The Word that Transfigures

Word and silence are at the heart of the liturgical life, both in their power to evoke (anamnesis: sacred memory), and in their eschatological call. In the ritual we see the knitting together of memory and hope; indeed, they are knit together as the "Word out of silence" which transfigures the life of the world. Past and future coalesce in the present, in the transfigured presence.
| 14 April 2009

Source: The Canadian Journal of Orthodox Christian Thought and Theology


The transfiguration of the cosmos is the central work of the Orthodox tradition of Christianity. The various rituals that the faithful engage stem from the Divine Liturgy, which stands as both the “high” and the “popular” poem of this magnificent tradition. Its rich language and imagery are drawn from Biblical texts and the writings of the Church Fathers, particularly those of St. John Chrysostom, “the golden tongue,” whose name is attached to one of this family of ancient liturgies.

The mythopoetic character of liturgical word is the logos, which is Christ present in all that is and is done, the “word” which clarifies and illumines human experience, and the Biblical text. Silence emerges at the very heart of this song. It is the apprehension of chaos, the wonder at creation in all its rawness, and, for some, the mystical contemplation of emptiness. The action of the liturgy — for it is an awakening to God’s presence — engenders in the minds and hearts of the faithful a silence that invites attention to the “Word of Life.”

Word and silence are at the heart of the liturgical life, both in their power to evoke (anamnesis: sacred memory), and in their eschatological call. In the ritual we see the knitting together of memory and hope; indeed, they are knit together as the “Word out of silence” which transfigures the life of the world. Past and future coalesce in the present, in the transfigured presence.

This essay explores the ritual action that places the faithful at the centre of the Divine Word and addresses the existential silence of the human condition. This is the point of departure for the encounter with the Holy.

 The Silence of God

The Orthodox tradition has its centre in the events that focus Passion Week and Pascha. It takes its cue from the sixth chapter of Romans, which opens by posing the question at the heart of our great silence. Saint Paul answers his own question: “But if we have died in Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him. For we know that Christ raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over Him.”

The life of Christ, His passion, death and resurrection, speak of the meaning and structure of life. This is clear in the liturgies of Passion Week and Pascha, in which the Orthodox Christian contemplates the saving events of Christ’s life. The faithful are steeped in its significance for the meaning of human experience.

God, we are constantly told in the tradition, created the world. Man and woman were created in the image of God. Yet, at the very heart of human experience are suffering, agony, and finally death. This may come as the tragedy of the mortal body, as the trauma of the mind, as the agony of the spirit. But come it will, come it must. Only a few (the Holy Theotokos and the saints who experience theosis) are able to accept the seeming discontinuity of life with equanimity. But for the rest of us, the rupture in joy, the limitations of perfection, the loss of our sense of wholeness, inevitably come. The discontinuity of life threatens to consume us. But, the tradition says, God has created the world. Joy and wholeness is the proper state of mortals. The world was intended as the garden of communion, not the sea of alienation.

The faithful come on Passion Week and contemplate the condemned Saviour, the dying Lord, and the dead God. They do this first in the Vesper service on Great and Holy Friday. Here the priest chants a lengthy set of “gospels,” all drawn from scripture. He chants them as it were to the crucifix, to the dying Christ hanging life-size at the very centre of the sanctuary. The story of creation, of exile, of liberation, indeed of the history of salvation so fraught with alienation and death, is read. The faithful punctuate each of the twelve readings with prostrations before the dying Lord. All their suffering, all the death in their lives, hangs on that cross, groaning for release, for nothingness perhaps, for an end. In this contemplation of Christ’s crucifixion, we see all human suffering, from that of Adam and Eve to the present. The agony and suffering of the world is brought to the cross.

This is the day that God takes mortality into Himself. It is the day that the ultimate is offered up. Not only does all that is meaningful and sacred come to an end, but it comes to a heinous end, a ridiculous end, an absurd end. God’s presence in the world, His presence in experience, is destroyed through some ridiculous mistake. And once He is dead, once all creation, exile, liberation, all patterns of meaning, indeed all forms of salvation, are see to be extinguished — once this is clear — the faithful have seen the dead Saviour. With each “gospel,” another of the candles lighting the sanctuary is extinguished. Finally comes the darkness. With the darkness both penetrating their minds and hearts and called forth from their minds and hearts, indeed emptying their spirits, the faithful depart, from darkness into darkness.

Early in the morning, the faithful come to the Matins service to contemplate the dead Saviour. It is a funeral service. The cadence of its words rings silently across the sanctuary: “Now is life’s artful triumph of vanities destroyed. For the spirit hath vanished from its tabernacle; its clay groweth dark. The vessel is shattered, voiceless, bereft of feeling, motionless; dead. . . .” (Order for the Burial of the Dead, p. 389).

The service begins with a procession of the epitaphium, an icon on cloth. On it, lying grey and lifeless, is the Christ, the dead Saviour. The clergy take it, hold it high, and proceed around the temple (in former times around the village), stopping at each of the four cardinal points of the temple, at the four cardinal points of the world. They stop. They pray. They contemplate the dead Saviour, the death of ultimate meaning, the death in their life. Three times they circumambulate the temple, the world. Twelve times they stop. All the faithful move together, all in procession, all part of the journey to the grave, the journey into absurdity. Finally, they approach the door of the Temple with the epitaphium. The last round has ended. Slowly they come, hesitating, not wanting even this last “hanging on to the corpse” to end. Do we ever wish to bury? Lifting the body of the dead Saviour high at the entrance to the temple, all the faithful move under it into the darkened tomb. The temple has become a tomb, entered by passing under (or is it through?) the body of the dead Saviour. Through the dead Saviour, it would seem, they enter the dreaded sacred world held in darkness. He is brought in and laid to rest in a tomb at the front of the temple. Here they all gather, drawn as if against their will. Drawn by the necessity of the death, the necessity of the “ultimate,” even if it is dead. And here the contemplation continues. Their prayers give voice to the dead. Anointing the shroud with holy oil seals the faithful to the Savior’s dead body. They kiss the dead Saviour and weep for themselves, for the world. Slowly, the dirge carries the faithful slowly and deeper into the tomb. They are there; they are one with Christ’s death. They are in the absurd position of the dead Lord of Life.

The whole of creation, we are told, is redeemed and restored by the entrance of Christ into death. Christ, the life of the world, lies dead in the tomb, and in the final chant of the service, a hint of its meaning, this strange eschatological hope, is given: “Life is asleep but the Hades is trembling, and Adam is freed from bondage. . ..” No freedom here, no sleep (oh, that it were sleep). The faithful tremble; they are present to their own bondage.

Pascha, the Feast of Resurrection, begins with a similar procession. It begins in the darkness. In the world outside the temple (the temple inside out), in the silence of ages, it begins. Again, the faithful proceed around the temple. In silence and moving single file, sombre, without candlelight, they collect the world and bring it to the door of the temple.

Liturgical scholars tell us that this procession recalls the original baptismal procession of the ancient church. From the darkness and death which characterize much of life they move. . . and, if we linger, we see a world of light in which creation is affirmed by love. From the realm of death the Kingdom of God is snatched: a life resurrected from the ash-heap of existence to a life of loving communion, a life as the creator intended it to be. But what is meant by the baptismal procession? What is its silence, what is its word? The text, the liturgical action, is clear.

The same existential silence of the Pascha procession is at the very heart of Baptism. Parents, families and the community come, seeking the baptismal waters, the waters of rebirth for the infant in arms. The procession today is not as formal as that as the Hagia Sophia 1000 years ago. But come they do. And what greets them? Not the open arms of mother church, the cuddle of a god who is like a favorite uncle. Rather, they are met with the words, the quiet yet distantly thunderous words of exorcism. First is the water itself. Leviathan, the danger that dwells in the deep, is called forth and exorcised. The waters are then blessed and into them, for the infant, are read all the “waters” of sacred history: the waters that God divided on the first day of creation; the waters that bore up Noah, the curious father of the second creation. This series of blessings concludes with the invocation of the waters of Christ’s baptism. All the waters of creation, all waters of the journey to salvation are here at this moment in this water.

The parents come with child in arms. It is taken from them and stripped naked. The priest, like a warrior, exorcises the innocent baby, helpless, shivering and cold, draws forth from the images of all those present their brokenness and estrangement. The texts are clear. All the desires of the parents are taken, desires that go along with having a child: that it will be healthy, that it will be happy, that it will thrive and enjoy all the good things of life. These are normal desires, wholesome expectations, natural hopes and dreams. But they are all taken, and with them the desires, expectations and wishes of the tribe and nation for a honourable citizen, respectability, a useful and productive life. All of them. Taken. Exorcised. Gone. It does not stop here. The expectations of history, of the time in which the child is born, are taken away. History itself is not to remain untouched by this act of priestly sacrifice. The lot that history deals, the choices it offers, the good and the bad, the joyous and tragic, all are offered up. All are emptied. Only then is the work of preparation done. Those who entered in joy often stand about weeping quietly. They have heard the silence. They have seen the death of human expectation and presumption, of ambition and pride.

Naked, the infant is plunged into the waters — plunged into the primal waters, those separated on the first day of creation, the waters that bore up Noah, the sweet waters of Morea, the waters of Christ’s Theophany. Plunged once, twice, a final time: then held aloft, the image of God, the human form divine.

*  *  *

A Coptic priest came to me holding a rude vial of chrism in his hand. Do you know, he asked, about the Magi? One was our king. The one who brought the myrrh. He was our king. Do you know about the miracle? How, when he returned to our country and opened his saddle bags — the journey had been long, the discovery strange (as strange as Eliot describes it in his poem) — he found the gift, given. The myrrh, there in his saddlebags. Do you know, he asked again (a little impatiently for I seemed to know the details of the story, yet unsure that I understood its meaning) — do you know that at Easter time our Pope takes a little of that oil, the gift to Christ, the gift of Christ, and adds a touch to all the oil he blesses. And, he hurried on, that oil is given to all of us and today, today we add it to the water. And, when the child comes, I will give it to the child. Do you know, he asked a final time, that today the oil that was given to Christ two thousand years ago, the oil that He in the miracle gave to us, that today we give it to the child. It is the Christ we give it to. The baby: it is the Christ child that comes to the water, the Christ child that we anoint.

*  *  *

Baptism is the Theophany – the “showing forth” of the Christ, the human being complete and recognized as God’s child, the image and likeness of God.

The faithful, simple folk, eager students, learned theologians, all of whom contemplate the same dead Saviour on Great and Holy Friday, embody the silence of God’s death at the heart of this tradition. All hear the silence of their lives, the silence of the ages, the silence of God present in that moment before the tomb on Holy Friday.

The parents, the friends, the faithful, all hear the silence emerge from the exorcism, the loss of future, the loss of imagined identity, the loss of all historical agendas. The silence is complete. It is thorough. Death — not simply mortality — has been glimpsed. Out of it, out of its very midst, emerges the Word, not as abstract teaching or moral injunction, not as utopian image or idealized humanity. Out of the waters rises one frightened, shivering infant, and the Christ child, freed for a moment from the wishes, desires, and necessities of a world in which the silence and the word are equally muted.


An earlier form of this essay was originally published in Silence, The Word and the Sacred, edited by E.D. Blodgett and H.G. Coward. Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press for The Calgary Institute for the Humanities, 1989.



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