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.
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.
Wonderful description. My parish does all these services but we start with Matins & Liturgy on the Friday evening/Sat. morning before Palm Sunday with the celebration of the raising of Lazarus: prefiguring Christ's resurrection 8 days later, but especially prefiguring our common resurrection. Marianna Friesel of St. George Orthodox Church - Cincinnati, OH
My husband and I have a Methodist background, but we have been inquiring about Orthodoxy for the past couple years. We were extremely blessed to experience our first Orthodox Holy Week last year, where we attended the Passion Gospels and Pascha services. I cannot tell enough how much it enriched our Easter experience - so much so that we've been looking forward to this week all year with great anticipation. If only all Christians around the world experienced Holy Week with the same level of reverance. They don't know what they're missing!