The Antiochian biblical commentator, Theodoret of Cyrus, writing in the 5th Century makes a comment that Christians have thought in almost every century since the time of Christ: things are so bad now that it has to be the “end times.” During Holy Week the Church reminds us through its Gospel readings and hymns to think about the “last things” – our world which rejected its Creator and God and nailed Him to a cross is facing an impending judgment. Commenting on the words of St. Paul in one of his epistles, Theodoret’s words resonate with many 21st Century Christians:
Then he foretells the coming ruin of most members of the churches, teaching him not to be upset by the indifference of some, as those coming later will be in a far worse plight. Be aware of this, that in the last days there will be the threat of difficult times: there will be people who are lovers of themselves, lovers of money, arrogant, blasphemous, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy, loveless, implacable, slanderous, licentious, unfeeling, uninterested in the good, treacherous, reckless, conceited, in love with pleasure rather than God, bearing the semblance of piety but denying its efficacy (2 Timothy 3:1-5). In my view he has this age in mind in his prophecy: our lifetime is full of these vices, and though we don the trappings of piety, we are building the idol of wickedness in our works.
I mean, we have become attached to money rather than devoted to God, we embrace the slavery of the passions, and to put it in a nutshell, you could find us all in the other vices the divine apostle cited. (Commentary on the Letters of St. Paul, pp. 243-244)
It is pretty hard to imagine that life in the 5th Century was as devoted to money as is our current age. We measure everything in terms of money and value things above people and set the worth of people almost entirely by what they can produce. Even churches see their success in terms of how much money they can raise. What is the value of godliness?
The services of Holy Week evolved through the many centuries of the Church’s existence. In keeping Holy Week we are joining our Christian forefathers and mothers from as far back as the Third Century in honoring Jesus as Lord.
“A fast of six days before Easter was common by the mid-third century, and towards the end of the fourth century Great Week or Holy Week was beginning to be established in Jerusalem under the influence of its bishop, St. Cyril (Bishop of Jerusalem c. 348/50-386/7).
Under the inspiration of the Emperor Constantine and his mother St. Helen the area known as Golgotha or Calvary was greatly modified to allow the sites of the crucifixion and the burial to be integrated into one complex of buildings capable of accommodating large numbers of pilgrims. Here by the late fourth century the Good Friday liturgy included lengthy readings from the Gospel accounts of Christ’s Passion and death, and the veneration of the Cross of Christ, which had been discovered by St. Helen; the burial of Christ was then commemorated in the church of the Anastasis (Resurrection).
The pattern of Holy Week ceremonies that developed in Jerusalem gradually influence observances elsewhere in the Byzantine Empire and by the ninth century the more dramatic Jerusalem ceremonies replaced other rites in Constantinople. Also in the capital there was a great devotion to the Sacred Lance which had pierced the side of Christ; huge crowds were attracted to Hagia Sophia to venerate the lance and other relics of the Passion but by 1200 this popular devotion had declined, and no longer took place in Hagia Sophia.
Another significant development in Constantinople was the growth of intense devotion to the Passion of Christ in some of the smaller monasteries during the twelfth century. At this time there was an increasing interest in human psychology and emotion, and this led to reflection on the relationship between the Theotokos and Christ during the last stages of his earthly life. Much poetry was written on the subject, and some has found a place in the liturgical texts for Good Friday and Holy Saturday. This in turn had its influence on icon painting.” (John Baggley, Festival Icons for the Christian Year, p. 102).
How services have been done for Holy Week have changed and evolved through the centuries. We are not simply trying to imitate the past in keeping Holy Week, we are entering into Christ’s own life, death and resurrection. We do this also in baptism where we die with Christ and are resurrected with Him. Holy Week is another way we experience and reflect on our own baptism each year. Below is one hymn from Holy Monday in which we see clearly how we are moving between considering the historic events of Christ’s crucifixion and how we live that crucifixion in our own lives today.
As the Lord was going to His voluntary passion, He said to the Apostles on the way: ‘Behold, we go up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man shall be delivered up, as it is written of Him.’
Come, therefore, let us also go with Him, purified in mind. Let us be crucified with Him and die through Him to the pleasures of this life. Then we shall live with Him and hear Him say: ‘I go no more to the earthly Jerusalem to suffer, but to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God. I shall raise you up to the Jerusalem on high in the Kingdom of Heaven.”
The hymns often call us spiritually t0 live the events of the life of Christ in our own lives. What happened liturgically over time is that the services got changed into re-enacting the life of Christ, rather than calling us to enact Christ’s life in our own lives. As St. Paul put it, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).
Some of the currently most popular Holy Week rituals are not the oldest practices, and many are relatively new in Orthodox history. The Holy Week services are at heart simply the daily liturgical services (Vespers – evening worship and Matins – morning worship) modified with additions for the days of Holy Week. But their original place and purpose in Holy Week has now been altered so that commonly Matins (morning worship) is served in the evening and Vespers (sunset worship) is served in the morning. The services of Holy Friday and Saturday have become increasingly dramatizations of the last days of Christ’s life. Liturgy is always living and changes to meet the needs of the Church and its members.
Liturgically we make the events of Christ’s last week on earth part of our own spiritual sojourn. We walk with the Lord. We welcome Christ into our lives, recognizing that He comes to correct all of the troubles that have plagued humanity since Adam and Eve ate from the forbidden Tree.
Eating that fruit caused us to go astray, to miss the mark of what it is to be human. St. Ephrem the Syrian connects the eating of the forbidden fruit by Adam and Eve to the entirety of the Christian spiritual life. Eating of that forbidden fruit opens our eyes to see what it is like to live apart from God. We live in a world which can never satisfy our needs, but this is to create a longing in our heart for God. This is the purpose of Great Lent and Holy Week as well – to help us understand how life on earth is an exile from God, but we can also experience God on earth if we seek God with our heart, soul and mind.
“Who is there who can expound concerning that Tree which caused those who sought it to go astray?
It is an invisible target, hidden from the eyes, which wearies those who shoot at it.
It is both the Tree of Knowledge, and of ignorance:
it is the cause of knowledge, for by it a person knows
what is the gift that was lost, and the punishment that took place.
Blessed is that Fruit which has mingled a knowledge
Lent reminds us of the exile we live in on earth. It reminds us that this life is not the totality of existence, but rather there is a greater reality awaits all those who seek union with the Living God.
Orthodox hymns throughout the year give us some insight into how our spiritual forefathers and mothers in the faith interpreted the Scriptures and what lessons they drew from them. Hymns from the Lenten Triodion do this as well often focusing on particularly Lenten themes. The Kontakion for Holy Monday focuses on part of the Genesis story dealing with the aged Jacob and his son, Joseph, who had been sold into slavery by his brothers (Genesis 37, 39-46). [During the weekdays of Great Lent portions of Genesis are read liturgically, and only a tiny portion of the Jacob and Joseph story is read in the Orthodox Church (small portions of Genesis 43, 45 and 46 are read).] The Kontakion lyrics read as follows:
JACOB LAMENTED THE LOSS OF JOSEPH
BUT HIS NOBLE SON WAS SEATED ON A CHARIOT AND HONORED AS A KING!
FOR WHEN HE REFUSED TO BE ENSLAVED BY THE PLEASURES OF THE EGYPTIAN WOMAN,
HE WAS GLORIFIED BY THE LORD WHO BEHOLDS THE HEARTS OF MEN,
AND BESTOWS UPON THEM AN INCORRUPTIBLE CROWN!
The portion I think of most interest for Great Lent comes from Genesis 39 in which Joseph now a slave to an Egyptian courtier is sexually harassed by his master’s wife. Joseph refuses her sexual advances but then is unjustly punished due to false accusations made against him. The hymn upholds the virtue of Joseph in refusing the illicit sexual advances of his master’s wife. The story is unusual at this point in the Scriptures because there is not a lot of sexual purity mentioned in Genesis. Joseph is an exceptionally moral man in a very immoral world.
What the hymn uniquely brings out is that Joseph, though a slave, behaves like a free man. Joseph is not physically enslaved by pleasure or his own passions, nor by the bonds of his Egyptian master or the passions of his master’s wife. He behaves with the free will and determination of a king. He is the perfect example of a Christian during Great Lent. For the Lenten season is one in which we can demonstrate that we too will not be enslaved by anything, including our own appetites. Fasting is freedom from bondage to the body or the self. Fasting enables us to say no to any desire and to live as free men and women, doing as we want rather than as our bodies demand us to behave. Fasting is a great sign of freedom.
Another hymn from Matins (the Canon Ikos) picks up on this same theme of Joseph and freedom:
TODAY LET US ADD LAMENTATION TO LAMENTATION. LET OUR TEARS FLOW WITH THOSE OF JACOB WHO WEEPS FOR HIS CELEBRATED AND SOBER-MINDED SON; FOR THOUGH BODILY JOSEPH WAS INDEED A SLAVE, HE PRESERVED THE FREEDOM OF HIS SOUL AND WAS LORD OVER ALL EGYPT. FOR GOD PREPARES FOR HIS SERVANTS AN INCORRUPTIBLE CROWN.
Once again we see Joseph though a slave preserves the freedom of his soul by practicing abstinence. Joseph doesn’t allow Potiphar’s wife to determine his own morality or sexual activity. Joseph rules over his body and his passions. Again, a very Lenten message – fasting isn’t self denial so much as asserting one’s free will to rule over one’s own body!
Joseph is said to be sober-minded which gives all of us who live in a self indulgent culture of excessive eating and drinking something to think about. The scriptural lesson drawn from the Old Testament story is about sobriety, watchfulness, vigilance and virtue.
Sobriety as a spiritual way of living is important for those of us in a church which doesn’t command prohibition. We can imbibe alcohol but it is our spiritual combat to exercise self control like Jacob did and to free ourselves from passion, intoxication and addiction. The need for each of us to exercise freedom from drunkenness and intoxication does not get enough emphasis in many Orthodox cultures and parishes.
The above Ikos hymn also reflects another interesting element of Orthodox hymnography – namely it doesn’t follow linear time in its thinking. Jacob is now weeping for his son whom he assumes is dead, and we are to join him in this lamentation. The hymn doesn’t place Jacob in the past as a distant historical figure, but very much alive today with us (very reminiscent of Matthew 22:31-32 where Jesus says that God is the God of Jacob who was long dead at the time of Christ, but Jesus says He is God of the living and Jacob is alive in God). Often in Orthodox hymnography linear time is completely ignored as past, present and future are all enveloped in the timelessness of eternity. I think Metropolitan Hilarion Alfayev calls this an iconographic element of Orthodox hymnology because icons at times also ignore “history” and bring together in one icon saints and scenes separated by vast distances and long time periods.
As another example of this non-linear time use, we pray in the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom:
“You did not cease doing everything until You led us to heaven and granted us Your kingdom which is to come.
For all these things we thank You and Your only begotten Son and Your Holy Spirit…”
Thus we offer thanksgiving to God for the kingdom which is to come as if we have already received it! God granted (past) His Kingdom which is still (future) to come. We are no longer in the world of linear time, but rather experience in this world the relativity of time as we come to realize time is contained within and by the eternity of God.
Fasting, abstinence and self denial are not the goal of Great Lent nor are they the Spiritual Fruit which we seek to produce. Rather they are the labor we apply to the garden of our hearts – they are the gardening we do in order to enable the spiritual gifts of God to produce the abundant spiritual harvest in our lives. We do not fail at Great Lent if we fail to fast. Rather we fail if our fasting and attendance at the Lenten services doesn’t produce the fruits of love, peace, patience, kindness and humility in our lives. Strictly keeping the fast without producing the fruits of the spirit, is like the tree that blossoms with beautiful and fragrant flowers but never produces any fruit.
“If we do not see abundantly present in ourselves the fruits of love, peace, joy and meekness, of humility, simplicity and sincerity, of faith and long-suffering, then we have labored without profit and in vain: for the whole purpose of our labor and toil was to gain these fruits. If the fruits of love and peace are not in us, then our entire labor has been useless and in vain.
Those who toil in such a way, on the day of judgment will prove to be like the five foolish virgins who were called foolish because they did not yet have in the vessels of their hearts the spiritual oil, that is, the virtues which we mentioned; and so they were shut out from the marriage feast, gaining no profit from their virginity. Husbandmen who work in a vineyard undergo all their labor and care in the hope of obtaining fruit, and if there is no fruit all their work proves to no purpose; and in the same way, if we do not see in ourselves, through the action of the Spirit, the fruits of love, peace, joy, humility, and all the other virtues enumerated by the Apostle (Gal. v. 22), if we do not feel in full assurance and spiritual perception that they are present within us, then all the labor of chastity, prayer, psalmody, fasting, and vigil will prove in vain and profitless.” (St. Theophan the Recluse in The Art of Prayer: An Orthodox Anthology, pgs. 131-132)
During Holy Week in the Eastern Orthodox Tradition, excerpts from the Book of Job are read. The Prophet Job is seen as a prototype of a righteous man who suffers at the instigation of Satan.
Job has three friends who show up to sit with him during his sufferings, and they advocate that Job drop the “self-” righteous attitude and admit that his suffering is just due to his personal sins and obviously is from God. The Book of Job though offers a challenge to that notion of righteousness which demands that all suffering is the result of sin and shows God’s disapproval of the suffering person. Jesus who is the suffering servant and messiah, like Job is blameless before God and yet suffers – not because He sinned but in fulfillment of God’s will.
“The three friends lecture Job directly and never speak to God. Job responds to them, but significantly he turns from them often in order to address God (the Almighty, or El Shaddai). It is here that the author is once again true to life. Job oscillates between despair and ardent faith. He argues with God, and even if he cannot find God (23:8-9), he never stops yearning for a confrontation (9:32-35; 13:3; 16, 22; 16:18-22; 31:35-37). This is the stuff of spiritual conflict, the dark night of the soul, which countless people have experienced.” (Roland E. Murphy, The Tree of Life – An Exploration of Biblical Wisdom Literature, pg.38)
A main theme of the first days of Holy Week is the return of Christ – imaged as the Bridegroom coming at midnight, with those who were expecting Him being either foolish or wise in terms of preparedness. The greatest act of preparedness according to the Patristic commentators is actively loving one another. We don’t “prepare” by suddenly reacting to that which catches us by surprise. Preparedness is that which we do everyday even when an expected event seems distant and remote. We are to be disciples daily – take up your cross daily and follow me says Jesus – not just in a last-minute reaction to the end’s imminent arrival. We are to be vigilant regarding Christ’s coming again.
“The Fathers’ commentary on the parable of wise and foolish virgins discerns in the image of the empty lamps the drying up of love…The Swiss socialist Ragaz stressed the tragic rift between those who believe in God but are not interested in His Kingdom and the atheists who want to build the Kingdom, but who do not believe in God.” (In the World, of the Church: A Paul Evdokimov Reader)
In a Church which so emphasizes asceticism as being the main activity of Christians, especially during the season of Great Lent, there is an interesting lesson offered in the liturgical texts for Matins of Great and Holy Monday. Referring to Matthew 20:20-22, one text talks about the misunderstanding that the mother of two of His disciples had as she tried to promote her sons to positions of power in Christ’s Kingdom, but Jesus reminds His disciples that His Kingdom is not going to be like earthly, pagan Kingdoms. The desire for power has no place in the Kingdom of Heaven.
THE MOTHER OF ZEBEDEE’S CHILDREN, LORD,
COULD NOT UNDERSTAND THE INEFFABLE MYSTERY OF YOUR DISPENSATION.
SHE ASKED THE HONOR OF A TEMPORAL KINGDOM FOR HER SONS,
BUT INSTEAD YOU PROMISED YOUR FRIENDS
THAT THEY SHOULD DRINK THE CUP OF DEATH,
A CUP THAT YOU WOULD DRINK BEFORE THEM FOR THE CLEANSING OF SINS.
THEREFORE WE CRY OUT TO YOU://
SALVATION OF OUR SOULS, GLORY TO YOU!
Jesus Himself had refused Satan’s temptation to have power over all of the kingdoms of the world (Luke 4:5-8 ). But the temptation toward power – even toward the trappings of power in the way Christian leaders, bishops dressed – has been one that the Church has not so readily refused. The Church’s symphonic merging with the Byzantine Roman Empire saw the Church accepting both the signs of temporal power and the power itself. But the texts in Matins for Holy Monday remind us that Christian leadership should consist of imitating the master Jesus Christ, who in washing the feet of His disciples, showed that true Christian leadership is servant leadership. There is to be no lording over one another among the disciples of Christ!
YOU TAUGHT YOUR DISCIPLES, LORD, TO DESIRE WHAT IS PERFECT,
SAYING: BE NOT LIKE THE GENTILES, WHO OPPRESS THE WEAK.
IT SHALL NOT BE SO WITH YOU, MY DISCIPLES.
FOR OF MY OWN WILL I AM POOR.
LET THE FIRST AMONG YOU, THEREFORE, BE THE SERVANT OF ALL.
LET THE RULER BE LIKE THOSE WHO ARE RULED.
LET HIM WHO IS FIRST BE LIKE THE LAST.
FOR I HAVE COME TO SERVE ADAM IN HIS POVERTY,
AND TO GIVE MY LIFE AS A RANSOM FOR THE MANY WHO CRY TO ME://
O LORD, GLORY TO YOU!
Bishops all want to be an apostle like Peter, which they imagine to mean to be chief and head over all the rest – even though Jesus specifically rejected any such image of leadership among Christians.
LET YOUR ORDER BE CONTRARY TO THAT OF THE GENTILES,
WHO HOLD POWER OVER THEIR FELLOWMEN,
FOR SUCH IS NOT MY PORTION,
BUT RATHER SELF-APPOINTED TYRANNY.
HE, THEN, WHO WOULD BE GREAT AMONG YOU,
MUST BE THE SERVANT OF ALL,
AND KNOWING THAT I AM THE LORD, HE WILL SING AND EXALT ME THROUGHOUT ALL AGES.
Christian order is to be CONTRARY to that of the Gentiles! Lording over one another is forbidden!
A lenten theme – servant leadership – that does not seem to get the same emphasis that food fasting does in the church. Yet it is a theme totally related to the virtue of humility, and thus should be one exemplified in the leadership of the Church. Unfortunately in Orthodoxy the sacrament of the Foot Washing is not practiced much and receives virtually no attention in Holy Week liturgical services. Among patriarchs and metropolitans and archbishops the discussion in Orthodoxy tends to be on primacy and the significance of miters, and not on servanthood and the importance of imitating Christ.
“SELF-APPOINTED TYRANNY” the text from the Canon of Holy Monday Matins calls it. As long as words such as “despot” and “hierarch” replace “bishop” or “episcopate” we will continue to have trouble with leadership in the Church embodying its role to make Christ the Servant present in the congregation.
Holy Week – a time to call for true Christian leadership in the Church.
During Holy Week, we read portions of the Book of Job . On Monday we read Job 1:1-12
THE LESSON OF JOBWe are invited, in other words, to look at Job’s torment and his questions with the privileged knowledge that this is not in fact a contest between Job and God, as Job (who, knowing himself to be innocent, thinks that God has made a terrible blunder) and his would-be comforters (who, confident that God doesn’t make mistakes, assume that Job must somehow be guilty) think it is. It is also not-or not straightforwardly-a contest between God and Satan, as a dualist might imagine. No, it is a contest between Satan and Job. Satan is trying to get Job in his power, to demonstrate that humans are not worth God’s trouble, while Job for his part continues to insist both that God ought to be just and that he himself is in the right…The question is about God’s moral government of this world, not about the way in which we should leave this world behind and find consolation in a different one. (N.T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God)