The Mystery of Holy Week

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFor if the dead do not rise, then Christ is not risen. And if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins! Then also those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable. (1Co 15:16-19 NKJ)

Earlier this Spring, two Jehovah’s Witnesses came to my door. They were pleasant as always and as always had literature to offer. A sweet lady extended a brochure to me with the words, “This year we are having a world-wide day in honor of Jesus’ death.” I was taken aback. My mind immediately raced to the notion of a memorial service for our poor friend Jesus who died so long ago and so tragically. The rest of the conversation will not be repeated here. But the thought is germane. Why do Orthodox Christians keep Holy Week? Are we engaging in services to “honor” Christ’s death and resurrection? Is Holy Week an annual memorial? Or is there something deeper involved?

The answer can be found by thinking of the mystery of Holy Baptism, for in many respects, Holy Week and Pascha are the great feast of Christian Baptism.

Do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death?  Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection (Rom 6:3-5 NKJ).

We are not Baptized into the “memory” of Christ’s death. Baptism is not a mere “act of obedience,” an “ordinance,” as some call it. Such a notion is the weakest possible reading of St. Paul, one of the worst examples of the psychologization of the Christian mystery.

For St. Paul, and the Christian faith, we are truly and mystically united with Christ’s death in our Baptism as we are equally united with His resurrection: this nothing less than our salvation. This mystical union is not magic – its effectual working in us requires our cooperation. The choices we make, the prayers we offer, our engagement with sin and the powers of evil, through the grace of the Holy Spirit, works in us the increasing image of Christ, “from glory to glory.”

The liturgical work of Holy Week (and I emphasize work!) is an extended practice of the Baptismal union. In Baptism we are crucified with Christ. In Holy Week, the drama of that crucifixion and the events that lead up to it are engaged in the labor of worship, anamnesis – effective remembrance. We see ourselves in the person of Christ as He enters Jerusalem and in the persons of the people who welcome Him. We also see within ourselves those who judge Him, plot to kill Him and casually betray Him (for this is the inner war that rages within). We not only see these things so that we can meditate on them – they become true within us, in the same manner as the truth of our Baptism. With Christ we truly die and lie in the tomb. In many congregations, people keep watch before the tomb of Christ, praying the Psalms, even as we do over the bodies of the faithful who die. With growing joy and anticipation we mark Christ’s descent into Hades and His trampling down death by death. And with shout of festal joy we greet His resurrection, for it is our resurrection as well. The life to come becomes the life we live.

The words of the services are always expressed in this mystical realism. We do not sing about the past.

Today Judas watches to betray the Lord, the Saviour of the world before the ages, who satisfied multitudes from five loaves. Today the transgressor denies the Teacher; though a disciple he betrayed the Master; for silver he sold the One who satisfied humankind with manna.

Today the Jews nailed to the Cross the Lord who parted the sea with a staff and led them through the desert. Today with a lance they pierced the side of the One who scourged Egypt with plagues for their sake, and they gave vinegar as drink to the One who rained down the manna as nourishment.

And in perhaps one of the most exquisite hymns of the week:

Today he who hung the earth upon the waters is hung upon a Tree, He who is King of the Angels is arrayed in a crown of thorns. He who wraps the heaven in clouds is wrapped in mocking purple. He who freed Adam in the Jordan receives a blow on the face. The Bridegroom of the Church is transfixed with nails. The Son of the Virgin is pierced by a lance. We worship your Sufferings, O Christ. Show us also your glorious Resurrection.

From the antiphons of the Matins of Holy Friday

Everything is “today.” We do not sing at Pascha, “Christ has risen from the dead.” For Christ is risen from the dead. That day, the day of days, is the last day, the eternal day, the day in which all time is ended (just as death is destroyed). The Church enters that “Eighth Day,” and in it forgives all by the resurrection. In the resurrection, debts and grievances become absurd. Pascha swallows up all that is not good and holy.

Learning to live in the eternal day is the life of mystical union with Christ. It is the meaning of St. Paul’s confession that he “is crucified with Christ.” Holy Week is not an exercise in sentimentality, a memorial service for things that are past. It is the joyful celebration and mystical participation in that which alone is real, and by its presence grants reality to everything that participates in it.

St. John offers this:

If we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have participation in one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin. (1Jo 1:7 NKJ)

May God grant us to to walk together in love in union with Christ as we mark our way to Golgotha, the Tomb and Paradise! Glory to God for all things!

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.



23 responses to “The Mystery of Holy Week”

  1. Jeremy Avatar

    Thank you, Fr Stephen, for this beautiful post. I have one small question, and I ask it because I’ve noticed similar language in other Orthodox hymns.

    You mentioned the Matins of Holy Friday states, “We worship your Sufferings, O Christ.” Maybe it is my Protestant upbringing, but why do we sing about worshiping the sufferings of Christ rather than worshiping Christ? I’ve noticed this about the cross as well.

    Any clarification would be greatly appreciated.

    Also, I want to say thank you for your wisdom and guidance through your blog and podcasts. Your efforts are one of the many things that have helped me on my journey. I will be chrismated into the Orthodox Church on Holy Saturday and am excited about it.

  2. Karen Avatar

    Jeremy, it’s one of those strange Orthodox ways of speaking that takes getting used to. If you think about it, though, it makes sense. Do we ascribe worth (this is what “worship” means) to those works and labors of love of our Lord, especially His suffering on our behalf? Certainly we do. Take as precedent the many Scriptures praising the works of God (as well as praising God for His works), e.g., Psalm 139:14, Psalm 89:5. Think of the Psalms and hymns in the Scriptures that are rehearsals of God’s mighty acts in saving history. We praise God and we praise His activities in the world. These are just two aspects of the same thing, i.e., the worship of God.

  3. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman


    It helped me to realize that worship is not something we do in the direction of someone else, but something we do with someone who loves us ineffably. He took on our nature, save for sin. He offers All of Himself to us as a Bridegroom. He is in all of what He does, not separate from it.

  4. fatherstephen Avatar

    It’s a good question, and an obvious one to ask. For one, it’s certainly the case that it is Christ, or the Trinity, etc., that we worship. But these aspects (His suffering, etc.) are sometimes singled out for devotion, and the word “worship” is used.

    The Cross is “worshiped” in line with the Psalm “Worship at His footstool for it is holy.”

    In the Protestant debate with Rome, extreme positions were taken that any honor at all was the same as “worship” and “worship” belonged to God alone. Actually, English doesn’t have a good word to describe what belongs to God alone. In the Old English marriage service the groom says to the bride, “With this ring, I thee wed; with my body I thee worship; with all my worldly good I do thee endow.”

    Technically, in Greek, latreia is what belongs to God alone, while proskynesis is “relative” honor that may be given to others – but this isn’t even quite so neat in Greek either.

    In truth, we worship, adore, honor God alone with the worship, adoration and honor that belong to Him alone. On the other hand, we give honor (with a lot of variable words) many persons or things, particularly as they relate to God. It’s messy, but that’s the language of love. I had to give up worrying too much about it. English has never been really good at this, and Orthodoxy has so many and various English translations that consistency is hopeless. It scandalizes visitors occasionally.

  5. Maria Avatar

    This says it all:

    The Church enters that “Eighth Day,” and in it forgives all by the resurrection. In the resurrection, debts and grievances become absurd. Pascha swallows up all that is not good and holy.

    I wish I could wholeheartedly say that I want to live that, release debts and grievances…just seems so close and yet, so far away.

    Well said, all the same.

    Thank you for the post, Father.

  6. Dino Avatar


    As a Greek I second what Father Stephen pointed out. The word “worship” used for The Cross, the Sufferings, His footstool etc. comes from the word προσκυνούμε (proskynoume) in Greek, literally meaning we prostrtrate or “we bow down before” (ie: we bow down before your Sufferings would have been a far more correct translation of the original Hymn). The word “latreia” is the equivalent of ‘worship’.

  7. Jeremy Avatar

    Thanks everyone. English is messy language indeed. And as CS Lewis pointed out in one of his books I read years ago, human language merely attempts to describe what is beyond it.

  8. Michael Patrick Avatar
    Michael Patrick

    Father, many times in the morning services this week we mention the evening as though we were in a vesper service. Why is this?

  9. Scott Weatherhogge Avatar
    Scott Weatherhogge

    Fr. Stephen,

    Thank you for this inspiring post. Here’s a quote from St. Theophan the Recluse that corresponds very well with living really and truly in the 8th day. These comments are from his book “Thoughts for each day of the year” pertaining to Holy Monday. Note how real and actual is our entering into our Lord’s sufferings:

    ” Monday (Holy Week). [Matt. 24:3–35]

    The Lord goes to a voluntary passion. We must accompany Him. This is the duty of anyone who confesses that by the power of Christ’s passion he has become who he is now, and of anyone who hopes to receive something which is so great and glorious, that it could not even enter one’s mind. How must one accompany Him? Through reflection and sympathy. Follow the suffering Lord in thought; and in your reflection extract such impressions as could strike your heart and bring it to feel the sufferings which were borne by the Lord. In order to better accomplish this, you must make yourself suffer through perceptible lessening of food and sleep, and an increase in the labour of standing and kneeling. Fulfil all that the Holy Church does, and you will be a good fellow-traveller of the Lord to His sufferings.”

  10. Henry Avatar

    I always liked to use venerate as a powerful word that was a step down from worship.

    “Everything is “today.” We do not sing at Pascha, “Christ has risen from the dead.” For Christ is risen from the dead.”

    The more I thought about this quote from your post, the more I wanted to let out a good old fashioned Charismatic shout. Glory!

  11. Michael Commini Avatar
    Michael Commini

    Michael Patrick, the explanation I’ve heard is that during Holy Week the order of the Cosmos is turned upside down as that which is Deathless faces Death. To reflect this we have the Presanctified Liturgy (starting with the Vespers service) in the morning and the Orthros or Matins services in the evening when Vespers would normally be celebrated.

  12. Dino Avatar

    Michael Patrick,
    it is not so in monasteries. The Matins are still early and the Vespers later (although still slightly earlier than usual, just as they also are throughout Lent when followed by a pre-sanctified Liturgy).
    The reason for the reversal outside of monasteries is mainly that it is the Matins Services that contain the bulk of the Feast-Day-specific hymns, and lay people (who have to work during the day) can thus enjoy the day-specific celebration/hymns e.g The procession of Christ on the Cross tomorrow…

  13. AlyssaSophia Avatar

    Glory to God!

  14. fatherstephen Avatar

    Michael Patrick,
    Dino is correct. The typical arranging of the services that is found in many parishes is simply a way that has evolved out of convenience. The explanation you’ve heard falls under the heading of “YiaYia-ology” or “Baba-ology” (things your grandmother made up) depending on whether your grandmother was Greek or Russia. 🙂

    Actually, there are not infrequent such explanations that more or less evolve in the Church. Generally, things are never that mysterious. Vespers (with the Pre-sanctified) is designed to be served in the evening. But it also presumes (in strict practice) that you have fasted all day. Thus you see the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts on Wednesdays and Fridays in Lent, the strictest of the strict days. But most people cannot fast at that level, so there was a tendency to serve them in the morning. Today, there has been a reversal (certainly in many places in America) and the Liturgy of the Pre-Sanctified has been returned to the evenings. I served the Wednesday service in the evening, and the Friday in the morning.

    My grandmother would have said, “Why do you keep going to Church so much?”

  15. […] don’t seek out miracles from God because I try my best to go it alone and I tend to “psychologize” many of the symbols and teachings of religion.  For instance, I see Genesis as divine […]

  16. drewster2000 Avatar

    By the way, if you can handle it I heartily recommend the Passion of Christ. You can easily criticize Mel Gibson in many ways, but he did a good work here. You can hope and wait (along with me) for a complimentary film called “The Pascha of Christ”, but that doesn’t detract from something wonderful that was captured here. I’ve watched it for years during Holy Week and it is always sobering, cleansing and healing.

  17. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Vespers (with the Pre-sanctified) is designed to be served in the evening. But it also presumes (in strict practice) that you have fasted all day. Thus you see the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts on Wednesdays and Fridays in Lent, the strictest of the strict days. But most people cannot fast at that level,…

    Really Father, most people can’t fast at that level? Maybe not consitently, but for one day? It really isn’t that hard. I did it all the time on Wednesday and Friday before I was received into the Church (lots of water, maybe coffe and tea only). When I came into the Church, I was told that was not necessary. Only lately has it been brought up. The more I fast, the easier it gets BTW.

    Maybe folks are living down to expectations?

  18. CoffeeZombie Avatar

    Michael Bauman, for what it’s worth, the pre-communion fast is a total fast, that is we neither eat nor drink. So, no water, not to mention no coffee or tea.

    Thus, you do *not* want to be the person responsible for coffee the morning the coffee machine breaks. We do not take kindly to no coffee after Liturgy. 😉

  19. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    CoffeeZombie: The lack of liquids, even water, makes it much more difficult. Haven’t tried one of those in a long, long time. For us folks on maintenance meds, there is another level that must be considered too.

    God forgive my frailty.

  20. Arimathean Avatar

    Fr. Stephen wrote: We do not sing at Pascha, “Christ has risen from the dead.” For Christ is risen from the dead.

    To say “Christ is risen from the dead,” is the archaic way of saying “Christ has risen from the dead.” Until the 19th century, verbs of motion or transition took “to be” rather than “to have” as the auxiliary in the perfect. (Most other Germanic languages still follow this rule.)

    Going a little further on this tangent: In attempts to archaicize the language of Orthodox liturgical texts in English, one of the more frequent errors is to archaicize “has gone” as “hath gone”. It should be “is gone”.

  21. fatherstephen Avatar

    Thanks for the English lesson. In the Greek, the verb in the NT used for Christ is risen, is a different verb, but there, is used in the present. In the troparion, anesti (which ends in an eta), is in the aorist tense. Sometimes it can be translated in the past tense, but actually means an accomplished fact, best expressed, “Christ is risen.” The expression in Orthodox liturgical use is not an attempt to render the perfect tense. Voskrese in the Slavonic, I am not as sure on. One of our Russian readers (or others) could give us some input.

    English does not always render Greek or Slavonic very well – we lack the aorist – for example. The number of examples of bad English in our liturgical texts is legendary – for a variety of reasons. Many are indeed people trying to translate into Cranmer’s liturgical English without the requisite knowledge. My favorite phrase to hate is the petition, “and do Thou…” it is needlessly verbose, especially when addressing God in the familiar.

  22. Victor Avatar


    While I found some scenes in this movie very poignant, I would intensify your “if you can handle it” warning.
    The portrayal of evil is quite disturbing, much more so than the ‘gore’ elements of Christ’s torture. I would say it is wrong, not inaccurate, but wrong to portray as such. And the resurrection is just plain cheesy.

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