During Holy Week we will hear again the greatest of all stories, the Story that fulfills the ancient myths, the Story that in one way or another is the pattern for almost every significant human story ever told. This is the ultimate catastrophe, the death of God in this world, the destruction of all hope. This is the ultimate Happy Ending, too wonderful for us to comprehend or grasp. On Pascha night, the Apostles “disbelieved for joy”; it was too good to be true.
Thus, in preparation for the blessed days which are upon us, here is my advice on:
How to Keep Holy Week
1. Don’t miss it! Old fashioned evangelicals used to have “revivals”, a week focused on a special speaker when people came to church a lot. This is our annual Orthodox “revival” week, when people come to church a lot, but we are focused directly on our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ. As we enter into Holy Week, the key words in our Palm Sunday Epistle (Philippians 4:4-9)) are these: “Whatever is noble, whatever is just, whatever is pure, lovely, good, virtuous, praiseworthy, think on these things”. The Fathers chose this passage because what we hear, see and experience during Holy Week are the most noble, most just, most pure, lovely, good, virtuous and praiseworthy of all things. There is nothing better than to ponder Christ’s Passion, Death and Resurrection, to enter into these things and let them become part of us. This is a wonderful, life-giving, soul-renewing week. During Holy Week set your mind on higher things. Don’t waste Holy Week on television and movies and sports and computer games. The political soap opera will be still be there next week, not to mention the week after that. Live this Holy Week with the Lord and his Mother and his Apostles. Holy Week to me is always a passage, a journey. At the end of it nothing externally has changed, but in another way everything has changed. I have changed, I emerge somewhere else. This is a transformative week. It renews me every year and exhausts me too now that I’m old, but it’s worth it.
2. Stop reading this blog and go to church. Often. All Orthodox worship has a “numinous” quality about it, but especially during Holy Week. At the first Orthodox Holy Week service I attended long ago, the ruach * hung over it so heavily it was almost palpable. Most Orthodox churches offer daily services this week, many twice a day. Be there as much as you can. I know this is difficult, our modern western world being what it is. The old Orthodox world makes this easier. Not here. Not now. But do your best, especially for Palm Sunday, and the services of Christ’s life-giving Passion, Death, Burial and Resurrection at the end of the week. To me, Holy Week in church is a little preview of heaven: people I love gathered together, focused on God and good things – but in heaven we’ll have energy to keep it up more than a week.
* “Ruach” is a Hebrew word with overtones of both “glory” and “heaviness”. C.S. Lewis wrote an essay, “The Weight of Glory”.
For any who don’t know: The hymn below is sung before the Kabuklion (bier) of Christ on Holy Friday night, which is covered in flowers in thanksgiving for his life-giving death. This image is the Epitaphion which lies on the bier. Near the end of the service it is carried in procession outside the church. All follow and then re-enter the church by passing under it, thereby entering into Christ’s death. And so we all will die with Christ and emerge on the other side of death with him, still in the Church.
4. Prepare for the devil to be busy during Holy Week. I discovered long ago the hard way that if clergy or families are ever going to get on each others’ nerves it will be during Holy Week. Things in the church building tend to break or go out of order during Holy Week. (Why did the bells go out tonight, of all nights?!) Temptations come at us harder during Holy Week. (Why do I find myself thinking those thoughts this week, of all weeks?!) Big problems often arise in peoples’ lives during Holy Week which oddly go away after Pascha. Therefore I’ve learned to set myself certain rules: I will not get upset by anything during Holy Week. I will not be critical of anyone or anything during Holy Week. No negative comments, no negative thoughts. Quickly I try to put them down. I avoid dealing with issues: unless it’s life and death or the house is on fire, I sit on it till after Pascha. I advise you to do the same. There are few things that can’t wait a week, and as I say come Bright Week most of the things don’t need to be dealt with. It’s just that the devil wants to distract us this week. Ignore him. If we do this we will have a wonderful and blessed week, and by Pascha we will be a few steps closer to the Kingdom of Heaven.
5. Live this week joyfully, in the Light of the Resurrection. The Church teaches us something profound during Holy Week. We encompass this Week, almost saturate this Week with the theme of Christ’s Resurrection, of our resurrection. Our prelude to Holy Week is Lazarus Saturday, the raising of Lazarus, the prefiguring of our general resurrection at the End of the age.
Even during the darkest times of Holy Week we keep hearing of the Lord’s Resurrection. On Holy Friday when many western Christians strip the church of decorations, we bring in the flowers. At his burial service on Holy Friday night, we finish singing of how “Noble Joseph, having brought down thy pure Body from the tree and wrapped it in pure linen, embalmed it with ointment, prepared it and laid it in a new tomb”, when immediately we begin hymns of his Resurrection: “When thou didst descend to death, O Life Immortal, thou didst slay hell with the splendor of thy Godhead, and when from the depths thou didst raise the dead, all the powers of heaven cried out: ‘O Giver of Life, Christ our God, glory to thee!’”, and again, “The angel stood by the tomb and cried to the myrrhbearing women, ‘Myrrh is fitting for the dead, but Christ has shown himself free from corruption.’” Already on Holy Saturday morning we celebrate the first Divine Liturgy of the Resurrection, as if we just can’t wait for the great celebration at midnight, that glorious “explosion of joy”!
The Orthodox Church is the Church of the Resurrection. The Orthodox Church surrounds every week Sunday by Sunday, with the Resurrection. (Come to Sunday Matins if you want to hear a dozen or two Resurrection hymns each week.) As “crucial” as is the Cross of Christ, there is a reason why the Church from the beginning has celebrated Sunday, the day of the Resurrection, as our weekly holy day. Holy Week teaches us to live our lives, even the darkest times, not in morbid gloom but in hope, in the joy of the Resurrection. We are blessed to live in this new age, preceded by Christ’s Resurrection, looking forward to our promised resurrection at the End of the age, knowing that in him nothing can destroy us.