Monday, April 28, 2014

In Light of Pascha: Reflections from Lent and Holy Week (Part 2)

We go up to Jerusalem. We witness a man donning grave-clothes. And a clamouring crowd with palm branches. Passover is near. The whole city is frenetic.

Something is happening.

Unlike the the first century crowd, we know what's happening. We've heard the story most of our lives. Even many who aren't Christians know the basics of the gospel story. However, much like those first century eyewitnesses we don't know what this last week of Christ's earthly life will bring, we're unsure what His Passion will work in us, the Body of Christ, this year. We know that His Passion will conquer our passions, that His Death will conquer death, but what this means for each person, one will only discover as each bears their cross down that arduous path that leads to Golgotha -- to death. From our experience we know this leads to life. But reaching the end of the road necessitates one heeding the Master's call: take up your cross and follow me.

We approach Holy Week. We've done our best, but it is never good enough, we are not the Master. A couple of stanzas from George Herbert's emotive poem "Lent":

It's true, we cannot reach Christ's forti'eth day;
Yet to go part of that religious way,
Is better than to rest:
We cannot reach our Saviour's purity;
Yet we are bid, 'Be holy ev'n as he, '
In both let's do our best.

Yet Lord instruct us to improve our fast
By starving sin and taking such repast,
As may our faults control:
That ev'ry man may revel at his door,
Not in his parlour; banqueting the poor,
And among those his soul. 

We approach Holy Week. After fasting and prayer we go up to Jerusalem -- for more fasting and more prayer. We serve the Divine Liturgy on Lazarus Saturday. This is a powerful service because Lazarus' resurrection foreshadows The Resurrection. Christ proclaims: I am the resurrection and the life. As we take up crosses and follow the Master, do we truly believe this, or do we amble under onerous burdens to our inescapable deaths? Do we really believe that we will be raised to life? The story of Lazarus tells that we will.

The Master enters Jerusalem on a donkey...followed by his ragtag group of disciples. Are we packed tightly into the vociferous crowd? Or do we stand off to the side and simply observe, a spectator? But, either way, if we were there, by the end of the week we'll be yelling: crucify!

We grow weary. We're tempted to give in. Maybe take a snooze. But we must keep our lamps lit, the Bridegroom comes. Bridegroom Matins is an amazing service. We pray many psalms and anticipate the coming of Him. We are the Church: the Bride of Christ. It's imperative that we hold vigil and not be found sleeping. Can we stave off drowsiness? Only by grace, because at this point we have nothing left. We're enveloped by darkness, yet several lamps remain aflame, and we begin to see through the thin veil, glimpses of heavenliness. We chant the Six Psalms -- the End is near.

The Church in her wisdom has placed an Unction service in the middle of the week. The anointing is for healing, both spiritual and physical (mostly spiritual). As we approach the end of Christ's Passion, and if we have truly taken up our cross, we go to our death. As a priest administers the sacrament of unction to the sick and dying, so we to are anointed as we approach Golgotha with our Master.

We really start to get to the heart of Holy Week with the reading of the Twelve Passion Gospels. It's a lot of reading. This service brings us all back to the reason we're in church so frequently during Holy Week: Christ's Passion. When "He gave up the spirit" is uttered followed by the pregnant pause -- hauntingly unsettling quiet -- it's especially poignant when one makes the sign of the cross in the moment. The God-Man has given up His last breath. We are left breathless, immobilized. Nonetheless, the tired participants go to their homes knowing full well that the Burial Service approaches.

 Our Lord and Savior's Body is taken down from the Cross and the Epitaphios is placed in the tomb. Reenacting the Burial of Christ is one of the most intensely emotional times of Holy Week, which is why the Lamentations is served and in many traditions the Psalter is read over the Tomb through the night. The fatigued Christians one-by-one venerate the Epitaphios, as though it were the Body, some bowing, some prostrating, but all sign themselves and kiss the Epitaphios. The reverence -- and dare I say, dread -- is tangible. How did the Jesus' disciples feel? His Mother? Darkness passed over it passes over us. Yet there is solidarity because there is an "us" -- we go through this together.

We enter the dark night.

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