Archpriest Daniel Kovalak
Having had the opportunity to sing an operetta with the local symphony orchestra, it’s remarkable to me how wonderfully our Orthodox liturgical progression from Pre-Lent to Lent to Holy Week to Pascha not only presents “the greatest story ever told,” but also resembles the performance of a musical masterpiece.
I recall how at one rehearsal the conductor, abruptly bringing all to full stop, angrily tapped his baton, stomped his foot and shouted, “You’re not following me! The score says lentando!” Lentando means “to make slow;” slowing down the music’s tempo to create a reflective, contemplative, even solemn mood. This is especially employed in operas to build and enhance the personality and disposition of characters and to give the audience glimpses into their respective life struggles and inner conflicts that will be brought to bear as the story unfolds.
That’s pretty much “lent,” isn’t it?! Time to slow down, to adjust the tempo of our daily lives from the hectic pace that consumes us to a more contemplative one that incites inner reflection and self-awareness. It’s a time to earnestly reflect on our character: what makes us tick, what lifts us up and what drags us down. The mood created by our extra services, their somberness and solemnity, complemented by the readings, hymns, movements, commemorations and participation in confession reveal our desperate need for some serious “lentando” in our lives.
Lentando, however, is not stagnant but dynamic. It lays a foundation upon which to build, paving the way for something to come. In musical terms, it’s normally followed by a variation of “andante calmo,” literally “walking calmly.” Having manifested traits of the characters by slowing to a reasonable, manageable tempo, the piece now assumes and maintains a pace that allows the story to unfold.
The early weeks of Lent likewise assume we have hit our stride, that our pre-lenten instruction has adequately prepared us to adopt a certain rhythm, especially of prayer and fasting. And whereas Forgiveness Sunday Vespers directs us to “begin the fast with joy,” our now “walking calmly” includes “allegretto” as well—a tinge of joyfulness.
By the third week of Lent, when the precious Cross of Our Lord is planted in our midst, our musical score is marked “poco a poco accelerando”—to accelerate, to pick up the pace little by little, not just for the thrill of speed but because our desired destination is slowly coming into view.
When the music accelerates, it’s taking you somewhere; there’s a “crescendo”—a “growing”—to emphasize an imminent crucial point of the story it seeks to tell. Crescendo is a movement toward a point that prepares the audience to experience and embrace the climax of the story, with voices and orchestra collectively manifesting their individual talents at optimal levels to “bring the story home.” Jesus weeping at the tomb of Lazarus, only to call him to come forth after four days represents, at least to me, a great crescendo!
Each day of Holy Week represents “a symphony within the symphony.” Like acts of a play, each building upon the one before, they’d be musically-marked “presto;” literally meaning “very fast,” but more appropriately “ready.” Everything to this point of the symphony has been preparing the audience not merely to passively observe, but “enter into” the story’s summit. All the variations in tempo, dynamics and mood; the array of sounds produced by combinations of instruments and voices; the musicians fully offering themselves in sacrificial service to achieve the desired end-result—all resources have been brought to bear and now stand ready to deliver “the message;” to the experience of its zenith.
There are many musical terms to be considered in reference to Great and Holy Pascha. My choice would be “vivace”—“vivacious”—joyously unrestrained, enthusiastic, exuberant, lively! That’s a pretty good word to describe our celebration of the glorious resurrection of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ! If after progressing through the various stages, movements and elements of the score you arrive at the end and cannot muster some serious “vivace” at the proclamation of “Christ is Risen,” you just haven’t been listening at all.
The world continues its insanity at a frantic pace, with no storyline, truth, morality or particular destination in mind. So many threatening and horrific events occurring these days are merely the latest, tragic reminders of the frailty and fallenness of the world. But the symphony of Lent draws us into the premier masterpiece of God’s mission “for the life of the world and its salvation.”
(Archpriest Daniel is rector of Holy Cross Church, Williamsport, PA.)