‘The present day shines brightly on the beginning of the Lord’s Passion. Come then, lovers of feasts, and let us welcome it with songs…’ (sessional hymn, Mattins, Great Monday).
We have arrived, my beloved friends, at the saving Passion of our Lord, Jesus Christ. This week is called ‘Great’, because in 168 hours, from today until the night of the Resurrection, we honor great events, of unique importance for the history of the world. They shook the heavens, the earth and the underworld. This is why this week is called ‘Great’ and why it shouldn’t be allowed to pass like any other.
I ask the question: what are the responsibilities of a Christian during Great Week? I’m not addressing unbelievers, atheists or millennialists: I’m talking about believers who wish to celebrate properly. What duties do we have in this week?
Our first duty, my brothers and sisters, is to thank our Lord Jesus Christ from our heart. Of course, the whole of our life should be a ‘Thank you’, a ‘Glory to you, Lord’, for his benefactions great and small, obvious and unseen; for all the good things, material and spiritual which his grace has provided in abundance: the sun, the wind, water, flowers, the seaside, and all the things he has formed. We should also thank him for our parents and our kin, our spouse and children, the time and the seasons, for everything blessed and necessary.
Ungrateful people are worse than animals. If you have a dog and you toss it a piece of bread, it’ll wag its tail to say thank you. People should be grateful to God. We should thank him for everything, but most of all for the sacrifice of his son, for his holy Passion. We should also thank him for something else. For his endless patience with our many crimes and especially our curses, for which the earth should open and swallow us and the sea billow and drown us. And yet he puts up with us. This is why, on Great Friday, the Church says ‘Glory to your patience, Lord, glory to you’.
So one duty is to thank God. Another is to attend the services. The services in Great Week aren’t like the others, they’ve very different. The hymns, which are sweeter than honey, the inspired poetry, such as the lamentations at the tomb, aren’t to be found in any other religion in the world. The troparia alone, which neither the Latins, the Protestants nor anyone else have, are enough to prove that our Church is not of this world. It’s from heaven and is inspired by God. Who did this? Were they written in schools and universities? No, they were written in caves by holy ascetics, whose tears fell upon the earth and brought forth flowers. They didn’t write them with their brains and the letters they knew; they are the blood of the heart, sound emotion, an expression of life, sacred experiences, truths which only those who genuinely love Christ are able to have. You’d have to be very insensitive not to be moved. So let’s go to church and follow the services.
Our third duty. This week is one of strict fasting. Don’t listen to the impious and the materialists. We observe the tradition of the apostles and the fathers of Orthodoxy as regards the fasts of the Church, most especially this particular fast. When we say ‘fast’, we don’t mean that the stomach fasts, in order to remind us of the gall of the Cross. We mean that, as well as the stomach, the mouth has to fast from calumny, the tongue from obscenities, the eyes from disgusting sights. In Byzantium at this time, the emperors would sign a decree: on Great Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, the race-courses and all theaters were to be closed. If we lived in an Orthodox Christian state, this week the nightclubs and dens of iniquity would be closed in mourning for him who was raised on the Cross for our sake.
And we have another duty, that of confession and holy communion. I shan’t enlarge on this. I shall say only this: on these holy days, particularly on the night of the Resurrection, we’re called upon to remain in church until the end of the service, with our resurrection candle. If all you do is hear ‘Christ has risen’ and then leave, you’d do better to stay at home. When churches empty after ‘Christ has risen’, it’s profanity, it’s contempt for Christ. We should stay till the end and should be prepared for communion. What is holy communion? The body and blood of our Lord, fire from heaven. I ask you: what are you? Straw? If you are, don’t approach the holy things, because you’ll be burned. Gold? Gold isn’t threatened by fire. The closer it gets, the more it’s purified. So it is with you, Christians. If you’re unrepentant, the fire will burn you, as it burned Judas who partook unworthily. But if you’ve passed through the furnace of confession, then approach. Holy communion is the medicine of immortality.
In Great Week we also have a sacred duty towards our brothers and sisters who suffer and are in pain. It’s a week of love and alms-giving. A good meal for someone who’s starving hungry, a new piece of clothing- not old- to someone who doesn’t have, help to widows and orphans, some necessary medication, a visit to the sick, a word of comfort to someone who’s sad. Anything that a loving heart can think of.
But that’s nothing. There’s something more, and the most difficult thing of all. Everything I’ve said, do, but if you don’t do this last one, you aren’t a Christian. What is it? I know Christians who are prayerful people, who listen with rapt attention to holy words, who fast strictly, who go to confession, who take communion. But I know few Christians who have – what? ‘Let us forgive all things at the Resurrection’ (doxastiko, Lauds, Easter). Great Week is the week of forgiveness. In this life, who doesn’t have antipathies, coldness, contrariness, some enemy of a sort? During these holy days, let’s gaze upon Christ crucified. Nobody was wronged and hurt so much as Christ. Though they tore his flesh with nails, his heart with curses and anathemas from the Pharisees, on the Cross he prayed: ‘Father, forgive them; they know not what they do’ (Luke 23, 34). So let us also forgive each other: brides and mothers-in-law, siblings and siblings, friends and friends, children and parents, everyone without exception. Let’s open our hearts, let’s feel within us the love of Christ. Without love, how can we celebrate?
My brothers and sisters, Great Week is the same as a hand open for alms, eyes weeping with repentance, feet running to church, a heart reconciled, full of worship for Christ crucified. Are we performing these duties?
Do you know what we’re like? Like a beggar who gets given small change all the time and then one day a king comes by who says: ‘Open your hands’ and starts giving him 1, 2, 3… 5… 10… 100… 168 gold pieces, so that he’s blinded by them. And instead of making use of this treasure, the beggar goes to the river and starts to throw the coins into the water. Isn’t that deranged? And these hours- the Church calls them ‘hours’- are a treasure. Each hour, each peal of the bell, each stroke, each minute is an important hour.
Let’s make good use of these holy days. Don’t let them pass as the rest of life does. Do we know whether we’ll live to celebrate another Great Week? This Great Week may the last we see in this life. Last year, how many were with us? And where are they now? We leave, the train whistle blows and we pass by this place only once.
I pray that this Great Week will be an important stage in our life May the Lord grant that it be a week of holy thoughts, sacred sentiments, heroic decisions and sanctification of the soul. May we seal Holy Week with the words ‘Remember me, Lord, when you come in your kingdom’ (Luke 23, 42).