity of the Church’s Great Fast prepares us for the utter joy of the Feast of Feasts; the dark purple of the clergy’s vestments makes the upcoming Paschal brightness all the more special; and we hear about contrasting characters from the Gospel: the good and bad thieves, the publican and the pharisee, the repentant Peter and the despondent Judas, the doubting Apostle and the confessing Centurion. Even the weather itself is an example of this contrast, as cold days give way to warmer days with surprising–and welcome–speed.
The Church hymnography of Lent and Holy Week focuses in on such dichotomies with poetic profundity and theological beauty. Every event is retold in song, highlighting the mysterious qualities therein. The hymns of this period are found in a book called the Triodion, one of the pinnacles of hymnographic art in the Orthodox liturgical repertoire.
Let us look at some examples of this fact, beginning with the hymns for Palm Sunday, the prologue to Holy Week, the week where the contrasts reach a climax as the immortal God dies, and rises again, filling the darkened world with light.
As Christ enters Jerusalem, the first sticheron at Small Vespers says:
“Seated on the colt, O Christ, you accepted a song of victory from innocent children, as you, who are praised by Angels with the thrice-holy hymn, came.”
And the second sticheron at Great Vespers points out:
“He who has heaven as his throne and earth his footstool, the Word and co-eternal Son of God the Father, having come to Bethany, showed his humility today on the colt of a dumb animal.”
You can hear the hymnographers’ awe at the immeasurable condescension shown by Christ, sitting on a humble beast rather than the throne of heaven, and being greeted by bands of children rather than choirs of angels. The final sticheron at the Aposticha sums it all up:
“You, who ride on the Cherubim and are praised by the Seraphim, mounted like David on a colt, O loving Lord. And Children sang your praise in a manner fitting God. Jews unlawfully blasphemed you. Your sitting on a colt prefigured how the untamed nations were being changed from unbelief to faith. Glory to you, O Christ, who alone are merciful and love humankind.”
These types of themes occur again half a week later, on Holy Wednesday, where we hear, in the stichera for Vespers, these words put in the mouth of the sinful woman from the Gospel:
“Loose my debt, as I unloose my hair; love one who loves, though justly hated, and along with tax-collectors I shall proclaim you, O Benefactor, who love humankind”
And these, in the Doxastikon, the famous “Hymn of Kassiane”:
“Accept the fountains of my tears, you who from the clouds draw out the water of the sea; bow yourself down to the groanings of my heart, you who bowed the heavens by your ineffable self-emptying. I shall kiss your immaculate feet, and wipe them again with the locks of my hair, those feet whose sound Eve heard at dusk in Paradise, and hid herself in fear.”
In addition to this, we also rebuke Judas, proclaiming in the Stichera:
“He watched the harlot kissing your feet and began plotting with guile the kiss of betrayal. She untied her locks and he was being bound by rage, bringing foul-smelling wickedness instead of myrrh”
Holy Thursday continues expounding upon Judas’s injustice, saying that he was “cast from the choir of Apostles” and that he then “cast down the thirty silver pieces.” And it once again hearkens back to Eden, saying in the Synaxarion that “At evening God washed the Disciples’ feet, / Whose foot once walked in Eden before dusk.”
However, perhaps the epitome of the Holy Week hymnographical contrasting comes during Orthros for Holy Friday: the service of the Twelve Passion Gospels. The 12th Antiphon of this service ascribes these words to Christ, showing how the Jews of the time repaid Him unjustly for His centuries of mercy: “Instead of the manna, gall; instead of the water, vinegar; instead of loving me, you have nailed me to a cross.”
And the 10th Antiphon says: “He who wraps himself in light as a garment, stands naked for judgement, and accepts a blow on the cheek by the hands of those he fashioned.”
Perhaps the most profound and heart wrenching of these hymns is the well-known 15th Antiphon, which begins thus:
“Today he who hung the earth upon the waters is hung upon a Tree,
He who is King of the Angels is arrayed in a crown of thorns.
He who wraps the heaven in clouds is wrapped in mocking purple.”
We will hear all these hymns in this month of April, as we prepare for Pascha. And on that radiant night, we will hear:
“When you went down to death, O immortal life, then you slew Hell with the blaze of your Godhead; but when from the infernal regions you raised the dead, all the Powers of heaven cried out to you: Giver of life, glory to you!”
Glory to Him, and I hope you all have a blessed Lent, Holy Week, and Pascha, marked by the contemplation of the seemingly-paradoxical salvific events that the Church shows to us.