The Mystery of Holy Week

As we journey through the Great and Holy Weekbridegroom

For 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 retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.



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2 responses to “The Mystery of Holy Week”

  1. Dino Avatar

    I deeply appreciate how you point out the profoundly deep notion of the renewal of our baptism (our ” Ἀναβαπτισμός” as we often say in Greek) during this period Father. This and the new article on ‘His appearing in the Liturgy’ are quite mystagogical…

  2. […] The Mystery of Holy Week [Fr. Stephen Freeman] […]

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