by Fr Gregory Mathewes-Green
For Orthodox Christians this year’s Holy Week will surely be one of the strangest in our two millennia history. While that history is replete with occurrences of disruption and even civil chaos, there has probably not been a Holy Week when our churches, with few exceptions, have been empty. In our famously “unchanging” tradition, this will be a change. Not one of doctrine, not one of moral teaching, but nevertheless a change in practice, however temporary, because the Faithful of our local congregations will be absent when our most profound and dramatic services are being offered. These are the services that commemorate the weeklong journey of Jesus Christ to his place of ultimate self-offering on our behalf.
Beginning with the Lazarus Saturday/Palm Sunday weekend and the Bridegroom Matins of the early days of the week, these holy days focus more and more on the drama and narrative of redemption on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Drawn directly from the New Testament accounts, bolstered by the foreshadowings and prophecies of the Old, these services are comprised of hymns, readings, and prayers. But though deeply moving and often didactic, these Holy Week services do not act on us like “passion plays”, wherein persons take on roles for the purpose of acting out story or drama in a performance before an audience. The Holy Week services are of a different order altogether. In our view the liturgical action of worship is a peculiar type of activity in which the divine acts of salvation become accessible. Time is no longer an insurmountable barrier but rather we become present to those events, and those events become powerfully present to us. For example, the Divine Liturgy, the Eucharist, is not just a prayerful experience that reminds us of Christ’s self-giving on the Cross. Rather the Eucharist brings us into the very presence of that divine act as time itself falls away as a barrier to eternity and itself becomes a bearer instead of an obstacle. As it were, we ascend into the heavens wherein Christ “ever liveth to make intercession for us.” Not a mental exercise of the mind meant to move us in heart, but rather the Divine Liturgy is a movement of all the Faithful into the Event itself.
As this is true for our celebration of the Eucharist, so all worship, including the Holy Week services, partake of this same liturgical experience of transformed time. “Now” we are “there”, and that which is commemorated becomes experienced in the present. Not simply observed, but experienced. Words fail, of course. We tend to use words like commemorate or celebrate, even recall and remember. But liturgical action is far more than a mental exercise, since time is transcended as we ourselves participate in the very actions “commemorated”.
What then do we make of a Holy Week that is watched on a screen, rather than a Holy Week when the Faithful gather together and physically participate in the liturgical action of the services? Must we say it is the same? No, I don’t think so, since it is clear that our embodied selves have a limited physical presence. Although it may well be the case that our physical absence from worship may stir up in us a desire and yearning for full and active participation that will bear fruit after the present crisis is past, the brutal truth is we are not there yet! So, what’s to be done? The old rubric applies: do what you can, not what you can’t. Just because we cannot “achieve” the maximum does not mean we cannot achieve something, even something vitally important and maybe even new. Orthodox Holy Week worshipers this year can gather in their icon corners, light candles or oil lamps, burn incense, venerate their cherished icons, and pray, as they always have in the knowledge that multitudes of other Orthodox Christians are doing the same, in a voluntary exile from the physicality of the gathered community. I believe that this “voluntary exile” can be a form of self-denial that images the self-emptying of Christ Himself, Who “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men … and humbled himself, and became obedient unto death.” (Phil 2:5f) St Paul enjoins us to be of the same mind, “having the same love.” Our Christ-imitating love for others is expressed in our choosing of this temporary exile from in-church worship, especially during Holy Week, not only so that we ourselves are not exposed to this terrible virus, but also so that our fellow parishioners and neighbors are not themselves placed in harm’s way. We step aside and exile ourselves, mirroring (even if in some limited and distant way) the self-emptying of Christ, so that others may benefit from our act of charity and the giving up of something we hold very dear and value highly, attending the Holy Week services.
Does this “exile” make up the difference for our loss of physical attendance? I have no idea even what that means! I do believe that, however great the loss, something important is also gained: a new kind of discipline, or training, in self-offering, in which our wills are bent toward the service of others by giving up something that is otherwise valued, for the sake of love. Is this not what our customary practices of Holy Week are meant to ultimately convey, that the divine love of Jesus Christ enacted in His final week has the power to crush even our walls of pride and self-centeredness and transform even us into people who love … even as we have been loved?
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Fr Gregory is the Pastor-Emeritus of Holy Cross Orthodox Church in Linthicum Heights, Maryland. He and his wife Frederica now live in Eastern Tennessee.