Why do we come to the Church every night during Holy Week? What do we gain from this journey? Well, we have to begin by understanding that our faith is not just an ideology, it’s more than just a great story or an accepted creedal statement. It is an EXPERIENCE, and that hands’ on participation matters.
- “Be doers of the word, and not hearers only” (John 1:22)
- “Let me experience Your lovingkindness in the morning, for in You do I put my trust. Cause me to know the way wherein I should walk, for I lift up my soul unto You.” (Psalm 143:8)
We retain and place importance on things that we have actualized in our lives. We hold dear the memories that we have formed with our loved ones and in places of significance. We may know all sorts of sayings and theological precepts, but if we haven’t actually lived our faith, if we haven’t experienced God’s Grace and impact in our lives, then all of this is meaningless.
- “And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.” (1 Cor. 13:2)
It is in our rich Orthodox liturgical tradition where we can both form profound and lasting connections to our faith, and experience the love of God and our brothers and sisters in Christ.
“In worship we encounter the living God. Through worship, God makes Himself present and active in OUR TIME, drawing the particles and moments of our life into the realm of redemption…In our ecclesial assemblies, therefore, we do more than remember past events and recall future promises. We EXPERIENCE the Risen Christ, who is ‘clothed with His past and future acts.’ Thus, all that is past and all that is future are made present in the course of our liturgical celebrations.” - Fr. Alkiviadis Calivas
During Holy Week we are not just reenacting Christ’s final days on earth, we are EXPERIENCING a life united with Him, while using the remembrances of His saving passion (and all that led up to it) to add nuance and depth to that experience. For example, when the Disciples are shocked and afraid in the readings, we feel the same shock and fear, albeit in a more modern expression. Instead of us being fearful of the Roman Soldiers and Jewish horde, we are afraid of not learning from the Disciples’ example and disappointing/abandoning God all over again. Or when the Myrrhbearers are perplexed finding the empty tomb on Holy Saturday morning, we are baffled by the mystery of the Creator of life tasting death.
In short, the Orthodox Christian Tradition of Holy Week is the way that we who still live on earth are able to experience the love of God and the length He went to offer salvation to us. Not simply to remember or acknowledge it, but to have a tangible encounter with the same God who made it all possible. The services during the week follow a thematic progression that guide the faithful closer to God and the celebration of Pascha.
- Holy Monday - Urgent Preparation
- Holy Tuesday - Vigilance & Mercy
- Holy Wednesday - False Religiosity & True Repentance
- Holy Unction - Healing & Wholeness
- Holy Thursday - Communion with God
- Holy Thursday Evening - Remorse & Rejoicing
- Holy Friday - Brave Solemnity
- Holy Saturday - Perplexing Joy
- Great & Holy Pascha - the Eternal Feast of Feasts
Ultimately, the journey through Holy Week is the experience of God’s love for humanity and the summation of His plan of Salvation for us. It triggers the full range of human emotions within us, and portrays the complete arc mankind’s path from God’s perfect creation-to fallen creatures-and back again. This is often a perplexing and mysterious experience that can both baffle unbelievers and inspire the faithful.
We need not look any further than the icon of the Resurrection to see the perfect snapshot of this experience. We see Christ as the central figure surrounded by His creation. He has completed His salvific work (as is evident by his wounds from His crucifixion), yet He has returned to His natural triumphant and glorious form. Christ’s presentation in this manner acknowledges the sacrifice He endured to enact the Father’s plan of Salvation, but also that afterwards He emerged victorious.
Now we see humanity’s role in this whole process in the form of Adam and Eve. Our progenitors appear on either side of Christ in an aged and weary state. They are also arising from opened tombs, signifying that the destination proper to us creatures, without God’s help, is death (or uncreation). Yet the predicament that we found ourselves in through our disobedience is now being overcome by Christ, who deigned not only to raise Himself from the dead, but to share His Resurrection with us as well! This is clearly seen in Christ’s grip on the wrists of Adam and Eve. Note, that the Lord is grabbing their wrists (not their hands). This demonstrates that salvation is only a gift that God can grant (we humans have no power to experience on our own). It also shows a correlation between us and God (remember it was Christ’s wrists that mankind nailed to the Cross, yet it is by our wrists that we are able to receive His gift of salvation!).
All told, the icon of the Resurrection, and the liturgical celebrations leading up to the feast it bears, acknowledge that God loves us and has gone to great lengths to show us that love eternally in Paradise with Him. This is something that we fail to fully grasp or appreciate when merely speaking or reading about it, which is why we gather to worship Him during Holy Week. So that we can experience His love on earth every year, and rekindle a love for Him within ourselves.