Palm Sunday and Hearing the Word of God

I am convinced after years of preaching and listening to preaching that the bulk of Scripture has become lost to our ears. We hear it, but fail to “hear” it. And I do not mean this merely in the moral sense (doubtless we fail to be “doers” of the word). Rather, I am aware of a kind of dullness, of seeing a very narrow set of things that become the lens through which we see and understand. We read amazing statements as though they were commonplace, and we make commonplace that which should be utterly astounding.

Much of my conviction on this matter has come in the last 12 years or more and my immersion into the services of the Orthodox Church. These services, long and with ample “hymnography” that is but a poetic commentary on the Scriptures and doctrines that surround any particular feast, are probably the richest surviving engagement with the Word of God to be found in a 21st century Church. Here no Reformation has occurred and reduced all Scripture to a “riff” on Justification by Faith, or a subset of Calvin’s paradigms. Here no Enlightenment has shown with its darkness of doubt and obfuscation.

Instead, there is a constant wonderment at the Scriptures themselves, as if the hymnographer were discovering something for the first time or had found a rare gem to share to any willing to listen – and all in the form of praise and thanksgiving to God.

It is true to say that in Orthodoxy, “Theology sings.” It is possible to be lulled into a near trance as the choir or chanter utters mysteries to God and to miss treasures that should truly astound. But careful attention is always rewarded with something you never considered.

I am further convinced that our modern complacencies have made us deaf to the form and shape of Scripture so that we listen like sceptics and frown like Pharisees. In our modern context most people have either been shaped by fundamentalist literalism; by modernist historical criticism; or by nearly nothing at all. In each case the Scriptures will not sing – they will not yield up their treasures.

I was struck by a particular case this evening – at the Vigil for  Palm Sunday. The gospel account in question was the Matthean version of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem:

And when they drew near to Jerusalem and came to Bethphage, to the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village opposite you, and immediately you will find an ass tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If any one says anything to you, you shall say, `The Lord has need of them,’ and he will send them immediately.” This took place to fulfil what was spoken by the prophet, saying, “Tell the daughter of Zion, Behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on an ass, and on a colt, the foal of an ass.” The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the ass and the colt, and put their garments on them, and he sat thereon.

Modern historical criticism hears in this only the “foolishness” of Matthew. Matthew has cited the prophecy in Zechariah that “your king is coming to you…mounted on an ass, and on a colt, the foal of an ass,” and has crafted his story in precisely that manner, placing Jesus astride two animals. The same critics will note that in other gospel accounts Christ is only on a “foal of an ass,” i.e., one animal. Historical Critics have a field day with such problems (I was first confronted with this “discrepancy” in my sophomore year of college – it was presented as if the professor had noticed something no one had ever seen before). Modern fundamentalists will rush to defend the integrity of the gospel accounts, “Two different eye-witnesses reported on the same thing and one emphasized one thing and the other emphasized another.”

Both explanations lack imagination and are precisely the sort of blindness that afflicts so much modern reading of Scripture. Listening to the hymnody for the Vigil of Palm Sunday, the hymnographer, without apology for the discrepancy, races to it and declares:

O gracious Lord, who ridest upon the cherubim, who art praised by the seraphim, now Thou dost ride like David on the foal of an ass, The children sing hymns worthy of God, while the priests and scribes blaspheme against Thee. By riding an untamed colt, Thou hast prefigured the salvation of the Gentiles, those wild beasts, who will be brought from unbelief to faith! Glory to Thee, O merciful Christ. Our King and the Lover of man!

Here (the reading had been from Matthew) the second beast is handled under the mystery of the faith. Christ, Lord of Israel, the ass who has been tamed, and Lord of the Gentiles, the untamed foal, is the Lord of both! Modern critics might race to cry “foul” (no pun intended), but the ancient hymnographer has come closer to the heart of Scripture than either the modern sceptic or the modern literalist will ever know.

The inspired (I know no other word) imagination of the early Church that took the “Apostolic Hypothesis,” as St. Irenaeus would call it, and fashioned the framework on which the Old Testament would be read, is the same early Church that gave us the Gospels (inspired indeed) and the other writings of Scripture. Their treatment of prophecy is not obvious. Where is the three day resurrection prophesied (only in Jonah’s sojourn in the belly of the whale – now that is inspired interpretation)? The writers of the New Testament believed that everything in the Old, when read rightly would yield insight into the Messiah and the mystery of our salvation. But their creative insight (again, I believe it is inspired) is far removed from the flat-footed nonsense that we hear out of modern fundamentalist “prophetic” scholars, whose reading of the Old Testament is almost as poorly constructed as the 19th century false prophecies of the book of Mormon! Neither bear any resemblance to the treatment of prophecy found in the New Testament.

And thus I return to my original point. We have become deaf. We listen with ears either hardened by modernist scepticism, or by a false literalism that has substituted Darbyite nonsense for the Apostolic faith, or reduced Scripture to delicate harmonizations. None of them have the boldness and audacity of the patristic hymnographers who stood in the proper line of succession, proclaiming the faith as it had been taught and received and continuing to expound its mysteries. Thank God that somewhere in this modern world, you can still stand and listen to the wonders of our salvation, sung and unraveled before the unbelieving heart of man. Glory to God who has so loved mankind!

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29 Responses to “Palm Sunday and Hearing the Word of God”

  1. Jonathan Says:

    Amen, Father! I needed this tonight.

  2. I don’t mind singing in an empty Church « Tipsy Teetotaler Says:

    […] how to approach scripture. I had already begun to write this when Father Stephen posted on “the hearing of the word.” It illustrates beautifully how the Church approaches scripture: I am convinced after years […]

  3. Margaret Says:

    This is a beautiful post! Thank you, Fr. Stephen! The last two sentences put into words the emotions I felt upon attending my first Orthodox Liturgy at Pentecost 5 years ago this year:

    “Thank God that somewhere in this modern world, you can still stand and listen to the wonders of our salvation, sung and unraveled before the unbelieving heart of man. Glory to God who has so loved mankind!”

    Indeed, thank God! And Glory to God for All Things!

  4. Micah Says:

    Thank you for this post Father. Somewhere in Heaven, celestial eyes were opened and tears of joy were brought forth. Glory to God for all things!

  5. Mark Says:

    Once again Father you have managed to pull me out of myself and into something much deeper and flooded me with wonder. Glory to His name!

  6. Romanós Says:

    What you have written here is both an expression of a foundational concept, that Orthodoxy IS early Christianity, as well as a brave admission that most of us, Orthodox as well as non-Orthodox, have lost that sharpness of hearing that gives our faith focus and force. Even when we as individuals are able to hear what the Church is handing over to us with sharp ears, when we turn to those around us, we are often pulled into conversations or activities that erode the grace we have received, exchanging it for merely human affectations of Christianity. Why is that only the suffering Church seems to live in the fullness of the faith, while we others are left to deliberate questions about what we have never really experienced?

  7. Micah Says:

    Romanós,

    A most blessed Palm Sunday to you, your son, family, friends and acquaintances.

    The tombs are yet full of Lazaruses waiting for the good Lord to speak words of life to them. Who will listen will listen, but who will not, let him be accountable on that day.

    Christ is Risen!!

  8. jane Says:

    The hymns are always illuminating , especially during Holy Week. I’m getting rather deaf in my old age, so I usually try to bring the service books so I can follow the wonderful words. I had the blessing in former years, before my voice died, of singing in the choir, so the words were always before my eyes as well as in my ears. Choirs and chanters need to be conscious of the people who are listening – some perhaps for the first time! It is a great mission.

    One of the Old Testament readings (Genesis 18.23ff) struck me forcibly a couple of weeks ago – where Abraham pleads that God will spare Sodom if 50, 45, 20, even 10 righteous persons are found there.

    Blessed and enlightened Holy Week to us all. Forgive me.

  9. Meg Says:

    It has begun to occur to me, this Lent, that Scripture is becoming too commonplace — that is, after over 60 years of hearing it, I’ve grown accustomed to the stories it tells, without their being in any way relevant to my own life. That’s why i value this blog.

  10. Valentina Lootens Says:

    Amen, Father.
    This is why I love choir so much. I always feel the fullness of the service when I sing out the mysteries of our Faith!
    Let us pray to always hear the Word!

  11. Jerry Babral Says:

    I have recently reminded myself that hymns are sung prayer and have found it to be a prayerful and inspiring part of preparing for mass to take time to read the words of various hymns. The realization of the holiness being shared with us by the various composers is nothing less than awesome in some instances. The closesness I feel to God at these times is a sip of the the living water Jesus offers to each of us.

  12. Leighton Bingham Says:

    it is a time not so much of unbelief as economical belief, after all we do not want to be too zealous, there is a fear of gullibility in our culture that causes doubt of every thing

  13. Jerry Babral Says:

    Leighton, Please define economical belief.

  14. John Says:

    Economical belief – A penny saved, is a penny earned.

  15. Leighton Bingham Says:

    i mean don’t believe too many things or believe in them too completely. Just believe enough to get by. Never say i fell for it completely! This is a great stumbling block to modern persons

  16. Micah Says:

    To say that we have become hard of hearing is also to admit that we have become hard of heart. There was nothing, truly nothing, by which the ineffable God could be compared — language fell so far short so as to be practically useless or worse than useless — but thank God for the sounds and colours of Orthodoxy — a foretaste of things to come!

  17. Darlene Says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you, Father Stephen, for your wise words. Your blog has been and continues to be a blessing to me. It helped me on my way to Orthodoxy and for that I am grateful.

    And now I can say with you, Father, and many of your readers that I am truly and fully Orthodox. I was received into the Orthodox Church this past Lazarus Saturday. Glory to God for all things.

  18. Fr. Ernesto Says:

    It was not until my first Akathist for Lent several years ago that I heard all those types of the Virgin Mary in the Old Testament. It was quite an eye-opener.

  19. fatherstephen Says:

    Indeed, Father. I am constantly awakened and amazed by the types proclaimed by the fathers in the hymnography of the Church. It makes me realize the poverty of our literalistic world.

  20. James the Brother Says:

    Darlene,

    Those are great affirming words to see. I (and probably other bloggers) have been waiting for the official word as you had shared your intentions last week or so.

    May God richly bless you and all of those around you as you stepped backwards into a new world.

  21. Barbara Says:

    Dear Darlene,

    Welcome home! I am kissing your right hand!

  22. Chris Says:

    A wonderful piece of writing. I can only hope we in the western church can rediscover this way of reading the Old Testament. I can only wonder what Origen would make of literalism!

  23. Robertlif3longcatholic Says:

    With sincere respect Fr. Steven, I truly enjoy reading scripture – mostly of the New Testament. I, coming from pre Vatican II era have seen the changes and lack of interest but I feel you mistaken deafness for boredom and lack of correlation of scripture to the modernist of today. Christ was very good at relating the teachings of the prophets to the life and times of the people he preached to. I am far less educated than most in the scriptures and their correlations to one another but I see far more what is elucidated in them in relation to my daily life than those who never were fortunate enough to have grown up in times when faith, family and society were grounded in scripture.

  24. Patty Joanna Says:

    @Darlene: Kiss (to the right), Kiss (to the left), Kiss (to the right). Hug! Glory to God!

  25. Micah Says:

    We are in a sense most fortunate, that we do not hear the celestial boom of God’s voice all the time. I think, of all the contemporary “prophets” — if they be called as such — Bob Dylan or better still, Robert Zimmerman comes closest with his roar or a wave that could drown the whole world. What indeed would such a wave look like if it did not assume the form of the Resurrected Christ — and coming soon to a place near you? Call it Easter, or Aster if you will, I’ll most assuredly call it Pascha.

  26. Micah Says:

    Oops. That’s “roar of a wave…”

  27. Timotheos Teggy Hutagalung Says:

    Thank you, Fr.Stephen.

  28. Daniel M Says:

    Darlene,
    I myself, was chrismated last Lazarus Saturday, 2009. Welcome. After, I felt everything was the same, but different and everything was different , but the same. May God grant you a steadfast faith.

  29. Dana Ames Says:

    Darlene,
    very happy for you. It is indeed the same and different, as Daniel says. God keep you in His mercy and peace.

    Dana

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