Saturday, April 14, 2012

Holy Week

   We have come to the end of Holy Week in the Orthodox Church, a week full of beauty and depth. It's also full of a lot of church services, some of them long. I admit when I first was learning about Orthodoxy, I thought is was overkill; I mean, really, going to church every day, sometimes more than once, for a week? Over the years though, I have come to see each service as a beautiful gift to us, an invitation to enter into those last days of our Lord's earthly life before His crucifixion. We don't even attempt to make it to every service that is offered, but my heart is changed and I find myself wanting to be there. From the raising of Lazarus the day before Palm Sunday, we are taken on a journey through the actions and teachings of Jesus. It is intense and sobering and lovely, every bit of it.

On Saturday we celebrated the raising of Lazarus as a promise of our own resurrection.
Sunday we remembered our Lord's Entry Into Jerusalem and prepared ourselves to walk
through the last days as He went willingly to His crucifixion .

Father Jerry gave us each a cross made of palm leaves.
In colder climates, pussy willow branches are used instead.
On Monday night we attended the Bridegroom Service. Though this service is held on three consecutive nights, we only try to make it to one. We hear the parables and stories told by Jesus in those last days, many with a theme of watchfulness.  We are exhorted to be like the wise virgins, ready to meet our Bridegroom. 
On Wednesday evening there is the service of Holy Unction, where we pray for God's healing in every area of our lives. We read many scriptures about healing, and are anointed with oil and prayers for the healing of both soul and body.

On Thursday morning there is a special liturgy commemorating the Passover Meal when Jesus instituted the new covenant with His people. In the Orthodox Church this is usually called the Mystical Supper. Afterwards our priest kneels and washes the feet of a dozen people, symbolic of the twelve disciples, and a powerful reminder of how Jesus instructed those who are to be our leaders to serve us, and also how we are to serve one another in love.

On Thursday evening is a very long and beautiful service called the Twelve Gospels. in which we hear twelve different gospel readings narrating the hours following the Mystical Supper and through the death of Christ. (Like in Judaism, the Orthodox Day begins at sundown the previous evening, which is why we remember the crucifixion Thursday night.) After the fifth reading a large icon of Christ on the cross is carried through the church. Having these visual reminders is very powerful. Icons are sometimes called "theology in color" and it is said that they are "written", not painted. In times past, when many people were illiterate, icons made the gospel accessible to all people. When the cross is brought out, a beautiful hymn is solemnly chanted:

Today is suspended on a tree He who suspended the earth upon the waters.

The King of the 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.

After each gospel is read, a candle is lit. I love how all of our senses are involved in worship.
My mom and dad kindly watched our two little ones on this evening, and it was such a blessing to be able to really focus and pay attention. It gave me great hope that in a few more years, being in church will be a lot easier! We keep our children with us, which I'm so glad for, but it's not always easy!

On Friday, we hear of Joseph of Aremethea and the faithful friends and followers of Christ taking His body down from the cross. The priest takes the icon down and all the children gather round to help wrap it in a large white sheet. We do, of course, believe that Christ died once and for all, but these actions and visuals are a powerful way of helping us, children and adults alike, enter into these events. Icons are intentionally not "realistic" because they are designed to portray spiritual realities, not merely physical ones.

This icon of Jesus' Mother, his friends and followers removing His body from the cross always moves me. When I see the man using a tool to pull out the nail holding his foot, it strikes me how real, how raw, it was.
Image from
Earlier on Friday the children also help to decorate the "tomb" with flowers.   On Friday evening we gather for a solemn service of Lamentations. The older girls wear white and throw rose petals on the tomb, representing the Myrhh Bearing women who came to anoint His body for burial. Father Jerry also sprinkles fragrant rosewater not only on the tomb, but on all of us. The feel of this service, while mournful, is also full of hope and watchful expectancy. Already we begin to hear of Christ's coming victory. Unlike the Apostles, we are not in despair. We know that the tomb is not a place of death, but that Christ keeps and fulfills the Sabbath with His body, while also plundering Hades and preparing the "Eighth Day", the New Sabbath in which death is defeated and we can cease from our works and enter into paradise.

The "tomb" is carried outside and we all follow, holding candles and singing (and trying to keep track of all the kids!) This is typical of a traditional funeral procession in eastern countries. As we re-enter the church building, the tomb is held high and we all walk under it. This is symbolic, showing that through our Lord's death we have passed from death to life. Like the Israelites passing through the Red Sea, we have been rescued from the bondage of our sins and given new life through Christ, who is our Passover.
Saturday morning is, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful services of the year.  We hear readings from the Old Testament that foretell our salvation - creation, the crossing through the Red Sea, Jonah, and the three holy youths in the fiery furnace. While we are still singing of and remembering the burial of our Lord, we know that death cannot hold him, and there is a tone of joyful expectancy. My favorite moment is when the priest walks through the church throwing bay leaves in the air, an ancient symbol of victory. The children (and adults) ring bells and we all sing "Arise, o God, and judge the earth, for You will take all nations for Your inheritance" in between pleas for God to rescue the poor and needy and the orphan. I am always moved to tears, joy mingled with a deep yearning for wrongs to be righted both in this world and in my own heart. The fragrance of bay leaves fills the air as we finish the liturgy. There is often a baptism Saturday afternoon as well. Lent was traditionally a time for catechumens to prepare for baptism and it's customary for them to be baptized on this day. 

    And now, we wait. It is a day of bright sadness, of joyful anticipation. We have walked through these days, somehow been given the grace to be present at more services than I think we are capable of. There is something powerful about observing these events and worshipping in community. The kids have left church a couple of times chanting "we love church" on the way home. (Granted, there has also been some protesting and a meltdown or two!)  I found myself once again awed by the beauty, the intensity, of this week. At one point I thought to myself "I hope I don't die this year; I would be so sad to not go through Holy Week again". Of course, we believe our worship on earth is only a shadow of what is happening in heaven, so I know I really wouldn't miss it. This week, somehow, the veil between earth and heaven seems thinner, and we taste a bit of the beauty of unceasing praise, the grace of being more focused on things above, on our Lord Jesus. 
    Clothing is ironed and hung up, desserts are baked for tomorrow's potluck. Candles are ready to take to church for the midnight Pascha service. The children are about to be bathed and fed and settled down. There is excitement in the air, and although its rarely quiet in my home, there is a quietness in my heart as we watch and wait to sing "Christ is Risen" and to celebrate His glorious resurrection! 


  1. Anonymous4:13 AM

    Oh, Rebeca! This makes me incredibly, incredibly homesick. Light a candle for us over here, would you? Thanks so much for writing this post. XO Jenn

  2. Truly He is Risen! I hope you're having a joyous and radiant Pascha! So many wonderful photos...especially the one of you and your two little ones walking under the tomb. We do the same here! ♥


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