Holy Week has long been my favorite time of year. I remember coming to it rather slowly in my college years. My wife and I were active Episcopalians at the time (while in college we volunteered to be in charge of the junior youth group – some 60 teenagers – that qualifies as being “active”). For whatever reasons I had never paid much attention to Holy Week before. There was Palm Sunday and then there was Easter – Holy Week consisted of two interesting Sundays.
But in my first year of marriage, I recall going to a Maundy Thursday service (“Holy Thursday” in Orthodox parlance). The ritual action of stripping the sanctuary was deeply moving – and I remember hearing – really hearing for the first time the phrase in the Communion Service, “in the night in which He was betrayed…” It stayed with me for quite some time and left an impression that I had been missing a lot by not participating in the extra services of Holy Week.
In seminary years I served in a parish that had a very complete Anglo-Catholic Holy Week, and I continued that pattern throughout the years of my Anglican priesthood. I would not have thought at the time that much more could be done than I was doing. But such was my ignorance of Orthodox liturgical tradition.
Our Orthodox community, following the pattern of services that was handed down to us, has a pretty hefty set of Holy Week services – enough that I tend to think a lot about the physical exhaustion involved in worship. It is not unusual for a service to last three and one-half hours (Lazarus Saturday’s service was about that long), which does not include the hour-and-a-half of preparation time that I put in before the service began (it’s almost impossible to get to Church before a service begins in Orthodoxy – there’s always some sort of service before the one you’re going to).
There will not be a morning or an evening without a service until we finally reach Pascha itself – exhausted with joy.
Throughout the week there will be verses from a hymn or some other small phrase that I’ll not have noticed before – that – like my Maundy Thursday experience of years ago – will redefine the day or take me somewhere I have not been before.
But foremost, it seems to me, is the effort itself. I think of St. Paul’s statement in Philippians:
Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own, based on law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith; that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brethren, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.
St. Paul seems to have lived his life in a perpetual Holy Week – pressing forward – pushing past exhaustion – and reaching for Christ in a Pascha that reaches back and captures the soul for God. Nothing to be earned, but everything to be gained.
Photo: Modern Coptic icon, painted by the nuns of Saint Demiana Monastery, Egypt. Source: Saint Takla Church