For more reflections on the Basilica Hymns of each season, purchase Perpetual Jubilee: Meditations on the Chaldean Liturgical Year on Amazon.com.
Seeing Again, for the First Time
The beginning and end of Lent share the same Basilica Hymn, which ties the two together and gives the whole season meaning. It may seem like a repetition or a redundancy to pray the same hymn twice in one season (and once again, in fact, in the season called the Sanctification of the Church), but it is not so. On the contrary, reading the same words when there has been a change in the heart reveals new meaning. This is why the Holy Scriptures are ever new, always challenging the mind of mankind to greater understanding, though they are the same words that have been read for so many centuries. The very young can read the Bible, and understand it on their own level, and the old can read the same words they have been reading for decades, and find something new in them. The old can understand this better, perhaps: to revisit the same place years later is not the same as being there for the first time; it has an entirely new meaning, not because the place has changed, but because the person has.
Thus we revisit the same hymn we sang at the beginning of Lent. How have we changed during this season? If we read it with the same eyes, then we have failed and have rejected the graces being poured out during these weeks. If we have accepted Christ’s graces, then we are closer to him, and see with newer eyes, eyes more like his. Let us look:
O Lord, behold your Church, saved by your Cross, and your flock bought with your precious Blood, offers a crown of thanksgiving in faith to you, O High Priest of justice who has exalted her by your abasement. And, like a glorious Bride, she rejoices and exults in you, O glorious Bridegroom. In the strength of the Truth, raise the walls of her salvation, and establish priests within her, to be ambassadors of peace on behalf of her children.
The hymn is a mixture of several metaphors. In fact, by modern standards, it is confused and excessive; it is bad poetry. But it is not for modern standards, especially secular ones, to judge ancient spiritual hymns. Secular poetry attempts, with varying levels of success, to describe a reality within the human heart, and to do so expressively. The hymns of the Church of the East have a different goal entirely: they attempt to describe a heavenly reality – a reality beyond humanity completely – by using not merely human language, but the language contained in the Holy Scriptures, which is a mingling of human and divine expression. Thus her hymns cannot always have a single metaphor, such as “Christ the Divine Doctor” or “Christ the Good Shepherd.” Sometimes the reality is too far beyond one idea to use one analogy.
The beginning of the Gospel of John uses a similar mixture of images: Word, Life, Light, Son, Truth, etc., all within a few verses. The images used in our hymn are as follows:
- the Church as saved by the Cross
- the Church as the flock of the good Shepherd
- the Church as bought or purchased by Christ’s blood
- the Church as responding to Christ with the “crown of thanksgiving”
- Christ as the High Priest
- the Church as the Bride of Christ
- the Church as a spiritual building with “walls of salvation”
- the Church as a mother pleading for her children
To see these images at the beginning of Lent is to see them in anticipation – the Church realizes that her King is coming, and so she gets ready to present herself to him by her fasting, prayer, penance and almsgiving. But not now; now she sees the images reflecting her King who has come at last.
Children’s stories can be among the most deeply rooted in human nature and self-understanding. The ogre or monster therein is more than a symbol; he is the personification of what we fear. The kingdom of the prince is neither a physical place nor the representation of any political ideal; it is perfection. The queen is not the person of the ruler, but neither is the king the idea of power. Every element in such legends is more basic than we imagine, and more meaningful.
Even more so is this the case with Biblical images. Their reality is not only beneath our consciousness, it is beyond our imagination. This is certainly the case with the image of the Church as the Bride of Christ, in some ways the most predominant image in all of Scripture. The basic concept is simple: the unity of God and humanity as compared to the union between a husband and his wife. But such a simple concept soars to sublime heights when the image is applied, and the more we draw from it, the more we realize it is inexhaustible. The season of the “Sanctification of the Church” is the proper place to discuss the gifts of the Bridegroom to his Bride, the dowry given to her, the wedding dress of Light, etc. Today, on Palm Sunday, we reflect on one particular moment in the relationship between Christ and the Church. Today we watch the King return for his Queen – as basic and primordial an image as any other in classical literature or in children’s stories.
Christ the King returns to Jerusalem, which, fulfilling the prophecies of the Old Testament, comes out to meet him as his earthly Bride. The city itself becomes a representative, a precursor, of the Church to come, and as the Queen she welcomes her King with jubilation.
There are times when words are too weak to express what we mean, when explanations become insulting because they fall so short. This week and its events are beyond words, beyond explanation. During such times when the most basic elements of the human heart are addressed, when the deepest part of his psyche is pierced, as with a needle, only actions are expressive enough.
No word is the right word when, for example, two friends part, never to see each other again. Not only is a glance enough, but to add to it would be ridiculous, almost shameful. No conversation could express the depth of emotion and reality occurring at that moment. Such is Holy Week. Words and explanations are so beyond us that we move to a different mode of communication: that of historical representation. Beginning on Palm Sunday, the Chaldean Church of the East remembers history literally and chronologically. She lives every day with her Lord; she comes out to meet him as he enters Jerusalem, and does not part from his side until he is raised from the tomb. This is why we carry branches at Mass on Sunday, and process into the Church; this is why we begin saying “hosanna” again for the first time since before Lent began: we are re-living history. Thus, the second half of the hymn for Palm Sunday is not a reflection, a theological statement, or even a poetic image. It is simply the statement of a historical fact, and for this week, that is more than enough:
When you were entering Jerusalem, the holy city, O Christ, God and our King, to fulfill all that had been written, young people and children saw you with the enlightened eye of faith and were amazed by you, as they picked up branches and went out to meet you. They threw garments and cloaks on your path, and all cried out the unending praise of the cherubim, as they said: “Hosanna in the highest! Blessed are you who has eternally abounding mercies!” O Lord of all, have mercy on us!