By John Athanasatos
We find ourselves at the beginning of Holy Week. Last Friday we completed the 40 days of Great Lent and these past two days were a transition from Lent to Holy Week. On Saturday we celebrated the Raising of Lazarus on the 4th day by Christ. This is a foretaste of the Common Resurrection that we all will experience on the Day of Judgment, thus the Second Coming of Christ. On Sunday was Christ’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem. This was also His last visit into Jerusalem before His Crucifixion and Resurrection. As we heard in the Gospel reading last Sunday: Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem; and the Son of Man will be delivered to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn Him to death, and deliver Him to the Gentiles; and they will mock Him, and spit upon Him, and scourge Him, and kill Him; and after three days He will rise. (Mk 10: 33-34)
Throughout the week we hear hymns and Gospel readings that speak about His Passion and we lament. However, there is an anticipated joy that awaits. Christ voluntarily endures His Passion, Crucifixion and Entombment for the redemption of mankind. As we see in an icon of the Resurrection, Christ redeems Adam and Eve, the original ancestors of mankind. We began this journey on Cheesefare Sunday, the day we remember the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, thus Paradise. Now the journey is coming to a close with the redemption of the said ancestors. Adam and Eve along with all the generations of their descendants are being redeemed from the perils of Hades. Death is being defeated by the death of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Christ descends into Hades where He redeems mankind (we visually see this in the Resurrection Icon with the depiction of chains and locks being broken apart.) and raises them up with Him in His Resurrection.
But how is death defeated if people still die? Many ask this question and are baffled by it. Each of us will certainly die an earthly death but the righteous will inherit eternal life in the Kingdom of Heaven. Prior to Jesus’ Crucifixion and Resurrection, there was no access to Heaven. It was Christ’s voluntary death which opens the door for access into His Kingdom. This does not mean that everyone will enter His Kingdom. At the Second Coming, the Last Judgment, both the living and the dead will be judged and decided their permanent destination. However, with His voluntary death, the potential to enter His Kingdom was made possible. The door is now open, where before it was closed. As we hear in the Gospel of John (verse 7-9): Most assuredly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. All who ever came before Me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not hear them. I am the door. If anyone enters by Me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture. Christ is indeed the Door and the One who shatters the gates of Hades, ushering mankind into His Kingdom.
The first 3 nights of Holy Week are known as the Bridegroom Services. Christ is the Bridegroom and His bride is the Church. He is prepared to suffer and lay down His life for His Beloved Wife, the Church. The icon of the Bridegroom is also an image of marriage in the Orthodox Church. Both husband and wife should follow the example of Christ, willing to struggle and sacrifice for the love they have for their significant other. On Wednesday we have the service of the washing of feet. At the Last Supper, Christ washed the feet of His Apostles, denoting His prime example of humility and love. Holy Thursday morning, we will be celebrating the institution of the Holy Eucharist at the Liturgy of Saint Basil. An extra Host is prepared in which the priest takes the existing Host or reserve Communion from the Altophorion in the altar and replaces it with a new One. This small amount of Holy Communion is kept there all year on reserve for those who are sick or not able to make it to Church. Later that evening is the reading of the Twelve Gospels which speak about His Passion and Crucifixion. On Good Friday, the only day in the year where a Divine Liturgy is not celebrated, we celebrate the Royal Hours, Apokathelosis (taking down of Christ from the Cross) and the Lamentations. The Lamentations are the funeral service for Christ, His Burial and Descent into Hades. On Holy Saturday morning, the liturgical service is a transitional one. It is the Vesperal Divine Liturgy of Saint Basil just like on Holy Thursday but it is known as the First Resurrection, or Anticipated Resurrection service. It is a day of rest and strict fast, since we remember Christ in Hades but also anticipate His imminent Resurrection as He shatters the gates of Hades and redeems mankind. It is custom in some parishes to see a transition of purple garments on the priest and the ones throughout the Sanctuary to white garments which signify Life, thus the Resurrection of Christ. Later that evening on Saturday, going into early Sunday morning is the Paschal Vigil where of course we all will be saying Χριστός Ανέστη, Christ is Risen.
It is indeed a week of journey and transition, of lament but also joy. Let us all make every attempt to attend each of these magnificent and beautiful services of Holy Week. Most importantly, may each of us not just simply attend but be transformed. Let us all remember the prayer read at each of the Pre-Sanctified Liturgies of Great Lent: Almighty Lord, You have created all things in wisdom. In Your inexpressible providence and great goodness You have brought us to these saving days, for the cleansing of our souls and bodies, for control of our passions, in the hope of the Resurrection. After the forty days You delivered into the hands of Your servant Moses the tablets of the law in characters divinely traced. Enable us also, O benevolent One, to fight the good fight, to complete the course of the fast, to keep the faith inviolate, to crush underfoot the heads of unseen tempters, to emerge victors over sin and to come without reproach, to the worship of Your Holy Resurrection. For blessed and glorified is Your most honorable and majestic name, of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, now and forevermore. Amen.
A Blessed Holy Week to all!