[NPR, “All Things Considered,” April 14, 1998]
Holy Week is 501 pages long. My husband’s Greek-English prayerbook begins with Palm Sunday evening, but the week actually starts the day before, Lazarus Saturday, when we commemorate the raising of Jesus’s friend as a foreshadowing of Pascha. Some churches anticipate Lazarus Saturday with a service Friday evening. That’s the Orthodox way: can we add a few more icing roses to the top of this cake?
On Palm Sunday we step outside the building and circle around it, bearing our palms. Since we’re usually a week or more behind the Western calendar, it looks like a whole churchload of people forgot to set their watches back. The street where we rent worship space has a shabby face: old, narrow frame houses lean together, some wearing a decades-old wrapper of brick-pattern tarpaper. There are several churches, mostly small non-denominationals, and one massive Roman Catholic church. There’s a bar and a liquor store. We walk around the building singing the ancient hymn, “Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us.” No one looks out their windows.
Wednesday evening is the annual service of Holy Unction, during which we hear seven epistles, seven gospels, and seven prayers over oil mixed with rosewater, before being anointed for healing. Thursday night we hear 12 readings from the Gospels, kneeling each time, in a service which takes about three hours. After the fifth reading the priest nails the icon of Jesus’ s body to the cross, and many weep loudly. Friday night we have Vespers and Lamentations, and Saturday a Divine Liturgy to commemorate Jesus’ descent to Hades. All in all, from Palm Sunday to Easter (or Pascha) we have a total of eleven services, some lasting more than three hours.
As we stand together Friday for the third long night in a row, we are weary, and hungry from fasting, and have been weeping and singing together for a long time. We have had time enough to drink deeply of the Passion mystery. The Friday hymns begin to hint at coming joy, like crocuses through the snow. But there’s no rushing it. The stillness is luxurious; the waiting is delicious.
Late that night several men lift onto their shoulders a funeral bier bearing an icon of the dead Christ, in a profusion of flowers. We circle the exterior of the church slowly, my husband and our altar-boy sons with incense in front, then the bier, then the choir and congregation following with our lighted tapers. We sing “Holy God, Holy Mighty” as we go. It is the funeral procession of God.
As we come back around to the front, we pass a man sitting on the broken-brick sidewalk, talking on the pay phone. The procession moves solemnly by him, priest and altar boys in vestments, incense, a flower-decked bier, fifty people holding lighted candles and singing a dirge-like hymn. The man looks surprised. He keeps talking into the phone, but his eyes are wide and wary.