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Angela Tilby: Liturgy that speaks to culture wars

09 April 2021

wikipedia/public domain

Byzantine mosaic of St John Chrysostom in Hagia Sophia, in Istanbul

Byzantine mosaic of St John Chrysostom in Hagia Sophia, in Istanbul

IT IS traditional in Orthodox churches for the Easter liturgy to include the reading of a paschal homily ascribed to the fourth-century Patriarch of Constantinople St John Chrysostom. This extraordinary acclamation welcomes everyone to the Easter feast: not only those who have kept the Lent fast, but those who have not done so; and not only those who have eagerly accepted the Lord’s invitation, but also those who have crept in at the last minute. It is a celebration of the inclusiveness of the Christian gospel and the solidarity of the human race in Christ.

It also enacts a contrast between the “bitterness” of Christ’s enemies in their defeat and the glory of the resurrection. As Christ’s victory over death and hell is proclaimed, the congregation are encouraged to echo the word “embittered”: a Greek word which can mean angered or in uproar, but has its roots in the sensation of taste, and a revulsion against that which, being ingested, turns the stomach.

Death and hell think that they have swallowed up Christ, and with him, the whole human race, but, instead, they find that they cannot consume him. His divine nature makes him profoundly indigestible, even poisonous, to them, and so they are embittered, embittered, embittered. The whole performance has something of the nature of pantomime: death and hell are briefly personified for the purpose of proclaiming the immortal life that Christ has brought. Christ is thrown up like Jonah from the whale.

It is liturgical genius to mock the embitterment of Christ’s enemies — not just because it gives believers a moment to question the supposed grandeur of death, and even to laugh at hell’s terrors, but because it points to the root of embitteredness in the human heart.

In our contemporary culture wars, the damaging nature of embitterment is obvious. Sometimes, it seems, everyone, on both sides of every conflict, has reasons for angry resentment, for the refusal to forgive. My suffering is always worse than yours. My pain is deserving of more compensation than yours. There is never any good news for people like me. We gobble up difficult truths and are surprised when they make us sick.

The paradox is that those who seem most embittered are often not those who have been most let down by life, or have good reason to see themselves as victims, but those who have tasted all that life has to offer by way of wealth and choice and goods and experience, and have responded only with a sense of entitlement, allied to mean-spiritedness. Even good things make the greedy sick.

The Easter gospel, reflected in the liturgy, is that we simply cannot destroy the goodness of God. Christ is risen; we are risen. There is enough for everyone. The resurrection, as the Orthodox say, simply is forgiveness.

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