Thinking back on my two hours at Matins this morning, I have to smile. Not because the liturgy was funny, or even joyful; on the contrary, it was somber and poignant, a moving memorial to the suffering and Passion of the Savior. Rather, the humor on this Good Friday was due to having heard, in the course of the Matins, twelve Gospel readings that together encompassed the Passion narratives of all four Gospels; the first reading, for example, was John 13-18 (!). You see, I once was a Fundamentalist Protestant who believed that the Catholic Church spent as little time as possible exposing Catholics to the Bible. But if hearing the entirety of the four Passion accounts before noon on Good Friday isn't enough, well, I don't know what would be.
More importantly (and to the point of the title of this post), I am continually struck by how the Byzantine liturgy exults in what might be called the divine paradox. That paradox is rooted in the Incarnation and the mind-boggling wonder that comes in contemplating these great mysteries: God became man, the God-man was born of a Virgin, He suffered and died. Some examples of this can be found in the hymns sung during the evening Vespers-liturgy for Good Friday:
Today the Master of Creation stands before Pilate * and the Creator of All is condemned to the cross. * As a lamb He is willingly led, and fastened with nails. * His side is pierced, and He, Who rained manna on the earth, * is given drink from a sponge. * The Savior of the World is struck on the cheek, * and the Creator of All is mocked by His own servants. * For those who crucify Him, * He entreats His Father, saying: * "Father, forgive them this sin * because the lawless ones know not what injustice they do." * O, what a supreme love for mankind.
O, how could the lawless council condemn to death * the King of Creation * without being ashamed at the thought of His good works * which He recounted to them, saying: * "O My people, what have I done to You? * Have I not filled Judea with miracles? * Have I not raised the dead with a word? * Have I not cured infirmities and sufferings? * So now, what do you give Me in return? * Why have you not remembered Me? * For the healing you have wounded Me; * for life you gave Me death; * you hang Me, your benefactor, on a tree as a criminal. * You treat Me, the Lawgiver, as a lawbreaker. * You condemn the King of All." * O longsuffering Lord, glory be to You.
An awesome and glorious mystery occurs today: * the One Who cannot be contained is now restrained. * He, Who freed Adam from the curse, is bound. * The Searcher of Hearts and Souls is questioned unjustly. * He, Who confined the deep, is now confined to prison. * In front of Pilate now stands the One * before Whom the heavenly powers tremble. * The Creator is struck by the hand of a creature. * The Judge of the Living and the Dead * is condemned to the cross. * He, Who conquered hell, is sealed in a tomb. * O innocent Lord Who graciously suffered all things * and saved all mankind from the curse, glory be to You.
Such glorying in paradox is, to the modern, "enlightened" mind, pure silliness, a superstitious exercise in theological duplicity. And, frankly, that would a true and fair criticism if the Incarnation was not a reality. But if the Incarnation is a fact, how do we try to proclaim it? I'm not concerned here with defending it (as we might in apologetics) or explaining it (as we might using certain theological or philosophical tools), but with simply expressing it. And that, I think, is part of the great beauty of these hymns. Analogously, the husband does not (or at least should not) express his love for his wife by using graphs, charts, esoteric language, and logic; no, he should simply proclaim it and show it. He should sing it, shout it, immerse himself in giving her all that he is.
G.K. Chesterton is often and rightly noted for his use of paradox. Hugh Kenner, in his fascinating book, Paradox in Chesterton (Sheed and Ward, 1947), defended Chesterton's use of paradox against critics who thought it was simply a theistic parlor trick or an exercise in juvenile cleverness. Kenner wrote:
What appears to be superficial playing is really an intense plumbing among the mysterious roots of being and language ... [T]o use paradox is to avoid the sin of the poet whose words file flabbily, like a procession of sheep, ever away and away from human tensions. Chesterton must be taken seriously because paradox must be taken seriously, both as a tool of expression and as an ingredient of reality. He was not, as he has been so readily called, a maker of paradoxes. I propose to show that he did not make them, but saw them: his caprice was thrust upon him. Nor was it even caprice. From the critical tradition that sees something contemptible in even a good paradox, I appeal to an older tradition which finds paradox in the deepest mysteries and is driven to paradoxical language in the simplest statements of what it sees. ...
Paradox is not a decadent invention but a rooted tradition, especially a Christian tradition; it is rooted in the world-stuff which a contemplative sees, and Chesterton was first of all a contemplative. ... There is even a sense in which, as we shall see, the majority of his multitudinous demonstrations of the paradoxical are traceable to his perception of that root paradox at the heart of the cosmos: the God who died.
And that, of course, what Good Friday is all about: the God who died. The paradox confounds. It stuns. It bewilders. And it saves:
When the Arimathean lifted You, * lifeless from the cross, O Lord of Life, * he anointed You, O Christ, with myrrh, * and wrapped You in a shroud, * and he was moved by heartfelt love * to kiss Your body not subject to decay; * but was restrained by fear, * and rejoicing, he cried out to You: * "Glory to Your condescension, O Lover of Mankind."
O Savior of All, * when You placed Yourself for all mankind in a new tomb, * The Abyss, which ever mocked was terrified when it saw You; * the bonds were shattered, * the gates were broken, * and the graves opened and the dead arose. * Adam joyfully called out to You: * "Glory to Your condescension, 0 Lover of Mankind."
When You, by divine nature, * indescribable and infinite, * were willingly enclosed in the tomb, * You ended the mysteries of death, O Christ, * and annihilated the kingdom of Hades, * favoring this Sabbath Day * with Your divine blessing, glory, and light.
When the heavenly powers saw You, O Christ, * calumniated by lawless men, * they were amazed at Your longsuffering * which our words cannot express. * And when they beheld the stone of Your tomb * being sealed by the hands * that pierced Your incorruptible side, * they still rejoiced at our salvation and cried out to You: * "Glory to Your condescension, O Christ."