Friday, April 25, 2008

The 12 Gospels


Actually, there ARE only FOUR Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. "The 12 Gospels" is what we call our evening service on Great and Holy Thursday because Orthodox believers gather to read the entire account of Christ's betrayal and crucifixion from all four gospels, and they are divided into 12 readings.

In between each Gospel reading are litanies and hymns and the priest censes the Church. It takes a long time. For during the gospel reading, we each had a beeswax candle that we lit. There's always plenty of fire to be easily reached, from the oil lamps under the icons, so it was easy to re-light our candles for each gospel reading. The service was about three hours long.

In an Orthodox Church, the icon of Christ on the Cross is removable, and almost life-sized. At St. Athanasius we usually keep it up front, on the left hand side if you are facing the iconostasis (icon screen), and as we enter the Nave and venerate the icons, we get to venerate the cross with Christ crucified (we do this by making the sign of the cross, bowing from the waist to the ground (all of this is called a grand reverence), twice, then kissing the cross, then another grand reverence). There's also a little basin of sand in front of it where one can light a beeswax candle and stick in the sand in front of the icon. The little beeswax candles that we light are physical representations of our prayers (we say a prayer of intercession for someone whilst doing it) and are also a fragrant offering to God. ((Thank you God, for the honey bees. Lord, have mercy and heal them!)) )

But I digress.

Last night, the icon of Christ, called the Corpus, was not on the cross. And the cross was in the middle of the Nave. The room was darkened and the service started. (I arrived late because a brother as ill after our common meal and asked for a ride home and I took him.) But I made it just in time for the first Gospel reading, and so we stood with our lit candles in the darkened nave and listened to the Gospel. Then litany, censing, hymns, and another Gospel reading. And so the cycle continued.

I was really able to enter into the story. For some reason, in hearing the Gospels of the passion of Christ, like no other account or book I've ever read, it's like I was THERE. And that is what the service is designed to do.

After the sixth reading we all made a great prostration (kneeling face down on the floor) and stayed down for a good long while. The choir was singing a very sombre song about Christ's crucifixion. And the corpus icon was being hung on the cross. With nails.

I told my wiggly youngest daughter to think about Jesus dying on the cross. And she did. And she started weeping. Then I started weeping, too. And others around us were weeping. Then we stood, still weeping and praying, and the service continued. Like I said, it was like we were there. And in an "eternal reality" sense, we were there, and HE is here. Crucified in our midst. And so, in that Holy Space, time and eternity collapse and the real reality pokes through for the living community of Christ to experience once again.

And I thought about Mary, watching her son being nailed to the cross. The hymns described her grief. And her hope in his promised third day resurrection.

And so we wait.

I woke up this morning feeling like I'd been bludgeoned. Just. So. Tired. As it should be.

And the old Spiritual is in my head:

Were you there, when they crucified my Lord?
Were you there, when they crucified my Lord?
Sometimes it makes me want to tremble, tremble, tremble.
Were you there, when they crucified my Lord?

Were you there when they nailed him to the tree?
Were you there when they nailed him to the tree?
Sometimes it makes me want to tremble, tremble, tremble.
Were you there when they nailed him to the tree?

Were you there when they laid him in the tomb?
Were you there when they laid him in the tomb?
Sometimes it makes me want to tremble, tremble, tremble.
Were you there when they laid him in the tomb?

...

What else can we do but bow down before Christ, and before his cross? I think the hymn "The Old Rugged Cross" captures Orthodox piety about the cross of Christ perfectly. Even in how we reverence it.

On a hill far away stood an old rugged cross,
The emblem of suffering and shame;
And I love that old cross where the dearest and best
For a world of lost sinners was slain.

So I'll cherish the old rugged cross,
Till my trophies at last I lay down;
I will cling to the old rugged cross,
And exchange it some day for a crown.

O that old rugged cross, so despised by the world,
Has a wondrous attraction for me;
For the dear Lamb of God left His glory above
To bear it to dark Calvary.

So I'll cherish the old rugged cross,
Till my trophies at last I lay down;
I will cling to the old rugged cross,
And exchange it some day for a crown.

In that old rugged cross, stained with blood so divine,
A wondrous beauty I see,
For 'twas on that old cross Jesus suffered and died,
To pardon and sanctify me.

So I'll cherish the old rugged cross,
Till my trophies at last I lay down;
I will cling to the old rugged cross,
And exchange it some day for a crown.

To the old rugged cross I will ever be true;
Its shame and reproach gladly bear;
Then He'll call me some day to my home far away,
Where His glory forever I'll share.

So I'll cherish the old rugged cross,
Till my trophies at last I lay down;
I will cling to the old rugged cross,
And exchange it some day for a crown.

Words & Music: George Bennard, 1913

3 comments:

Emmelia said...

Yes! You captured it perfectly. I truly felt like I was there and it was happening in the now.
I wept as well. (Actually the whole soprano section was crying at that moment.)
I too feel wrung out this morning. While there are lots of physiological reason for this, as I told my science students the other day, there are also lots of spiritual reasons.
I love our church!

Mimi said...

I have been to this amazing service many years, but last night I truly felt I was there, and I've been weepy ever since.

(I was also late and slid in right about the same place as you - just before the first Gospel)

Mark said...

Wow. This is powerful. Thank you for sharing it.