GREAT AND HOLY WEEK – PASCHA 2014
The Ultimate Passage
Pascha means passover, passage. The Feast of Passover was for the Jews the annual commemoration of their whole history as salvation, and of salvation as passage from the slavery of Egypt into freedom, from exile into the Promised Land. It was also the anticipation of the ultimate passage — into the Kingdom of God. And Christ was the fulfillment of Pascha. He performed the ultimate passage: from death into life, from this “old world” into the new world, into the new time of the Kingdom. And he opened the possibility of this passage to us. Living in “this world” we can already be “not of this world,” i.e., be free from slavery to death and sin, partakers of the “world to come.” But for this we must also perform our own passage, we must condemn the old Adam in us, we must put on Christ in the baptismal death and have our true life hidden in God with Christ, in the “world to come…”
And thus Pascha is not an annual commemoration — solemn and beautiful — of a past event. It is this Event itself shown, given to us, as always efficient, always revealing our world, our time, our life as being at their End, and announcing the Beginning of the new life… And the function of the three first days of the Holy Week is precisely to challenge us with this ultimate meaning of Pascha and to prepare us to the understanding and acceptance of it.
This eschatological — and it means ultimate, decisive, final — challenge is revealed, first, in the common troparion of these days:
“Behold, the Bridegroom cometh at midnight and blessed is he whom He shall find watching, but unworthy is he whom He shall find heedless. Beware, therefore, O my soul, do not be weighed down with sleep, lest you be given up and shut out from the Kingdom. But, rouse yourself crying: Holy, Holy, Holy art Thou, O God. Through the Theotokos, have mercy on us.”
Midnight is the moment when the old day comes to its end and a new day begins. It is thus the symbol of the time in which we live as Christians. For, on the one hand, the Church is still in this world, sharing in its weaknesses and tragedies. Yet, on the other hand, the Church’s true being is not of this world, for she is the Bride of Christ and her mission is to announce and to reveal the coming of the Kingdom and of the new day. Her life is a perpetual watching and expectation, a vigil pointed at the dawn of this new day… But we know how strong is still our attachment to the “old day,” to the world with its passions and sins. We know how deeply we still belong to “this world.” We have seen the light, we know Christ, we have heard about the peace and joy of the new life in Him, and yet the world holds us in its slavery. This weakness, this constant betrayal of Christ, this incapacity to give the totality of our love to the only true object of love are wonderfully expressed in one of the focal hymns of these three days:
“I behold Thy Bridal chamber richly adorned, O my Savior; but I have no wedding garment to worthily enter. Make radiant the garment of my soul, O Giver of Light and save me.”
– Fr. Alexander Schmemann (from “A LITURGICAL EXPLANATION OF HOLY WEEK”)
MATINS OF GREAT AND HOLY WEDNESDAY
The Hymn of Kassiani
The woman who had fallen into many sins recognizes Thy Godhead, O Lord. She takes upon herself the duty of a myrrh-bearer and makes ready the myrrh of mourning, before Thy entombment. Woe to me! saith she, for my night is an ecstasy of excess, gloomy and moonless, and full of sinful desire. Receive the sources of my tears, O Thou Who dost gather into clouds the water of the sea; in Thine ineffable condescension, deign to bend down Thyself to me and to the lamentations of my heart, O Thou Who didst spread out the Heavens. I will fervently embrace Thy sacred feet, and wipe them again with the tresses of the hair of my head, Thy feet at whose sound Eve hid herself for fear when she heard Thee walking in Paradise in the cool of the day. O my Saviour and soul-Saver who can trace out the multitude of my sins, and the abysses of Thy judgement? Do not disregard me Thy servant, O Thou Whose mercy is boundless.
This beloved composition from the Greek tradition is both a lyrical hymn, a lamentation and a drama with universal connotations. An act without scenery nor actors present on the stage. The chorals are replaced by the sobs and lamentations of the one and only central heroine of the drama. The musical background is the sources of her tears, the groaning of her heart, the embracing and kissing of the feet of the Lord.
The dramatic act takes place before God in the human soul. Its theme is the realization of sinfulness which brings a person to contrition, and the exodus from the night of intemperance to the boundless mercy of the Saviour. It is a drama that is universal and real. Universal, because it concerns all people in the world, and real because it is relevant to human life on earth throughout the ages.
It is heroic, because it presents to us, the person, who stands before his/her sinfulness and is shaken, and confesses it, and even more heroically, looks to the inexpressible depths of God’s great mercy to find salvation.
SERVICE OF THE HOLY OIL
The Orthodox tradition understands healing and forgiveness in a holistic manner, without a soul versus body dualism. For this reason the sacrament of Holy Unction is served in many parishes on Holy Wednesday evening. In many parishes, this sacrament replaces celebration of Holy Thursday matins.
“Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing psalms. Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.” (James 5:13-17)
When the Holy Spirit is invoked to sanctify the oil, the Prayer beseeches God to grant that:
“… it may be effective for those that shall be anointed with it, for healing and relief from every passion, from every malady of the flesh and of the spirit, and from every ill.”
It is indeed for the healing of both our spiritual ills and our physical weakness, a healing of soul and body that is invoked in the name of the Trinity:
“… that therein Your most-holy Name: of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit may be glorified, now and ever, and to the ages of ages.”