Alleluia. Alleluia. Alleluia. Behold, the Bridegroom cometh at midnight and blessed is the servant whom He shall find watching, but unworthy is the servant whom He shall find heedless. Beware, therefore, O my soul, do not be laid down with sleep, lest you be given up to death, and be shut out of the Kingdom. But rouse yourself, crying: Holy, Holy, Holy, art Thou, O God! Through the Theotokos, have mercy on us!
– From the Bridegroom Matins of Great and Holy Monday (sung in tone 8).
One of the most compellingly beautiful aspects of Holy Week in the Orthodox Church is that the Church’s calculation of time itself is turned upside-down. From sunset on Palm Sunday to just before the midnight Paschal Resurrection Procession, Matins, and Divine Liturgy, the Church reverses her normal order of celebrating the divine services. Matins is celebrated at night and Vespers in the morning. The Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts (composed by the beloved Pope of Rome St. Gregory the Great) is celebrated midday or in the evening, a significant change, since, during all other times of the year, the Eucharistic Liturgy when Orthodox Christians normally receive the Body and Blood of Christ is only offered in the mornings.
Everything in the Church’s liturgical celebrations is pedagogical – having an instructive purpose in teaching worshipers the Church’s salvific theology and doctrine. All the hymns, prayers, and even the chorographical, physical movements in the services are also mystagogical – they symbolize and beckon the worshiper ever more deeply into the mystery of salvation. The inverted ordering of divine services during Holy Week reflects the Church’s pedagogy and mystagogy, symbolizing and teaching us that Jesus’ betrayal, trial, suffering, and death upend the very cosmos and stand outside the normal bounds of time itself. The Church does this to remind us of fallen man’s redemption and complete transfiguration by Christ’s passion, death and Resurrection.
The Church’s services are a perfect symbolic type or narrative explaining the history of God’s relationship with mankind, man’s relationship with each other, and man’s relationship with God. In their fullness, they serve as the constant teacher of man’s true teleological and ontological nature, constantly pointing to man’s creation by, alienation from, and, ultimately, reconciliation to God. The divine services portray and narrate the universal human condition, man’s compelling transformation and transfiguration from one ontological state to another, from the wilderness to paradise, from being estranged and rebellious children of God to co-heirs with Christ, by whom and in whom we are redeemed, raised from death, and summoned forth to eternal life.
The Lenten Triodion (book of order for the Lenten services) and the Paschalion (for Holy Week and Pascha) contain the Church’s divine services for this particular period of abstinence, fasting, renewed prayer, and charitable almsgiving in anticipation of Christ’s passion, death and resurrection. They contain within themselves a powerfully compelling narrative in which all of creation and human history are referenced and presented within the framework of the teleological movement of alienation from God into authentic sonship and participation in His very life-giving energies. The Incarnation is the fulfillment of God’s promise through the ages to the righteous fathers and mothers of the Old Testament of the Mosaic covenant, and Christ’s death and resurrection are the full realization of God’s plan of salvation for mankind.
Why, in all of this, does the Church see the need during this week to deliberately change around Her sense of time? The theological and cosmological underpinnings of this peculiar anomaly, this bold defiance of the constraints of time itself, are profound. As we move toward the passion – that pinnacle of suffering and death when Christ Himself, the eternal Bridegroom, submits unto death out of His boundless love for His eternal Bride – the Church emphasizes that the transcendence and otherworldly import of these holy days is so absolute that, in a way, time itself is truly suspended. These are the holiest of holy hours which stand outside of ordinary reckoning, when the Son of God, Jesus the Theanthropos, the God-Man, prepares Himself to suffer agony and death out of love for us all.
The profound links between these timeless days are so intricately woven into the fabric of the Church’s liturgical services that, when one begins to comprehend even the basic outline of these connections, one is amazed by the complete unity and perfect teleological flow of the arrangement. All the Holy Week services, as different and beautifully unique as they are, point to the same ultimate reality: our God’s boundless love for His creation, and His promise of eternal life to all those who follow Him, even those who were the greatest of sinners. What the services point to, above all else, is man’s deificationthrough Christ’s incarnation, passion and resurrection.
Human nature undergoes a previously impossible transfiguration and redemption by the sharing of God Himself in not only our nature, realized at Christ’s incarnation, but Jesus’ voluntary submission unto death, which He conquered by His Resurrection. This positive invitation to eternal life and participation in the Lord’s triumph over the power of death is balanced with the negative cautioning against worldliness and enslavement to the prince of this world, which obstructs and distracts from man’s true nature as sons of God. Referencing Judas, the Holy Wednesday and Thursday services echo with the unspeakable misery of this Apostle who walked, ate and lived with the Lord, yet chose to throw away everything in his greed, vanity, and care for this world. In this, Judas typifies and personifies the ultimate alienation from God, and enslavement to the darkness and despair which is utterly foreign to Christ’s redeeming light.
The entire schedule of divine services leading up to the miracle of the Lord’s Resurrection offers a prelude and a prologue to this ultimate triumph. Lazarus Saturday, that commemoration of a resurrection before the Resurrection, offers us a foretaste of our own bodily resurrection despite our temporary mortality, as well as a foreshadowing of Christ’s ultimate triumph over Satan. Lazarus, Christ’s beloved friend, is dead and the Son of Man raises him up from his tomb, just as, little more than a week later, He will raise Himself up, offering us the promise of eternal life by which He renders death powerless. Palm Sunday, with the entry of the Lord into Jerusalem, offers the paradox that the King of Kings and Son of David enters the city of King David acclaimed like a mighty ruler, yet in great humility on the back of a donkey.
Yet another extraordinary paradox rests in the reality that the multitudes in the crowd who hailed Christ as their Messiah expected an earthly liberator, and these same people, blind to Christ’s true purpose, would later be among the crowd of those who eagerly cried “Crucify Him!”. This theme of watchfulness against forgetfulness of God continues into a recurring hymn of the Bridegroom Matins services which usher in Holy Week.
Great and Holy Wednesday commemorates yet another extraordinary paradox: the day the sinful woman from Bethany bursts into the room where Jesus is gathered with His disciples, breaking the priceless vial of myrrh and anointing Christ with this along with her tears of repentance. This woman attains forgiveness for her sins and the promise of eternal life, while one of Christ’s own apostles resents her pious gesture and arranges to betray Him. By her humility and genuine repentance, the woman guilty of numerous sins finds herself forgiven and reconciled to God, and yet the same day, Judas, one of the Lord’s own Apostles, forsakes all for his greed, giving Jesus over to the power of the chief high priest for thirty pieces of silver.
Christ’s Crucifixion and Resurrection, death and rebirth, are the twin pillars of the Christian faith which promise the ultimate, transcendent triumph over every despair or evil, consigning the fearful, seemingly unchanging reality of death to ridicule and mockery. The renowned Paschal Sermon of St. John Chrysostom, read in every Orthodox church at the Paschal liturgy, rings with St. Paul’s mockery of Satan: “O Death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” (1. Cor. 15:55). Death itself has been swallowed up, cast aside, and trampled down in Christ’s victory; the Resurrection, as a historical, cosmological, and theological event, accomplishes the ultimate triumph of Christ over the Evil One, the enemy of man’s salvation and life in God, and in this triumph, we Christians have our ultimate invitation and greatest exhortation. The Crucifixion is the very participation by God, the uncreated Creator of all things “visible and invisible”, in that most base reality of our mortality. That Christ died so that we might live forever, and that He rose again to show us that He, truly, does live forever as one of the Persons of the Triune God, compels and exhorts us to conform our lives to His example, and allow Him to deify us, and restore in us that likeness to His image in which we were formed.
When we allow for this cooperation or synergy between ourselves and the grace of God, when we open ourselves fully to conform to His will and allow Him to live and breathe within us, He transforms us, by His grace, into partakers of His divine nature (2 Pet. 1:4). When we thus become, incrementally, gradually and dynamically, more like Him, the fear of death, that ultimate ‘end’ to our earthly existence, entirely rescinds. In the light of the Resurrection, death itself becomes little more than a temporary transition between this earthly life and the eternal life of the undying soul. By the perfect sacrifice of the Son on behalf of all mankind, formed in His image, God in Trinity accomplished nothing less than Man’s total transfiguration. By God’s death and resurrection, we are brought to the very summit of our ontological purpose as men and women created for the sole purpose of realizing, progressively and dynamically, our fullest state of being as ontologically good and holy beings who should live to conform ourselves to His likeness.
Death Himself, the Evil One who rejoiced while the tiny band of Christians wept at the seeming finality of the Lord’s death, is overthrown in his own realm, as the Lord tramples Satan underfoot like a loathsome weed. In this triumph of triumphs, death is revealed to be nothing more than a temporary, natural veil, a transition from one life to true Life in Christ, and human history, reflected in the eternal mirror of the Church, becomes an invitation to ever-increasing holiness, redemption, and the boundless love of Him in whom we move and have our very being. As Orthodox Christians everywhere will soon cry “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down Death by death, and upon those in the tombs, bestowing life!”. Death is trampled, the world is made aware anew of Christ’s eternal promise, and in this, joy comes into all the world.