Wednesday, April 3, 2019

The Powerful 'Rhetoric' of the Word of the Cross

Dear Parish Faithful,

"Looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God." (HEB. 12:2)

Just yesterday, Presvytera Deborah and I were discussing the use of rhetoric in the Church's hymnography in general, and more specifically as applied to the Veneration of the Cross - the theme that fills the services during this week following the Third Sunday of Great Lent.

The vast majority of our hymnography was produced during the Byzantine era of the Church's historical pilgrimage, and rhetoric within that culture was treated as a genuine art form. The rhetorician or orator was a person who could speak well and effectively. St. John Chrysostom - the "Golden-Mouthed" - comes readily to mind.

The Akathist Hymn to the Theotokos may just be the high point in the use of rhetoric liturgically, for it is considered by many to be the "masterpiece" of Byzantine liturgical poetry. This is important to bear in mind, because in our contemporary discourse, the very word "rhetoric" often carries a rather negative connotation, meaning that rhetoric implies pompous, pretentious or even bombastic verbiage. As in: "What a bunch of empty rhetoric!" Or, in the more moderate definition found in Webster's Dictionary: "insincere and grandiloquent language."

However, on the positive side, the effective use of rhetoric is meant to heighten, dramatize, or persuasively embellish the use of language to not only catch our attention, but to emphasize the importance of what is being conveyed in a given discourse, or more pointedly for our purpose, in the hymnography of the Church. We have, within the Church, a veritable treasury of rich, strikingly beautiful hymns that are simultaneously very profound theologically. Poetic theology can be much more attractive and effective as a learning tool than a lengthy, and perhaps, dry theological treatise!

Be that as it may, we need to think through carefully the often rhetorical language used in our hymnography. And a prime example of that may be right now when we praise the Cross of Christ throughout this week. I sent out some very rich hymns yesterday dedicated to the Cross in a short Lenten reflection. I even described - rather rhetorically! - the final hymn that I included as "an ecstatic expression of the inexpressible boundlessness of the Cross." Once more:

Rejoice, O tree of life, the destroyer of hell!
Rejoice, O joy of the world, the slayer of corruption!
Rejoice, O power that scatters demons!

As Orthodox Christians, we believe every word expressed "rhetorically" in that hymn. The victory achieved by Christ on the Cross is veritably cosmic and all-encompassing in scope. The demons, corruption and hell itself have been vanquished by the Cross of the Lord. Yet, in the Gospel read on the Third Sunday of Great Lent, Christ taught his disciples - and us through them - "If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me." (MK. 8:34)

The words of the Lord are direct and unembellished. This is effective, because the message is sober, if not stark. There is no rhetorical flourish. Nothing to hide or soften the "blow" of those words. The disciple of Christ must be a "cross-bearer." There is no other way, according to Christ.

That cross can be heavy - perhaps too heavy at times. When a serious illness comes to ourselves or our loved ones; when death itself invades the tranquility of our homes or relationships; when we feel abandoned or betrayed by a friend during a difficult time; when we realize that some form of suffering is the only way to cross over an abyss that opens up in our lives, demanding our undivided attention and focus; then any rich rhetorical flourish may not be effective in the moment or span of that crisis.

When one is suffering, it may not come to our mind to heartily sing out: "Rejoice, O life-giving Cross!" Or to speak of the "holy Cross with joy." At least not immediately, one would think. We are who we are.

In his book The Lenten Spring, Fr. Thomas Hopko has written:

It is not enough for us to bow down before the Cross, and to decorate and venerate and kiss it at church services. Christians must take up the Cross in their own lives. We must be co-crucified with Christ in order to share His glory and to experience even in this world, the beauty and power, the peace and joy of the Kingdom of God. (p. 146) 

Fr. Hopko states further that "the Cross of Christ is 'the law of Lent'."

And St. Innocent, in his wonderful missionary book, The Indication of the Way to the Kingdom of Heaven, writes the following:

A Christian's ... duty is to take up his cross. The word cross means sufferings, sorrows and adversities. To take up one's cross means to bear without grumbling everything unpleasant, painful, sad, difficult and oppressive that may happen in life.... 
Interior crosses are sometimes so burdensome that the sufferer can find no consolation whatever in anything. All this can happen to you too! But in whatever position you may be, and whatever sufferings of the soul you may feel, do not despair and do not think that the Lord has abandoned you. NO! God will always be with you and will invisibly strengthen you even when it seems to you that you are on the very brink of destruction.

Consoling words, indeed, from a great saint of the Church.

A painful disconnect between the rhetorical richness of the Church's praise of the Cross, and the immediate conditions of our lives is a real possibility. Something we can readily and honestly acknowledge. I would simply say that from within the life of the Church we are presented with an all-encompassing "big picture" that always reminds us that Jesus is Christus Victor - the Victorious Christ who defeated the powers of the demons, corruption and hell on the Life-giving wood of the Tree (of Life) and then in His Resurrection from the dead. That is the unmovable backdrop to our own personal crosses. And this done with an arsenal of rhetoric as "an ecstatic expression of the inexpressible boundlessness of the Cross."

Perhaps this will help us overcome the despair that St. Innocent so realistically alluded to. The Cross of Christ imparts meaning to the crosses that we bear. For this reason the Apostle Paul could exclaim that the "word of the cross ... is the power of God" (I COR. 1:18).

The paradox of the Cross will always be with us: the sign of suffering and death, and simultaneously of the mysterious wisdom of God. We express that paradox at every Liturgy with the sung or chanted words: "Through the Cross joy has come into the world." And this is the uniqueness of our Christian faith.

The Church is revealed as a second Paradise,
possessing the Tree of Life as the first Paradise of old.
By touching the Cross, O Lord,
we share Your immortality!
(Third Sunday Matins)

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