Brothers and Sisters in Christ, Lent is over and the prize of Pascha now lies plainly in sight just beyond the finish line! Nothing can stop us now from claiming the prize if we do not stumble in carelessness, or become distracted, or simply quit. Band together for this final push. Ignore the distractions, lay aside all problems, and avoid all temptations that compete for your love. Over the next week, there is simply no room in our hearts for anything other than death and resurrection in Christ.
If you have persevered well in the fast, guard your heart and mind from pride lest you fall so late in the race! Remember, “It is not what goes into the mouth but what comes out of the heart that defiles a man” (Matt. 15:11). If you have stumbled and risen repeatedly during Lent, don’t despair, keep on getting up! To stumble is human; to rise up again is divine. “He who endures to the end will be saved” (Matt. 10:22). If you have not even begun to fast, start today! Keep the remaining fasting days strictly and attend the services of this weekend, Holy Week, and Pascha. The joy of the Resurrection can still be yours! “For the Lord is gracious and receives the last even as the first” (Paschal homily of St. John Chrysostom). For the next week, let prayerful words always be on our heart and lips as we go about our secular obligations: “O Lord, grant me the joy of Your Resurrection . . . O Lord, let me die and rise with You . . . O Lord I believe, help my unbelief!”
May the words of St. Paul be our words, burning with desire and love for the risen Christ in our hearts, in our minds, on our lips, saying: “I want to know Christ and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in His sufferings, becoming like Him in His death and, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead. Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.
“Join with others in following my example, brothers, and take note of those who live according to the pattern we gave you. For, as I have often told you before and now say again, even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven.” (Philippians 3:10–21)
In our annual liturgical cycle, this week following the Sunday of St. Mary of Egypt is called Palm Week. For beginning on Tuesday, the hymns and verses of this week’s services recall that Lazarus, “the friend of Christ,” died and is going to be raised. On Friday evening, the eve of the celebration of the resurrection of Lazarus, the forty days of Great Lent officially end. Lent is over! Only Holy Week and Glorious Pascha remain. We’re almost there! And this weekend’s foreshadowing of the Resurrection and glorious reign of Christ the King prepares us for Holy Week by giving us a taste of the Resurrection before calling us to enter into the week of His passion and crucifixion.
“Lazarus Saturday is a paschal celebration. It is the only time in the entire Church Year that the Resurrectional service of Sunday is celebrated on another day. At the liturgy of Lazarus Saturday, the Church glorifies Christ as ‘the Resurrection and the Life’ who, by raising Lazarus, has confirmed the universal resurrection of mankind even before His own suffering and death.” (Hopko, Orthodox Worship) Throughout the Lazarus Saturday/Palm Sunday weekend, the hymns continue to glorify Christ’s triumphant manifestation six days before the Passover, when He will give himself at the Last Supper and on the Cross for the life of the world.
As we faithful Orthodox Christians carry our branches and sing our songs to the Lord on Palm Sunday, we enter into the same opportunity for freedom or judgment as did the Jews 2000 years ago. For it was the very same voices that cried “Hosanna!” to Christ, that, a few days later, cried “Crucify Him!” And we do not want to make the same mistake, whether during this week or in the course of our lives. Therefore, over this weekend, we are called to recommit our lives in Christ and renew our baptismal vows in our hearts. For if our praises of Hosanna lack sincerity or perseverance, we may find ourselves among those who cry, “Crucify Him!” in the end.
The majority of this journey is over! The finish line of the marathon is in sight! A crown of victory awaits us all! Let us press onward now, not holding back. We rest in the grace of the Resurrection this weekend and then strive vigorously through Holy Week. It is almost time to use the reserve energy that we have wisely guarded for the final push. Let us hail Christ with the branches of victory and enter together with Him into the days of His voluntary passion, purifying ourselves by participation in His suffering, bearing our own crosses, and thereby entering equally into the eternal glory of His Resurrection.
God is with us!