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Sometimes you may notice upon wishing someone a happy Easter that they say, “Thank you, but our Easter (Pascha) is not yet…”
With so much worldly attention focused on the enormous Roman Catholic Church and its celebrations of the Good Friday to Easter Sunday, it is easy to pass over the incredible tradition of the Week of the Lord’s Passion, Crucifixion, defeat of Death and Hades, and the Resurrection of Jesus Christ as it is celebrated in the Eastern Orthodox Church.
The Eastern Orthodox Church is the oldest and second largest Christian communion in the world. Oldest? Yep. It predates the Roman Catholic Church by 1,000 years. Second largest? Yes again. There are approximately 250 million adherents all around the world, with the largest population currently resident in the Russian Federation. Also known as the “Greek Orthodox Church”, “Russian Orthodox Church” and 13 other such titles, these groups represent fifteen canonically recognized national jurisdictions of one Church. Each national jurisdiction is independent of the others, yet all remain in communion with one another in an unbroken commonality of faith. In other words, one may attend an Orthodox Church in Russia, but be just as much at home in Greece, or Albania, Romania, or even the United States, for although the language used in Church services changes, the expression of faith and worship is the same. This is a unity that does not exist in any other Christian confession in the world.
The Orthodox celebration of services usually amounts to sensory overload for the newcomer, especially someone who is steeped in Western Christian tradition. The first thing that one often notices is a feeling that one has stepped into a very ancient world, and everything about it is just different than the world outside the walls of the church edifice.
We wish to focus just a little bit on the present season. This week has been the Holy Week for Orthodox Christians in most places in the world, and it comes after an already long period of fasting – some 47 days on the day that Holy Week begins, Palm Sunday. The character of the services takes us into the events of the last week of Christ’s earthly life before His Crucifixion and Resurrection.
Far from being a “re-enactment” or “remembrance” of events that happened 2,000 years ago, the Orthodox Christian tradition employs a technique understood best by the Greek people who were the early Christians. The Greeks understood the idea of eternity and the eternal now better than anyone else did, and it is certainly by no accident that this and other elements of Greek culture and thought were utilized by the will of God to create the experience one has in Orthodox Christian worship.
For, rather than looking at the past events through a window, or through the screen of one’s television set, Orthodox worship takes us there, into these moments of the life of Christ, and we are mystically present with Him and his disciples. This may seem like a very bold statement, but it is the common experience for us as Orthodox Christians to go through what might inadequately be called a catharsis, but with us is actually a real experience of these events.
For example, the services of the three Matins (Orthros, or morning services) for Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, take us to when Jesus found a fig tree without fruit, and cursed it, causing it to wither away instantly. Later, upon entering the Temple, the chief priests question his authority to teach, to heal, to break the Sabbath by doing things against the Jewish law, and Jesus confounds them with his answer, backing them against the wall of their refusal to believe Him. As the services progress (and in the Orthodox Christian tradition, we pray nine times per day liturgically), event after event unfolds, with Christ’s teachings and experiences intermingled with references to the Old Testament and prophecies and signs made and fulfilled.
To the Western person used to an orderly interpretation of time as Chronos, sequential time, this is dizzying, for the Church seems to be at all points in time at once.
And this is exactly right. She (our pronoun for the Church) is, (and this kind of time is called kairos, the time of God) for She recognizes that all events in the history of the created universe center on the event of Christ’s life, death and resurrection. And as the services unfold, we see and feel, and hear, as well as taste and smell, all of reality converging upon this moment. All times are now for God, and we experience some of this ourselves as we go through the Holy Week services.
One great theme of Palm Sunday is the “wordly” victory that is but the barest hint of the true victory. Palm Sunday’s events were greeted by the multitudes, greeting Jesus so joyfully that they wanted to make him King right there and then. And indeed, Jesus looks over the Temple and the city as though he is the new earthly king of Israel, utterly in charge. But the joy that so many people felt at the prospect of a new king to kick out the Romans changed in just five days, to where many of that same crowd were demanding that this Man be crucified. And even worse, the Jewish authorites – the Pharisees and Scribes, who were consumed by envy and hard-heartedness, (think stubbornness) not only refused to accept Christ, but in that courtyard before Pontius Pilate, they actually commit a travesty, for when Pilate asks them ‘shall I crucify your king?”, these angry men scream back, “we have no king but Caesar!”
On this day, Holy and Great Friday, the Church shows us this convergence of all of history in the morning service:
Today He is suspended on a Tree who suspended the earth upon the waters.
A crown of thorns was placed on the head of the King of angels.
He who wraps the heavens in clouds is wrapped in the purple of mockery.
He who freed Adam in the Jordan is struck upon the face.
The Bridegroom of the Church is affixed to the Cross with nails.
The Son of the Virgin is pierced by a spear.
We worship Thy passion, O Christ.
We worship Thy passion, O Christ.
We worship Thy passion, O Christ.
Show us also Thy glorious resurrection.
Everything that we think is so important about our life comes to a halt over this statement. Politics, nationalism, opinions, all the fighting that people do with one another over whatever issue in life; all of this is shown in these above phrases to be with no real meaning. It all happens, but that is because it is easy to hide from this Great Fact that is mystically playing out before the eye of our souls today.
Christ hangs on the Cross, by his deliberate choice, not as a victim, but in order to carry out the ultimate defeat of Death and the Devil, and granting us eternal life.
I have to admit that as a journalist, if we all remembered this everyday, our trade would probably be put out of business.
And that would be no bad thing, now, would it?
A blessed Holy and Great Friday to everyone. Christ is doing everything for us today.