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Humility Triumphant

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Written by Basil on 03/21/2005 6:52 PM. Filed under:

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Extreme Humility: Christ with his hands bound voluntarily, a cross behind him, partially in a graveLet God arise! Let his enemies be scattered! Let those who hate him flee from before his face.

These verses from Psalm 67(68) are called the “paschal verses” because they intersperse the paschal hymns during the Easter services of the Byzantine rite. Eastern Christians associate them above all with Pascha (ie, Easter). However, many Russian prayerbooks also include them as part of the invocation of the holy cross before retiring for sleep. Thus, I came to read them as part of my daily rule of prayer for nearly a year before I shipped off to boot camp a year ago. After a while, I came to a startling realization.

As smoke vanishes, so let them vanish; as wax melts before the fire, so let sinners perish before the face of God.

What fool can pray these verses without understanding that he requests his own destruction?

The paschal verses were brought to my attention again recently. Along with renewed mindfulness of my own depravity, I have been listening to What Earthly Joy, a CD by the Chanters of St. Lawrence Orthodox Church in California, a compilation of hymns from the Dormition, Holy Week, and Pascha. I needed to remind myself why I am still a Christian after all these years.

My weakness is that I cannot think of God in the abstract. The orthodox emphasis on the incarnation — and its implications for what “church” means — has saved me from despair.

When I try to imagine God, all my theological education gets in the way; I realize that he is beyond my imaginings. Thus, I have no mental picture for God. “Think of God,” someone says, and I imagine a vast slate chalkboard expanding forever in all directions — ie, nothing at all.

It gets even worse when I contemplate why I should be righteous instead of sinful. Thinking of God or even of Jesus does not help me at all; I picture an angry judge, incapable of sin, requiring the impossible of me. The only thing that keeps me on the path of goodness is considering how the consequences of my sins affect others: my friends, my sisters, my brothers, and all the little children who expect love from me and not suffering and anguish as payment for my selfishness. My sin is a cancer within the body of Christ, and it is only in the context of the real, flesh-and-blood people who constitute that body that good and evil make any sense to me.

Returning to the paschal verses, I came to understand that we are asking for our destruction, yes, but more deeply indeed, we are praying that our sinfulness will be driven out, that it will vanish, melting like wax before a flame. It is the same spirit that fills the post-communion prayers.

Yesterday was the First Sunday of Lent, the Sunday of Orthodoxy when Orthodox Christians remember the restoration of the venerable and holy images to the churches of God after their destruction at the hands of the iconoclasts. We call it, “The Triumph of Orthodoxy,” because the orthodox faith triumphed over a heretical, faithless denial of the fullness of God’s enfleshment. Some use this as an opportunity for triumphalism, but perhaps the best icon of spiritual triumph is the Extreme Humility, pictured above.

Christ's body in death, removed from the cross; Mary his mother and St. John weep over himI have pitied myself that no one has left the security of their present life for the unpredictable adventure of life together with me. As I probed this self-pity, I realized how deeply blasphemous it is, for God himself left the security of his throne and made himself vulnerable by taking on human flesh. So lately I have been contemplating the winding sheet, pictured here, the icon which portrays Christ’s deposition from the Cross on the evening of holy and great Friday. It is perhaps the best icon of his extreme, self-emptying love for me.

If this divine, infinite love cannot satisfy me, nothing ever will.

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One Response to “Humility Triumphant”

  1. Reader John Smith Says:

    Life is a constant struggle. “What earthly joy remains untouched by grief……….but in the light of your countenance, O Christ ……….give rest……..for you are the Lover of mankind.”
    Though these words were intended as a prayer for the departed, they give the living great hope! They certainly help me. I am glad to see that my efforts can be of sevice to you. Keep up the good fight and may God bless you this Lent and Pascha!

    Rdr. John
    St. Lawrence Orthodox Church
    Felton, CA
    Protopsalti (Proto-Sinner)