Category Archives: Holy Week

Candles and flowers for Pascha.

Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death,
and upon those in the tombs bestowing Life!

The last several days have been kind of a blur. We Orthodox were “in Jerusalem,” our rector kept reminding us, following Christ step by step from the day He was acclaimed and lauded with hosannas, on through His last meal with those men closest to him, His prayer in Gethsemane, betrayal by Judas, a farce of a trial… and on to the cross on which He offered Himself for our sakes. Every day of Holy Week we had at least two holy and liturgically rich services, sometimes three.

This year I was able to participate in these beautiful and moving services more than ever before, and to feel the continuity of them, at the same time seeing afresh how each is unique. This was the first time I thought, after Vespers on Holy Friday, “Oh, I must try to come tonight again, for Matins of Holy Saturday, because there will be the reading from Ezekiel about the dry bones, which in the whole year I can only hear tonight.” And stronger still was the need to be with family whose Beloved was suffering; how could I think of resting at that point?

But we did all occasionally have to go home for sleep or to eat a bite and many people of course must work or attend school. So between my car and my front door I would take a picture, and when I went out in back between rain showers to get some more firewood I took some more. I am in love with the new fig leaves and miniature knobs of fruits.

Saturday we gathered at 11:30, under clear skies; at midnight we streamed slowly out of the church with singing, and came back to the porch to hear, “He is risen! Why seek ye the living among the dead? Christ is a stranger to corruption!” I took some pictures that are blurry, but I guess that’s appropriate. I was so sleepy, my mind was a bit foggy, too, in a happy daze.

Children slept in a jumble of blankets on the floor, or played with the melting beeswax of their candles. Adults like me are often seen playing with their candles, too! Before the service started I sat on a bench along the wall and kept putting my unlit candle to my nose to drink the heady honey scent.

I had an extra friend from church stay here for a few days to reduce her driving time. She brought me pale pink tulips, so lovely. And Trader Joe’s had stock in other perfectly Paschal-Spring colors, from which I made my first stock bouquet ever. In the garden are dozens of calla lilies that I will bring in tomorrow.

We returned for Paschal Vespers on Sunday afternoon (So strange to sleep, and then eat breakfast on a Sunday morning!) and then a BBQ and picnic. And this morning the radiant Bright Monday service, processing with decorated Artos bread. The weather has been perfect for the last two or three days, but more rain is coming. What a blessing all that rain is; and I’m glad I don’t live where it snows at this time. But even there, it would be springtime in our hearts.

By Thy Cross, Thou didst destroy the curse of the tree.
By Thy burial Thou didst slay the dominion of death.
By Thy uprising, Thou didst enlighten the race of man.
O Benefactor, Christ our God, glory to Thee!

Roused out of dreams.

This morning I attended the lovely Bridegroom Matins of Holy Week, cherished because it uniquely expresses the “bright sadness” of our preparations for the joy and victory of Pascha. In my parish we are able to hold these penitential services early in the morning, at a time when people might be able to attend before going to work. Even on my drive to church I felt the grace of the clear sky, a pre-dawn blue, with a friendly gibbous moon shining down on me.

 

 

Eight years ago after attending this very service I wrote a blog post about laziness, standing up straight, and what it means to be human. Whew! I feel a bit lazier of mind these days, so that I am amazed at all I learned from Lazy Tommy Pumpkinhead and from just one chapter of Leon Kass’s book The Hungry Soul. I do often still remember the gist of the lesson, mostly when I am standing in church. If you don’t remember it well, I urge you to read it.

The article focuses on being physically upright, which helps us to be alert and attentive, ultimately to God and His will. It’s not hard to get distracted even in church, but at least we have in the Orthodox services many things to bring us back; for me it’s often necessary every minute or two, as I might simultaneously remember to put my shoulders back again and fix my gaze toward the altar. And especially during this week when we follow Christ to His voluntary sacrifice, our reverent attentiveness is facilitated by prostrating ourselves before God, which, though it is not upright posture, is the opposite of reclining in bed or watching whatever’s on TV.

When we are not in church, our Enemy probably has an easier time helping us to slouch away from Life, his methods so vividly portrayed in C.S. Lewis’s tale of correspondence between devils:

“You no longer need a good book, which he really likes, to keep [your target] from his prayers or his work or his sleep; a column of advertisements in yesterday’s paper will do…. You can keep him up late at night, not roistering, but staring at a dead fire in a cold room. All the healthy and outgoing activities which we want him to avoid can be inhibited and nothing given in return, so that at last he may say… ‘I now see that I spent most of my life in doing neither what I ought nor what I liked.’”

One theme of Holy Week comes from Christ’s cursing of the barren fig tree, in the days just preceding his crucifixion. We exhort our own souls in the hymns of Bridegroom Matins:

Why art thou idle, my wretched soul?
What useless cares cause thee to be lost in dreams?
Why busy thyself with things that pass away?
The last hour is at hand, and we shall be parted from all earthly things.
Therefore, while there is time, rouse thyself and cry:
“I have sinned before Thee, O my Savior!
Do not cut me off like the barren fig tree!”
In Thy compassion, O Christ, take pity on me who call out in fear:
Let us not remain outside the bridal chamber of Christ!”

Busying myself “with things that pass away”… yes… I mean, No! I don’t want to do that. Lord, help me to rouse myself!

After the service — I’ve also done this before and made a blog post out of it! — I walked around the church gardens and took pictures, with which I decorated this page. Wherever you are in your liturgical cycle or in your heart’s journey, I pray that your souls may flower and bear fruit after the manner of these beautiful blooms.

The hours of the ultimate hour.

In 2018 Orthodox Easter, Pascha, falls on April 8th, a week later than Easter in the West. So today is our remembrance of Christ’s Entrance into Jerusalem, Palm Sunday. Saturday evening I am writing after attending our Vigil service for the feast, where  toward the end of the service we were given palm branches to hold, to take home and bring back tomorrow morning and hold them all through Divine Liturgy.

This morning, on the feast of Lazarus Saturday, another feast of victory, five catechumens were baptized and received into the church. The scent of holy chrism drifted over to me as they were being anointed in chrismation and I began to weep.

All week the Newly Illumined will wear their white robes to services. I caught a picture of one of them receiving a hug. What a gloriously happy day for us all!

You can see how even before palms were given into hands, the cathedral was fully decorated with them. Blooms are opening to decorate the church gardens about now as well.

I wanted to share an excerpt from a pamphlet on Holy Week by Fr. Alexander Schmemann:

But as in Lazarus we have recognized the image of each man, in this one city we acknowledge the mystical center of the world and indeed of the whole creation. For such is the biblical meaning of Jerusalem, the focal point of the whole history of salvation and redemption, the holy city of God’s advent. Therefore, the Kingdom inaugurated in Jerusalem is a universal Kingdom, embracing in its perspective all men and the totality of creation.

For a few hours – yet these were the decisive time, the ultimate hour of Jesus, the hour of fulfillment by God of all His promises, of all His decisions. It came at the end of the entire process of preparation revealed in the Bible: it was the end of all that God did for men. And thus this short hour of Christ’s earthly triumph acquires an eternal meaning. It introduces the reality of the Kingdom into our time, into all hours, makes this Kingdom the meaning of time and its ultimate goal.

The Kingdom was revealed in this world – from that hour – its presence judges and transforms human history. And at the most solemn moment of our liturgical celebration, when we receive from the priest a palm branch, we renew our oath to our King and confess His Kingdom as the ultimate meaning and content of our life. We confess that everything in our life and in the world belongs to Christ, nothing can be taken away from its sole real Owner, for there is no area of life in which He is not to rule, to save and to redeem.

– Fr. Alexander Schmemann

Christ accepted the impossible death.

He died although he cannot die; he dies although he is immortal, in his very human nature inseparably united with his Godhead. His soul, without being separated from God, is torn out of his body, while both his soul and his flesh remain united with the Godhead. He will lie in the tomb incorruptible until the third day, because his body cannot be touched by corruption. It is full of the divine presence. It is pervaded by it as a sword of iron is pervaded by fire in the furnace, and the soul of Christ descends into hell resplendent with the glory of his Godhead.

The death of Christ is a tearing apart of an immortal body from a soul that is alive and remains alive forever. This makes the death of Christ a tragedy beyond our imagining, far beyond any suffering that we can humanly picture or experience.

Christ’s death is an act of supreme love. It was true when he said, “No one takes my life from me; I give it freely myself.” No one could kill him — the Immortal; no one could quench this Light that is the shining of the splendor of God. He gave his life, he accepted the impossible death to share with us all the tragedy of our human condition.

–Metropolitan Anthony Bloom

This hymn of Holy Friday, of which I found a version on YouTube, begins, “Today He Who hung the earth upon the waters is hung upon a tree,” and continues with an exploration of all the impossible details. At Royal Hours this morning I heard a quartet of men sing it, fittingly beautiful and powerful.