The Pilgrimage of Holy Week

tom-hanks.-who-knewThe apex of the year for Orthodox Christians is easily Holy Week and Pascha. I had the opportunity in 2008 to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. To receive communion in the tomb of Christ, or to stand at Golgotha is no little thing. And yet, the services of Holy Week within one’s own parish are a greater thing. I say this not only from my own experience but on the testimony of the saints as well.

St. Gregory of Nyssa had some very perceptive words for would-be pilgrims:

When the Lord invites the blessed to their inheritance in the kingdom of heaven, He does not include a pilgrimage to Jerusalem among their good deeds; when He announces the Beatitudes, He does not name among them that sort of devotion. But as to that which neither makes us blessed nor sets us in the path to the kingdom, for what reason it should be run after, let him that is wise consider….

Change of place does not effect any drawing nearer unto God, but wherever you may be, God will come to you, if the chambers of your soul be found of such a sort that He can dwell in you and walk in you. But if you keep your inner man full of wicked thoughts, even if you were on Golgotha, even if you were on the Mount of Olives, even if you stood on the memorial-rock of the Resurrection, you will be as far away from receiving Christ into yourself, as one who has not even begun to confess Him. Therefore, my beloved friend, counsel the brethren to be absent from the body to go to our Lord, rather than to be absent from Cappadocia to go to Palestine; and if any one should adduce the command spoken by our Lord to His disciples that they should not leave Jerusalem, let him be made to understand its true meaning.

There is, indeed, a journey made in the services of Holy Week. The events of that week, carefully shared in the fullness of their significance, form the framework for a pilgrimage of the heart. Orthodoxy should never be reduced to mere mental exercise. A liturgical pilgrimage is physical, even sensual. Set in the context of the worshipping Church, it carries us into the mystery that is set before us. Just as the Holy Eucharist is that most perfect presentation of the death and resurrection of Christ, in which we not only remember, but actually partake, so, too, the liturgical drama of Holy Week forms an extended Divine Liturgy. It is, if you will, the whole of our salvation remembered, and mystically made present, over the course of days rather than mere hours.

The friend of St. Gregory of Nyssa, that other Gregory, called “the Theologian,” gave instructions to his congregation for Great and Holy Pascha. His words are as apt some 1600 years later as they were the night they were spoken:

If you are a Simon of Cyrene, take up the Cross and follow. If you are crucified with Him as a robber, acknowledge God as a penitent robber. If even He was numbered among the transgressors for you and your sin, become law-abiding for His sake. Worship Him Who was hanged for you, even if you yourself are hanging; make some gain even from your wickedness; purchase salvation by your death; enter with Jesus into Paradise, so that you may learn from what you have fallen. Contemplate the glories that are there; let the murderer die outside with his blasphemies; and if you be a Joseph of Arimathæa, beg the Body from him that crucified Him, make your own that which cleanses the world. If you be a Nicodemus, the worshipper of God by night, bury Him with spices. If you be a Mary, or another Mary, or a Salome, or a Joanna, weep in the early morning. Be first to see the stone taken away, and perhaps you will see the Angels and Jesus Himself. Say something; hear His Voice. If He says to you, “Touch Me not,” stand afar off; reverence the Word, but do not grieve; for He knows those to whom He appears first. Keep the feast of the Resurrection; come to the aid of Eve who was first to fall, of Her who first embraced the Christ, and made Him known to the disciples. Be a Peter or a John; hasten to the Sepulchre, running together, running against one another, vying in the noble race. And even if you be beaten in speed, win the victory of zeal; not looking into the tomb, but going in. And if, like a Thomas, you were left out when the disciples were assembled to whom Christ shows Himself, when you do see Him do not be faithless; and if you do not believe, then believe those who tell you; and if you cannot believe them either, then have confidence in the print of the nails. If He descend into Hell, descend with Him. Learn to know the mysteries of Christ there also…. And if He ascend up into Heaven, ascend with Him. Be one of those angels who escort Him, or one of those who receive Him. Bid the gates be lifted up, or be made higher, that they may receive Him, exalted after His Passion….

It was just this sort of understanding that yielded the depths of theology within the soul of St. Gregory.

Mohammed commanded his followers to journey to Mecca. The notion, like so much that he taught, was a distorted version of the Christianity he observed from afar. Christian pilgrimage to Jerusalem was thriving at the very time he was writing. It is obvious, however, that he only saw the outward throngs, perhaps even the business of hosting pilgrims. But he never saw the mystery of what Christ did in Jerusalem nor the reality shared with believers who made that inward pilgrimage wherever they lived.

St. Paul used the imagery of the journey in his own life. He placed himself in Christ in fullest way possible: “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless, I live. Yet not I, but Christ lives in me.” By faith, he became an eyewitness of everything he preached.

This is the same invitation that is given to us in Christ. In Holy Week, it is writ large so that we can read it with care, pausing over each letter and each word. Holy Week dwells among us and always calls to us. But how can we refuse to be there when such care and effort has been made by so many through the centuries to make this inner journey possible?

No one can go there in our place. Christ did not die in order to keep us from dying. He died so that we might die with Him, bearing the Cross He commanded us to take up. But dying with Him, we live and become partakers of the Kingdom.

This year in Jerusalem! It’s in your parish Church, a heart’s reach away.

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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22 responses to “The Pilgrimage of Holy Week”

  1. Byron Avatar

    May we pray constantly. Pray for me.

  2. Lynne Avatar

    How can you be a football fan (basketball, baseball, hockey), if you only watch the last five minutes of the Super Bowl?
    How can you celebrate Pascha if you haven’t been to the Holy Week services?

  3. John in Denver (but not John Denver) Avatar
    John in Denver (but not John Denver)

    “…Holy Week forms an extended Divine Liturgy.” So true, and that’s why Holy Week is so great.

    And that quote from St. Gregory of Nyssa, ooof!

  4. Susan Cushman Avatar

    Wonderful post… full of spiritual richness. But I’ve got a pop-culture question: Is that Tom Hanks in the photo?

  5. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    Father Bless, inspiring post. Thank you

  6. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    He is Greek Orthodox, married to Rita Wilson, who is ethnically Greek. They are active in their parish. He also produced the films, My Big Fat Greek Wedding I and 2.

  7. Emmie Avatar

    I love this post so much!!! Thank you. My second Pascha as Orthodox and I can hardly wait.

  8. Doby Avatar

    How can Tom Hanks be a conscious Orthodox Christian when he accepted the leading role in Dan Brown’s blasphemous Da Vinci Code ?

  9. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Perhaps because he thought that fiction is fictional rather than real and does not consider it a sin, like playing a killer in a movie would not be a sin. You might have an argument that disagrees with that, but, it is plausible and reasonable. Certainly to the kind of extent that would not judge a brother Orthodox Christian. How can any of us consider ourselves Orthodox Christians and live the blasphemous lives we do? Our lives are not fictional.

  10. Doby Avatar

    Dear Father Stephen your blessing for the Holy Week and upcoming Pascha

    I am sorry if my question seemed judgemental. It was not intended to be so. I should have posed it without reference to a specific person. We all sin daily, I sure do, and try to work our salvation in obedience to our spiritual father. I am not sure that every sin we commit is blasphemy. I am quite liberal with what I read but I have friends who guard themselves very carefully and will only read a book with a blessing. I feel if I held Mr Brown’s book in my hands, with its revolting suggestions on who our Lord and St Mary Magdalene were, would scandalise my friends and damage me too if I read it.

    Leaving Mr Hanks out of it ( I wish him unbounded love for Christ and good Paradise as we say in my country) the question I’d ask is: would it be right for a Christian to read a book like the da Vinci Code and give credence to this author by associating with his work ?

  11. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    It is a book that I have not read and would not read under any normal circumstances. I simply meant to suggest a manner in which an actor might approach that question…sort of like Raiders of the Lost Ark or some other fantasies. I found the Brown stuff to be offensive. But I’m not surprised that there are Christians, including Orthodox, who might not share those sensibilities. Tom, for example, has a confessor. It’s between the two of them. Again, they could easily argue that it is a purely fictional work, and not a matter of credence.

    In a world that is ill-educated in which crazy theories abound, such movies and books are very bothersome and unwise. However, your original comment was way over the top. We should be restrained.

  12. drewster2000 Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    Reading the past few posts and comments: One of the things about you that reflects the mind of Christ and draws so many is the love and lack of judgment in your words. It would be way too easy to send subtle signals of exclusivity in your replies. “I’m sorry you don’t see it this way, but this is the truth…”

    But you don’t do that. You seem to believe what you preach: that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God – and that all are His children worthy of love and belonging. You, like Moses and Abraham, are a man after God’s own heart.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if, after all your articles, the primary way you end up being Christ to those around you is not your words, but the unconditional love that radiates in and around those words. Thank you once again for offering yourself to God for our sakes.

  13. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    If at judgment day only my blog is under consideration… As it is, He will probably include Facebook. I’m toast!

  14. Alan Avatar

    Doby, after reading this thread, I read Hanks’ Wiki page. I didn’t have the question you did about the movie, but believe me, I had lots of other questions. I’ll leave it at that.

  15. Byron Avatar

    As it is, He will probably include Facebook. I’m toast!

    Let’s face it, we’re all toast if Facebook is included! 😉

  16. Jenny Avatar

    Hope endures forever, Father Stephen. Faith, hope and love endure forever. There will never be an end to hoping for all to come in, for all to be healed. Praise His holy name forever! Praise His holy name! There is no end to hoping in Him. He never closes the door, hope keeps it open.

  17. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    Have you ever had a comment from “A Face Book User?” It could be He monitors Face Book as well.

  18. Byron Avatar

    As with many of your writings, Father, I have gone back and re-read this post. It is very wonderful and resonates deeper with more reflection. Many thanks and blessings this Holy Week!

  19. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    If at judgment day only my blog is under consideration… As it is, He will probably include Facebook. I’m toast!

    But He judges righteously and by the heart does He not? If you are toast Father, I’m in BIG trouble.

    Lord have mercy on us all.

  20. Nancy Avatar

    I was wondering if I am not able to attend Liturgical Services, especially during Holy Week and Pascha….what would you recommend? I live about 2 hours from my church home and do not have dependable transportation???

  21. Alex Volkov Avatar
    Alex Volkov


    I would recommend you to call your priest and tell him about your situation. Maybe he could help you arrange transportation. If that is impossible, try to:

    – watch the Divine Liturgy on the Web. (But in no way it can replace your real presence at the worship);
    – pray the order of the Typica or other prayers;
    – pray the Lord’s prayer “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”. At least 10 times. In the morning and in the evening. Pray from all your heart, with attention, humility, reverence and repentance. Please never forget attention. As the Holy Fathers say, there is no prayer without attention.
    – read The Gospels;
    – give alms to the poor and help people in need. Or just help someone who needs your help. Whatever you do, do it in the Lord’s name.

    May the Lord bless and help you.

  22. Doby Avatar

    Alan I have read the wiki page and I understand what you meant. Being Orthodox I should (and try as much as I can) make a distinction between a person and their actions. A person should always be loved as an image of God. Their actions, however, may well be unacceptable and we should have the courage to voice that, in imitation of our Lord who loved the prostitutes and the simmers but condemned sin.

    Christos Anesti !

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