In Holy Week Archpriest Vladimir Vorobyov, Dean of St Tikhon’s Orthodox University of the Humanities and rector of St Nicholas church in Kuznetskaya Sloboda, told our Pravmir correspondent about the meaning of what we do in church at this time, about services in Holy Week, about the spiritual exploits of the confessors and about Easter in the Soviet period.
Holy Week is a Precious Time
Holy Week services are the best services in the Church year. I do not think that anyone in general has created anything better than these Holy Week services. They are the most beautiful, the most profound, the most talented and Divinely-inspired things created by the human spirit. If these services are done with piety, if people try to take a conscious part in them, then they will take them to the reality which appeared on earth two thousand years ago and help them to take the path of Christ’s sufferings together with the Mother of God and the apostles and to encounter the Radiant Resurrection of Christ. If people strive to enter into these services, then they will be able to overcome space and time and partake of the events related in the Gospel. If you sincerely take part in these services with faith and love, you cannot but feel the whole Gospel in a new way, and realize that you are a Christian in a new way.
Moreover, like any work of art, these services act on us not only rationally, on our consciousness, but also directly, that is, on our hearts. Taking part in the services, we are conscious of something, but still more we feel, the spiritual reality which exists beyond space and time is revealed to our faith. The Sacrifice of Christ, His sufferings and His death, His Victory over the forces of evil, over death, the triumph of His Resurrection – all this belongs to the spiritual world which is beyond space and time. And through the Church services we can commune with this reality.
There is much that is mysterious, that we cannot understand with our minds. And this is natural, because the spiritual, Divine world is above us, it is not fully revealed to our minds, it is not subject to them, but is revealed to our hearts. If this happens, then it becomes a great achievement in our life. We understand only later, not immediately, that there is nothing higher in our life. And there can be nothing higher than life with Christ, than the possibility to find Christ and be with Him. This is why Holy Week is a precious time.
Of course, it is possible and it is necessary to be with Christ all the time. But it is very difficult for fallen people. Our heart is incapable of it, it feels as if it is exhausted, it cannot cleanse itself and prepare itself to be with God all the time. And here the Lord Himself takes our hearts into His hands and leads us with His mighty hand and carries out that task which we should have done ourselves but have become incapable of. The Church leads us forth on the mighty journey to Christ, to life with Christ, which is why it is much easier to come and draw near to Christ and feel that we are together with Him at Church services than when we are alone.
Classes at St Tikhon’s University are canceled during Holy Week and Bright Week so that students can devote all their time to Church services. But it is rare that work and study stop at this time. What can be done?
I can talk about this from experience: in the Soviet period I spared no effort to get off work at this time and usually I succeeded. You need to arrange things any way you can, ask someone to cover for you in order to attend at least the most important services. I see that nowadays people do the same: they try to arrange to get off work beforehand so they can attend services. I think that if you cannot, you miss out on a lot. Of course, it is impossible for everyone to quit working at the same time and go to church, so that everything stops. But there are many who do not strive to do this, who do not go to church and do not believe. There is always a realistic possibility to find cover so that you can attend.
The circumstances of our life are such that we cannot take part in all the Church services. At St Nicholas church in Kuznetskaya Sloboda we try to serve twice a day, we repeat the greatest services twice so that every family member can cover for each other so they can take part in what are not so much services as events.
Each day in Holy Week is not only the Gospel narrative of these days, but also the path to the suffering which happened on Calvary. Our very journey through the days of Holy Week resembles the path to the Passion which our Lord Himself took. Now we see how Our Lord came to Jerusalem, then left and came back again, giving His last teachings to the people and the disciples. The services make us companions of Christ, His audience. We recall Holy Thursday, Holy Friday, Great and Holy Saturday…It seems to me that all comments are superfluous and even impossible. This is so much higher than words, that, as we sing in the service, “every mind is at a loss for words”. It is better to go to church and take part in it yourself.
It is very important that these services be celebrated without haste, so that people can understand everything and feel it in their hearts, so that as we take part together in Christ’s sufferings, the whole community, people and clergy, are united, that all this is a common journey with Christ.
The texts of the Church services say that by His sufferings Christ delivered us from sufferings. How did this happen?
This means that through His sufferings on the Cross, Christ delivered us from eternal sufferings, opening the way to salvation, to the Kingdom of God, and delivered us from everlasting torment. But this means that we must take the way of the Cross together with Christ.
Does this mean then that suffering on earth is inevitable?
Of course it is, because man with his proud will has himself chosen the way which led him away from God. This is called the Fall. When he chose his way without God, he lost his immortality and purity, his nature became fallen, stricken with sin and death. Man is born with the root of sin in his soul. This root soon produces evil shoots – the passions. Man is a real prisoner of these passions, of sin. If a man is not saved, he will die, because he is unable to save himself. This is why Our Lord Jesus Christ comes, He Who alone can save man – there are no other ways to salvation. Jesus Christ, being God, became a man and took on human nature in order to vanquish death in that nature. The nature taken on by the Lord was not fallen. He did not sin as a man. But He took on all the consequences of sin, sickness, suffering and death, in order to conquer them. It is impossible to explain this mystery in full, it is beyond human understanding, but this mystery is revealed to the human heart, we know the love of Christ through our own love.
How can contemporary man learn to think about death, his own, that of his relatives, or Christ’s? Can taking part in Holy Week services help us in this, as a taking part together in the death of Christ?
Certainly, these services can teach us to think about death, simply because they lead us away from earthly experience to another, heavenly reality. They take us to a spiritual level, to see life in another dimension – not only in its earthly dimension, but what is much more important – in a spiritual dimension too.
Young people seldom think about death because the human soul knows about its own immortality, because death goes so much against this innate knowledge of every soul, of every immortal spirit, that it is difficult to perceive death. Children often feel shocked when they hear about the death of relatives; a child does not understand what this is because he knows eternal life. But mortality takes its toll: as the years go by there come old age, suffering and sickness. We feel more clearly the fallen state of human nature. Then we cannot help thinking about death. Older people who have had their fill of sorrow in life and are approaching the end sense the weakness of human nature, the finiteness of earthly life and they muse on death.
The inevitability of death does not plunge the believer into despair
Man’s eternal life depends on how his spiritual life has unfolded on earth. If he remains in servitude to sin, then he gradually falls into despair, as sin ever more takes him over, shackles him, oppresses him and, eventually, suffocates him in his shackles. In Russia today we have so many suicides precisely because people fall into despair. If people try to live with God, seeking spiritual life, then the fallen state of his nature, the mortality of fallen man, enters into conflict with the spiritual knowledge of eternal life.
Of course the believer cannot totally ignore death, but he is no longer afraid of it, because he believes that death is not death forever, not a fatal disappearance, but a moment, maybe a difficult one, of being born into the life of the world to come. It is as if a baby in his mother’s womb knew that he will go through pain during birth, but then a new life will start. The believer receives such information about the life of the age to come at Easter. He stops fearing, and the inevitability of death does not plunge him into despair. Sometimes he even wants death to come closer, as the Apostle Paul said: For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain (Phil.1:21).
You have spoken about death in a rather abstract way, as if it were something far away, but what should we be thinking about at a service in Holy Week or when we face death?
Fr Eustathius, the priest who baptized me, told me about his arrest before the War. At one point he was summoned with his belongings and taken somewhere along many long corridors… He was sure he was going to face the firing squad. And he felt…a wonderful joy! He felt such spiritual joy because he was going to meet Christ. He was going to Christ perfectly consciously and was not afraid of anything. Later it turned out not to be the firing squad. When he realized this, he felt so aggrieved and remembered that moment all his life. I think that God helps His martyrs and righteous to take this path to death through their faith in His Resurrection.
“If you pray to God, you do not feel pain”
Did Fr Paul (Troitsky) tell you of such an experience?
It seems that Fr Paul went through all the circles of hell many times. He was probably tortured, because once he wrote: “If you pray to God, you do not feel pain”. Later at the end of his life he always wrote about death, that it was desired by him: “I want to go home”.
These are the words that Fr Daniel Sysoev said before death.
Maybe these words are similar.
What were the services in Holy Week and Bright Week like in the Soviet period? Did they forbid services in Holy Week?
No, the atheist authorities did not forbid people to go to church in Holy Week. The Soviet government knew that most people would try to get to church at Easter and it was then that they tried to stop them. They did not bother about Holy Week and Bright Week and the churches were always full of people on those days.
Does your attitude to these services in Soviet times when you could suffer for Christ differ from that today?
I lived at a time when there was no real danger of suffering for Christ, of going to jail, and therefore I cannot speak about this from my own experience, I can only imagine what it was like. Certainly the atmosphere in church was different from now. Paid choirs sang in church, people were not allowed to sing themselves or it was very difficult and only a few were allowed to do so.
There were very few clergy and they were terribly overworked. Priests were very tired on those days, they were tormented, literally falling over with tiredness by the end of the day. It was virtually impossible to speak to a priest. Now you can easily talk to a priest about anything you want, but it was not like that then. Now we have communities, but in the Soviet period it was virtually impossible to have communities: only in exceptional cases, inside parishes, were there small catacomb communities. Normal community life was impossible – there was the parish. And the parish was huge numbers of people, who did not know each other, did not greet each other and at church services were jam packed together. It was really tormenting to attend such services; it was stuffy and overcrowded in church, everybody pushed and jostled, it was hard to breathe. That is why the service was often shortened, paid choirs did not sing as the faithful could have.
Translated from Russian by Elena Demidova
Edited by Fr. Andrew Phillips