This Time Is That Time – Holy Week Thoughts

At the very heart of traditional Christian worship is an understanding of time. “This time is that time.” When the Jews gathered for Passover and recited the words given to them, they said, “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt.” Passover was not (and is not) a historical re-enactment, nor a simple memorial in which things done long ago are remembered. The key word is “we.” The events in Egypt and at the Red Sea are described as happening to us. “This time is that time.”

This same understanding runs throughout the liturgies of the Church. The Eucharist is not a memorial meal that remembers something Jesus did “back then.” Everything is present tense – this meal is that meal – that sacrifice is this sacrifice – everything is for us.

Orthodox Christians complete their Lenten Fast this weekend and enter the days of Holy Week. Very specific events are recalled: the raising of Lazarus; the entrance into Jerusalem; the tears of the harlot; the betrayal by Judas; the arrest and trial; the mocking, scourging and crucifixion of Christ; the harrowing of Hell; the resurrection from the dead. All of these are marked in the present tense. This time is that time.

The sacraments and liturgies of the Church are not meant to be exceptional. Rather, they reveal the true nature of our lives and the true nature of creation itself. Our contemporary world is dominated by an extreme historical consciousness in which time stretches out in a linear fashion. That which has passed no longer exists, except as we think about it. It has the unintended consequence of declaring that we ourselves are the only people who exist. Others are either dead and gone or do not yet exist. We are the center of all things. The inherent arrogance of such a worldview creates a cultural amnesia as well as an imaginary notion of our own power. We can create our world however we wish for there is only us.

As Christians, we affirm that it is God “in whom we live and move and have our being.” That which has existence does so only because God sustains it in existence. Only God is self-existing. For God, all times are present. And if, in Him, all times are present, then all times exist as present. That this time and that time should coincide is nothing strange. Indeed, the “fullness” of time can only be known in that manner.

Learning to listen and pray in this manner is a threshold to noetic perception – that means by which we see the truth of things and God’s work in the world. When we choose to see the world in a non-sacramental manner, with a linearity that immediately destroys everything we see, we become spiritually blind. We neither see nor hear what God is doing. Noetic perception sees things as a whole, rather than analyzing the world in separate pieces (a function of reason). The modern linear imagining of time represents a championing of reason at the expense of the fullness of human experience.

The liturgical life of the Church is not a rationalizing activity. It is a sacramental presentation of the whole universe in the presence of God. All things are there as are all times. The actions of Holy Week are not required as an exercise in historical memory. They allow us to be present to the fullness of time. We do not merely think about the events of that week – we walk in their midst and take a share in their reality. All of those things are “for our sake.” St. Paul can say, “I am crucified with Christ,” because he is utterly present to that day, just as that day is utterly present to and in him.

St. Gregory the Theologian’s First Paschal Oration is filled with this understanding:

Yesterday the Lamb was slain and the door-posts were anointed, and Egypt bewailed her Firstborn, and the Destroyer passed us over, and the Seal was dreadful and reverend, and we were walled in with the Precious Blood. Today we have clean escaped from Egypt and from Pharaoh; and there is none to hinder us from keeping a Feast to the Lord our God — the Feast of our Departure; or from celebrating that Feast, not in the old leaven of malice and wickedness, but in the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth, carrying with us nothing of ungodly and Egyptian leaven.

Yesterday I was crucified with Him; today I am glorifiedwith Him; yesterday I died with Him; today I am quickened with Him; yesterday I was buried with Him; today I rise with Him. But let us offer to Him Who suffered and rose again for us — you will think perhaps that I am going to say gold, or silver, or woven work or transparent and costly stones, the mere passing material of earth, that remains here below, and is for the most part always possessed by bad men, slaves of the world and of the Prince of the world. Let us offer ourselves, the possession most precious to God, and most fitting; let us give back to the Image what is made after the Image. Let us recognize our Dignity; let us honorour Archetype; let us know the power of the Mystery, and for what Christ died.

This is the Day of days.

 

8 comments:

  1. A wonderful reflection Father. In my Christianity before Orthodoxy I could picture God as being outside of time…but never myself. What you describe here brings all together…as present. We get glimpses of this in iconography. After harrowing hell Christ is seen pulling back to life Adam and Eve. King David is there in the background and, is it Abel also? Many others show this compressing, gathering of time into one. There is a wholeness, a seamlessness, an organic oneness in our Church which I never experienced in my previous church life. When we come, see and taste we do this with Christ and all the saints of the ages present with us, in the present. Glorious reality!

  2. For a moment I misread your one sentence as, “This is a sacramental penetration of the whole universe in the presence of God.”

    That, kind of works for me, too. I love this. This whole season is charged with the presence of God.

  3. I am thankful for this and all your posts.
    Sometimes the Destroyer does not pass over us and we are afflicted every bit as harshly as the Egyptians were. Only if we keep in mind (and heart) that the Destroyer did not pass over Jesus either, can we begin to see through the darkness to perceive, and feel, the sheer wonder of the Resurrection.

  4. Dear Father Stephen,
    Your beautiful post reminded me to reach again for one of the latest books of Fr. Zacharias from Essex. Its title is “The Eternal Today” and it looks at the feasts of the Church from the eternal perspective.
    I really love these words of the Introduction:

    “The Church commemorates the saving work of Christ, which He performed once and for all. In partaking of the Feasts, we are not simply traveling through time in our minds, but actually experiencing a foretaste of eternity here and now. As such, time takes on a new dimension, which may be called an eternal present, a gift offered to us by the Church. Here past, present and future are all lived simultaneously, through grace imparted to us in the services.
    As Christians, we enjoy the privilege and the honor to follow Christ on His journey downwards, so that we may be raised up with Him on the glorious day of His Second Coming.”

    Blessings and Love to all for the Holy Week and Pascha!

  5. Thank you, Father. This blog is a blast of sunlight onto a lot of mind-viruses embedded in the modern mind. A post-Cartesian hangover of, as you say, linear reductionism.

    This is my first Pascha as an Orthodox Christian. I’m thankful for this.

    God bless you.

  6. A blessed Holy Week to you Father Stephen…and to all your dear readers.

    Kevin Z….so glad for you! Glory to God. A very very blessed journey. Welcome home!

  7. Father Stephen, your blogs always come with an element of timing in my life. At present, I am reading “Time and Despondency: Regaining the Present in Faith and Life” by Nicole Roccas.

    Thank you for your faithfulness and your reception to the Holy Spirit as you think and write.

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