Youth Conference & Workshop - Held at the Greek Orthodox Parish Community Hall of the Holy Cross & the Archangel Michael, Golders Green, London, 14th APRIL 2006
Holy Week is the heart of the Christian Orthodox Faith and the centre of the yearly cycle of Christian Feasts. Every year our churches are packed at Holy Week and, come the last three days, they are bursting at the seams with both people who attend church every Sunday and people who attend only on special occasions. Holy Week brings the pious and the not so pious together in a way that the most ambitious missionaries can only dream of. I am not going to try to answer the reasons for this. I am going to try to explain not so much what makes Holy Week unique and different from every other time of the religious year, but rather why Holy Week is, as I said, the heart of the Christian Faith.
Time will not permit us to look at each day and service of Holy Week in turn, so we will look at some selected events, readings and hymns. But before we do this, permit me to make what I consider to be an essential introduction. It is essential because many of us wrongly assume that everyone has grown up knowing the basic principles of Christianity – this is no longer so, even in many Christian countries – and without first understanding who Christ is, we cannot hope to understand Holy Week. I am not, of course, going make a brief exposition of the Orthodox Faith just so that I can explain Holy Week (to anyone who needs me to start from scratch, this talk will probably seem like a waste of time), but there is a pseudo-Christian trend nowadays, which is very common, and which I feel I must address before I go any further: and this is the popular opinion that Christ is a great moral teacher, a revolutionary, a great prophet perhaps, but nothing more. According to this view of Christ, ‘Son of God’, means nothing more than God adopted him because God liked him so much. I am trying here to prevent anyone thinking about Christ in the way that so many people seem to think of him. I have often heard people, even people who claim to be Christians, saying: “I accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t believe that He is literally God”. If this is how you see Christ, then Holy Week won’t mean a thing to you. So, permit me, before I get started on Holy Week, to put things into perspective.
A man who was just a man, and who said the things that Jesus said, would not be a great moral teacher at all. He would be a complete and utter lunatic. He claimed that He is eternal. He claimed that He will judge the world at the end of time. He claimed to have the authority to forgive sins. This last claim tends to slip our attention because we have heard it so many times that we no longer realise what it really amounts to. If Christ were just a man, a mere moral teacher, this claim to forgive sins would be absolutely absurd. We can all understand how somebody forgives offences against his own person. You insult me, or kick me, or steal my wallet, and I forgive you. But what about someone who forgives somebody for sinning against somebody else? Let us imagine that John steals from Elizabeth, then I come along and I say “John, you’re forgiven”. I have not even askedElizabeth if she has forgiven him. Who on earth am I to come along and forgive John for what he did toElizabeth? This would be laughable. But let us suppose that I am the person who invented the rule “you shall not steal”. If I made the rule, then I have the right to forgive someone for breaking it. This is what Jesus’ claim to forgive sins amounted to. This is why the Jews were so shocked and offended by that claim. This is why they called it ‘blasphemy’ and why many of the Pharisees wanted Jesus dead. If he has the authority to forgive people for breaking the commandments, then He must be the God who gave the commandments. He must be the God who appeared to Moses in the Burning Bush on Mount Sinai, who gave the Ten Commandments toIsrael. That is indeed who Christ is. And my point is that we either worship Him as God, or we dismiss Him as an utter madman, or something worse, but let us not come up with any patronising rubbish about Him being a great moral teacher. He did not give us that option.
In the Orthodox Church, Christ as God is the focal point of the Passion and Resurrection. In many of the hymns of the Church, and Holy Week is no exception, the hymn writers are constantly expressing their wonder at the God who created the universe becoming a man and, what’s more, such a man and undergoing such things as we would think beneath us. If being born in a grotty cave surrounded by lots of filthy animals is undignified for us, how much more undignified is it for God! If being whipped, spat on, beaten up, insulted, stripped naked and hung up and nailed on a cross for all to see and for everyone to tell you “serves you right you stupid idiot” is unfair on us, how much more unfair is it on God the Creator! We will see, particularly when we come to the hymns of Great Friday, how the Orthodox Church focuses on this strange wonder: God doing things for us that are infinitely beneath Him.
Having established the identity of Christ, let us now begin getting to grips with what He did for us, meaning above all, the events of Holy Week.
The Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of Great Week are marked by the service of the NYMPHIOS (the Bridegroom Service). The morning service of each day takes place on the evening of the night before in anticipation. Each day liturgically begins at sunset, and so the service of Monday is held on Sunday evening, the service of Tuesday on Monday evening, and so on. On Sunday evening, the priest, preceded by lights, and bearing the icon of the Bridegroom makes a solemn procession within the church and places it in the centre, while we sing the following hymn which we are to repeat over the next two days:
“Behold the Bridegroom comes at midnight, and blessed is the servant whom he shall find watching. And again, unworthy is the servant whom he shall find heedless. Beware therefore O my soul, do not be weighed down with sleep, lest you be given up to death, and lest you be shut out of the kingdom. But rouse yourself crying: holy, holy, holy are you our God.
As I said, all three days are characterised by this special Bridegroom Service and all share a common theme and a common imagery: the theme of vigilance, and the image of a wedding feast. While the theme of vigilance is common to all three days, each day expresses this theme in slightly different ways. As I said, we will not have time to look at each day in turn, but in the handout you have been given, you will find some additional notes on some of the Readingsand Events of Holy Week which we will not go through today, but which you can read at home and keep for future reference. But for the purposes of this talk, in regard to the first three days of Holy Week, we will focus only on the parable of the ten virgins, which we remember on Great Tuesday, but which is the basis of the hymn of the Bridegroom Service that pervades the first three days of Holy Week. But before we look at this parable, let us first consider the image of the wedding banquet. In the New Testament, the Kingdomof Godis often compared to a wedding feast. In the book of Revelations, for example, St John writes: “I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband”, and an angel who appeared to him said: “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb”. The Bride is the Kingdomof God, and Christ is the Bridegroom. The relationship between a bridegroom and his bride is analogous to the relationship between Christ and His Church. The two honour and glorify one another, and the two are joined and become one. It is at the same time both a solemn and a joyous occasion. Before a wedding, the couple send out invitations to their friends and relatives. God has invited us to the mother of all weddings: the union between heaven and earth, between Christ and His Church. We could say that, in this present life, the Church is engaged to Christ. The wedding ceremony itself has yet to take place. The lesson of vigilance is that we need to be ready for the wedding day. To not turn up at, what is effectively, our own wedding, is to miss the once in a lifetime opportunity to live blissfully for the rest of our lives. Being ready for the wedding means being spiritually prepared for Christ’s coming or, unless God has told any of you personally that you are going to live to see that day (which I doubt, somehow), it means being prepared for death. This might sound a little morbid to you, but if it does, it is probably because you have misunderstood the meaning of the term ‘prepared for death’. Preparing for death means living your life the way you ought to. It does not mean overlooking all the joys of life. It means living life for what it is: the first steps to eternal life. That being the case, we should be very careful about how we take those first steps. We should do our best to make sure that we are going in the right direction. To be prepared and vigilant means having the right attitude – a heart that is ready and eager for the wedding feast.
Let us now turn to the parable of the ten virgins:
‘The kingdom of heaven is comparable to ten virgins, which took their lamps, and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were wise, and five were foolish. The foolish ones took their lamps, and took no oil with them; but the wise took oil with their lamps. As they were waiting for the bridegroom, they fell asleep. At midnight, a voice was heard crying: “The bridegroom is coming! Go to meet him!” The virgins got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish ones said to the wise ones, “give us some of your oil, our lamps have gone out”. The wise ones answered, “no, if we do that we will not have enough for ourselves. Go and buy some of your own”. So they left to go and buy some and, in their absence, the bridegroom came, and the wise virgins who were ready to meet him went in to the house with him, and the door was shut. The foolish virgins arrived and asked the bridegroom to open up, but he answered, “I do not know you”. So be watchful, because you do not know when the Son of man will come’.
In order to gain a clearer understanding of this parable, we need to bear in mind the ancient eastern custom of marriage. After the engagement ceremony, the bridegroom, accompanied by relatives and friends, makes his way to the bride’s home, where she awaits him in her best attire, surrounded by friends. The wedding ceremony would usually take place at night; therefore, the friends of the bride would meet the bridegroom with lit lamps and, since the exact time of the bridegroom’s arrival would not be known, those who were waiting would provide themselves with oil in case it should burn out in the lamps. The bride, with her face covered by a veil, together with the bridegroom and all the participants in the ceremony, would make their way to the bridegroom’s house, singing and dancing. The doors would be shut, the marriage contract signed, blessings would be pronounced in honour of the couple, the bride would uncover her face and the marriage feast would begin.
In the parable, the waiting for the bridegroom signifies our earthly life, the aim of which consists of preparing oneself to meet the Lord. The shut doors of the marriage chamber, which did not admit the latecomers, signify the gates of paradise, and the time of their closing signifies human death, after which there is no repentance. In other words, to “get into paradise”, for want of a better phrase, we cannot afford to wait for death. Salvation begins here and now. Once the doors are shut, it is too late, and when they do shut, we better hope we are inside the bridal chamber and not outside.
But why virgins? Virginity has always been something which Christianity has regarded as rare and beautiful, (and these days it is rarer than ever), but in this parable, virginity refers not to bodily virginity, but spiritual virginity, meaning purity of faith. So what is the meaning of a foolish virgin? The five were foolish because they took no oil for their lamps. Oil, in Sacred Scripture, is often an image of the Holy Spirit, and in this parable the burning oil signifies the spiritual zeal of the faithful. In other words, what the foolish virgins ultimately lacked was a burning love for God. The foolish virgins are comparable to ‘formal’ Christians, who may attend church frequently, are regular and punctual in their prayers, observe their religious obligations, but who lack love and repentance, assured that their works are sufficient, being therefore neither anxious nor eager for the wedding feast and thus unprepared for death.
As we come to the end of Great Wednesday, we move on from this theme of the Bridegroom, and on Great Thursday we commemorate the Mystical Supper and Jesus washing the feet of His disciples. In the morning, a full Eucharistic Liturgy of St Basil the Great is served in combination with vespers. The relationship between the Mystical Supper and the Eucharist is obvious, but many Orthodox talk about this Mystical Supper as though its sole purpose was to establish the sacrament of Holy Communion. This is just silly. I am not trying to play down the reality of Holy Communion as the Body and Blood of Christ or its connection to the Mystical Supper, but there is more to the acts and words of the Mystical Supper than this. Christ showed His Apostles what He was about to do for us. In breaking the bread and saying “this is my body which is broken for you for the forgiveness of sins”, and giving them the cup and saying “this is my blood which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins”, He was illustrating what He was going to endure and to what purpose. Before He took the bread and wine, he said to the Apostles: “No man has greater love than this: to give his life for his friends”. When he commands us to “do this in memory of me”, he does not just mean, “celebrate the liturgy in memory of me”, he also means “sacrifice yourselves for others as I have done for you, in memory of me”. When Christ said “whoever does not eat my flesh and drink my blood has no life in him”, he meant more than taking Holy Communion, as important as that is. He meant also that without his love in our hearts, we have no life in us. It is with such love that we ought to take Holy Communion.
During the Gospel Reading at the Liturgy, we have the foot-washing rite. Here the bishop renders a dramatic re-enactment of Christ’s washing the feet of his disciples, presupposing with twelve priests or deacons, but in many places this is impossible, and so people are selected from the laity. According to the Gospel narrative:
‘Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a bowl and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered, “You do not understand now what I am doing, but later you will understand. Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet’
As I already mentioned at the beginning the wonder of God doing things for us that are plainly beneath Him. The task of washing someone’s feet is hardly a task fit for a King. It is the task of the lowest servant or a slave, and so Peter refuses to allow Christ to wash his feet.
‘Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me”.
In other words, “if I am to bring you up to my level, I first must come down to yours”.
Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!”’
What St Peter is saying here, in other words, is, “if washing me is a yardstick for measuring how close I am to you, then never mind the feet, I want the full monty!”
I spoke of the foot-washing rite as a dramatic re-enactment, but it would be a mistake to suppose that there is nothing more to it. It is no coincidence that it is the bishop who performs the rite of foot washing. Christ said that, “whoever wants to be the first must be the last, and whoever wants to be the greatest must become the servant of all”. The bishop is the holder of the highest office in the Church. He is Christ’s representative and stands in the place of Christ Who, in His own words, “came not to be served, but to serve”, and so bishops ought to do the same.
I am probably in serious trouble for saying that, so allow me to quickly move on before I really put my foot in it. Let us now turn our attention to the service of Great Friday that takes place on Thursday evening. At this service, we have the reading of the Twelve Gospels, which tell us the accounts of Christ’s trial, suffering and death. The fifth gospel sees Christ sentenced to death by crucifixion, and so, after this Gospel Reading, the priest takes the crucifix that stands before the altar, and, preceded by lights, he carries it around the church in procession and places it in the centre. Bear in mind what I said earlier: how the church expresses her wonder at God’s humility; the Creator doing things for us which are, quite frankly, degrading. Nowhere is this more emphatic than in the hymns of Great Friday. I have selected two hymns from Great Friday, and the first is the hymn that is chanted during and immediately following the procession of the crucifix:
Today, he who hung the earth upon the waters is hung upon a tree.
The King of angels is decked with a crown of thorns.
He who wraps the heavens in clouds is wrapped in the purple of mockery.
He who freed Adam in the Jordan is struck on the face.
The Bridegroom of the Church is affixed to the cross with nails.
The Son of the Virgin is pierced by a spear.
We worship your passion O Christ.
Show us also your glorious Resurrection.
It is worth nothing here the reference to the Resurrection. The Orthodox Church on Good Friday does not think of Christ’s human pain and suffering in isolation. We marvel at the paradox of God suffering on the Cross – the strange contrast between his humiliation and His eternal glory. The Crucifixion is not about the suffering of a good man; it is about the suffering of God Himself. Behind the image of this broken and humiliated figure, the Church still discerns the Second Person of the Holy Trinity. The Crucifixion, Burial and Resurrection are all seen as one action, and therefore, even in the Crucifixion itself, we already sense victory. The Resurrection is inevitable. This person on the cross is mortal only in His humanity, but in His divinity He is eternal. He is the giver of life, the source of life. Death is contrary to His divine nature. The Crucifixion can end in only one way: Resurrection. It is not wishful thinking. It does not come to us as a surprise. The Church, on Great Friday, awaits the Resurrection with eager expectation.
The second hymn I have selected follows shortly after the Ninth Gospel. This is perhaps the darkest moment of Holy Week. The hymn is chanted slowly in plagal second, which is a dark, almost eerie, tone:
They have stripped me of my garments
And have clothed me in a scarlet robe.
They have set upon my head a crown of thorns
And have given me a reed in my right hand…
Here we have an uncompromising expression of Christ’s humiliation, but come the last line, the focus shifts entirely:
…That I might smash them in pieces, like a potter’s vessel.
Even now, in this utterly humiliated man, the Church still perceives the King of Glory coming to judge the world.
I mentioned that because we see the Resurrection as inevitable and consider the Cross, Burial and Resurrection to be one action, we anxiously anticipate the Resurrection even on Great Friday. This is even more true of Great Saturday. The service of Great Saturday is effectively a funeral service for Christ, and yet it is the most colourful service of Holy Week, because we have already begun to celebrate the Resurrection. The Epitaphios which represents the tomb of Christ, is adorned with an array of flowers, and is carried in a solemn and yet joyous procession outside the church. There is on Great Saturday a clear, steady progression from sorrow to joy. The Engomia or Lamentations – those beautiful dirges that we sing on the evening of Great Friday in honour of Christ’s death – begin in the sombre plagal first, then becoming brighter and ending in the joyful and festive third tone. This progression continues and accelerates into Great Saturday morning, when the celebration of the Resurrection becomes more explicit.
On Great Saturday we remember Christ’s burial and His descent into Hades, or Hell. Why is this important? The whole point of Christ becoming a man is to restore mankind’s relationship with God. Christ is both God and man at once, and so it is only through Him that this restoration can happen. Christ, therefore, had to undergo everything that we do; and one thing that we all undergo without exception is death. Whatever Christ has done, whatever He has taken on and made His own, has been made holy by virtue of His divinity – a way to salvation. In effect, He paved a road for us. It is the same road that we have always trodden, but He made it a road to the Father, to paradise. In order to make death a passage to paradise, he had to endure death Himself. By doing this, he destroyed the power of death, because God is the source of life. By undergoing a state of death, He altered the very nature of death and made it a source of new life. This defeat of death is beautifully expressed in a hymn which we sing on Great Saturday morning, again chanted in the joyful third tone. It is a poetic hymn, personifying Hell and telling us the story of Christ’s descent into Hades from Hades’ point of view:
Today Hell cries out groaning: “I should not have accepted the man born of Mary; He came and destroyed my power. He shattered the gates of brass; He has raised the souls which I had held captive”. Glory to your Cross and Resurrection O Lord.
Today Hell cries out groaning: “My authority has been taken away; I received a mortal man as one of the dead; but I was powerless to contain Him; Because of Him I have lost those whom I ruled. For ages I had dominion over the dead, but behold, He raises all”. Glory to your Cross and Resurrection O Lord.
Today Hell cries out groaning: “My power has been trampled on; the Shepherd has been crucified and Adam is raised. I have been deprived of those whom I ruled. Those whom I swallowed in my strength I have given up. He Who was crucified has opened the tombs. The power of death has been vanquished”. Glory to your Cross and Resurrection O Lord.
Throughout our journey along Holy Week, the tension building up to the Resurrection has been growing steadily greater, and it finally reaches its climax at the Easter Vigil. I challenge anyone to be present at this midnight service without being caught up in the sense of universal joy. After all the anxious expectation of the Resurrection, there is an overwhelming sense of liberation, satisfaction and joy, as the church which was previously in darkness floods with light and we sing with inexhaustible joy: “Christ is risen from the dead; by death He has trampled on death and to those in the tombs given life”. The sense of liberation is even greater for those who have fasted and attended the services of Great Lent. The long austere fast is over. The time for kneeling and prostrations has ended. Religious disciplines have been relaxed. Furthermore, this joy is enhanced by Holy Communion at the liturgy which follows the midnight service. It is therefore a shame that so many choose to go home before the Liturgy begins. Indeed, it is quite embarrassing that, after the priest has sung the verse “let God arise and let His enemies be scattered”, half the congregation clears off! Before the distribution of Communion, we chant “Receive the Body of Christ; and taste of the Immortal Spring”. In other words, “the proof of the pudding is in the eating”. To really experience Christ, we ought to taste him in the Eucharist.
I mentioned the overwhelming feeling of liberation that we experience on Easter night, and I want to draw your attention to two texts which are good examples of this. The first is the Sermon of St John Chrysostom, which is read towards the end of the midnight vigil:
Have any wearied themselves with fasting, let them now enjoy their payment. Has anyone laboured since the first hour, let them today receive their due. Did any come after the third hour, let them feast with gratitude. Did any arrive after the sixth hour, let them not hesitate: for there is no penalty. Did any delay until after the ninth hour, let them approach without hesitating. Did any arrive only for the eleventh hour, let them not fear because of their lateness: for the Lord is generous and receives the last as the first: he gives rest to the worker of the eleventh hour as to those of the first. He has pity on the latter, he cares for the former. He gives to the one, he is generous to the other. He accepts the work done, he welcomes the intention. He honours the achievement, he praises the purpose. Therefore all of you enter into the joy of our Lord: first and last, enjoy your reward. Rich and poor dance together. Sober and slothful honour the day. Fasters and non-fasters be glad today. The table is full, all of you enjoy yourselves. The calf is fatted, let none go away hungry. All of you enjoy the banquet of the faith. All of you enjoy the richness of his goodness. Let no one grieve at their poverty: for the kingdom of all has been revealed. Let no one bewail their faults: for forgiveness has risen from the tomb. Let no one fear death: for the Saviour’s death has freed us.
I said at the very beginning that Holy Week brings the pious and the not so pious together. The invitation for all to come together to celebrate is most emphatic in this sermon on Easter night. Whether we have fasted and attended the services throughout Great Lent, or just from the beginning of Holy Week, or have only turned up for this midnight service, we are all invited to celebrate the feast with joy, without fear, hesitation or guilt. No one is excluded. All our sorrows, all our failings, all our grudges, all our problems, all our sins disintegrate in the face of the Resurrection. By His Passion and Resurrection, Christ has freed us all. There can be no other response to this than joy and forgiveness, which brings me to the second text – a hymn which we sing on Easter night and at every service for the next forty days:
The day of Resurrection; let us be radiant for the festival, and let us embrace one another. Let us say, brethren, even to those that hate us, ‘Let us forgive all things on the Resurrection’.
There is no greater liberation than forgiveness. When we truly understand the meaning of the Passion and Resurrection, when we really feel and live the joy of that freedom, forgiveness is the only possible response. So, if any of you are asking yourselves, “what difference does all this make to the way I live my life?”, let me help you answer that question: it makes every bit of difference! What cause now can we have to be angry with our neighbour? What cause to despair for our sins or fret about our problems? Who now has the right to look down on others? Who now has cause to complain that he is mistreated? Who now has cause to be bitter or bear a grudge? The universe has been filled with joy, freedom and forgiveness. “Where, Death, is your sting? Where Hell, is your victory? Christ is risen, and you are abolished! Christ is risen, and the demons have fallen! Christ is risen, and Angels rejoice! Christ is risen, and life has found freedom! Christ is risen, and there is no corpse in the grave! For Christ, being raised from the dead, has become the first fruits of those who sleep. To him be glory and might to the ages of ages. Amen”.