Singing the Paschal Song in a Strange Land
“How shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?” Thus asks the singer, held captive in Babylon, in one of the most painful laments in all of the scriptures, Psalm 136. Remembering his land and his home but most grievously of all the holy city of Jerusalem, the psalmist can hardly bring himself, when commanded by his captors, to sing them one of the holy songs of Zion. His spirit all but extinguished and teetering on the brink of despair, he is nevertheless overcome with memory and longing and, inspired by the Spirit, sings: “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand be forgotten. Let my tongue cleave to my throat, if I remember thee not, if I set not Jerusalem above all other, as at the head of my joy.”
This might seem a rather odd way to begin a Paschal meditation, with one of the most grievous laments in all of scriptures. And yet I think it is strangely apropos. For are we not also painfully aware, even in this bright Paschal season, that we are exiles, far from our native land? We step out of the church into the night of Pascha singing, “Thy resurrection, O Christ our Savior, the angels in Heaven sing. Enable us on earth to glorify Thee in purity of heart.” The angels in Heaven, us on earth: exiles.
And yet what is the meaning of Pascha if not that our Lord came from Heaven to us on earth, exiles in Babylon, to deliver us from captivity? Pascha means passover, as we sing in the Paschal canon, “From death to life and from earth to Heaven has Christ our God brought us, singing a song of victory.”
There are many things that we could say about this but the point I want to make is rather simple: while we are, in some sense, exiles far from home, we must never forget our heavenly Jerusalem. “How shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?” With the psalmist we must turn from that note of despair to a better, brighter memory, setting “Jerusalem above all other, as at the head of my joy.” And how do we do that? We have already said it: “singing a song of victory.”
What is Pascha, brothers and sisters, if not an eternal festival of song? It is not accident or happenstance that the liturgical rule of the Paschal feast is that everything must be sung. Nothing (with the exception of the Paschal homily of St John Chrysostom) is to be read in church but everything is to be sung with bright and shining doxological voices. We rejoice in the victory of our risen Lord with hymns and psalms. The angels in Heaven “sing” His resurrection and we, on earth, “glorify” him in purity of heart.
Of course, our abundantly rich liturgical tradition overflows with magnificent hymns for the Paschal season. But even as this bright season eventually comes to an end and gives way to other feasts and even fasts, still we will sing. For the deep truth is that we are always in Pascha. Every Sunday is the Day of Resurrection; every Divine Liturgy is an entrance into the Mystery; every day and moment on earth the door of Paradise is open to us. And while we might not, like St Seraphim, greet one another with the Paschal greeting throughout the year, it is nevertheless true for us as for him: Christ is risen!
With love in Christ, Fr John
Christ is Risen! Indeed He is Risen! Χριστός ἀνέστη! Ἀληθῶς ἀνέστη! Христóсъ воскрéсе! Воистину воскресе!
“Give me a word!”
Yesterday I was crucified with Him; today I am glorified with Him. Yesterday I died with Him;
today I am made alive with Him. Yesterday I was buried with Him;
today I am raised up with Him. Let us become like Christ,
since Christ became like us. Let us become Divine for His sake,
since for us He became Man. He assumed the worse that He might give us the better. He became poor that by His poverty we might become rich. He accepted the form of a servant that we might win back our freedom. He came down that we might be lifted up. He was tempted that through Him we might conquer. He was dishonored that He might glorify us. He died that He might save us. He ascended that He might draw to Himself us, who were thrown down through the fall of sin. Let us give all, offer all, to Him who gave Himself a Ransom and Reconciliation for us. We needed an incarnate God, a God put to death, that we might live. We were put to death together with Him that we might be cleansed. We rose again with Him because we were put to death with Him. We were glorified with Him because we rose again with Him. A few drops of Blood recreate the whole of creation!
+St. Gregory the Theologian