Τρίτη, 3 Απριλίου 2018

The Mystery of Holy Week and Pascha


Palm Sunday 2018 in the Orthodox Church in Burundi
This past weekend, Orthodox Churches began the observation of Holy Week. The services are long and plentiful. In my parish, from Lazarus Saturday to Pascha, there will be somewhere on the order of 40 hours of services. It is a large parish effort. Most of the services have the participation of the full choir. Last night, I had the anxious face of a young server in the altar who politely wanted to know ‘how much longer.’ He seemed particularly alarmed when I asked him if he had school tomorrow. It is a great labor, and the many hours of services only represent the most visible part of the week. So much else takes place elsewhere – in our homes and in private.
Why all the effort?
Given the significance of what is remembered in the services of Holy Week, Christ’s suffering, betrayal, death and resurrection, the work would be justified if it were merely a memorial. Although, as memorials go, 40 hours over the course of a week would seem extreme to most. No doubt, were memory alone the heart of the matter, Holy Week would have dwindled over the centuries rather than grown. Holy Week is only the most intense example of something that occurs with every service of the Church and is the heart of the liturgical life: it is a participation in the mystery of Christ Himself.
For the modern mind, history is something that is past. As such, it is inaccessible, except through some exercise of the memory. And, of course, we are always certain that our memory of the past is flawed. The larger part of our modern memorials is sentiment, an expression or feeling for something that once had importance and that seems worth remembering. It is this empty approach to history that weakens its place in our lives. Modern memorials continue only long enough to produce a desired set of feelings. A bit of music, perhaps a little drama, special clothes and Easter is done.

 Palm Sunday celebrations at St. Nicholas Orthodox Cathedral, Uganda

I shuddered recently as I watched a trailer for the new movie on the life of St. Paul. Luke (the author of the gospel and the book of Acts) is gushing about the importance of St. Paul and (in modern fashion) speaks about Paul “changing the world.” Whatever is of value in the work of St. Paul, changing the world is not part of it. He would never have thought such a thing. The “world” had no place in St. Paul’s scope of work. The “change” was already complete. That change is the Kingdom of God, full and complete, inaugurated into this world by the death and resurrection of Christ. In the face of the Kingdom of God, this “world” and its “history” are powerless and empty.
The liturgical life of the Church does not place any particular value on “history” as the modern world understands it. Rather, it is the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God, tabernacling within “history,” that is the focus of our attention. The Kingdom of God is always “present” and never “past.” It is eternal, transcending space and time, even as it fills space and time with its presence.

This is the key to the liturgical life and the very heart of Holy Week. The Church’s liturgical actions are never memorials. They are a mystical participation in the ever-present reality of the events that they celebrate. In Holy Week, we are raised with Lazarus. We greet Christ with palms. We endure the cleansing of the Temple. With the Harlot, we bathe His feet with our tears. We partake of His Body and Blood. We betray Him and deny Him. We judge Him and condemn Him. In Him we are also betrayed and denied, judged and condemned. With Him we are mocked and scourged. We crucify Him and are crucified with Him. With the thief we find paradise in a single moment. We grieve with Mary and John and bury Christ’s most pure body alongside Joseph of Arimathea. We bury Him and are buried with Him. We descend into Hades and take our place with Adam and all those who through the ages have been imprisoned in death. We are raised from the dead with Christ as He takes captivity captive.
All of this is participation and coinherence. Just as the Kingdom of God enters history and gathers us into itself, so in our liturgical celebration, the very same Kingdom of God enters our lives and gathers us into itself. We do not remember a past event: we accept and enter the eternal reality that was made known and revealed in those events. The gospel is not a record of what has happened and is now past – finding value only in its “change of history” (as if history holds some privileged position). In the words of St. Luke, the gospel is a “narrative of those things that have been fulfilled among us” (Lk. 1:1). Those things that “have been fulfilled” remain and abide as eternal realities. They are accessible and capable of participation. In this sense, Christianity is not a “historical” faith: it is the on-going participation in the Kingdom of God that has entered into history.

 
Feast of the triumphant entrance of our Lord Jesus Christ in Jerusalem, Bujumbura, Burundi

The very heart of the faith is found in our present moment participation in the Kingdom. In this participation, we are “fulfilled.” Our lives become bearers of the Kingdom, no longer bound to this world. This is the inner reality that yields the fruit of a new life. The new life in Christ is not an improved version of our historical existence. St. Paul describes it as a “new creation.” It is a revealing of a new reality. The resurrection is not the improvement of a corpse: it represents the marriage of heaven and earth.
Our long services are filled with Scripture (especially the Psalms), punctuated by the various hymns that form both praise as well as a mystical commentary on the events themselves. The Psalms hold a unique place. For the Church, they are not a mere collection of ancient poetry encrusted with obscurity. The Psalms are the voice of Christ Himself. As we offer them in the Church, Christ stands in our midst and prays. Our voice becomes His voice.
It is a great gift of grace that our merely human actions become the actual embodiment of the Kingdom of God. This is revealed particularly in the sacraments. In Holy Baptism, St. Paul says we are “baptized into the death of Christ.” He does not say that we do this to remember Christ’s death. It is an actual and true union with the death of Christ. The same is true of the Eucharist:
The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion [participation, κοινωνία] of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? (1 Cor. 10:16)
Our liturgical actions all have this character about them. They gain their meaning and value through their direct participation in the very things they celebrate. Holy Week is that Holy Week.
I was once asked why we spend so many hours in the services of the Church. My answer was simple: “Because we can.” Every Divine Liturgy is Holy Week compressed into the space of a few hours. Once a year, our celebration is extended and takes the form of multiple services. The compression is relieved and our participation is extended over days and hours.
Year after year, the faithful look ahead to these days. It is a labor of love, a reaching out towards that which has come into our midst. Our actions echo the words of St. Paul:
…but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me. (Phil. 3:12)
God give us grace!

“Great and Holy Week” - An Overview


 
Orthodox Christians throughout the world (commonly recognized as Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Serbian Orthodox, Antiochian Orthodox, Eastern Orthodox, etc.) entered into a week that is absolutely set apart from all other weeks of the Church Year; commonly referred to as “Great and Holy Week” in the Orthodox Church, or simply “Holy Week
The 40 days of Lent ended and we “entered into the annual commemoration of Christ’s suffering, death, and Resurrection,” as the late Fr. Alexander Schmemann states. “Having fulfilled the Forty Days… we ask to see the Holy Week of Thy Passion.” With these words sung on “Lazarus Saturday” — one week before Easter — our entry into Holy Week formally begins.
From Lazarus Saturday, the Orthodox Church then traverses through each day of Holy Week with its commemoration of the events of that “Passion Week” of Jesus Christ’s life on earth. In the Orthodox Church, through the worship services of Holy Week, the worshipper — by the grace of the Holy Spirit — truly “enters into” Christ’s “Triumphal Entry” into Jerusalem (Palm Sunday), His subsequent betrayal, suffering, crucifixion, descent into Hades, and of course His glorious Resurrection.

This “entering into” of Holy Week cannot be adequately explained in words. Just like a life lived “in Christ” can never be fully articulated by a Christian, so too Holy Week worship can only be understood through experience.
There are special services every day of Holy Week which are fulfilled in all Orthodox churches; each with its own particular theme. (Note: most of the services of Holy Week are “sung” in anticipation. That is, the services are rotated ahead 12 hours. The evening service, therefore, is actually the service of the next morning, while the morning services of Holy Thursday and Holy Saturday are actually the services of the coming evening
On Holy Thursday we turn to the last events of our Lord and His Passion . Thursday morning begins with a Divine Liturgy commemorating the “Mystical Supper” — the “Last Supper” at which the Lord instituted the Holy Eucharist. Thursday evening begins the services of Great and Holy Friday. The service of the Twelve Passion Gospels commemorates the deeply profound and solemn time of our Lord’s Crucifixion. The Holy Cross with the icon of the Crucified Christ is carried around the church in procession and placed in the center of the church.
"I give you my peace" (John 14:27)
Icon from here

On Holy Friday morning we celebrate the “Royal Hours.” At this solemn service we read various accounts and hymns concerning the crucifixion. In the afternoon we celebrate the Vesper service of the taking down of Christ’s body from the cross; commemorating the removal of Christ’s body from the cross by Joseph of Arimathea. In the evening the beautiful “Lamentations” service is celebrated. This service begins in a solemn manner, but by its end the faithful are joyously anticipating the Resurrection of Christ (remember again, that the Holy Friday evening service is actually the first service of Holy Saturday).

Holy Saturday is a day of hopeful anticipation, a commemoration of Christ’s descent into Hades to free the faithful of the Old Covenant. The morning Liturgy commemorates Christ’s victory over death. Laurel leaves – a sign of victory in the ancient world — are strewn throughout the church during the service, while the people chant “Arise O God; Judge the earth, for You shall inherit all the Gentiles.” The Old Testament story of Jonah three days in the belly of the whale is read at this service because Jonah is seen in the Church as a Type of Christ Who was three days in the tomb.
Finally, this amazing week culminates with our commemoration of the Holy and Glorious Resurrection of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. The celebration of Easter Sunday — the “Holy Pascha” as it is referred to in the Orthodox Church — begins just before midnight Saturday evening. Precisely at midnight, with all lights in the church off, the Light of Christ’s Resurrection “breaks through” when the priest takes the vigil light from the Holy Altar Table and gives it to the faithful, while singing:
“Come receive the light, that is never overtaken by night, and glorify Christ, Who is risen from the dead.”
From there the people process out of the church building, where the Gospel account of the empty tomb is read; verses from Psalm 68 are sung — “Let God arise, let his enemies be scattered; let those who hate him flee from before his face!”; and the famous Paschal hymn is joyously chanted by all: “Christ is risen from the dead, by death trampling down upon death, and to those in the tombs He has granted life.” In this way the Church announces to the entire world the glorious news of the Resurrection. The Festal Midnight Liturgy of Easter is celebrated and the faithful partake of the Eucharist in the “Light of the Resurrection.”

The spiritual striving of the Lenten season and the blessed travel through Holy Week has been accomplished, and thus the Joy of the Resurrection is inexplicably palpable for all who have participated in this grace-filled journey. In the words of Fr. Andrew Domotses, the services of Holy Week have transformed us “into eyewitnesses and direct participants in the awesome events of the Passion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.”
The worship experience of Holy Week and Pascha is so deeply profound for an Orthodox Christian, and thus it is our genuine desire to share this experience with all who might be so inclined to “Come and see!”

See also

The Orthodox Holy Week & Holy Easter (Pascha)

The Passion of Jesus Christ and the Passions of Africa...  

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