Holy Week: the best of times, the strangest of times


Dang it. I’d done it again. I vowed not to, I told myself I’d be smarter this year. But alas… it seems I’m doomed every Holy Monday evening to the same fate.

Namely, the fate of slipping quietly into Church and opening my prayer book (smartphone app) to the Bridegroom Matins of Holy Monday. And not realizing until a good half-hour later that I’m on the wrong page, indeed on the entirely wrong day. The Bridegroom Matins of Holy  Monday were last night.

It’s hard enough to remember that during Holy Week, matins are served in the evening. When you factor in that they are served on the preceding evening of the following day, I just get lost in the shuffle (1).

Once upon a time, there was probably a pragmatic reason for this liturgical topsy-turvy–maybe it had something to do with the tendency in monasteries to bunch certain services together.  Or maybe it was a move to allow working families to attend Holy Week services. Whatever practical purposes attend this shift, I’m Orthodox: give me a random event and I will find a Christological metaphor buried in it. And so, I choose to see in this little shift an annual jolt an initiation into this new time zone of Holy Week.

I think we can all agree: time is different during Holy Week than the rest of the year. Whether it’s the disruption of our daily routine with all the services, the flip-flopping times matins and presanctified liturgies I’ve already alluded to, or the “Royal Hours” of Holy Friday–short services set according to timekeeping norms of late antiquity. Or maybe it’s just the way time seems to pass differently during Holy Week. In these long days–and even longer, service-laden evenings–time feels both long and short and slow and fast. The optics of time keep changing–one moment, we are looking back on the passion as a past event, the next as a present, now-happening reality  (“Today He who hung the earth upon the waters is hung on the tree,” 15th Antiphon of Holy Friday), and sometimes even as a future-oriented, eschatological reality. Whatever the case, in all of this, the time and eternity of the resurrection become fused, like an optical illusion with two images in one–every now and then, the second image pops out at us through the haze of the first and we see, if ever so briefly.


Image result for optical illusion lady
In all of this, the time and eternity of the resurrection become fused, like an optical illusion with two images in one–every now and then, the image of eternity pops out at us through the haze of material reality and we truly begin to see.


This is the beautiful thing about Holy Week, but it can also be dizzying, like staring upward through a tall spiral staircase. We are not used to all this eternity at once. I don’t know how to avoid the dizziness except to go with it, to allow some of our normal temporal reference points to fade into the background for a while and just stand there, eternity-vertigo and resurrection and all. And sometimes the eternity-vertigo feels like impatience and fatigue, it feels like waiting, like in the Garden of Gethsemane. And in these things, too, I just try to go with time. To stop trying to force it or move it and just let it carry me closer to the resurrection.

It won’t always be like this. We won’t always be this exhausted or this near to reality–Holy Week doesn’t and can’t last forever. And maybe it shouldn’t; Christ, after all, wouldn’t let his disciples build shelters on Mt. Tabor. But times like this teach us and remind us of the substance of reality. They remind us that our most immediate concerns and perceptions prevent us from seeing the second image earthly reality is fused to: God in us, the presence of Christ among us, the resurrection gathering all things together. They teach us to be vigilant and waiting, yet present. They teach us to not loose ourselves in the shuffle of carelessness.

And Lord, grant that in all of this learning and waiting, that maybe years from now–when the Bridegroom finally does come–I will have found the right page, the right day, the right time. And then I shall see.


(1) During Holy Week, we usher in the following day with Matins–ordinarily a morning service, this week matins slides back to the preceding evening, marking the liturgical beginning of the next day. Thus, the Matins of Holy Monday (which would ordinarily take place Monday morning) is served on the evening of Palm Sunday.


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