Reaching Holy Week


Holy Week has long been my favorite time of year. I remember coming to it rather slowly in my college years. My wife and I were active Episcopalians at the time (while in college we volunteered to be in charge of the junior youth group – some 60 teenagers – that qualifies as being “active”). For whatever reasons I had never paid much attention to Holy Week before. There was Palm Sunday and then there was Easter – Holy Week consisted of two interesting Sundays.

But in my first year of marriage, I recall going to a Maundy Thursday service (“Holy Thursday” in Orthodox parlance). The ritual action of stripping the sanctuary was deeply moving – and I remember hearing – really hearing for the first time the phrase in the Communion Service, “in the night in which He was betrayed…” It stayed with me for quite some time and left an impression that I had been missing a lot by not participating in the extra services of Holy Week.

In seminary years I served in a parish that had a very complete Anglo-Catholic Holy Week, and I continued that pattern throughout the years of my Anglican priesthood. I would not have thought at the time that much more could be done than I was doing. But such was my ignorance of Orthodox liturgical tradition.

Our Orthodox community, following the pattern of services that was handed down to us, has a pretty hefty set of Holy Week services – enough that I tend to think a lot about the physical exhaustion involved in worship. This morning (Lazarus Saturday) the service lasted three and one-half hours, which does not include the hour-and-a-half of preparation time that I put in before the service began (it’s almost impossible to get to Church before a service begins in Orthodoxy – there’s always some sort of service before the one you’re going to).

There will not be a morning or an evening without a service until we finally reach Pascha itself – exhausted with joy.

Throughout the week there will be verses from a hymn or some other small phrase that I’ll not have noticed before – that – like my Maundy Thursday experience of years ago – will redefine the day or take me somewhere I have not been before.

But foremost, it seems to me, is the effort itself. I think of St. Paul’s statement in Philippians:

Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own, based on law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith; that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brethren, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

St. Paul seems to have lived his life in a perpetual Holy Week – pressing forward – pushing past exhaustion – and reaching for Christ in a Pascha that reaches back and captures the soul for God. Nothing to be earned, but everything to be gained.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.





5 responses to “Reaching Holy Week”

  1. Meg Avatar

    For me, growing up Catholic and then spending 13 years as a Lutheran, Holy Week consisted of, “Now it’s Good Friday. Now we’re supposed to be sad. Now it’s Easter. Now we’re supposed to be happy.” So my first Holy Week as an Orthodox Christian was *glorious.* 16 years later, it’s still glorious. May it not be said of you, Father: “Christ is risen, the priest is dead!” Or in other words, praying that you will be able to keep up your stamina during this final drive to the Feast of the Resurrection.

  2. Fatherstephen Avatar

    When I feel tired I remind myself of my father and grandfathers, who easily put in 12 hour days of hard labor (my father began working in cotton fields by age 4) and then I think I’m not tired at all.

    I also read in Fr. Schmemann’s journals his accounts of hearing hundreds of confessions in a day and I am not so tired.

    As Christ said, “Say, at the most, we are unprofitable servants.” But I’ll take all the prayers anyone will say for me. May God bless.

  3. handmaidleah Avatar

    This is the time of the season when I also feel it the most and I know what is coming…
    Being chronically ill, and living a pretty far distance from church, I have to pace myself or I will wind up making myself sick from exhaustion. I have done it before.
    I have yet to hear every service and perhaps I should keep track of which ones I make each year so that I make sure I get to the ones I miss the next…
    By Pascha, I feel like I have no idea whether I am coming or going so if the effect is to place a person out of time, it works for me!
    I am always joyously exhausted and ready to drop and I have yet to make the Vespers the next day or that day, actually.
    I cannot believe that it is almost here.
    May God give us strength.
    Christ is in our midst!
    the handmaid,

  4. St.SusannatheMartyr Avatar

    I was in an interesting vignette on Lazarus Saturday. After a busy day of Liturgy and then Paschal preparation for the kids, I was sitting outside the church waiting for Vigil for Palm Sunday and silently praying the Jesus Prayer. Father Deacon came up to me and said “you look peaceful.” I said “I think I am peaceful . . . or maybe I’m just exhausted.” He said “maybe it amounts to the same thing.” I realized that summarizes Holy Week for me. Exhausting but intertwined with and beyond the exhaustion is such peace and joy. Of course not everything in our lives that exhausts us brings with it peace and joy, and that’s not what Deacon meant. But, more and more I find that trying to participate fully in the services and striving for a life in Christ brings exhaustion as well as peace and joy.

  5. Fatherstephen Avatar

    Yes, indeed. I’ve been exhausted by sin before (more than once) and it’s not the same thing at all.

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