Standing in the Church, listening to the choir or chanter sing while priest censes the icons, words swirl with the rising smoke and connections and associations multiply as words evoke images and images evoke thoughts: participation, coinherence, incarnation, mystery, timeless form and formless time, fullness and emptiness, fulfillment and…
And then the thought comes, full-formed or teasing, but it arrives. Not as a result of logic or reason, not as the end of a chain, but more like fruit falling from a tree, sweet and wondrous.
The knowledge that comes within the liturgy belongs to a different class of knowing than is most commonly described. The liturgy never seeks to make a point. It is never insistent or argumentative, does not teach or correct. And yet there is an insistence and an argument, teaching and correction within it. Preoccupation and distraction easily overlook their presence. Fatigue can render us immune. But when we become present, even quiet to the Presence, knowledge comes.
And the knowledge that comes is often itself without words. Birthed in a torrent of words and sounds, the knowledge itself can be impossible to speak. But there it is.
The services that surround Christ’s Pascha, those of Great Lent and Holy Week, are not the fruit of immediate Apostolic reflection. Many elements within them are among the most “recent” developments (though they are more than a millennium in age). The first services of Pascha took place behind locked doors. There, bewildered disciples gathered only to be surprised by interruptions of breathless witnesses saying, “The tomb was empty!” and “We saw a vision of angels!” Unable to make sense of such things the gathering remained. Cephas and John, Luke and Cleopas joined the chorus of women’s voices, “We have seen the Lord!” and the mystery of those early gatherings deepened. Did they pray? Surely. How did they pray? Doubtless with the singing of Psalms. But the enigma and riddle remained.
The liturgy deepened when, the doors being locked for fear of the Jews, Christ Himself appears within their midst and speaks the words that are repeated regularly throughout the Church’s services today: “Peace be with you!” And then ensues the tangible liturgy, the touching and the probing, the demonstration of the Crucified. “Thrust your hand into my side!”
We have the strange witness, even terrifying, in the early gospel accounts of these liturgies: “Some doubted.” How can they see and doubt? Seeing is not always believing and doubting is not a matter of thought. The risen Christ appears and the thoughts of all are laid bare. The doubting heart was always a doubting heart – for its thoughts are not those of reason but of fear.
But the liturgy continued. “On the first day of the week” the disciples continued to meet. “On the first day of the week” they continued to read Scripture and Break the Bread. And He appeared. And they met. And He appeared.
And it is this appearing, His parousia, that abides. It is this appearing that the liturgy remembers. And it remembers actively as the appearing itself continues. If the liturgy did not remember His appearing, it would have ceased. But it is His appearing that is participation, coinherence, incarnation, mystery, timeless form and formless time, fullness and emptiness, fulfillment and full-formed teasing.
It is not history that draws Christ’s disciples back behind the doors year by year and week by week. It is not memorial and sentiment that stands for hours in darkened Churches, lighting candles and breathing prayers. It is not superstition and ethnic pride. It is the appearing.
Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have loved His appearing. (2Ti 4:8)
Even so. Come quickly!