Today all nations in the City of David beheld wonders, when the Holy Spirit descended in fiery tongues, as the God-inspired Luke spake; for he said, "The disciples of Christ being gathered together, there was a sound as of a mighty wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. And they began to speak strange doctrines and strange teachings with diverse tongues, to the Holy Trinity." – First Sticheron on Psalm 130 at Kneeling Vespers, on the evening of Pentecost
In recent years, I have attended the annual Shakespeare Free For All at DC's Carter Barron Amphitheatre. For two weeks every summer, the Shakespeare Theatre Company presents one of the bard's plays for free in order to share Shakespeare with the masses – and to publicize its upcoming season. This year's production sets the witty verbal combat of Love's Labor's Lost in India of the 1960s, where young people from the West flocked in search of enlightenment, just as the Beatles did. I saw it last Thursday with a few friends from my old parish. (If you live in the DC area you still have a week to see it!)
At the beginning of Act V, the curate Nathaniel compliments the pedantic Holofernes, "I praise God for you, sir: your reasons at dinner have been sharp and sententious; pleasant without scurrility, witty without affection, audacious without impudency, learned without opinion, and strange without heresy." I liked the sound of this description and tried it on to see how it might fit me (or my blog). I quickly decided the "without opinion" bit would trip me up, but I made a note to look up the passage when I got home. I still felt an affinity for the phrase, "strange without heresy," and I filed it away for further consideration. I did not expect to be reminded of it again so soon.
My first experience of Byzantine worship was sixteen years ago tonight, when I tagged along with my colleague Pat and his friend Mark to Kneeling Vespers at Holy Transfiguration Melkite Greek Catholic Church. In the Byzantine tradition, kneeling is forbidden from Pascha through Pentecost. At the first service where kneeling is again permitted, Vespers on the evening of Pentecost, we break our fifty-day fast from kneeling in a big way (much like we break the Lenten fast at 3 AM after the Pascha Liturgy)! The distinctive feature that gives the service its popular name is a series of three prayers – the first two long, and the third twice as long – said by the priest while he and everyone present kneel. (Sixteen years ago the practice involved full prostrations, but, at least in our archdiocese, this has been mitigated to simple kneeling. I miss the prostrations!)
Up until the kneeling prayers, the service follows the normal order of Vespers: Psalm 104; the Great Litany; Psalms 141, 142, 130, and 117; the hymn Phos Hilaron; and the Prokeimenon. The deacon censes the church during Ps. 141, and then at some point towards the end of Ps. 142 or the beginning of Ps. 130 the chanter begins to chant stichera between the psalm verses. A sticheron is a short thematic hymn that varies according to the church calendar. The stichera at Kneeling Vespers, which are repeated from Lauds earlier in the day, all concern the Holy Spirit, whose descent we celebrate at Pentecost (see Acts 2). The first sticheron ended with the provocative sentence, "And they began to speak strange doctrines and strange teachings with diverse tongues, to the Holy Trinity." Some translations enhance the strangeness even further by translating "diverse tongues" as "strange words."
For the conventionally minded – e.g., most of the Pharisees – it is hard to conceive of a teaching that could be "strange without heresy." It is practically familiarity that defines orthodoxy for this school of thought. This is what we see in today's Gospel reading (John 7:37-52). When the people respond to Jesus' strange teaching about the Holy Spirit, "This is really the prophet," the Pharisees reply, "Search and you will see that no prophet is to rise from Galilee." This dismissive attitude towards Galileans might also help to explain the amazement of the international Jewish visitors to Jerusalem, "Are not all these who are speaking Galileans?" No one expected yokels from the backwater of Galilee to be multilingual!
But it is less the Galilean origin of Jesus and his apostles than the strangeness of their teaching that fascinates the crowds and upsets the Pharisees. Jesus' talk of living water and his hints of a coming Comforter were bad enough, but at Pentecost his disciples got even stranger, proclaiming, "Let all the house of Israel therefore know assuredly that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified"; and, "Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit." As the sticheron says, they were speaking of the Holy Trinity. In the Russian tradition, for this reason, today is often called Trinity Sunday, and the icon of the feast is that of Rublev's Trinity.
Too often Christianity, including Orthodoxy, can slip into Pharasaical conventionalism. It is natural for us to want to hold at bay whatever is strange and to take comfort in the familiar. But Orthodoxy counters this human tendency with its constant use of paradox to renew the strangeness of the too-familiar. For instance, the second sticheron tonight, in a different translation than we used, describes the Spirit as "Life and Giver of Life, Light and Bestower of Light, Goodness itself and Source of Goodness."
Today at Holy Cross we chrismated another catechumen. At a celebration afterwards, Khouria Frederica pointed out that until a few centuries ago light was always associated with fire, and therefore it had an element of risk and danger about it. The Holy Spirit's association with light, therefore, was also an association with fire and unpredictability ("The wind blows where it wills" – John 3:8). Not a flashlight, but a torch! The third and final sticheron from Kneeling Vespers concludes by summing up the experience of Pentecost: "A strange report, a strange sight, a fire divided for the distribution of gifts." This is no religion of play-it-safe conventionalism, but one of strangeness.