The Mystery of Holy Week and Pascha

This past weekend, Orthodox Churches began the observation of Holy Week. The services are long and plentiful. In my parish, from Lazarus Saturday to Pascha, there will be somewhere on the order of 40 hours of services. It is a large parish effort. Most of the services have the participation of the full choir. Last night, I had the anxious face of a young server in the altar who politely wanted to know ‘how much longer.’ He seemed particularly alarmed when I asked him if he had school tomorrow. It is a great labor, and the many hours of services only represent the most visible part of the week. So much else takes place elsewhere – in our homes and in private.

Why all the effort?

Given the significance of what is remembered in the services of Holy Week, Christ’s suffering, betrayal, death and resurrection, the work would be justified if it were merely a memorial. Although, as memorials go, 40 hours over the course of a week would seem extreme to most. No doubt, were memory alone the heart of the matter, Holy Week would have dwindled over the centuries rather than grown. Holy Week is only the most intense example of something that occurs with every service of the Church and is the heart of the liturgical life: it is a participation in the mystery of Christ Himself.

For the modern mind, history is something that is past. As such, it is inaccessible, except through some exercise of the memory. And, of course, we are always certain that our memory of the past is flawed. The larger part of our modern memorials is sentiment, an expression or feeling for something that once had importance and that seems worth remembering. It is this empty approach to history that weakens its place in our lives. Modern memorials continue only long enough to produce a desired set of feelings. A bit of music, perhaps a little drama, special clothes and Easter is done.

I shuddered recently as I watched a trailer for the new movie on the life of St. Paul. Luke (the author of the gospel and the book of Acts) is gushing about the importance of St. Paul and (in modern fashion) speaks about Paul “changing the world.” Whatever is of value in the work of St. Paul, changing the world is not part of it. He would never have thought such a thing. The “world” had no place in St. Paul’s scope of work. The “change” was already complete. That change is the Kingdom of God, full and complete, inaugurated into this world by the death and resurrection of Christ. In the face of the Kingdom of God, this “world” and its “history” are powerless and empty.

The liturgical life of the Church does not place any particular value on “history” as the modern world understands it. Rather, it is the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God, tabernacling within “history,” that is the focus of our attention. The Kingdom of God is always “present” and never “past.” It is eternal, transcending space and time, even as it fills space and time with its presence.

This is the key to the liturgical life and the very heart of Holy Week. The Church’s liturgical actions are never memorials. They are a mystical participation in the ever-present reality of the events that they celebrate. In Holy Week, we are raised with Lazarus. We greet Christ with palms. We endure the cleansing of the Temple. With the Harlot, we bathe His feet with our tears. We partake of His Body and Blood. We betray Him and deny Him. We judge Him and condemn Him. In Him we are also betrayed and denied, judged and condemned. With Him we are mocked and scourged. We crucify Him and are crucified with Him. With the thief we find paradise in a single moment. We grieve with Mary and John and bury Christ’s most pure body alongside Joseph of Arimathea. We bury Him and are buried with Him. We descend into Hades and take our place with Adam and all those who through the ages have been imprisoned in death. We are raised from the dead with Christ as He takes captivity captive.

All of this is participation and coinherence. Just as the Kingdom of God enters history and gathers us into itself, so in our liturgical celebration, the very same Kingdom of God enters our lives and gathers us into itself. We do not remember a past event: we accept and enter the eternal reality that was made known and revealed in those events. The gospel is not a record of what has happened and is now past – finding value only in its “change of history” (as if history holds some privileged position). In the words of St. Luke, the gospel is a “narrative of those things that have been fulfilled among us” (Lk. 1:1). Those things that “have been fulfilled” remain and abide as eternal realities. They are accessible and capable of participation. In this sense, Christianity is not a “historical” faith: it is the on-going participation in the Kingdom of God that has entered into history.

The very heart of the faith is found in our present moment participation in the Kingdom. In this participation, we are “fulfilled.” Our lives become bearers of the Kingdom, no longer bound to this world. This is the inner reality that yields the fruit of a new life. The new life in Christ is not an improved version of our historical existence. St. Paul describes it as a “new creation.” It is a revealing of a new reality. The resurrection is not the improvement of a corpse: it represents the marriage of heaven and earth.

Our long services are filled with Scripture (especially the Psalms), punctuated by the various hymns that form both praise as well as a mystical commentary on the events themselves. The Psalms hold a unique place. For the Church, they are not a mere collection of ancient poetry encrusted with obscurity. The Psalms are the voice of Christ Himself. As we offer them in the Church, Christ stands in our midst and prays. Our voice becomes His voice.

It is a great gift of grace that our merely human actions become the actual embodiment of the Kingdom of God. This is revealed particularly in the sacraments. In Holy Baptism, St. Paul says we are “baptized into the death of Christ.” He does not say that we do this to remember Christ’s death. It is an actual and true union with the death of Christ. The same is true of the Eucharist:

The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion [participation, κοινωνία] of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? (1 Cor. 10:16)

Our liturgical actions all have this character about them. They gain their meaning and value through their direct participation in the very things they celebrate. Holy Week is that Holy Week.

I was once asked why we spend so many hours in the services of the Church. My answer was simple: “Because we can.” Every Divine Liturgy is Holy Week compressed into the space of a few hours. Once a year, our celebration is extended and takes the form of multiple services. The compression is relieved and our participation is extended over days and hours.

Year after year, the faithful look ahead to these days. It is a labor of love, a reaching out towards that which has come into our midst. Our actions echo the words of St. Paul:

…but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me. (Phil. 3:12)

God give us grace!



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.


30 responses to “The Mystery of Holy Week and Pascha”

  1. Suzie Avatar

    Fr. Bless.
    I too worry about the publications and movies that inevitably pop up around Christmas and Western Easter every year. At the grocery store Time and History have glossy publications about Christ and Theotokos, which are no doubt full of misinformation. And while the group producing the movie about the Apostle Paul are Christian at least, and have produced movies such as “Fire Proof”, etc., their good intentions fall short for exactly the reason you mentioned. Paul knew his mission was to tell of how the Trinity through the life, death and resurrection of Christ changed the world. While an Apostle might have thought highly of Paul’s work the jargon is hyperbole and modern.

  2. David Waite f/k/a learningtobestill2016 Avatar
    David Waite f/k/a learningtobestill2016

    “The liturgical life of the Church . . . is the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God, tabernacling within ‘history.’” How beautifully that deepens my understanding! Thank you, Father.

  3. Byron Avatar

    Thank you for this, Father. Glory to God.

  4. Debbie A. Avatar
    Debbie A.

    ‘Those things that “have been fulfilled” remain and abide as eternal realities. They are accessible and capable of participation. ‘ Lord help us participate in the eternal reality You have provided us as we serve in Your Church this Holy Week. You are such a good God. thank you Father Stephen again

    Debbie A

  5. Paula Avatar

    Such encouragement! Such wonder in our “participation and coinherence”! The Gift of Gifts!
    Glory to God!
    Thank you for these words Father!

  6. John Dunn Avatar
    John Dunn

    Let us press on and enter into the only acceptable voluntary sacrifice of praise.

    Thank-you Fr. Stephen.


  7. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    Thank you Father. I find this week especially fulfilling. As I study and learn more about the fabric of the Liturgics of the Church and are coming to love the beauty and the holistic nature of it, Holy Week is my yearly indulgence in the fullness of worship. I settled in this Parish because we do so many services throughout the year, but especially during Holy Week. Every year I learn more of the depth and breadth of our Faith as I am immersed in it for so many hours in just one week.
    In my Protestant past, I have been to and preached in revivals. Holy Week to me seems so much more, with so much more meaning. There is emotion at times but not the same as at a revival which is all emotion. There is also a sense of being in the Presence as we live the events out of space and time. I am always struck with how my sense of time is suspended during worship and how I am almost sad when a service comes to an end and I must return to this world.

  8. marybenton Avatar

    This is a beautiful post, Fr. Stephen.

    It seems that, in our culture, there is relatively little that we truly participate in, at least in a healthy manner. We have become primarily spectators – always looking for something to watch. I fear that we may lose the ability to truly experience the depth and significance of our own lives, much less the life of Christ in us.

    My (Catholic) priest/friend of 37 years, after an abrupt retirement last July, reposed in January – a truly holy man but with very little physical stamina toward the end. He continued to serve us until he literally could not do so any longer. I was sometimes torn during those final years, wanting our services to be longer but recognizing (I’m sure not fully) how exhausting it was for an 80-some year old man to carry them out.

    He “participated” in the passion and death. He entered them quietly in the sacrifice of himself. It was not the length of the service that brought him into participation but the love and gift of himself, patterned after the life and death of Christ Jesus.

    My question is twofold. First, how do I participate more deeply? Second, how do we help our congregations participate more deeply? (Sadly, having developed “spectator mind”, our liturgical services can sometimes become simply one more event in the schedule of things we do.)

    Reflecting on the Holy Week that just passed (for me), there were times when I felt deeply part of the movement through Christ’s life and Passion. However, during our most profound Easter vigil service, moving from darkness into Light, from death into Life, I was in such discomfort (from a physical problem) that all I could do was endure. That too, I believe, was a participation – though not the one I would have chosen for myself.

    I know I’m rambling – please forgive me – but I’m going somewhere with this. As important as our liturgical services are, it seems to me that we are to strive to enter the suffering and dying of Christ every day of our lives, knowing deep within the truth of His Resurrection. Some days that Resurrection will seem completely obvious to us, whereas other days it will appear to us impossible. But still we know it as the core reality of our lives.

    While the Church leads us through the “drama” (in a positive sense) of this most holy week, in our personal lives, we cannot enter the Resurrection on cue. There is a sacrifice of my will here – because I cannot choose to experience the Resurrection when I most want to or even need to.

    Sometimes I am allowed to remain in darkness for a time. Without those times of involuntary darkness, perhaps I would not truly participate, truly know how desperately I need Him to lead me to salvation. Without this knowledge of the darkness, the Light would not mean so much – perhaps just a happy ending for the movie.

    True participation costs us everything. While the intensity and length of liturgical services may help teach us this, we first need to desire the lesson. Once we long for it enough, our Savior will lead us on the journey to the Cross. And it will not be the cross of my choosing – for my will is what needs to die.

  9. Jen Avatar

    This evening at the Bridegroom service my son (who is three) was very fussy, hungry, tired, restlesss and I was getting upset, so I took him out to the narthex. We were looking at icons and he starts crying again. He’s not just fussy he’s really sad. I ask what’s wrong and he starts wailing “Jesus is bleeding blood” . He is just inconsolable. We missed the rest of the service. How do you explain this to a three year old? I finally got one of his books that has pictures of icons and showed him the resurrection icon “this is Pascha, this is Jesus, it’s going to be okay” then he finally started calming down and was okay by the time we got home.

    He is our only child, I’ve never been through this with a little one before. Clearly he was participating in Holy Week and this was no memorial to him. How can I help him if he gets upset again?

  10. Albert Avatar

    “Because we can” made me think: I wish I could. I can, of course, but ________.

    But I’m inspired that some do. And especially grateful for the Church, where services go on with or without me. I plan to attend tomorrow morning. That’s the best I can say. For now. Lord, have mercy.

    Thank you, Father, for explaining about the psalms. I had not realized their deepest importance. I have that little book. Because I can read at home, I will. As often as possible this week, and I hope from then on.

  11. Karen Avatar

    I look forward to Lent and Holy Week every year. Holy Saturday will mark my 11th year in the Church. Each year seems to fly by faster than the one before!

  12. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I think we must remember, everyday, that Christ Himself voluntarily participates in our lives, and that this is so whether we invite Him to or not, and whether or not we are aware. You and I (all of us), are His sacrament of humanity. Just as we eat and drink His Body and Blood, so He participates in our bodies and blood. First, and foremost, this is a matter of fact and should be accepted as such (just like the Eucharist). Faith becomes our “leaning into it.” Whatever Cross we endure, is His Cross.

  13. Karen Avatar


    I think you handled it just right! Pascha is the only way we all manage to “handle” the Cross. I’d say the Holy Spirit inspired you, and how you manage the rest of your son’s growing years will also be with the help of His Grace.

  14. Rob vrede Avatar
    Rob vrede

    Fr. I saw the movie Paul The Apostle. I have a degree in History and studied church history since college. Context is important and the movie helped. I attended the movie with a number of Orthodox parisheners from our church and heard from most they never read the book of Acts. To say the least it opened the door for discussion and more context.

    I have been read and read the Bible all my life in my common language and studied it in seminary and we can call it para-church, The New Testiment is living.

    I recently heard this and agree. Innovation from Tradition is good. It’s the plum line needed. The Old Testiment Prophets were such. The New Testiment is our context. The movie helped our group. I saw it with my own eyes and felt it with my heart and heard it. It’s true.

  15. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I’m glad you found the movie helpful. The glaring modernisms and assumptions behind this and most such movies is like dragging fingernails across a chalkboard for me. Most people would not notice the modernisms because they think in modernist terms (it’s very, very hard not to). The New Testament is “living” and so are we. We are capable of entering and understanding something that has not been modernized – and actually grow. Modernizing and adapting so that modern hearers “get it,” is not an example of a “living thing,” only of the cultural captivity of our minds.

    Since I write rather incessantly on the topic of modernity and Christianity, I suppose this can be understood as something I think is important. It is, I believe, essential to the gospel that we see and understand that modernity is not a “time,” but a philosophy that dominates our time, and a philosophy that is filled with heresies. Chesterton described modernity as “filled with good things gone wild.”

  16. Paula Avatar

    I was quite touched by your comment.
    It’s good you bought you son’s attention back to the icons. The icons will “speak” to him as they harbor much grace. I too believe, as Karen said, you were Spirit led. Such grace…and in His house, no less.
    God bless, Jen, you and your precious son.

  17. MamaV Avatar

    “Because we can.”
    Yes. When I was a Protestant I used to mock people who felt like they had to go to “extra” services to be holy… now I realize how little I understood. I want to go to church more than I want to eat! And I have five small children. It’s a labor of love for sure.

  18. Patsy Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,
    Thank you for the beautiful thoughts on Holy Week. After the two services on Lazarus Sunday, our parish priest gave a beautiful and thought-provoking (along these same lines: “They are a mystical participation in the ever-present reality of the events that they celebrate. In Holy Week, we are raised with Lazarus. We greet Christ with palms.”) sermon on Palm Sunday. This was followed by a joyful coffee hour: we were all joyful as we shared. Indeed we have the privilege of sharing, remembering, participating, and reflecting on Christ, who was and is, and is to come. Blessings and hopes of this season.

  19. Jen Avatar

    Paula and Karen, thank you for the encouragement. We’ll be back tonight and see how he does. It’s pretty amazing to see how much and how well the babies understand.

  20. Allen Long Avatar
    Allen Long

    Thank you, Fr. Stephen, for these comments. Your words are helpful to my understanding of Orthodox time.

  21. SW Avatar

    Fr Stephen, thank you so much for this post. I love the services and our participation in the events of Holy Week (and other services) as opposed to just a memorial. You mention scriptures about baptism and communion and from the gospel of Luke. Can you please give some other scriptures that indicate that this participation and coinherence is the right way to view the events we celebrate in Holy Week? I would like to be better able to share what is going on with some Protestant friends who plan to visit on Holy Friday, and also to be able to better understand it from a scriptural perspective myself, to “rightly divide the word of truth” (2 Tim 2:15). Thank you and wishing you and all a blessed Holy Week.

  22. SW Avatar

    So now, after walking my dog and pondering my previous question, I’m thinking that since we have shared in Christ’s death burial, and resurrection and our life is now “hid with Christ in God,” (Col. 3:3), we mystically experience all of Christ’s life, as you have written. And the church has recognized that the last week of Christ’s life on earth before his crucifixion is an appropriate time for extra services and prayers to help us focus on our sharing of this time with Him, especially in the midst of all the distractions and distortions of everyday life. What do you think about this? Orthodoxy is such a paradigm shift. A wonderful one, of true life.

  23. Dean Avatar

    Another passage that speaks of this participation now in the heavenlies is Heb. 12:22ff. “But you have come….” We truly participate in all of these heavenly activities in the liturgy, whether Holy Week or not, but especially in these days. The heavenly scrim is pulled back. I have a growing sense of this , but whether I do or not the reality exists. In some ways earthly time is suspended as we enter into the Kingdom, outside of time but more “real” than the transitory life we know here. St. Paul hints at this as “seeing through a mirror darkly.” As I grow older these “shadows” beckon me and seem to take on more solid shape in my heart. I wish I could better explain this. My heart knows even if I cannot articulate it.

  24. Byron Avatar

    Tonight I was struck by the fact that we receive Holy Unction in front of an icon of Jesus washing the feet of His disciples. In my heart, I realize that the cleansing we receive at this time is a foreshadowing of the Cross; Christ washes His Disciples feet in humility and self-emptying before God and them and does the same on the Cross to our salvation. Up until tonight, I had never recognized the link between these two actions. Glory to God in All Things!

  25. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Jim Caveziel in one promotion for the movie talked about all of the Christians in the Middle East who give up their lives and how we ignore them. There is also a pretty inspiring sermon he gave in talking about the film over on Byzantine Texas. One part that definitely caught my attention was when he called on everyone to take the sacraments seriously.

  26. David Waite f/k/a Learning to be still Avatar
    David Waite f/k/a Learning to be still

    Dean – Yoi said:

    “As I grow older these ‘shadows’ beckon me and seem to take on more solid shape in my heart. I wish I could better explain this. My heart knows even if I cannot articulate it.”

    I know exactly what you are talking about.

  27. SW Avatar

    Thank you for the scripture reference and for your thoughts, Dean. I know what you mean, as I have that growing sense in the Divine Liturgy and other services as well. I’m looking for further understanding and articulation from scripture when asked by non-Orthodox friends. Plus, as the the scriptures continue to reveal this participatory view, it becomes even more real to me.

  28. David Waite f/k/a learningtobestill2016 Avatar
    David Waite f/k/a learningtobestill2016

    This was my first Holy Week and Pascha as an Orthodox Christian and all I can say is . . .
    Christ is Risen!
    Indeed He is Risen!
    Boy! Is He Risen!
    I mean . . . Really! He is Risen!
    Thanks be to God!

  29. Karen Avatar

    Glory to God, David! Yes, Christ is risen! Indeed, He is risen!

    Blessed Bright Week to all!

  30. Janine Avatar

    “This is the key to the liturgical life and the very heart of Holy Week. The Church’s liturgical actions are never memorials. They are a mystical participation in the ever-present reality of the events that they celebrate.” I’m increasingly concerned about the disconnect between truth as a present reality and “concepts” that pass for truth. At a museum the other day, a young man admired a painting of truth chastising the world (she’s coming out of a well, from what is apparently an old proverb). He thought it was strange and rather exciting as it was so “weird.” I told him the truth is crucified in this world every day.

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