The word “fullness,” is a very Orthodox word, one that is used for theological expression fairly frequently. It is perhaps among my favorites, as any regular reader here can quickly attest. It is a New Testament word, usually applied to Christ or to a sense of the “fullness” of time. But there is a sense that it also carries within Orthodox usage that refers to the Gospel itself. In this usage, fullness refers to the Gospel as a whole, versus some lesser aspect or special point of view of the Gospel. In this sense, the Gospel, in its fullness, cannot be summed up by a single Bible verse (despite the popular appreciation of John 3:16), much less reduced to four spiritual laws.
The fullness of the Gospel, in this sense, is the entirety of salvation history – from beginnig to end. It begins with the creation, extends through the life of Israel, reaches a climax in the Incarnation, mission, crucifixion and resurrection of Christ as well as His ascension and the culmination of all things at His second coming. For most Christians, such a panoramic portrayal of the Gospel is simply foreign to experience, or is so truncated (for instance in some Eucharistic prayers) that the fullness becomes too reduced.
I found myself preaching on the topic of the fullness when I was visiting Nicholasville, KY, this past weekend for the Sunday and Monday celebration of the feast of the Protection of the Mother of God. I had thought about the feast and planned to preach on Mary’s role in salvation history as an inherent part of its fullness (meaning that you cannot tell the whole story of the gospel without mentioning her). While we were praying Great Vespers, however, my sermon changed. Not its topic – but the illustrations I had in mind.
What happened could have happened in any Orthodox Vespers or Matins of a feast. Orthodox services (particularly those that make up a Vigil (Vespers, Litya, Matins) will almost always find a means of stating the Gospel in its fullness, regardless of the feast that may be celebrated. Part of this is a living demonstration that each feast is about all feasts – or, as I have said elsewhere, everything is Pascha. I will offer a few illustrations of what I saw and heard Sunday evening. These are only three of the “stichera” (verses) sung in the course of the service:
You are like a divinely-planted paradise, Theotokos, the place where the tree of life was watered by the Holy Spirit! We acknowledge that you gave birth to the Creator of all who feeds the faithful with the Bread of Life. Together with the Forerunner, entreat Him on our behalf// and by your precious veil protect your people from all attacks!
Heaven and earth are sanctified, the Church is radiant and all the people celebrate, for behold, the Mother of God enters invisibly with the armies of the angels, the Forerunner and the Theologian, the prophets and the apostles! She prays to Christ for Christians and entreats him to have mercy on this land and people// who glorify the feast of her protection.
You are the beauty of Jacob and the heavenly ladder upon which the Lord came down to earth. These images were manifestations of your honor and glory, Theotokos! Angels in heaven and men on earth call you blessed for you gave birth to the God of all! You pray for all the world,// by your mercy, protecting those who keep your holy feast!
In three short verses, mention or reference is made to:
- creation and paradise (Genesis);
- the tree of life (which is also the Cross);
- watered by the Holy Spirit;
- the annunciation and incarnation;
- the Eucharist and hence Christ’s sacrifice (the giver of the Bread of Life);
- the Forerunner (John the Baptist, greatest of all the prophets);
- and Mary’s motherly care for the Church.
- The liberation of heaven and earth (Romans 8);
- the army of prophets and apostles (the great cloud of witness of Hebrews 12).
- The dream of Jacob in which he saw a ladder (which is a type of the Theotokos for God comes to earth in her in the incarnation); and etc.
These are typical of every feast in the Church, and but a small sample from the Vigil of that night. But this is the character of Orthodox worship. Whatever event or person is celebrated, the center of the celebration is ultimately the Pascha of Christ, who in Himself, gives meaning to everything around Him. And it seems to have been the joy of Orthodox hymnographers through the ages to see if it were possible to include everything within the course of a feast. Every feast (to use an old jazz term) is a riff on the same theme.
It helps that Orthodoxy is not in a hurry to get through a service. It takes time to celebrate the fullness. But celebrating less leaves us bereft of the revelation God has given us. Why would we want to sing less than everything?