“We must not forget that this commemoration is a commandment. At the Last Supper, when Christ imparted the mystery of His Body and Blood to His disciples, He commanded them to continue to ‘do this’ in commemoration and declarations of Him and His New Covenant with man. […]
While there are many and diverse themes running through the hymns of Holy Week, one theme that may get lost because we focus on the events in Christ’s last week of life on earth leading to His crucifixion is the call to us to imitate Christ in service to others. While we find emotionally powerful meditating on how Christ’s suffering saves ME, the hymns speak to us about what it means to be a disciple, a Christian, a follower of Christ, namely to love the other. The crucifixion is not about self love or saving myself, it is about self sacrifice for the salvation of others. Christ actually said very little to us about forming sentimental or emotional attachments to or fixations on His life or His suffering. He does however at the Last Supper wrap himself in the towel of a servant, wash His disciple’s feet and then tell us to imitate Him in serving others. This is a major part of Holy Week, and at one point some considered foot washing to be a sacrament in the Church. It is a sacrament, which like baptism, is lived out daily far beyond the bounds of the liturgical ritual.
Consider for example the Holy Tuesday Aposticha hymn:
LET US WORK ZEALOUSLY FOR THE MASTER,
FOR HE DISTRIBUTES WEALTH TO HIS SERVANTS.
LET EACH OF US ACCORDING TO HIS ABILITY
INCREASE HIS TALENT OF GRACE:
LET ONE BE ADORNED IN WISDOM THROUGH GOOD WORKS;
LET ANOTHER CELEBRATE A SERVICE IN SPLENDOR.
THE ONE DISTRIBUTES HIS WEALTH TO THE POOR;
THE OTHER COMMUNICATES THE WORD TO THOSE UNTAUGHT.
THUS WE SHALL INCREASE WHAT HAS BEEN ENTRUSTED TO US,
AND, AS FAITHFUL STEWARDS OF GRACE,
WE SHALL BE ACCOUNTED WORTHY OF THE MASTER’S JOY.
MAKE US WORTHY OF THIS, CHRIST OUR GOD,
IN YOUR LOVE FOR MANKIND.
The hymn calls to mind Christ’s Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30) in which the servants are expected to do something with the gifts, wealth and resources the master gave them. The hymn also ties in St. Paul’s discussions on the gifts of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12; Ephesians 4:11-14). Thus in the midst of Holy Week, we are reminded of our responsibility as Christians to serve one another, the Church and the world itself. We are not called merely to contemplate the life and work of Christ – we are called to imitate Christ through the work that we do to His glory. We are called to use the gifts and wealth that God has bestowed upon us in service of others. That is a lesson of Holy Week that can be lost while we are so busy thinking about what Christ has done for me. (We would do well also to remember Christ’s parable of the Last Judgment which we read as part of our preparation for keeping Lent). Consider the Holy Thursday Matins hymn known as the IKOS:
Let us all approach the mystical table in fear
and receive the Bread with pure souls;
and let us stay with the Master so that we may see
how He washes His disciples’ feet and wipes them with a towel.
Let us do as we have seen Him do,
submitting to one another and washing one another’s feet,
for Christ Himself thus commanded His disciples.
But the servant and deceiver Judas did not take heed.
[Take special note: Judas did not take heed to the lessons being offered by Christ at the Last Supper! Certainly we are being warned not to be like or imitate Judas. We are to imitate our LORD Jesus Christ and be a servant instead of being self-serving.]
The liturgical commemoration of the Mystical Supper and the washing of the disciples’ feet in the hymns does not just focus on the historical events but calls us to imitate Christ in becoming servants one to another. The hymns remind us not to get lost in the beauty of the services or in contemplating past history, but to learn the lessons offered to us by Christ about being servants and to get up and imitate Him in our relationship to the Church and our fellow Christians. [Unfortunately, in current Orthodox liturgical practice and in many Orthodox parishes the commemoration of the Mystical supper and the foot washing (done at Holy Thursday Vespers) is given secondary status as the pious focus has become the crucifixion of Christ as commemorated in the Holy Friday Matins service – a piety which seems more Western and Protestant than Orthodox. It is Western piety, particularly Protestant, which places almost exclusive emphasis on the crucifixion of Christ as being the act of salvation. This emphasis is true to Western Christian theology’s focus on justification and the substitutionary death of Christ, but totally downplays the incarnation and ignores salvation as the union of God with humanity. It turns a blind eye and deaf ear to the theology of the incarnation, to sacramental theology and to salvation as deification. But I digress.]
One final hymn from the Aposticha of Holy Thursday:
INSTRUCTING YOUR DISCIPLES IN THE MYSTERY, LORD,
YOU SAID TO THEM:
MY BELOVED, SEE THAT NO FEAR SEPARATES YOU FROM ME.
THOUGH I SUFFER, IT IS FOR THE SAKE OF THE WORLD.
LET ME NOT BE A CAUSE OF SCANDAL TO YOU.
I CAME, NOT TO BE SERVED, BUT TO SERVE,
TO GIVE MYSELF FOR THE REDEMPTION OF THE WORLD.
IF YOU ARE MY FRIENDS, THEN IMITATE ME.
LET THE FIRST AMONG YOU BE THE LAST.
LET THE MASTER BE LIKE THE SERVANT.
ABIDE IN ME AND BEAR FRUIT, FOR I AM THE VINE OF LIFE.
The hymn calls us to imitate Christ in servant leadership, in humility, in bearing spiritual fruit (see also my blog Hierarchical Power: Self-Appointed Tyranny? Which likewise looks at some hymns from Holy Week). The hymns do discuss the historical events of Holy Week, but don’t direct our attention to the past, but rather tell us Holy Week teaches us how to live in the present: as imitators of Christ. Sometimes Orthodox are tempted always and only to look to the past, or to look to the future Kingdom of Heaven. But our hymns tell us not to be so heavenly minded so as to be of no earthly good, as Oliver Wendell Holmes quipped. Rather we are to live the divine presence today in our lives as we related to others. We are called not just to meditate on Christ’s life, but to imitate it. Tradition is not a focus on how things were done in the past, but is a living Tradition – it tells us how to live in the present to prepare ourselves for the future.
“A single good word made the thief pure and holy , despite all his previous crimes, and brought him into paradise (cf. Luke 23:42-43). A single ill-advised word prevented Moses from entering the promised land (cf. Num. 20:12). We should not suppose, then, that garrulity is only a minor disease. Lovers of slander and gossip shut themselves out from the kingdom of heaven. A chatterbox may meet with success in this world, but he will not do so in the next.[…]It has been well said: ‘Better to slip on the ground than to slip with your tongue’ (Eccles. 20:18). We should believe James the Apostle when he writes: ‘Let every man be swift to hear and slow to speak.’ (Jas. 1:19).” (St. John of Karpathos in The Philokalia, Volume 1, pg. 319)