Towards the left-hand side of the FM dial (yes, I’m so old I think of radios as having dials and linearity) there have always been one or two “classical” stations in the places I have lived. Often, they provide a welcome relief from the noise and bump of the neighboring stations to the right. I like most classical music, unless the composer forgets that melody and harmony are useful parts of the tradition. For many years, an exception to my listening rule has come on Saturday afternoons when the Metropolitan Opera is broadcast. Somehow, the thrill of opera passed me by. Often the presentation is accompanied by near breathless introductions in which the plot of a soap-opera is relayed as though it were sacred text. As radio goes, it is less than satisfying.
And so, it was with a bit of trepidation that I quietly accepted my first invitation to actually attend a live opera (back in the 90’s). Knoxville, TN, is not exactly the cultural center of the world, but it does have a symphony and an opera company. Thus it was that my wife and I dressed up and plunged into the high-society of East Tennessee opera fans. For an evening, if you squinted your eyes (and ears), you could imagine yourself to be in New York, Vienna, Milan, or wherever this show was incarnate.
To my surprise, I liked it. I love live orchestras, and the singing (with English subtitles displayed for the audience) held my attention. However, my favorite experience came with certain moments when at least four singers were belting out competing melodies (and conversation) with the chorus throwing in yet another motif. It is an experience of the world that cannot take place with mere conversation. Were an opera reduced to a play, the lines would inevitably be reduced to a linear performance (only one speech at a time).
That same linearity is a hallmark of modern liturgical practice: one thing at a time, one theme at a time, it’s all about the message and the message is about one thing.
Orthodox liturgy, unreformed and unmarked by modern sentiment, is much more like grand opera. There can be three voices (priest, deacon, choir) interacting, overlapping, rising up together. More than that, there are frequently overlapping themes to a single day. Every day of the week has a theme (Sunday: resurrection; Monday: angels; Tuesday: John the Baptist, etc.). The week may have a theme (such as the season – like Lent). Then there are saints’ days (and sometimes the saints are “stacked,” with more than one being commemorated on the day. Lastly, there are feast days (Nativity, Pascha, Annunciation, etc.). And, unlike the linearity of the modern world, all of these things may have their “voice” on any given single day.
I have thought about this today, in particular, the feast of the Annunciation. It has the peculiar distinction of sometimes (if you’re using the Old Calendar) falling on the same day as Pascha. When this happens, the feast is not “bumped” (moved aside to make room for the Queen of Feasts (Pascha). Instead, the two are combined in what is known as a “Kyriopascha.” In Orthodox reckoning, it is considered the most holy possible combination. In most years as Annunciation does not fall on Pascha, I tend to bring Pascha in (in my mind) to the feast, simply because I know that on rare occasions it is actually possible.
Orthodox theology is often described as “mystical.” I suspect that what is actually going on is that Orthodox theology is not “linear.” Rather, it is “everything at once.” This is actually how the world is. Things do not take place in a linear fashion, but together, and at once. History is not so polite as to “take turns,” waiting for one thing to lead to another. It is, undoubtedly the reason that all human plans fail in the end: we never “see coming” the train that hits us because we are too busy monitoring the linearity of our own expectations.
The Orthodox insight is that theology is “everything at once.” Although events may be described in a linear fashion, they are yet more fully understood when they are allowed to inform one another. The Annunciation is Pascha, if you have ears to hear. It is the descent of God into the depths of our humanity, in His self-emptying act of Incarnation. Orthodoxy struggles with this, often coining phrases such as “joyful sorrow” to describe the conjunction of God’s saving action in the world. St. Paul captures till somewhat in his statement that “all things work together for good.” It is not something that can be described in a linear fashion, but something that seeks to give voice to the full reality of God’s saving action. God has come among us not just some select people can go to heaven. He has come among us that He might “gather together in one all things in Christ Jesus.” That ingathering is everywhere, always, and at once.
Human beings are actually capable of experiencing “everything” at once. It requires us to be “watchful,” however. Those who have married themselves to linear expectations choose a vastly reduced version of the universe and miss the grand opera that is taking place everywhere and always. Apparently angels sing in choirs, where they can give voice to everything under heaven. The solo is left to God Himself.