This past weekend, Orthodox Churches began the observation of Holy Week. The services are long and plentiful. In my parish, from Lazarus Saturday to Pascha, there will be somewhere on the order of 40 hours of services. It is a large parish effort. Most of the services have the participation of the full choir. Last night, I had the anxious face of a young server in the altar who politely wanted to know ‘how much longer.’ He seemed particularly alarmed when I asked him if he had school tomorrow. It is a great labor, and the many hours of services only represent the most visible part of the week. So much else takes place elsewhere – in our homes and in private.
Why all the effort?
Given the significance of what is remembered in the services of Holy Week, Christ’s suffering, betrayal, death and resurrection, the work would be justified if it were merely a memorial. Although, as memorials go, 40 hours over the course of a week would seem extreme to most. No doubt, were memory alone the heart of the matter, Holy Week would have dwindled over the centuries rather than grown. Holy Week is only the most intense example of something that occurs with every service of the Church and is the heart of the liturgical life: it is a participation in the mystery of Christ Himself.
For the modern mind, history is something that is past. As such, it is inaccessible, except through some exercise of the memory. And, of course, we are always certain that our memory of the past is flawed. The larger part of our modern memorials is sentiment, an expression or feeling for something that once had importance and that seems worth remembering. It is this empty approach to history that weakens its place in our lives. Modern memorials continue only long enough to produce a desired set of feelings. A bit of music, perhaps a little drama, special clothes and Easter is done.
I shuddered recently as I watched a trailer for the new movie on the life of St. Paul. Luke (the author of the gospel and the book of Acts) is gushing about the importance of St. Paul and (in modern fashion) speaks about Paul “changing the world.” Whatever is of value in the work of St. Paul, changing the world is not part of it. He would never have thought such a thing. The “world” had no place in St. Paul’s scope of work. The “change” was already complete. That change is the Kingdom of God, full and complete, inaugurated into this world by the death and resurrection of Christ. In the face of the Kingdom of God, this “world” and its “history” are powerless and empty.
The liturgical life of the Church does not place any particular value on “history” as the modern world understands it. Rather, it is the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God, tabernacling within “history,” that is the focus of our attention. The Kingdom of God is always “present” and never “past.” It is eternal, transcending space and time, even as it fills space and time with its presence.
This is the key to the liturgical life and the very heart of Holy Week. The Church’s liturgical actions are never memorials. They are a mystical participation in the ever-present reality of the events that they celebrate. In Holy Week, we are raised with Lazarus. We greet Christ with palms. We endure the cleansing of the Temple. With the Harlot, we bathe His feet with our tears. We partake of His Body and Blood. We betray Him and deny Him. We judge Him and condemn Him. In Him we are also betrayed and denied, judged and condemned. With Him we are mocked and scourged. We crucify Him and are crucified with Him. With the thief we find paradise in a single moment. We grieve with Mary and John and bury Christ’s most pure body alongside Joseph of Arimathea. We bury Him and are buried with Him. We descend into Hades and take our place with Adam and all those who through the ages have been imprisoned in death. We are raised from the dead with Christ as He takes captivity captive.
All of this is participation and coinherence. Just as the Kingdom of God enters history and gathers us into itself, so in our liturgical celebration, the very same Kingdom of God enters our lives and gathers us into itself. We do not remember a past event: we accept and enter the eternal reality that was made known and revealed in those events. The gospel is not a record of what has happened and is now past – finding value only in its “change of history” (as if history holds some privileged position). In the words of St. Luke, the gospel is a “narrative of those things that have been fulfilled among us” (Lk. 1:1). Those things that “have been fulfilled” remain and abide as eternal realities. They are accessible and capable of participation. In this sense, Christianity is not a “historical” faith: it is the on-going participation in the Kingdom of God that has entered into history.
The very heart of the faith is found in our present moment participation in the Kingdom. In this participation, we are “fulfilled.” Our lives become bearers of the Kingdom, no longer bound to this world. This is the inner reality that yields the fruit of a new life. The new life in Christ is not an improved version of our historical existence. St. Paul describes it as a “new creation.” It is a revealing of a new reality. The resurrection is not the improvement of a corpse: it represents the marriage of heaven and earth.
Our long services are filled with Scripture (especially the Psalms), punctuated by the various hymns that form both praise as well as a mystical commentary on the events themselves. The Psalms hold a unique place. For the Church, they are not a mere collection of ancient poetry encrusted with obscurity. The Psalms are the voice of Christ Himself. As we offer them in the Church, Christ stands in our midst and prays. Our voice becomes His voice.
It is a great gift of grace that our merely human actions become the actual embodiment of the Kingdom of God. This is revealed particularly in the sacraments. In Holy Baptism, St. Paul says we are “baptized into the death of Christ.” He does not say that we do this to remember Christ’s death. It is an actual and true union with the death of Christ. The same is true of the Eucharist:
The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion [participation, κοινωνία] of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? (1 Cor. 10:16)
Our liturgical actions all have this character about them. They gain their meaning and value through their direct participation in the very things they celebrate. Holy Week is that Holy Week.
I was once asked why we spend so many hours in the services of the Church. My answer was simple: “Because we can.” Every Divine Liturgy is Holy Week compressed into the space of a few hours. Once a year, our celebration is extended and takes the form of multiple services. The compression is relieved and our participation is extended over days and hours.
Year after year, the faithful look ahead to these days. It is a labor of love, a reaching out towards that which has come into our midst. Our actions echo the words of St. Paul:
…but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me. (Phil. 3:12)
God give us grace!