In the Midst of 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. It is not unusual for a service to last three and one-half hours (Lazarus Saturday’s service was about that long), 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.





17 responses to “In the Midst of Holy Week”

  1. butapilgrim Avatar

    Father, this is my first Holy Week spent outside of Anglicanism for many years, and I agree with you wholeheartedly. I never thought “that much more could be done” as well, and then two nights ago, lost in the haunting melody of the Hymn of Kassiani, I thought to myself “wow, why didn’t we ever know about this before?” The same thought runs through my head repeatedly with each service we attend.

    A blessed Holy Thursday to you, Father.

  2. Phil Avatar

    I agree with your sentiments, Father. I’ve never seen anything like Holy Week in the Orthodox Church. Every Christian should have the opportunity to experience, or, at least, contemplate the day-by-day themes of this special time.

  3. James Avatar

    “…exhausted with joy.” What a wonderful, high calling!

  4. fatherstephen Avatar

    Thank you. And many years!

  5. mic Avatar

    HAH!!! “Nothing to be earned, but everything to be gained.” that is very good!

    Blessed Holy Thursday Fr, and to all as well!


  6. Molly Sabourin Avatar

    “Exhausted with joy.” Oh, how perfect. Thanks again for this blog, Father Stephen.

  7. Merry Avatar

    I wish I could share what becoming Orthodox this next Sat. means to me – with my Methodist children who think I have gone completely “over the bend”. They think that somehow my Orthodox husband has “made” me join his religion – in the 8 months we have been married.
    I have tried to explain, but they don’t really get it. For one, I am a strong woman who would not ever be “made” to change my religion – by anyone.
    I prefer to believe that I was led – by God – thru my husband – to a depth of faith and love I had never experienced before. I thought I was a woman of strong faith and beliefs, but becoming Orthodox has made me a different person. I have a peace within I have not in the past.

  8. mic Avatar

    Merry, God bless you and grant you many years!!!


  9. fatherstephen Avatar

    I understand and pray that in time your children will understand as well. Some things simply take time.

  10. Jeremiah Avatar

    As a non-denominational evangelical, I used to think the same thing: Palm Sunday, Easter Sunday. I never even went to a good Friday Service. I have once gone to a Presbyterian Good Friday, but found myself chuckling inside (I know. Lord have Mercy) because their attempt at solemnity was as out of place as a nun’s choir singing rock and roll, like in the movie Sister Act.
    In Orthodoxy I have been moved by this whole Lenten Season. This being my first, and having just become a catechumen, the power and holiness of the season has been profound for me. I was reading the Gospel account of the Last Supper, as laid out in the Lectionary, and found it more moving than ever in my life. Not the “spiritual Redbull” emotion of my Evangelical years, but that deep, ancient and holy stirring in the spirit that the Church nurtures for our salvation.

  11. NW Juliana Avatar
    NW Juliana

    Okay, I’m exhausted and I’ll admit I don’t know yet if it’s with joy! 😉

    I just returned home from the Holy Thursday vigil and I’ll admit to wanting to just lay down on the floor and crash with my 2 and 4 year olds at times. Or thinking “I don’t want to…” when it was time to stand for yet another Gospel reading. I have a long way to go, Lord have mercy! I knew Orthodoxy was not just spiritually challenging, but physically challenging as well. And that it is. We experienced the joy of Pascha last year as inquirers so are excited to do so this year as Orthodox believers — it still seems like such a long haul to get there. “I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.” I’m glad I read this tonight, thank you.

  12. Micah Avatar

    “Why didn’t we know about this before?” A superlatively profound question that leads to another: Who indeed, could have told us? Thank God for the Orthodox confession and for His infinite mercies, small and large!

  13. Fr. John C. Routos Avatar
    Fr. John C. Routos

    Thank you for sharing your insights, who you are, your faith and all that you do to encourage us all along our road to Christ. God give you strength Father. A most holy, joyous and grace filled Pascha to you, your flock and family. Kali Anastasi!

  14. Joseph Hromy Avatar
    Joseph Hromy

    First, I just wanted to wish every christian(western and eastern) a great Easter. We may not always agree on everything in theology, but Christ is Risen! This has been a hard Lent and I hope we all enjoy the benefits of so much self discovery about ourselves, to better help others in need. I just stood for five hours in church Holy Thursday night and it really seems to teach you a lot about how to keep focused on God.

  15. Marsha Avatar

    Jeremiah, I totally know what you mean. I went to a Good Friday service where we all had to go up and hammer a nail in to a cross covered with white strips of cloth, under which was grape juice or something and “blood ” would spurt out. It was quite horrifiying actually.

    @NWJuliana, I was at church Wednesday night and wasn’t feeling well and we had Presanctified Liturgy and Holy Unction back to back, and by the end I was hanging by a thin thread….I thought NO I don’t want to every time there was another Gospel Reading too. Lord have mercy! It’s nice to know my efforts aren’t what saves us, feeble as they are!

  16. Hannah Avatar

    It is indeed a challenging week. I went to more services this week than I have gone to since I was a teenager. It’s especially hard after a long day of teaching and mothering a two year old.
    Yet, I feel closer to God now than I have since going to camp at the Village. I feel him in the spring breeze and hear him in the birds’ calls. I see him in my son’s face and feel him in the soil as I garden. I credit Holy Week.
    Next year, I’ll go to even more services, I hope.

  17. mary bongiorno Avatar

    I know this joy, so deeply that even under this terror and torment that I have neither tools nor training to understand GOD has somehow managed to keep me believeing that He will be with me in the need. Please keep me in your prayers. Mary Anita Bongiorno. Estranged from my Orthodox roots due to transportation, and I am in a community dominated by the catholic chruch. That is where this began. May GOD in his mercy deliver me and get me to the Monastery that is near to me and may a way for me to get safely there. Amen Mary May GOD Bless you, Mary

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