Dear Parish Faithful,
We have reached the saving passion of Christ our God.
Let us, the faithful, glorify His ineffable forebearance,
that in His compassion He may raise us up who were dead in sin,
for He is good and loves mankind.
(Matins of Holy Monday)
I am trying to fit in one more book before Pascha, and that is The Final Days of Jesus by two PhDs and professors at a Baptist Theological Seminary(!). It is a day-by-day account, based on the Gospels, of Christ's last week before His Death and Resurrection. It is very well done and provides a good chronology and excellent background material that allows the reader to better understand the religious, cultural, political and social realities of 1st c. Jerusalem. All of this is based upon a close reading of the four canonical Gospels.
The authors actually refer to "Holy Week" in the process, and write about it very reverently, but as if this is something their fellow Baptist or Evangelical believers are not overly familiar with.
In fact, a kind of sub-text to the book is precisely to awaken a sense of Holy Week in their fellow (Protestant) Christians. That is not our problem! As Orthodox, we "live" for Holy Week and realize that it is the key week of our liturgical year, as it will culminate in the Lord's Death and Resurrection - the great paschal mystery. As Fr. Sergius Bulgakov once wrote: "Holy Week sweeps the Orthodox believer along as if on a mystic torrent."
Our problem may just be observing Holy Week with focused attention and prayerful participation, as other demands of life impinge upon us in a never-ending flow of responsibilities - and distractions.
Therefore, I would simply like to provide a few pastoral suggestions that everyone can think about and perhaps incorporate into your daily lives as Holy Week unfolds:
+ One must first make a commitment to Holy Week and make it the priority for your respective households, regardless of how often you actually make it to the services. This is a week of strict fasting, and no other activities should impinge upon that. Your commitment to making Holy Week the center of your lives is synonymous with your commitment to Christ.
+ Try and arrange your schedules so that you are able to attend the services as well as possible. However, if you are not able to attend the services, it must not be because of something of "entertainment value;" or some other distraction that can wait for a more appropriate time. Be especially aware of Great and Holy Friday and Saturday. These are the days of the Lord's Death and Sabbath rest in the tomb. These are days of fasting, silence and sobriety. Respect that fact that you are participating in a great mystery - the mystery of redemption and salvation.
+ Parents, you may think of taking your children out of school on Holy Friday and attending the Vespers service in the afternoon. Other children have their "holy days" on which they may miss school; and we, as Orthodox Christians, have our own.
+ Reduce or eliminate TV and other viewings for the week. Keep off the internet except for essential matters. Struggle against smart phone distraction/app obsessions.
+ Be regular in your prayers.
+ Try not to gossip or speak poorly of other persons.
+ Choose at least one of the Passion Narratives from the four Gospels - MK. 14-15; MATT. 25-26; LK. 22-23; JN. 18-19 - and read it carefully through the week. There is also other good literature about Holy Week and Pascha that could be read. Actually, this is an incredibly rich resource page from our own parish website that offers extensive and intensive insights into the meaning of Holy Week.
+ If you have access to any of the Holy Week service booklets, read and study the services carefully before coming to church. This will deepen your understanding of that particular service's emphasis as Holy Week unfolds.
+ If you come to the midnight Paschal Liturgy, do your best to stay for the entire service, prepared to receive the Eucharist. It does not make a great deal of sense to leave the Liturgy before Holy Communion. You may or may not choose to stay for the meal to follow, but what matters is the Liturgy and the Eucharist.
Our goal, I believe, is to make of Holy Week and Pascha something a great deal more than a colorful/cultural event that is fleeting in nature and quickly forgotten. To encounter this "more" requires our own human effort working together with the grace of God so that the heart is enlarged with the presence of the crucified and risen Christ.
At the last of our Presanctified Liturgies for this year, we heard the following hymn:
I am rich in passions,
I am wrapped in the false robe of hypocrisy.
Lacking self-restraint I delight in self-indulgence.
I show a boundless lack of love.
I see my mind cast down before the gates of repentance,
starved of true goodness and sick with inattention.
But make me like Lazarus, who was poor in sin,
lest I receive no answer when I pray,
no finger dipped in water to relieve my burning tongue;
and make me dwell in Abraham's bosom in Your love for mankind.
Does this possibly sound familiar to anyone? Do you know of anyone that this hymn may be describing? Is this person well-known to you? If so, you may want to keep this person in your prayers so that he or she may one day - by the grace of God - be freed of these spiritually-harmful traits.