An unworthy Deacon, named for the brother of God: James, striving to "work out his salvation with fear and trembling" within the Tradition (paradosis) of the Eastern Orthodox Faith. It is a strange and marvelous journey, and I am accompanied by the fourfold fruit of my fecundity. My wife, the Matushka or Diaconissa Sophia, is my beloved partner in the pursuit of Theosis, and she ranks me in every way.
2003. I actually do recall this Holy Friday when the sun made this dramatic and timely appearance. The hymns we hear today are really amazing and this captures a small portion of it all...though as always I offer the caveat that I can do it little justice. One must experience it and that doesn't just mean being present. Immersion is necessary I think...and I need to remind myself of that continually.
God is dead
Entering the Nave on Friday morning for the sixth hour prayers, my youngest daughter lets slip out a small gasp at the sight of Jesus hung on the cross and set before the royal doors. We hung Him there last night, I remind her.
Today He who hung the earth upon the waters is hung on the tree. The King of Angels is decked with a crown of thorns He who wraps the heavens in clouds is wrapped in the purple of mockery He who freed Adam in the Jordan is slapped on the face The Bridegroom of the Church is affixed to the cross with nails
As we enter, we approach the icon of the crucifixion and we prostrate ourselves before it. Then, we move on (awkwardly with the little ones doing the best they can to mimic our bodies' display of reverence) to stand before Jesus - bowing down, we press our lips against his nail pierced feet.
All creation was changed by fear When it saw you hanging on the cross, O Christ The sun was darkened, and the foundations of the earth were shaken All things suffered with the creator of all
As we take our place I notice a bright beam of sunlight (in western washington?!?!?!?!) entering into the Church through a window in the dome. It illumines the icon of the Theotokos, which rests beside our dying God.
Today the blameless virgin saw you suspended on the cross, O Word She mourned within herself and was sorely pierced in her heart She groaned in agony from the depth of her soul
Though we stand outside time, the earth continues to spin and the sun moves. I watch as its light crawls across my God's outstretched arm. Jesus is now dead upon the tree. His face is illumined by the sun at the exact moment that His nails are removed. Life's funeral is about to begin.
Joseph of Arimethea took you down from the tree The Life of all, cold in death
As our Lord is brought to the tomb, I notice the empty cross now fully bathed in the light of the sun. In Hymn we hear the voice of my son's patron Joseph:
O my beloved Jesus A short while ago, the sun beheld you hanging on the cross...
Our God is in His tomb now, and we keep vigil...watching and waiting...
From 2004. Our practice is slightly different now, but that is no matter. Today we are in fact having God's funeral. Looking back at old blog posts from some of my early Paschal / Holy Week experiences is a real blessing to me. It's that whole "return to your first love" sorta thing. Again...we need to be MOVED by all this, not just emotionally but in every way. Anyway...flash back 7 years...
As we enter the Nave of the Church on Holy Friday afternoon, we can prominently see Jesus still hanging on the cross in front of the Iconostasis. We prostrate ourselves before this ominous scene. In short order, whatever Nietzsche might have meant by his famed quote, is now at least literally true.
From where we stand, I crouch down to my eldest son Nicholas and point to the cross, "Jesus is dead."
He ponders this thought for a moment and I notice that his eyes are drawn to the icon of the Theotokos behind and to the left of Jesus' body. "Oh, Mary will be sad!"
"Yes, I am sure she is. Now we will take Jesus down and bury him."
The clergy move solemnly out of the sanctuary and pull the nails from him and wrap him in a fine linen cloth - just as the Noble Joseph did...and in a sense does. They take the shrouded body and lay Him upon the altar, truly the passover lamb slain for us...and we sing:
Joseph together with Nicodemus took Thee down from the tree, who clothest Thyself with light as with a garment. He gazed on Thy Body - dead, naked and unburied? and in grief and tender compassion he lamented: Woe is me, my sweetest Jesus! A short while ago, the sun beheld Thee hanging on the cross, and it hid itself in darkness. The earth quaked with fear at the sight. The veil of the temple was torn in two. Lo, now I see Thee willingly submit to death for my sake. How shall I bury Thee, O my God? How can I wrap Thee in a shroud? How can I touch Thy most pure Body with my hands? What songs can I sing for Thy Exodus, O Compassionate One? I magnify Thy Passion. I glorify Thy burial and Thy holy Resurrection, crying: O Lord, glory to Thee!
Yes, the Resurrection looms over our bereavement, and I reassure my son who seems mesmerized by the sight of the clergy symbolically carrying Christ's body (now in the form of a large tapestry depicting Him being taken down from the cross) to the beautifully flowered tomb in the center of the church. I tell him that everything will be okay - that grand fib that all parents tell their children. I tell him that Pascha is coming, the reality of which is the only thing that makes my reassurance (or any reassurance) not be a fib.
And so we lay God in His tomb.
Much later that night we begin the lamentation vigil in which throughout the entire night someone will be present at the tomb chanting or reading the Psalms. The entire Church is virtually devoid of light save for the few candles lit to assist the reader in reading. My wife and I must have gone through about 30 psalms during our hour and it was an experience that I have a hard time formulating into words at the moment...I was reminded of my gramdmother's funeral a few months ago. I was reminded of Death and a number of the Psalms warned me that "man is a vapor."
Death reigns for the moment...but I can already hear the stirrings of Holy Saturday.
In the midst of all we are doing, I have been having pressed upon me (perhaps by the Holy Spirit) a nagging sense that this experience we are having should be more than an experience in and of itself. It ought to be something that is changing us. It's far more than a vacation from which we will retain a few fond memories or stories and perhaps create a slide show to entertain friends. Instead, all that we are doing as the pinnacle of our Lenten experience should have lasting effects.
For many of us this "Liturgication" threatens to be indiscernible from a regular vacation filled with pretty sights, warm fuzzy feelings, nice music and some good drink and food. If we allow it to only be this for us, then perhaps we would have been better off just going to work.
Are we growing? Are we climbing the ladder? Are we seeing fruit in our lives? Are we changing? Are we seeing us move, albeit slowly, ever closer to fulfilling our vocation of fully being the Image and Likeness of God? Or are we content to remain as we are and be entertained by the richness of this week?
I think it is fair to suggest that the Resurrection made a rather significant change in the lives of the Disciples. It leaves me wondering, in my seemingly changeless state, whether or not I've allowed my eyes to be opened to see the reality of what we experience this week and through Pascha itself. As we lead up to Pascha and are experiencing the crucifixion and death of our lord, you will hear us praying in the hymns over and over again, asking that our Lord "SHOW us also Thy Resurrection..." Yes, to soothe the pain of experiencing death and torture, but perhaps also we ask in order to have our eyes opened to the reality of it?
Perhaps our personal prayers should also involve us asking: "Make it real to me...not just on an emotional level, but to a degree that shakes me free of myself. SHOW us Thy Resurrection and let us be forever changed."
Lent is not unlike a great revival because throughout it we are exhorted to wake our souls from sleep, to reanimate ourselves into the reality of the Kingdom...a reality to which we are usually utterly oblivious. This week, though no longer technically Lent, is the culmination of all our efforts. And, in the spirit of St. John's Paschal homily, even if we did little in Lent, it's not too late.
I want His Resurrection to be mine as well. His victory over death and sin to be the first fruits of my humble victories (even if just from time to time) over my passions and sins. A Resurrection that leaves me startled into reality and ready to live the day to day life I ought to be living. Not that I seek to walk away from this week ready to be reverenced as a Saint by my new found willingness to live such a life...rather I'd just like to see it awaken me a little from the selfish sleep I'm stuck in. Just a little. Some change. Some progress. Make it REAL! We're not going to see a movie, we're going to have a life-altering experience. We (I) need to orient myself toward this goal.
We worship Thy passion, O Christ. Show us also Thy glorious resurrection.
Orthodox hymns and prayers love to do it, and tonight was probably one of the most blatant and recurring examples: Judas vs. the Harlot. Here's an excerpt:
As the sinful woman was bringing her offering of myrrh, The disciple was scheming with lawless men She rejoiced in pouring out her precious gift; he hurried to sell the priceless one. She recognized the Master, but Judas parted from Him. She was set free, but Judas was enslaved to the enemy. How terrible his avarice! How great her repentance! O Savior, who suffered for our sake, Grant us also repentence, and save us.
The song goes on for several pages following the same swinging pattern: back and forth, comparing and contrasting the harlot and Judas. And the last couple of lines that I quoted also speak to another recurring theme: putting ourselves into the story and exhorting ourselves to recognize ourselves in the bad example and to seek the better example. If you think about some of the more common Orthodox prayers (i.e. pre-communion) you see this methodology is quite common.
But it isn't new. ["New" is a funny term I used here for obvious reasons.] The Gospel reading from tonight showed us the reasoning for this particular comparison, and the sequence of the two depicted events never really struck me until tonight.
St. Matthew 26 And when Jesus was in Bethany at the house of Simon the leper, a woman came to Him having an alabaster flask of very costly fragrant oil, and she poured it on His head as He sat at the table. But when His disciples saw it, they were indignant, saying, "Why this waste? For this fragrant oil might have been sold for much and given to the poor."
But when Jesus was aware of it, He said to them, "Why do you trouble the woman? For she has done a good work for Me. For you have the poor with you always, but Me you do not have always. For in pouring this fragrant oil on My body, she did it for My burial. Assuredly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is preached in the whole world, what this woman has done will also be told as a memorial to her."
Then one of the twelve, called Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said, "What are you willing to give me if I deliver Him to you?" And they counted out to him thirty pieces of silver. So from that time he sought opportunity to betray Him.
When I was a big Ron Sider/social gospel kinda guy I might have said something similar to what the disciples said in regards to the perceived "waste" of money. I mean you expect a sage like Ghandi to say something along the lines of "No, my dear, sell that and give the money to the poor if you wish to honor me." But of course, Ghandi was not the incarnate God. That changes things.
It blows me away that RIGHT after dealing with the issue of wasted money, repentance, and his own death, Judas suddenly seeks to betray Jesus for money. Anyone else notice the sort of speed bump we jolted over in the scene change here? While many folks have tried to create sympathy for Judas: to try and understand HIS point of view on why he did what he did...we Orthodox are rather encouraged to flee becoming Judas and rather become the harlot, understanding that our lips are more unclean and more stained than her whose mouth says in the song:
Loose my debt as I have loosed my hair. Love the woman, who though justly hated, loves You... Look at me who am engulfed in sin, in despair because of my evil deeds. But in Your goodness do not despise me. Grant me forgiveness of my evil deed, O Lord and save me... O Son of the Virgin, though I am a prostitute, do not cast me aside. O Joy of the angels, do not despise my tears. As You did not reject me as a sinner. Accept me now as a penitent, in Your great mercy.
The Journey continues...Last Supper tomorrow and then on firday we will answer in tears the old hymnal question: WERE YOU THERE?
It's difficult to describe Orthodox Holy Week to people of other traditions, particularly those whose faith experience includes no connection to a calendar whatsoever. The details of all that happens during this time would no doubt quickly present a “deer in the headlights” moment. Suffice to say (though it won't and thus I won't) that in a Liturgical setting we relive the last week of our Lord's life, but not only that, the liturgics themselves are perpetually reminding us that we are not mere spectators and neither are we simply remembering past events in a dramatic fashion. No, we are participants, and all of these events present to our personal and communal lives a challenge to consider our potential roles and how that plays out in our lives here and now.
By the end of Holy Week, the average Orthodox Christian ought to be extremely well versed in the scriptures, both Gospels and OT prophecy with regards to our Lord's Passion and Resurrection. In fact, there is a very intense tying together of all the great salvific stories of the OT and how these are fulfilled in the person of Christ...our Passover from the Egypt of sin and death...Pascha, our companion in the furnace, our hope in the valley of dry bones, etc. Overall, Holy Week and Pascha (it seems to me) takes all of what makes up Orthodox theology, worship, and praxis and brings it into a glorious and focused unity...it all becomes clear. It is an epiphany of sorts that I will say many who are not already awash in Orthodoxy may not get at all. I've been Orthodox for almost 10 years and I know I've much more to discover. It's seriously deep water for those willing to dive in. Every year there is some new epiphany...a "wow" moment.
I've been getting mailers throughout the last week from local churches advertising their Easter services. I note that occasionally one might have a “Good Friday” service of some sort, but really nothing for the bulk of Holy Week. A service or two (perhaps at sunrise) on Sunday morning, while most Orthodox are then sleeping having already had Easter at around 2-4am. I've no wish to be critical of other people's traditions, but merely as to compare and contrast I'll briefly look at what would need to be expressed in a Orthodox mailer letting people know what we are doing for Easter.
Throughout Holy Week, one can usually find at least two services each day (much more depending on how you wish to count the Hours and Typica which are often tagged onto the morning Liturgies). The highlight of these first three days is "Bridegroom Matins" in which specific themes are recalled, all with the primary intent of waking us up. All are punctuated by this well know Troparion:
Behold, the bridegroom comes in the middle of the night and blessed is the servant whom he shall find watching, and unworthy the servant whom he shall find heedless. Take care then, 0 my soul, and be not weighed down by sleep that you will not be given over unto death and be excluded from the Kingdom. But rise up and call out: Holy, Holy, Holy art Thou O God, by the Theotokos have mercy on us.
If M-W seems a great deal of services, the rest of the week is amplified (if only by LONGER services) even more. On Thursday night we have a VERY lengthy service in which by we hear 12 gospel readings which recount Jesus' betrayal, arrest, trial and crucifixion. It is a custom for many to carry home with you the flame of the candle you held throughout the evening and mark your doorway with soot from the flame in the form of a cross – hearkening back to the first passover. On Holy Friday we start with Royal Hours and then later we have what I like to describe as God's funeral...more properly called the “Vespers of Entombment.” Here we begin with the crucifixion, death, and burial of Jesus...marveling and weeping at the notion of God dying...we sing with the voice of Joseph and Nicodemus: “How can I bury thee O my God?” The service is nothing short of earth-shattering. From this point on (about mid-afternoon) the tomb at the center of the Church will not be left alone. We will take turns keeping vigil overnight, reading the psalms at the tomb...breaking only to have a another service in the evening in which we sing our Lamentations. In our Parish, a number of people will spend the night at the church filling in for spots where people have not signed up to chant the Psalter. It's truly beautiful to just sit in the relative darkness and listen and contemplate.
Holy Saturday...glorious Holy Saturday. I won't say with absolute certainty, but I am relatively sure we Orthodox are unique (for the most part) in keeping the tradition of this wonderful day – if not theologically then more surely Liturgically. It marks the beginning of the end for death and hell, It recalls what is sometimes referred to as the “Harrowing of Hell” in the service of Vespers and Liturgy which takes place around noon for us. It is the sacred Sabbath...the day of God's rest. But as Fr. Alexander Schmemman puts it, it is an “active” rest in which our Lord goes in search of His lost friend Adam, who represents us all. He brings Life to the realm of death...and death trembles. We hear triumphant stories (sometimes loudly) from the OT which all point to what we know is about to happen: “Let God Arise!” In this service we witness the dark colors of Lent and Holy Week be changed into Brightness...but we don't quite see Christ rise yet...we are given a sneak peak into the spiritual realm in which Christ brings His light to those in the tombs and death and the devil begin to realize their mistake: “ 'I should not have accepted the man born of Mary. He came and destroyed my power.' ” we sing, personalizing death in it's defeat. Sorrow and lamentation is turning to joy. It is time: Pascha comes that night and the Resurrection is fully made known to us. Death is overthrown! At the great, glorious, bright, and festal midnight service of Pascha we hear the more than 1,500 year old homily of St. John Chrysostom in which he reflects upon Christ's victory saying:
He that was taken by death has annihilated it! He descended into hades and took hades captive! He embittered it when it tasted his flesh! And anticipating this Isaiah exclaimed. “Hades was embittered when it encountered thee in the lower regions.” It was embittered, for it was abolished! It was embittered for it was mocked! It was embittered, for it was purged! It was embittered, for it was despoiled! It was embittered, for it was bound in chains! It took a body and, face to face, met God! It took earth and encountered heaven! It took what it saw, but crumbled before what it had not seen!
And at last we proclaim: “Christ is Risen! Indeed He is Risen!” The celebration begins. We feast...but not only on food...the feast is more than food. It is a feasting on Life. New and Triumphant Life in Christ.
Thinking back to church mailers. This entire time of Holy Week is not something invented by a creative mind last month. It is not something we create to express what we feel or believe, but rather it is something into which we enter and something into which we conform ourselves. It is a great teacher, rather than an artistic expression of our current sentiments and sensibilities. It calls us out of those things and demands that we enter into the timeless realm beyond the short-lived fads of the here and now. It demands that we leave behind the baggage and our whims..it calls us out of ourselves.
Now tag onto all of this spiritually intense Holy Week, the innumerable preparations that would go into a big family funeral and then wedding. Odd, eh? I know. But amidst the lengthy and beautiful services, we are BUSY with preparations...both at home and as a community in our Parish. Cooking, cleaning, decorating, dyeing eggs, making gifts, buying gifts, wrapping gifts, preparing Pascha baskets, planning our attire, preparing flowers and their numerous arrangements, preparing the tomb, and many other things. It makes for little time...even little time for things like Facebook (thank God.) On Sunday afternoon we have another Paschal service followed by a great feast and party filled with games, music, dancing, and great fellowship. And not just this day...but also Monday and also Tuesday! All of this said....it occurs to me: how might I create a postcard mailer to send out to the local community that could possibly capture the beauty of all this season is for us? How could I communicate the wonder of it all? It's likely not possible. Orthodoxy is too big. To difficult to communicate without really experiencing it.
People at work ask me what I plan to do during my “vacation” beginning tomorrow. I have trouble answering. It's too beautiful to explain without very seriously demeaning its real profundity. As this post surely demonstrates.
Some cultures accidentally forget the meaning in their traditions. Not us. We work our butts off in desperate attempts to forget them, as this story demonstrates:
"When I took them out of the bag, the teacher said, 'Oh look, spring spheres' and all the kids were like 'Wow, Easter eggs.' So they knew," Jessica said.
Really, how stupid would you as a teacher feel saying: "Oh look, spring spheres!" And seriously? Even the word eggs is too attached to Christian traditions? This is particularly funny because, let's face it, as a culture we already have largely forgot why eggs have any Christian symbolism! I mean, I was raised in a largely secular household and yet we still "did Easter." And yes, it was largely devoid of meaning. Apparently not enough for our PC age.
It is sad to see us working so hard to remove all meaning from what little cultural traditions we still largely share in this country. The fact is, when devoid of meaning our traditions become stupid - a thing to be mocked ala "Fiddler on the Roof." And so we see that Easter is no longer about the Resurrection, but it is now about baskets with toys and candy. Same with Christmas. People like to complain about how materialistic these holidays have become, but stop and think about it: when you rob from these traditions their original meaning and you seek to make it palatable to ALL people...well...what's left? We like to blame corporations, but I think they are simply, selfishly, and understandably filling the void with the only thing we are allowed to publicly hold in common: stuff. Yes, we paved the road upon which everything we hate today about Christmas readily travels.
It's the same with diversity classes in school. I remember when my kids were in public school and they had a lesson on Judaism. What did my kids get out of it: Matzah balls and dreidels. Stuff.
Is it any wonder that our traditions are reduced down to the lowest common denominators of food and presents? Of course not. And really, I don't think there is much that can be done about it...at least not on the political level. You all know me, as a borderline libertarian, in the culture war, I am a conscientious objector. I think both the religious left AND the religious right are wrong in their approach to legislate Christian morality - let alone tradition. So, for us, I believe the work is AT HOME.
I do not rely on the schools to teach my kids what Easter is all about (of course I don't rely on the schools to teach my kids anything...particularly about shapes). Nor do I need the Port of Seattle to display a Christmas tree to validate my family's beliefs and practices. Far from it. I, as a parent (and in no small part specifically as a father...a little priest of the home church), am responsible for making sure my family is keeping the traditions (and Traditions) in a way that is rooted in rich and full meaning.
This is timely as we approach Pascha. I have little doubt that my kids know why we are doing what we are doing. But, do they also see the reality of the Resurrected Christ living in me? Am I barking at them over their little failings in the midst of joyously singing "Christ is Risen"? Because if they don't see real change and real love in me, then they will join the lowest common denominator culture and go out to greet "Spring Spheres" instead of the empty tomb.
So as we watch the silliness of school districts, let's allow it to call us back home and to be one more Lenten hinge point, encouraging us to make this all very real in our lives and in the lives of those around us.
We are fast approaching it. Sure, all of Lent is such a time, but as we draw nearer the preparations become overt and tangible. One of my favorite aspects of this time is the profound sense of community that is made manifest and also how our focus is shifted by the work to be done and the length, frequency, and solemnity of services. In my experience it becomes a week or more when earthly cares truly do almost cease...the insanity of the world fades and almost vanishes. This is REALLY timely as everyone gets their passions riled up to fight the government budget battle in the online version of jousting windmills. It should quite a show and I'm not at all unhappy to miss it.
There will be neither time nor desire to hear or comment upon the "latest." In some ways it's as if we are raptured and returned - perhaps changed, renewed, and refocused? For me the upcoming time of preparation calls out for a calibration of myself and to seek that which is needful and not wantfull. Oddly this time of preparation with all it's outward self-denial, feels so wonderfully rich and joyful even to the extent that we actually look forward to the labor it entails. We long for it. God knows we need it.
In the 4th century a Gallic woman by the name of Egeria made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. She documented these travels in a text that partially survives today and can be found here. Her account of Holy Week begins in section 63 and certainly demonstrates with only a focus upon services that being busy is nothing new. And it is overall a wonderful account that sometimes makes us think we have it easy in our "lengthy" services and "busy" week.
Bottling, cooking, egg coloring, gifts, choir practice, floral arrangements, church cleaning, house cleaning, decorations, special clothes, innumerable services ridden with gloriously unique liturgics, and all of it culminating in a funeral for God, all night Lamentations at His tomb, and then the glorious revelation that the deceased could not possibly remain so!
But amidst what may appear to be hustle and bustle there is a very serious degree of quiet and self-reflection. Even brief times of emptiness, it seems, are immediately filled with contemplation of the particular day and it's events we are commemorating. And a bit of emotionalism is not out of order as Egeria notes with regard to Holy Friday:
And when the sixth hour has come, they go before the Cross, whether it be in rain or in heat, the place being open to the air, as it were, a court of great size and of some beauty between the Cross and the Anastasis; here all the people assemble in such great numbers that there is no thoroughfare. The chair is placed for the bishop before the Cross, and from the sixth to the ninth hour nothing else is done, but the reading of lessons, which are read thus: first from the psalms wherever the Passion is spoken of, then from the Apostle, either from the epistles of the Apostles or from their Acts, wherever they have spoken of the Lord's Passion; then the passages from the Gospels, where He suffered, are read. Then the readings from the prophets where they foretold that the Lord should suffer, then from the Gospels where He mentions His Passion. Thus from the sixth to the ninth hours the lessons are so read and the hymns said, that it may be shown to all the people that whatsoever the prophets foretold of the Lord's Passion is proved from the Gospels and from the writings of the Apostles to have been fulfilled. And so through all those three hours the people are taught that nothing was done which had not been foretold, and that nothing was foretold which was not wholly fulfilled. Prayersalso suitable to the day are interspersed throughout. The emotion shown and the mourning by all the people at every lesson and prayer is wonderful; for there is none, either great or small, who, on that day during those three hours, does not lament more than can be conceived, that the Lord had suffered those things for us.