by Archpriest Lawrence Russell
Most of us remember the first time we heard or read the word “oxymoron,” a funny-sounding, funny-looking word; right? Oxymoron is a combination of two Greek words: oxys (sharp) and moros (stupid). Together, they mean “pointedly stupid.” As a figure of speech, an oxymoron describes an idea built of opposites, antonyms. Try “living death,” or “cruel kindness,” for instance. What strikes us in such pairings is contradiction, in and of itself. Finding oxymorons can be mere amusement, but discovering “needed oxymorons” can be riches indeed for our journey to the Kingdom.
Oxymorons generally are not used by scientists or engineers, but by writers – who choose them as a literary device – and especially (for our purposes) by Christian Theologians, who need them because the paltry categories of this limited world are not broad enough to express Divine Truth. They provide the “new wineskins” needed for the “new wine” – “else the wine will burst the skins, and the wine perisheth, and the skins” (Mk. 2:22).
In the spiritual realm, we find great depths in each oxymoron when we choose to look. After all, this is the realm in which God truly has brought together Life and death: Christ is, as the eternal Son of God, deathless Life; and He dies, as the God-man, a Life-filled death. When our Immortal, Life-giving Lord enters our world—a world subject to death—He bridges the chasm that separates Life from death! We see this in His Incarnation, in His Passion, in His Resurrection. This is what the Apostle Paul dared to call the “foolishness of God,” which is wiser than the “wisdom of men” (1 Cor. 1:25). Did you catch it: wise foolishness?
Another oxymoron of this spiritual realm into which we would gaze appears in St. John Climacus' masterful work The Ladder of Divine Ascent. It is the Greek word Xαρμολύπη, which is translated into English as “joyful sorrow.” Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos notes that “joyful sorrow” is synonymous with another oxymoron of the Kingdom: “crucified-risen PASCHA” (Σταυροαναστάσιμο Πασχα). His Eminence explains that placing these words together “…shows how on Great Friday everyone can rejoice in the putting to death of Hades and death, and on the Bright Day, PASCHA, there can be sorrow for a beloved person who is being swallowed by death, that hungry beast, which continues to gobble people up and, in the present time, to split a community of loving persons.” (Lord, have mercy!)
Consider this: that in the very midst of the Paschal celebration, on the Great Night of Christ's Resurrection, we suddenly find ourselves singing: “…let us anoint with spices His life-bearing body, the flesh which raised fallen Adam and now lies in the tomb...Let us lament and cry: Arise, O master, and bestow resurrection on the fallen.”
Many years ago, a Russian priest serving a sentence in a Soviet concentration camp commented on this strangely-placed Paschal hymn: “How can we weep when the angel has already said, 'Cease your weeping’?” He answers himself: “Within me too I feel joy rising, even though my clothing is dark and torn...I am still with them in paradise...Yet it is clear to me that this garment of flesh is in shreds. Here I can still do penance, I see the blessedness of the just and observe that Christ has risen for them. So then I weep and cry out...'Master, arise for me also, and let me the fallen arise.'”
This is the needed oxymoron we seek through the coming weeks: A heart filled with joyful sorrow which strengthens our Lenten journey to PASCHA, and our journey from Earth to Heaven.