Sunday, April 28, 2013

The Journey of Holy Week Services

Dear Parish Faithful,

With the Bridegroom Matins service of Holy Monday yesterday evening, we have entered into Holy Week. This unique week will, of course, culminate in the Cross and Resurrection of our Lord.

Concerning the experience of Holy Week, Fr. Sergius Bulgakov once wrote: “The beauty, the richness and the power of these services take possession of the soul and sweep it along as upon a mystic torrent” (The Orthodox Church, p. 131).

His words have always stayed with me, but realistically we may not always experience that “mystic torrent” through the long services that characterize Holy Week. Deep emotional impact may also be preceded and followed by a dryness of soul and a wandering mind. Our capacity to fully concentrate is often enough limited. There is so much to absorb as the service flows on. Be that as it may, we need not be discouraged, but rather attend the services with an openness to God’s grace and a faith that we are participating in the mystery of our redemption as we accompany Christ to Golgotha and then discover the reason why the tomb is empty: Christ is Risen! 

In response to the challenging length of the services as the week moves on, I came across a wonderful analogy from one of the nuns at the Holy Transfiguration Monastery in Ellwood City. In an article in the latest issue of the monastery’s journal, Life Transfigured, entitled “A Night of Repentance” (examining the Canon of St. Andrew of Crete), we read an insightful passage that can help us better understand our common experience of a long liturgical service. Even though she is writing of a service that can last between four and five hours(!), her words will certainly say something meaningful to us on a parish level:
This service … lasts four to five hours in its entirety. The sheer length of time and repetition of words may be overwhelming to us. One helpful way to approach such a service is to view it as a long car trip. Most long trips have some intense moments such as heavy traffic areas or stops at famous landmarks, while other periods often involve mile after mile of passing by trees and forests, during which one might relax a bit enjoying the repetition and even finding the monotony soothing. We may also plan some rest stops along the way. Being a passenger on such a trip, one would not expect to be totally alert and engaged in each moment, but would experience the trip as a whole and, at its completion, reflect upon high points while admitting to fatigue or monotony due to the overall length.
So too with this particular lengthy liturgical service, at certain moments we will find ourselves quite alert and engaged in the words of worship. At other times, the words may slip by our conscious awareness like waves in the ocean, yet still seep into the soul and heart, affecting the overall spiritual experience. Reflecting on the directions for conducting the service, the theologian Panayiotis Nellas comments: “The rubrics define the conditions under which prayer can be real, effective and fruitful, that is, the setting within which a person can concentrate all the aspects of his existence – intellect, will, conscience, emotions, senses, body – on God and, by adhering to Him constantly and laboriously, can purify them, integrate and illuminate them, and so offer them to God and unite with Him” (Deification in Christ, SVS Press, 1987, pp. 163-164).
Taken from Life Transfigured, Volume 44, #1 Pascha 2012, p. 2
May this passage encourage and further inspire us to participate in the Holy Week services to the extent possible for each and every one of us!

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