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Joining the Whole Church at the Tomb: The Experience of Holy Week
By Fr. John Hainsworth
Every year during Holy Week I read to my congregation an eyewitness account of a certain Pascha night on Solovki Island in 1925. For centuries, this island in the White Sea had been the home of a venerable and remote monastery. After the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, the monks were replaced by political and religious prisoners. The once-beautiful monastery became a concentration camp. The climate of that region was especially harsh and the island well out of sight, and the newly formed gulag became a place of unspeakable horror for its inhabitants.
Among the few who survived was a prisoner who worked in the camp's archives, and he left us the description of an extraordinary occurrence. Through some favor-gained by one of the prisoners, Bishop Illarion-all the prisoners were allowed by the communist authorities to celebrate Pascha in the camp. But only that one night and never again. Preparations were made, vestments were secretly liberated from the vaults of the former monastery, and on Pascha night the whole camp gathered together. Here is the prisoner's description of that evening:
Long before midnight, along the walls built with colossal stones, you can see endless lines of gray shadows passing the silent snow-covered towers of the monastery, moving toward the old church. . . . Then, from the wide opened doors of the church appears a procession-a procession never seen or imagined before. Seventeen bishops in vestments surrounded by lit torches, over 200 priests, as many monks followed by waves of those whose hearts and thoughts were soaring toward their Savior in this mysterious, unforgettable night. . . . Suddenly, with a voice of unearthly power sounded the words pronounced by Bishop Illarion: "LET GOD ARISE, AND LET HIS ENEMIES BE SCATTERED" . . . Then, just as powerfully, "CHRIST IS RISEN!" "INDEED HE IS RISEN!" flowed over the snow covered fields. "INDEED HE IS RISEN!" resounded under the glorious dome of the lit up sky. "INDEED HE IS RISEN!" echoed in the depth of the forest. . . . Swollen, white lips, bloody, cracked, whispered the words of the promised eternal life. In a victorious, joyous song joined those whose death was so near, death they could expect at any minute, any day. . . . The walls of the prison built by bloody hands fell. Christ's blood spilled in love gives eternal and joyous life. . . . That night the words "AND UPON THOSE IN THE TOMBS BESTOWING LIFE!" resounded as an inextinguishable truth. The joy of hope tore into their torn hearts and earthly suffering: the eternal life of the Spirit of Christ made them say, "We shall die, but we shall be raised! We shall be born again!" . . . And I will never forget it! NEVER!
What is so striking about this description is that the prisoners experienced the resurrection of Jesus Christ, not as something that had happened but as something that was happening. They were not celebrating an historical event, they were participating in a current reality. What is more, Christ had risen in and through these prisoners. Broken and starving as they were, they were filled with a joy that completely transcended their earthly condition, a joy that surely would seem irrational, even insane, to the unbeliever. Somehow, this Pascha in Solovki reached through time and place and locked arms with every Pascha before and after. These prisoners joined the whole Church at the tomb on the dawn of that first day.
While the circumstances of this Pascha were extraordinary, this Paschal experience itself is not. This is indeed the way Orthodox Christians around the world experience Holy Week and Pascha. We know that the events described in the Bible that form the foundation of our faith all happened many centuries ago. Still, everything is sung and spoken as 'today': "Today, Judas betrays the Master," "Today, He who hung the earth upon the waters is hung upon the Cross," "Today is the resurrection." The churches every Pascha resound with "Christ is risen," not "Christ was risen." Indeed, the hymnography of the Church is relentlessly in the present tense. Anyone taking the Church at its own word must conclude that we actually think these events are happening to us, as if we are part of the story which is only now unfolding.
What happens then during Holy Week and Pascha? How do the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, events that happened in history, come alive for us today? The answers to these questions lie in the way Orthodox understand Scripture, remembrance, and the covenant between God and Israel.
"This is not a safe book"
There is a modern classic children's book which can give a good insight into how the Church uses the Scriptures and also into what happens to us in Holy Week. The Neverending Story, by the German author Michael Ende, is about a young boy and a book. The story begins with this boy, Bastian, taking refuge from the world in an antiquarian bookstore. The kind but curmudgeonly owner of the bookstore, Mr. Coreander, tries to show Bastian the way out, but one of the books catches the boy's attention and he reaches for it. Mr. Coreander snatches it away, and tells Bastian that this is not a book for him. Naturally the boy is fascinated, and he asks why. Coreander replies in a menacing tone, "The books you read are safe". Clearly, this book is not safe. When the owner's back is turned Bastian scrawls a note promising to return, grabs the book and flees the store. He finds a quiet place in the attic of his school and begins to read the book. As he does so, however, he begins to realize that he is not just reading but becoming an inextricable part of the book, and that the fate of its characters has something to do with him. The world of the book and the world of the reader continue to intertwine until the boy is forced to make a difficult and critical decision which will affect everything. So doing, he discovers that he has entered into a never-ending story where the characters in the book in turn have become part of his life, and that his former life is forever changed.
I often think of that bookstore owner's warning, "This is not a safe book," when I pick up my Bible. Our Bibles are not safe or tame books, because they demand that we be part of the story. When Christ cries out, "He who has ears to hear, let him hear," He is crying out to us. When Christ says, "He who would be My disciple, let him take up his cross and follow Me," he is calling us into His story. Like Bastian, we are challenged by our Book to make decisions with regard to what we read, and to face the decisions we have already made.
However, if we are not safe reading the Bible privately, we are much less so when we gather in the church to read it. For the Orthodox, the Bible is primarily an ecclesiastical book. It was written by the Church, for the Church, and is fully revealed and experienced within the church. When we read it in the church, we are reading it differently. To begin with, we are reading it corporately. This seems like an obvious point, but it is one of the hallmarks of true apostolic worship.
The Divine Liturgy consists of the Liturgy of the Word followed by the Liturgy of the Offering. Both are necessary for the Church to become the Church, for a scattered people to become a unified people, the Israel of God. In the reading of the Word, the Lord reveals Himself, and the Church is gathered into Christ the Word. In the celebration of the Eucharist, the Church is revealed and the covenant is renewed and fulfilled.
The Scriptures therefore become the medium through which we remember and encounter our God. More than that, they are the revelation of God in our midst and our translation into that revelation. When we read the Epistle, we are listening to the apostle himself in our midst; when we read the Gospel, we are hearing Christ speak in our midst. The sermon that follows is the Church in prophetic mode, opening, explaining, and distributing the treasures newly revealed to us.
In Holy Week it is especially apparent that the Scriptures are the ground upon which we encounter the divine. The services of this period are anchored to the Scripture readings. The hymns we sing, the vestments we wear, the candles we light, and the processions we make are all ways in which we give expression to the story we are experiencing. They are also ways in which we elaborate upon and even give our own voice (of consent, of grief, of repentance, of praise) to what we are witnessing. The real action is in the readings.
This is especially clear in the service of the Matins of Holy Friday, in which we follow Christ to the Cross through twelve readings from all four Gospels. It is also clear in the Matins of Holy Saturday, when we stand in front of Christ on the Cross and read Psalm 119, inserting a short hymn after each verse. We are literally putting words into Christ's mouth-the words of the psalmist-but we are also responding to Him, praising Him, even in dialogue with Him, through these hymns after each verse. Like the boy in The Neverending Story, we have by this night fully entered into the story of the Gospel; it is being fulfilled in our midst.
Now, it is clear that we are not, humanly speaking, present to the historical event itself, so that we can feel the dust beneath our feet, hear the jeers of the soldiers, or shiver in the sudden chill of the sun's eclipse. We do not need to be. We revel in the fact that God stepped into history, and we affirm the events described in the Scriptures to be fully accurate. And the power of Christ's crucifixion moves through all time, because the One crucified was fully God as well as fully man. Through the use of Scripture in the Church we become present to the everlasting mystical reality of Christ crucified and risen again.
No one can really understand what happens in Holy Week or in any Orthodox liturgy without some grasp of a very important Greek word: anamnesis. The only English equivalent for this word is "remembrance." This is unfortunate, because "remembrance" has almost none of the meaning in English that it has in ancient Greek. Most people understand the word in its narrowest sense, the present recollection of a past event. The way the word is used in the Bible encompasses much more than the mere mental activity of remembering.
While none of the disciples at the Passover supper with Jesus were physically present at the original Passover, they were present there mystically. And likewise, when we celebrate our Pascha and liturgy today, we are mystically present at their supper. In Exodus 12:14 the Lord commands Israel to remember the Exodus: "This day shall be to you a memorial; and you shall keep it as a feast to the LORD throughout your generations. You shall keep it as a feast by an everlasting ordinance."
This feast is central to the Jewish identity, since the event that it commemorates was the defining moment in the formation of the Jewish nation. Israel had been claimed by God and delivered from bondage to an eternal freedom. By bringing this about, God had created a nation from a tribe and an exalted people from a slave caste. However, this identity of the Jewish people rested entirely on a past event, and so the relationship of past and present had to be bridged, and was bridged, by an understanding of remembrance as making present an eternal action.
Remembrance, therefore, cannot be understood as simply memory, however significant that memory may be; one cannot have a memory of an event that one was not alive to witness. Rather, remembrance prescribed in Scripture can best be understood as the present participation in an event which arcs outside the category of time.
The fact that the Passover had happened in the past was irrelevant to the Jews of the Lord's time, since that event was a memorialized revelation of how God always deals with his people. To remember in the Scriptures is to act, and therefore to remember God is to remember how he is acting now. Every battle becomes a battle with Pharaoh, the exile in Babylon becomes enslavement under Egypt from which God will free his people, and prophets like Isaiah and Ezekiel can refer to God's mercy on the enslaved Israel as a reason that Israel should repent and be reconciled with their deliverer. But this can only be the case if biblical remembrance is understood not as memory but as revelation.
Holy Week and Pascha are built upon this scriptural model of the Exodus. If we miss this, we miss the whole point of Pascha. We can be even bolder and say that the Exodus happened so that Israel would have a model by which it might see and understand what God would accomplish through Christ on the Cross. The Exodus of the Israelites was really the prophecy of the Pascha of Christ. This is why Christ was crucified during the celebration of Passover, and why Christ says, "Do this in remembrance of Me" at the Passover supper.
The function of Holy Week and Pascha in the life of the Orthodox Church is to help us remember what God has done through His Christ, and in doing so to make that God present to us. More accurately, we become present to Him, since He is always saving us on the Cross, He is always raised from the dead, He is always being God to us.
In fact, every time we serve the Divine Liturgy we remember God in just the way Christ commands us to do, as we remember and recount the great and saving acts of God and enter into His presence. In the Anaphora, the prayers of offering, the bread and wine are consecrated precisely through this act of remembrance. In a sense, every liturgy is a microcosm of Holy Week and Pascha, or to put it in another way, Holy Week and Pascha are the expanded liturgy-remembering God in the fullest way possible, contemplating every angle of the saving work of Christ.
There is one last important key which we must have, and this is an understanding of covenant. There is a covenant between God and His people. What does this mean? It means that there was an agreement between God and Israel that God would be their God, and they would be His people. Originally this agreement was sealed by the blood of a bull, sprinkled on the elders of the people (Exodus 24). This covenant of union meant that God would always care for, guide, and be present with His people, and for Israel's part it meant that they would be obedient to the commandments of God, delivered through Moses His prophet. These commandments were meant to guide and keep Israel in holiness and to help His people fulfill the calling to be a light among the nations, a lamp in the darkness of this fallen world.
Just like everything in the Scriptures before Christ, the original covenant was a type of the covenant that would be established between God and His people through His Christ. The first covenant and the laws that governed it were meant to train Israel in righteousness, to lead them to faith, to preserve them in holiness, and to govern their relationship with God. But Israel never truly lived up to the terms of that covenant. The Exodus from Egypt made Israel a nation under God and, eventually, led to the possession of the Promised Land, but new enemies would be faced, sin continued to enslave people, and death was still inevitable.
Therefore, just as Christ had to deliver His people in a true exodus from sin and death, so He had to fulfill the whole law, he had to be the One to fulfill our side of the covenant by being obedient to God in everything, even unto death. In doing so He became the pure and spotless sacrifice of love and obedience, and His spilled blood became the true seal of the fulfilled covenant.
In fact, the covenant was fulfilled so perfectly that its promise and calling spilled over the borders of Israel and reached out to the Gentiles, and to all sinners. Before, we were "aliens from the commonwealth of Israel," says St. Paul. But now, those of us who repent through baptism and participate in His death and resurrection through the remembrance of His Passion enter into the life and blessings promised to those who have fulfilled the covenant. This occurs not because we personally have fulfilled the covenant, but because we are one with Him who has fulfilled it; we "have been brought near by the blood of Christ" (Ephesians 2:12-13).
In the words of Fr. Alexander Schmemann, the Lord's Resurrection made death an act of life. God fulfilled the terms of the covenant Himself on our behalf. Our relationship to the covenant before Christ was through the law, but our relationship after Christ is through grace. So magnificent and far-reaching is this covenant as it is realized in Christ that the writer to the Hebrews actually calls the first "obsolete" in comparison (Hebrews 8:13).
With an understanding of our place within the New Covenant, we can have a greater appreciation of what is happening during Holy Week. By entering into the story of our redemption through the reading of Scripture, and by entering into the presence of God through the remembrance of Him (involving the offering of the sacrifice of His Son), we once again enter into covenant with God through the blood of His Son. Once again we are a holy nation, a royal priesthood, and citizens of the heavenly Kingdom.
And really, the same thing happens in the Divine Liturgy. Every week, we come broken and divided, having sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, having trampled His commandments, and every week the Lord acts (see Psalm 119:126) to redeem us through the Word and the Offering and to renew His covenant with us. This should cause us to tremble in the face of the awesome act of our worship, not only at Pascha but at every liturgy.
It is clear, therefore, that Orthodox Christians do not experience Holy Week and Pascha passively. We are drawn into the story and encounter the God who redeems us through that story. This is also clearly a dangerous week, because in entering it we find ourselves coming face to face with our Redeemer, and therefore with our fallenness and ultimate culpability for His crucifixion. But there is no other way to the Paschal glory than through the Cross. Perhaps that is another reason the prisoners on Solovki Island entered so fully into the ever-present reality of Christ's Resurrection. They were already on their cross, already dead to this world. In that one bright and miraculous paschal night, they had already left the sad story of this world far behind, and awakened in the sweet morning air of the day that knows no evening.
Fr. John Hainsworth is pastor of All Saints of Alaska Orthodox Mission of Victoria, British Columbia. Born in East Africa and raised in Calgary, Fr. John converted to Orthodoxy in 1992. He graduated from St. Vladimir's Seminary in 2002 with a Master's degree in Divinity.