In the Orthodox liturgical experience of Holy Week, we read a small portion of the book of Exodus (Exodus 1:1-20; 2:5-22; 12:1-11; 13:20-15:19; 19:10-19; 33:11-23) in preparation for the celebration of Pascha (Pascha means Passover). The Exodus and Passover are the background and the typology for understanding the death and resurrection of Christ. Salvation in the Orthodox Church is a liberation, like the Israelites experienced out of Egypt to the Promised Land, so now all of us follow Christ from death to life and from earth to heaven. The Church also uses Holy Week to prepare catechumens for baptism. This is an ancient tradition kept in our liturgical celebration of Holy Week. The early Church Fathers saw many images in the Old Testament to prefigure Christ and so they read these old stories Christologically. Origen the great biblical commentator of the 3rd Century already holds ideas which we find today in our services of Holy Week. He sees in the Old Testament texts we read as prophetic signs prefiguring Christ the Lord.
“In the Homilies on Joshua Origen (d. 254AD) takes up … the crossing of the Red sea and the Jordan … The crossing of the Jordan recalls to us Baptism. . . . the whole of the Exodus is thus conceived of as a type of the entry into the Christian faith, from the departure from Egypt, symbol of the break with idolatry, to Baptism, typified by the crossing of the Jordan.
‘And you who have just abandoned the darkness of idolatry, and wish to give yourself to the hearing of the Divine Law, then it is that you begin first to leave Eqypt. When you have been included in the number of the catechumens and begin to obey the precepts of the Church, you have passed over the Red Sea. And if you come to the sacred font of Baptism and if in the presence of the orders of Priests and Levites you are initiated into those venerable and noble mysteries which are known only by those permitted to know them, then, having passed over the Jordan while the priests are ministering, you shall enter into the land of promise….’”(Jean Danielou, FROM SHADOWS TO REALITY, pp 269-270)
As the ancient Israelites had a special meal for their Passover, so too we Christians commemorate the Mystical Supper of Christ instituted on Holy Thursday and part of our own Paschal celebration. St. Ephrem the Syrian (d. 379AD) poetically commemorates that Last Supper before Pascha:
“Blessed are you, O Upper Room, so small in comparison in the entirety of creation, yet what took place in you now fills all creation—which is even too small for it.
Blessed is your abode, for in it was broken that Bread which issues from the blessed Wheat Sheaf, and in you was trodden out the cluster of Grapes that came from Mary to become the Cup of Salvation.
Blessed are you, O Upper Room, no man has ever seen nor ever shall see, what you beheld: Our Lord became at once True Altar, Priest, Bread, and Cup of Salvation.
In His own person He could fulfill all these roles, none other was capable of this: Whole Offering and Lamb, Sacrifice and Sacrificer, Priest and the One destined to be consumed.” (in Sebastian Brock’s THE LUMINOUS EYE, p 102)
St. John Chrysostom reminds us of the mystical nature of the Eucharist and how it transforms us individually and collectively into God’s people, the Church:
“Let us learn the wonder of this sacrament, the purpose of its institution, the effects it produces. We become a single body, according to Scripture, members of his flesh and bone of his bones. This is what is brought about by the food that he gives us. He blends himself with us so that we may all become one single entity in the way the body is joined to the head.” (in Olivier Clement’s THE ROOTS OF CHRISTIAN MYSTICISM, p 115)
[Next, the conlcusion: A Walk Through Holy Week (II)]