With Fear and Trembling

Miraculously, Orthodox Christianity has preserved the essence of “the faith once delivered to the saints.” By the sheer grace of God, it has maintained the Apostolic Faith in the face of extraordinary pressures, from persecution and martyrdom to Western secularism and pluralism. Without that grace, Orthodoxy would have disappeared before the end of the first millennium. And with it would have disappeared “true belief” and “true worship.”

Because of its God-given survival and God-inspired expansion throughout what is called “the diaspora,” Orthodoxy continues to preserve, proclaim and celebrate the truth about God and about ourselves. More than any other expression of Christian faith, it enables us to know God, to celebrate His saving work, and to participate in His very life. To borrow the expression of St. Innocent Veniaminov, Orthodoxy does nothing less than indicate the Way that leads to the Kingdom of Heaven.

That Way, nevertheless, includes an aspect that is particularly difficult to preserve and to cultivate in modern American society: an aspect expressed most eloquently in the Entrance Hymn of the Divine Liturgy of Holy Saturday.

On that day, we sing with solemn anticipation words that express awe—fear and trembling—before the ineffable mystery of the death and coming resurrection of God’s eternal Son.

“Let all mortal flesh keep silence, and in fear and trembling stand, pondering nothing earthly-minded. For the King of kings, and the Lord of lords, comes to be slain, to give Himself as food to the faithful!”

In the usual celebrations of the Divine Liturgy, we exhort ourselves to “lay aside all earthly care,” in order to receive “the King of all.” On this particular day, as we commemorate Christ’s repose in the tomb and His descent into the realm of the dead, we recall the price paid for our own liberation from death and corruption. We declare that He, the pre-existent divine Son of the Father, came into our world and into our life for one purpose: to die, that through His death we might have life, lived in eternal communion with the Holy Trinity.

There is nothing in human experience, nor even in the human imagination, that could offer greater promise and greater joy than this central message of the Christian gospel. Yet for many of us, the most familiar and painful aspect of our lenten journey is likely to be our inability to relate to that message—to that extraordinary promise—in a way that actually changes our life. Distraction, dispersion and chaos, whether from outside or from deep within our own psyche, work their demonic influence in every phase of our daily life, while we are at work, with our friends or family, or in a liturgical service. And so we live our lives on the surface, feeling little and caring little for what is in fact the one thing in this world that really matters, the one thing that is truly needful.

As this lenten season flows into Holy Week, and we journey with our Lord toward His Passion and Death, may we anticipate in our thought and prayer the call issued by that magnificent hymn we will sing together on Holy Saturday morning. May we find within ourselves the courage, patience and conviction to lay aside all earthly cares; to wage relentless warfare against the demons of distraction, confusion and pointless routine; and to assume the last days of the fast in order to feast upon the food which He, through His sacrificial love, offers to the faithful.

Beginning today, beginning now, may we simply yet passionately beg God to grant silence to our mortal flesh, that we might welcome Him from the very depths of our being, with fear, with trembling, and with boundless joy.