by Gjergji Evangjeli
As the Eastern Church is now fully enveloped in Lent and the Western Church just celebrated the Resurrection of our Lord and Savior, I think a meditation on the event of the Savior’s Passion and Resurrection is duly in order. During my youth—and even today—I think that the music of the Church is a great tool for catechesis. This is especially true for the Byzantine rite, where services are often longer and hymns are set for particular services. One of the greatest assets of this model is that there are a great number of hymns and psalms that a person regularly attending all of the services hears over and over and over again. Granted, this might seem a bit boring, but I think the point in hearing these songs so often is that they carry a very important message that those hearing them won’t be able to help but learn. During Great Lent, the usual service of Vespers is replaced with the Great Compline, which is—as far as I know—only sung during Lent. In it are some of the most beautiful hymns in the Eastern Church. I would highly recommend anyone to attend a Great Compline, or at least to listen to it on YouTube, but as the recording that I found comes in at 1:38:45, and as perhaps not all people have that much time to devote to a service that will undoubtedly sound very strange to them, I will attempt to pull out some points to contemplate.
My favorite hymn in the service by far is known as “Lord of the Powers.” The full text runs like this: “Lord of the Powers, be with us; for other helper have we not, in tribulations but you. Lord of the Powers, have mercy on us.” (Just reading the text doesn’t do it justice; luckily YouTube can help.) Despite the great beauty of the hymn, however, one thing that I have always pondered is the focus of this and the many other hymns in this service and in other services throughout Lent is the focus on power. God’s power is remarked throughout Lent and, during the hymns of Easter the great crowning jewel of God’s victory over all things, the focus shifts to God’s benevolence and faithfulness to His people. The theme of power is somehow sidestepped. This change is puzzling at first. We are much more likely to think of God’s humility and benevolence much more during His Passion and of His power much more during Lent. Of course, that element is there, but I think that the Fathers who wrote the hymns of Lent were trying to make a point.
Only the powerful can afford to be humble. That is the great difference between a good king and a tyrant. A tyrant cannot afford to go around without the trappings of his power, lest the oppressed forget that he can make them pay the ultimate price: he can kill them. The great king, however, does not need these things. His power does not come from fear. It comes from love. As St. Paul reminds us, “Though He was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:6-8). Christ Himself makes this point abundantly clear when—under questioning from Pilate—He says, “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and He will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” (Mt. 26:53). Our Lord did not suffer all manner of injustice and humiliation because He could not help to save Himself. He did not enter Jerusalem on the colt of a donkey because no horse could be found, He humbled Himself because He is truly powerful, He suffered to be counted with the lowest because He truly is the Greatest. He was even willing to be counted among the dead, so, “He became the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep, the first born of the dead, that He might be Himself the first in all things,” (Divine Liturgy of St. Basil the Great).
I think that the focus of God’s power in Lent is precisely because it was His power that enabled Him to do what He did for our sake. In donning a towel around Himself and washing His Apostles’ feet before the Last Supper, Christ sought to teach them something about His power, and through His Life-Giving Passion, He teaches us a lesson about true power as well.