The Mystery of Holy Week

Among the more pernicious ideas that inhabit our contemporary world is the notion that we are all isolated, independent, and alone. Even when we gather, we think of ourselves as but one among many. Among the most glaring exceptions to this form of thought, however, are sporting events. People attend a football game and declare when it is finished, “We won!” or “We lost!” We feel genuine joy at the first and sadness at the second. We do not say, “They won” (unless we mean the opposing side). This is not actually strange. Sport has, from its earliest beginnings, been a religious experience. That said, it is an experience that we fail to consider or understand. It is also a shallow, meaningless, religion.

The mystery of sport is that we have some sense not only watching, but participating in what takes place. The team’s victory is my victory. The emptiness of this mystery is that what is being “participated” in has no substance or true being. We feel robbed when a referee blows a call and the game ends with the wrong winner. At such a moment the emptiness of the game is revealed. It had no more meaning than a mistake.

This meditation on sport is a very vacuous way to get at the notion of true participation (of which it is but the least shadow). True participation lies at the heart of all worship and much else in our lives. A marriage, at its best, is a participation, a literal sharing in the life of the other. The language of Scripture describes a spouse as “bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.” What each does affects the other, both for good and for ill. The same is true for other relationships to lesser extents. St. Silouan said, “My brother is my life.” This participation is the very nature of love itself. We are commanded to “love your neighbor as yourself.” There can be no other form of love.

Scripture describes the knowledge of God as a participation – it is a sharing in His life. God can never be the “object” of our love for He is not an object. Because knowledge of God is by participation, Christ can say, “This is eternal life, that they might know Thee… and Jesus Christ whom Thou hast sent.” (Jn. 17:3) This, of course, is a great frustration to atheists who claim that God does not exist because they cannot perceive Him as object. The emptiness of modern life presumes that there is no participation anywhere, only life as an object among objects. Little wonder that modernity thrives on violence (if people are objects, then we can do violence without damage to ourselves).

Participation in the Holy

Our modern mind-set has difficulties with the long, exhausting services of Orthodox Holy Week. Each of the services is something of a liturgical presentation of the significant events of that day that led up to the death and resurrection of Christ. They are also a “deep-dive” into the rich meanings, both in the events themselves, but also in hearts of all involved. But more than this, the services constitute a participation in the events themselves. Just as the Holy Eucharist is a “participation” in the Body and Blood of Christ (1Cor. 10:16), so the various services of the Church are a participation in that which they represent.

St. Paul writes, “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live.” (Gal. 2:20) The death and resurrection of Christ are not simply events that we think about, things that happened long ago that we think of as significant. The crucifixion of Christ (to use but one example) is an event of eternal reality (as an extension of its historical character), as well. It is not just eternal, but reaches out and includes all things. It is a misunderstanding when Christians say that “Christ died for me,” without also saying, “Christ died in me, and I have died with Him.” St. Paul describes this as the very nature of Holy Baptism (Rom. 6:3).

The same mystical link that unites the sacrament of Holy Baptism and the death of Christ, is also found in the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist, and is the mystery that unites us to Him in all of the services. Worship has a sacramental character at all times.

In Holy Week, we do not make an extra effort merely to engage in liturgical excess. We extend that which is contained in the Liturgy of every Sunday morning across the days of an entire week that we might concentrate our souls on every detail of that most holy sacrifice, and in that concentration, allow ourselves to become aware of the grace given to us in that holy union. The services are long because the days of that week were long. We exhaust ourselves because He was exhausted. At its deepest moment, Christ Himself asked if it were possible for all of this to happen some other way. Our own doubts and hesitations are thus sanctified, and participate in the agony of the Garden. St. Paul gives voice to our hearts in our longing for participation in Christ:

“…that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship [lit. “communion”]of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, if, by any means, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.” (Phil 3:10-11)

Christ gives Himself for us that He might give Himself in us. We give ourselves to Him, that we might be with Him: crucified, buried, risen. It is our inheritance in the Kingdom.

Good strength in the events of this week!

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.






14 responses to “The Mystery of Holy Week”

  1. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    I have often wondered at the celebration of Palm Sunday because of the transient nature and even outright hypocrisy involved by the original celebrants (which Jesus points out). Today it is easy to get lost in the display just as many of the original participants.
    But from what you say, Father, not to have that aspect would curtail the sacramental reality. Am I perceving aright?

  2. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I think there is no hypocrisy in the children of that day – and perhaps not much in any of the crowd. It is not necessarily the case that the crowd that shouted “Hosanna” is the same crowd that shouted “Crucify,” though we preachers often say that in order to make a point. It hypocrisy of the leaders at the time is made evident from the beginning. But it is not hypocrisy that crucified Christ. It was envy (the wishing of wrong and harm to another).

    But the sacramental character on that day (Palm Sunday) is so strong, that had the children remained silent, the stones would have begun to sing. Perhaps that includes our stoney hearts as well.

  3. Nikolaos Avatar


    Humanity has not changed much since the time of Christ. People are “religious” in the sense that they want a God to serve their needs and reward them rather than punish them. In those days the Jews expected a Messiah who would lead them to their overthrow of Roman rule. Christ would be able to resurrect the dead soldiers in that fight, enabling an unbeatable army. Who had grasped the magnitude of His love, even for the condemning Pharisees and Roman crucifiers ? Is there any evidence in the Gospel of any supporting cry other then “crucify” ?

  4. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I had in mind the innocence of children who shouted “Hosanna.” I do not attribute duplicity to them. No doubt, those who shouted, “Crucify,” are representative of all sinners. Nevertheless, I do not assume that there were no righteous among them. Even Pilate’s wife was troubled by what was taking place.

    Though I believe that “all have sinned,” I do not believe that we are depraved, or that we are “altogether evil.” Thus, in mercy and generosity I posit that quite possibly the “crowd” was not inclusive of the whole population. No doubt, many harlots and publicans kept their mouths shut. Christ’s warnings and charge of hypocrisy was directed towards the Scribes and Pharisees, which is not at all the same thing as the “crowds” of people. I see no reason to presume that there were no silent voices that differed from the general demand of crucify. We can charge them with cowardice (in which case they are equal to the Apostles).

  5. Katy Barrett Avatar
    Katy Barrett

    At least when I’m in Church, I feel like a bee in a giant, sweet, humming beehive. It’s warm, loving, harmonious and a taste of Heaven.

  6. AR Avatar

    Father, I’m struggle with viewing God as an object. Since I don’t experience Him physically, how can I know He actually exists? So much of our reality is based in physical matter, how can I trust that what I experience as God isn’t just something occurring in my own mind? How can I trust this isn’t the same for what others experience?

  7. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    I hesitate to respond because you’re speaking to Father Steven. However, I dare say most if not all of us have been or currently are in your shoes.

    The truth is you can experience Him physically, in you and around you. We have culture-built filters that blind our perception, that are our distractions. You cannot know God in the manner of empirical experiment any more than you can know your lover, or husband or wife, by empirical experiment. You could ‘set up’ such an experiment, but it wouldn’t tell you much. We have split our existence into “physical” reality and “mental” or “psychological” realities. But these are cultural conventions and not an apt description of our reality. The closer and deeper you look into our physical reality, the weirder and unexpectedly (due to our cultural inculcation) wild our reality will seem.

    Years ago, I believed that there ‘must’ be a Christ, because I perceived the ‘reality’ of a universal resurrection by studying the Higgs Field. That was just the start of the road. Living in Christ, ‘putting on Christ’, are not metaphors or poetic descriptions of a lifestyle nor a proclamation of a religious (psychological) or imagined belief, rather these words point to a reality in which our very existence is embedded in the life of Christ.

    How do you begin? Physically going to Liturgy regularly and slowly the reality seeps in. There is no way to rationalize God into existence any more than you can rationalize yourself in or out of existence. Rather it takes a prolonged exposure and life within the body of Christ. And the best way to do that is simply to go to Liturgy regularly. In fact, I believe this is why Christ set up His Church. And this is also why He gave us the Eucharist, His body and blood. His body and blood is a physical reality that not only teaches us Who Christ is and His physical reality, but also who we are and our physical reality in Him.

    “Taste and see” is what we say to inquirers.

    Please forgive me for stepping in. But you asked a good question, and I couldn’t resist. I’m here to say the Bridegroom knocks and it is you who opens the door. Persuasion isn’t part of the equation.

  8. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    AR, I agree wholeheartedly with Dee although I have never studied the Higgs Field. I have known His presence in the Divine Liturgy over the years. Sometimes more strongly than others.
    Clearly not a psychological fabrication. He is just unmistakenly “there”. Not me. Similar to knowing any other person is present and distinct from me whether I see them or not.

  9. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Dee’s advice is on point. I’ll add some thoughts.

    One of the problems in dealing with the “objective/subjective” split is (interestingly) subjective. That is to say, it is only an “idea” that we are using when we say that objective reality is “real” while subjective reality is “only in my mind.” It’s sort of a “habit” – a “way of thinking.”

    We can do a couple of things. We can posit certain things (which is not a complete leap of faith). We can say “that object over there exists” (whatever object you’re pointing to). But we can also say, “And God is the Existence that allows that object to exist.” We can see something that is alive, and say, “God is the Life that allows that to live.” But – all of that will seem mostly like an abstraction or just a “mind game.”

    I am more concrete than that. I start with Jesus. He is a historically real person. We know much about Him. We know that He lived, He taught, He performed miracles, He was crucified, and He was raised from the dead. We believe that He not only lived and was real, but that He is God-made-man. The God that I believe in is “the God-who-became-man-as-the-man-Jesus Christ.” I keep my mind and thoughts focused on Christ Himself.

    I do not worship my “experience” of God. That’s probably the least trustworthy thing for me. I worship the God-made-known-in-Jesus-Christ.

    Someone can ask, “How do you know that Jesus is who He said He was?” There’s a bit of trust (faith) taking place in that. I believe that the historical evidence supports that claim. I also believe that the life and actions of the Apostles, the witnesses of His death and resurrection, supports that claim. And so on.

    As Dee said, I gave my life to that trust years ago and became a member of the Church. I “live” in the Church and have centered my life there. I attend the services and worship (offering God, again and again, my self, my soul, and body). I commune of Christ’s Body and Blood. At this point in my life, the “reality” of Christ seems far more steadfast and reliable than my own reality.

    Of course, it’s always possible to doubt. My experience is that the “doubt” is much less reliable than the trust. These are big questions, and it’s ok and good to ask them. For one, ask them of God (in prayer). He answers.

  10. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Of course, Father, there is the current trend in historical commentary that doubts the existence of all historical people others have faith in, especially Jesus. Trusting in the history is just as much a leap of faith as anything else. Faith is the key. I know Jesus is real because my, essentially, He has revealed Himself. He does that in an almost infinite number of ways. For me that includes the history, including the historical reality of the Church Herself, the theology, the spiritual practice, the personal and distinct presence of Jesus, the Angels and Saints, the beauty, the testimony of the Martyrs (especially the 20th century ones), the struggles that I and those I know have and overcome by perseverance in faith including you, my wife and Fr. Moses Berry to name a few.
    But no matter how much proof there is (and the amount of proof is immense-staggering even), faith is required to accept any of it even my own personal, distinct existence.

    As you say, even empirical objectivity takes faith.

  11. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Yes. There is, of course, the need to “deconstruct the deconstructors.” The various so-called post-moderns (who are actually just moderns) who want to question and dismantle history need to be dismantled themselves. As in, they have an agenda in their dismantling. That agenda is not a search for the truth but simply an effort to assert their own power over our lives.

    A good test, for me, is that what they assert has no beauty. It does not create beauty, but substitutes an empty, vacuous ugliness. Christ crucified reveals beauty in its fullness and makes us beautiful. He reveals love. He reveals true sacrifice. He reveals the truth of what it means for us to be human, etc.

    They reveal the emptiness of avant garde University departments, the blind leading the blind.

  12. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    “Taste and see that the Lord is good.” There is a inexhaustible well of beauty there.

  13. AR Avatar

    Thank you, Father, for your response, and Dee and Michael for your comments as well. You’ve given me a lot to think about.

  14. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    AR, may God’s mercy continue in your life. You ask good questions. Thank you for those.

    Two key words for me are ‘mystery’ and ‘ontological’. The mystery of Christ and His interrelationship with us and the rest of Creation is not solved as a murder mystery is. The mystery is lived as an expression of our being as an image of God in communion with Him and each other.

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