Having been in the Orthodox Church for 23 years, I recognize a great gift received in that time. Specifically, I’ve acquired an additional lens with which to behold the wonder of God’s movement in time. This way of seeing, this lens, is difficult to describe accurately because it runs outside the dominant thought patterns of this technologically pragmatic age. I refer to paradox, but there’s more to it than a mere coupling of opposites. Rather when a proper set of opposites are joined, truth breaks through. At least, it can. For one unaccustomed to a regular diet of paradoxes, this can feel like settling for ignorance, also known as “cognitive dissonance.” In one of my favorite songs, Matthew West makes use of this
The king of contradictions strikes again / You said the last to cross the finish line / Will win / And the beggars will be millionaires some day / And the humble ones are gonna have their say / … /Well I don’t understand it / I don’t think I’ll ever comprehend it / It’s so hard to conceive it / So I guess I’ll just believe it /… (Finest Hour, by Matthew West © 2003 Word Music, Inc./Westies, Inc.)
West playfully calls the Lord’s paradoxes “contradictions,” and the cognitive dissonance arises when the song’s speaker gives up trying to make it make sense. Human beings naturally want cognitive order, and when it can’t be had something must give way—the perception must be in error, or some information missing. And so, the song ends saying, “So I guess I’ll just believe it,” which shows a noble act of obedience, the setting aside of the need for cognitive order. By comparison, however, the embracing of paradox does not feel the suppression of reason as a consequence of embrasure. Rather, paradox expects real harmony when opposites are properly matched, that somewhere beyond the definitions lays a richer reality than the mind can grasp. Done right, paradox enables the mind to think independently from logical and pragmatic habits; paradox has its own idiom.
It’s this embrace of paradox which has become almost second nature to me through my participation in Orthodox worship. One way to observe this approach in action is to look at Orthodox hymnography, where it is common place to hear, “Thou who art more spacious than the heavens,” spoken of the Virgin Mary. Or consider this 9th Ode of St. Cosmas’ Canon of the Nativity sung during 40 day period leading up to Christmas:
I behold a strange and wonderful mystery: the cave a heaven, the Virgin a cherubic throne, and the manger a noble place in which hath laid Christ the uncontained God. Let us, therefore, praise and magnify Him. (From service texts published for liturgical use by the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdioces of North America.)Advertisement
This phrasing strikes the concrete mind abruptly, moving it into a position of awe and wonder, with impossible images. A woman who has more distance in her than the expanding universe? This of course makes sense, so to speak, in light of the incarnation, about which Christians confess that the baby who grew in her womb was (is) the eternal creator of all things, including the expanding universe. The uncontained God contained in a manger? Rarely someone will break down such things into categories seeming to “explain” the hymn, similar to what English instructors tend to do with poetry.
Many learn to loathe poetry this way, and the violence to paradox is no less tragic. Indeed, the reverse tends to be true: a theological truth (like the incarnation) can be explained, so to speak, by means of paradox. Not to digress into Orthodox pedagogy, the point here is that Orthodox worship regularly sets incomprehensible, but truthful, imagery before us. By allowing it to wash over me, and to embrace me, as it were, my faculty of understanding has opened up. I can sense the strength in apparent weakness, beauty in suffering. Orthodox worship is not the only road to such a faculty; it is a significant contributor to the portion I have.
What has been said forms the backdrop for resolving this question: “What do I do with the 4th commandment?” Having been born and raised in a Seventh Day Adventist family, this question became palpable when in my pre-teen years I went to a non-denominational, store-front church of Anabaptist stock. The question was not resolved until many years later, after settling in to the Orthodox Church.
The first important shift in my thinking came with the decision to take seriously the early practitioners of faith in Jesus Christ. This amounted to admitting that, scripturally, there is no outright rule to worship on Sundays, and to abandon Sabbath keeping. After the time of the New Testament’s writings, worship on the Lord’s Day was normal, and that was shown to me clearly. That, I decided, would be enough; I chose to trust that, although I didn’t understand the example, those who set it knew better than I what they had recently inherited. So, I allowed for cognitive dissonance over the “why” question, allowing the “what” to be an answer.
Over time, by immersion in paradoxical hymnody and things like “bright sadness” (a well known phrase among the Orthodox), I looked less for something in the words, images, and practices; instead I looked at them. And later someone pointed out that Jesus fulfilled the 4th commandment in the ultimate way—dead in the tomb from sundown of the 6th day to very early on the first day, from which I recognized a resonance with the hymnody, the worship, the scriptures, the cycles of fasting and feasting, and with the sayings of Saints well known to the Orthodox.
Somehow that plain fact of Jesus’ death being His Sabbath bore a deep consistency with everything else: Sabbath, Holy Saturday. And although the hermeneutic of type/anti-type is a useful interpretive device, sensibilities formed in the Orthodox Liturgy feel little need of it. The idiom of paradox provides the nexus to receive these two items as already connected in a deep way. Holy Saturday is the Sabbath. This strange statement, like paradox, resonates to the mystery, so that, in a sense, the mystery validates the paradox. And that is as close as I can come in words to describing this other way of seeing.
In this paradoxical framework the answer to my formerly puzzling question melts away along with the question itself. The burden of proof, as it were, shifts, no longer a burden to the questioner, nor to the questioned. Christ came to save the World, to establish the New Creation, beginning with himself. The Kingdom of Heaven has already begun, all things are made new: Christ is Risen! And in Him there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither Sabbath nor Saturnalia. We are united to Christ in thanksgiving—Eucharist. The Church—comprised of all races—is a chosen race.
In light of this, what is the Sabbath to me, or I to the Sabbath? We are both servants of the Redeemer, under no obligation to each other, except the debt of love. And in this framework, a return to Sabbath keeping in the old sense—the sense and meaning it had before Pentecost—strikes a dissonant chord. What would be the point? The desire for an efficient “unifier,” the Sabbath, appears anemic in contrast to the Lord of the Sabbath, in whom and through whom are all things. The Sabbath is beautiful; the 4th commandment beautifully reveals the Lord. And to require Sabbath keeping, now, simply doesn’t fit.
[Here is a quick set of references to the eighth day: http://preachersinstitute.com/2013/06/05/the-eighth-day/ ]