“Or rather…”: Reframing Our Suffering Through the Language of Liturgy

Yesterday morning, the third Sunday before the Feast of the Nativity, a phrase I’ve heard on countless occasions rang in my ears as though for the first time:

“… or rather…”

It’s a tiny but profound phrase that occurs in a sentence sandwiched in the middle of the Eucharistic canon:

In the night in which [Christ] was given up—or rather gave Himself up for the life of the world—He took bread in His holy, pure and blameless hands; and when He had given thanks and blessed it, and hallowed it and broken it, He gave it to his holy disciples and apostles…

I’ve always loved this phrase, as much for its apparent awkwardness as its mysterious profundity. Yesterday, though, it dawned on me that it could also be helpful in learning to reframe the stories we tell ourselves about our own suffering.

Before we get to that, however, what is the theological significance of this phrase?

“Or Rather”: Where Theology Begins

You have to admit, this is a funny phrase, particularly if you are new to Orthodoxy. It sounds a little like the authors of the Liturgy made a mistake in the first clause (when Christ “was given up”), and attempted to correct it in the second (“or rather gave Himself up”). Surely such an error would have been phased out over time?

But it’s not a mistake, and to understand why, we have to remember the different ways “or rather” functions, at least in English.

In oral conversation, “or rather” can be used to elegantly correct a point we’ve just made, since we can’t go back in time and actually edit our words. In this context, it is a  tidy shorthand for “oops! What I meant to say was…”

In written text, however, you can go back and edit words. You wouldn’t use “or rather” to correct a mistake (unless you were lazy), you would just rewrite the sentence. And so, in written contexts, this “or rather” has a subtler and more intentional purpose. It’s a way of lending credence to two competing realities–or two nuances of the same reality–simultaneously. It sets up a kind of intentional ambiguity, a rhetorical space in which previously unseen distinctions can become evident at once and lend meaning to one another. In psychological terms, it creates cognitive dissonance, that uncomfortable tension we feel when faced with two seemingly contradictory beliefs.

For the Fathers, this “or rather” conveyed two congruent yet seemingly opposed aspects of Christ’s sacrifice, namely that His death was both ordained by the Father AND voluntarily taken on by the Son.

St. Gregory of Nazianzen writes:

It is written both that He [Christ] was betrayed, and also that He gave Himself up, and that He was raised up by the Father… And on the other hand that He raised Himself up… The former statement refers to the good pleasure of the Father, the latter to His own power. (Oration XXXVII, On the Theophany or Birthday of Christ)

From an earthly or an external perspective, Christ’s death appears to have been foisted upon Him in ways He could not (“or rather” did not seek to) control. Numerous forces and actors colluded to bring about His death–the Jews, Judas, Caiaphas, to name a few. And behind the stage of earthly events was the inscrutable will of the Father, to whom Christ prayed in His final hours: “If you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22:42, NRSV).

Yet Christ’s death was not just a “top down” decision from the Father, it was also a “bottom up” cooperation from the Son. There was a synergy between the Father’s will and Christ’s. In the end, Christ bore His Cross and later willingly “gave up his spirit” (Jn 19:30).

This rhetorical “or rather,” then, bears witness to the two-sided, synergistic nature of Christ’s sacrifice. And as Daniel Galadza points out, it marks a pivotal point in the Liturgy, when a historical recapitulation of the events of Christ’s death shifts into something new. Echoing the words of Fr. John Behr, this is where “theology begins proper” (Galadza, Liturgy and Byzantinization in Jerusalem, 25).

“Or Rather” And Us

The “or rather” clause is not just significant for the Liturgy, but also for us personally. Even as the phrase turns the Liturgy toward the Eucharist, it pivots us toward the new manner of being we are called to in Christ, one that beckons us toward and into–rather than away from–God-ordained suffering of life. It forces us to do a kind of double take in our estimation of earthly existence, and in that second glance calls our attention to the transfigured and transfiguring dimension of suffering we often overlook.

Most of all, we are reminded that although we may not get to chose the nature of the crosses we bear in this life, we may choose whether and how to bear them–in cooperation with or avoidance of God.

When we avoid our crosses, we come to see life through the lens of fatalism, powerlessness, and helplessness. We come to see ourselves as passive victims and everyone/thing else (including, perhaps, God) as the problem.

This is a tendency in both the hardest and the most mundane forms of suffering we encounter. If we’re late for an appointment, it’s because of that idiot who cut us off in traffic, or that other idiot driving 45 mph in a 65 zone–or the city planners who made this place so difficult to navigate by car. (I could go on and on, so many traffic-related idiots out there!) When it comes to the deeper struggles of life–terminal illnesses, mental health problems, unexpected tragedies–we feel even more powerless and may find ourselves stepping up our blame game. Anger, after all, is one of the stages of grief.

Over time, if we are not careful, the story we begin to tell ourselves about life and our predicament becomes distorted. Others ask how we are doing and we become unable to stop complaining about all the ways life is messed up, all the ways we are sinking under the weight of what we’ve been forced to deal with. We ruminate endlessly about the injustice of it all or how to excise this cross from our lives, yet no answers appear.

It’s not that we want this to be the broken record of our lives, we just have no other words. The script of blame and victimhood is the one that comes most naturally to us.

And then we remember: “or rather.” Or rather! It’s the turning point we so often need but can’t find words for.

We were late because of the idiot in traffic, or rather because we left home 15 minutes later than we should have. Or rather we stopped for a coffee because we were in the neighborhood.

The possibilities are endless, here… Or rather it is we who can also surrender ourselves. It is we who may freely choose to stop avoiding our cross–yes, the same burden God did not ask our permission to put on our backs in the first place. It is we who now must make the same choice as Christ–to turn our faces toward Jerusalem, to drink from the cup God has seen fit to give us.

That moment becomes an invitation to reframe our story. And when we travel just a few steps down that path, we often encounter a new breath of freedom and assurance–even in our pain–that was not there before, or rather was there all along.

What situations in your life need an “or rather” moment this Christmas? 

6 comments:

  1. Great reminder to re-frame our self-talk so we’re not always the victim in our own stories (guilty!). On the idea of self talk I’m often struck by how often the Psalms encourage and model it! (“Bless the Lord, O my soul” and “Why are you cast down, O my soul?”) So if I’m understanding your post correctly what we say to ourselves needs to increasingly align with truth and we can embrace challenges/crosses, not as victims but as willing participants in what God is doing… and also that I can no longer blame my tardiness on idiot drivers.

    1. The Psalms are great for this, too, you’re right.

      I do think the stories we tell ourselves and others matter, in all sorts of ways. Even in neuroscience, it is becoming clear that how we articulate events over time has a great impact on our brains and overall well-being.

      I think it’s actually more than “aligning ourselves with truth.” In the way we choose to view ourselves and our story, we actually have a hand in shaping or creating truth. If we perpetually choose to be the victim or see life as fatalistic, that is what our truth becomes, for all intents and purposes–we become incapable over time of partaking in any deeper or transcendent reality in our suffering. We sort of imprison ourselves in that mode of living. I don’t mean that to sound relativistic or postmodern, but essentially that’s what happens. There’s a famous saying in Orthodoxy: “Hell is locked from the inside.” So much of the time, we blame everyone and everything else for the hells we find ourselves in, only to realize too late that the whole thing is of our own making.

  2. For the past few months I have been profoundly challenged to accept a chronic, painful, debilitating condition as simply my way of life. For over 10 years I have suffered horrid migraine and chronic daily headache, to the point that I spent most of 5 years in my bed in a dar, quiet room in extreme pain. Many, many people have prayed for me, and continue to do so. I am significantly better, but the condition is always there. Then this challenge: I honestly “heard” (somehow, someway) our Lord tell me that this is my gift. This is my cross . I can continue to plead for prayers “or rather” I can accept this and rejoice in the time it affords me alone with my Lord. I can complain and blame my failings/errors/sins on my condition “or rather” I can remain silent and do my best to follow His will.

    1. What a challenging application, Christine. I’m sorry to hear about your condition but I also know from personal experience that it is sometimes in the deepest/ most seemingly uncontrollable struggles that surrendering can afford the most peace.

      For what it’s worth, this way of “re-framing” doesn’t negate also doing whatever one can to improve one’s situation or that of others. I say that because you mentioned something about remaining silent rather than complaining; but as you probably are well aware, sometimes we do need to tell people what we are going through so that we can get help/ medicine, etc. It’s okay to complain sometimes–and “plead for prayers” 🙂 Perhaps what you mean is that when this begins to consume us or warp our perception, it becomes a problem. Hope that makes sense. I wish you well in all that you are going through! As a (not really believing) professor in grad school used to tell me during every meeting I had with him: “Keep the Faith!” (Still not sure what he meant by that, since he didn’t seem to be a person of faith–but he meant it and it sticks with me. It sounds cliche but really, this is the work of life.)

      1. Nicole,
        I did not mean to imply I’m simply suffering in total silence. My family and friends are well aware of my health issues. I’m under the care of three different physicians, have a regimen of medications and procedures, and readily accept prayer. That being said, I think at this time it’s my task to bear what is, to be here, now, not wishing, hoping, or praying for health. I certainly wouldn’t tell someone not to pray for me, but I don’t think it’s a priority. I honestly believe that our Lord is using this to teach me…something. Perhaps patience, gratitude, joy. Because those are things that I’m experiencing. He is merciful and good.

        1. I understand. I didn’t mean to diminish anything you had said I just wanted to add a nuance that may not have come across in my original post, also in case others are going through the comments.

          I’m glad you have the support you need and I also ‘get’ the point you’ve reached–where you can kind of lean into what’s going on and learn from it instead of striving/praying for change. For me, at least, the latter requires a lot of energy and at times feels simply like spinning my wheels. But there is a peace in simply being where one is, as one is–with God, with others, with gratitude. Your line: “Because those are the things I’m experiencing” really challenged me. Thank you for sharing your courage and honesty.

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