These are only a shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ.
Priests have been joking for years about how people flock to church during Holy Week for the services where they get a “gift.” They come Palm Sunday for the palm, Holy Wednesday for the oil, Good Friday for the flower and Pascha for the egg. And many stay away from worship on Holy Thursday night or Good Friday morning because there are no free gifts. There are people who wouldn’t dare miss the pageantry of Good Friday night, but wouldn’t consider the relatively plain “watchfulness” of the Bridegroom services.
People have asked me in recent weeks, “How will we ‘get the oil’ or ‘get the light’?” “Can we have a drive through or drive under Epitaphios?”
This year, unfortunately, most of the faithful will not be able to come to church. There won’t be flowers to be given from the Epitaphios. We won’t walk under the Epitaphios on Good Friday night, or light candles in church on Pascha.
One of the beautiful things about Orthodoxy is its beautiful rituals, which sadly we won’t be able to take part in this year. However, there is a downside to rituals, because there is a temptation to worship the form, or the ritual, rather than the substance, Christ, who is behind the ritual. Will our lives change because we don’t venerate the cross this year? Christ won’t be more or less resurrected if we don’t venerate the cross. Salvation won’t be off the table because we don’t get a flower from the tomb.
With form and ritual somewhat off the table this year, we will be forced to cling to substance, and that isn’t a bad thing. The crux of Holy Week is the Resurrection of Christ, made possible by His Crucifixion, which was necessary because of the Fall of humanity, which happened because humanity went away from God. The joy of the Resurrection is preceded by the sorrow of the Cross, which was necessary because God loved us so much that He wanted to redeem us from sin. Joy, sorrow and love are the three words that best describe Holy Week. And it will be possible to experience all three from our homes.
As many of your children have been learning from home these past few weeks, our son has been as well. While he misses his friends and the social aspects of school, he is still learning. And there is an upside to his learning at home, which is that he’s learning more about technology and how to use it than he ever would have learned at school this year. So that when he eventually returns to school, hopefully in the fall, he will enter eighth grade this fall having learned whatever he needed to learn in seventh grade plus some extra technology stuff he probably wouldn’t have learned until much later. He will actually come out of this experience better than if he didn’t have this experience at all.
I believe the same is possible with our virtual Holy Week experience. With the form and ritual off the table, we are left to delve into substance. And next year, when hopefully we are back in our churches, we won’t be worshipping the form as much as we will embrace the substance. For those who only come to church on Good Friday or Holy Saturday, I’m guessing they will end up doing one of two things—not “attending” at all this year and perhaps realizing that their experience of Christ is based on ritual and not on faith, or attending and being able to focus on substance and perhaps coming more often when this quarantine is over.
Also, from a personal note, we are scaling down what we are doing for Holy Week at the church. We will not spend a lot of money to decorate the Lord’s tomb nor will we spend a lot of time doing it. We actually have a smaller, more simple version of a tomb with a few flowers that will adorn it. This should make us realize that it is not the exquisite expensive tomb that makes for our Holy Week experience, but that the Lord laid in a tomb for us. We won’t have the windows decorated, or dozens of Easter lilies for Pascha, but that doesn’t mean that Christ is less resurrected and alive. These rituals we do are nice, the decorations are beautiful, but none is the essence of Holy Week or of salvation.
So that you’ll feel better, there are things of Holy Week that can be recreated at other times of the year. Whatever Sunday we come back to church, the first thing we will do is sing Christos Anesti, so that we can all sing it together in the church in 2020. It is not a sin to sing Christos Anesti outside of Pascha. In fact, every time I visit a parishioner who is sick, when I know it is the last time, I sing Christos Anesti to them, so that it is the last thing they ever hear from me. The choir will sing “Soma Christou”, the Communion Hymn of Pascha whenever we come back. The Wednesday after the first Sunday we come back, I’m planning to celebrate the sacrament of Holy Unction, because Holy Unction can be done at any time of the year.
This is not to devalue Holy Week in any way—we will not recreate the Bridegroom services or Holy Thursday night or Holy Friday night. These we will experience from home. However, on Holy Wednesday as an example, rather than focus on the ritual of being anointed with oil, we should put the emphasis where it actually belongs, on prayers for healing which this year take on a whole new meaning for our world. And certainly celebrating nineteen services in eight days, the long journey of Holy Week, is something we will not be recreating, but this year must mark in our own creative ways from home.
The best news of all is in regards to the Light of Christ. No, we won’t be taking it to our houses this year. But the Light of Christ burns on the altar table and it never goes out. The same flame has been burning on our altar table since long before I arrived in Tampa and will be burning long after I leave. If someone ever wants to light a candle from the always burning Light of Christ on our altar, just ask me (or ask your priest) and you can receive that at ANY time.
If this Holy Week gets us focused on the substance of Holy Week, Christ, and less on the rituals we won’t be doing, that won’t be a bad thing. There is certainly a place for ritual. It enhances the substance, the message of salvation. I’m a big fan of experiential learning and many times, experience helps us learn something. But experiential learning is only good if learning accompanies the experience. If all we have is experience without learning or application, the experience has little value. This year, we will have less “experience” (ritual) but we can still learn and apply. We will just have to work a little harder to do it. And next year, when we get the “experience” piece back in Holy Week, it will help us appreciate it more, as well as enjoy it in the proper context remembering that it is the substance, Christ, not the form (ritual) that makes for a meaningful Holy Week journey.
You who fear the Lord, praise Him! All you sons of Jacob, glorify Him, and stand in awe of Him, all you sons of Israel! For He has not despised or abhorred the affliction of the afflicted; and He has not hid His face from him, but has heard, when he cried to Him. From Thee comes my praise in the great congregation; my vows I will pay before those who fear Him. The afflicted shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek Him shall praise the Lord! May your hearts live forever! All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord; and all the families of the nations shall worship Him. For dominion belongs to the Lord, and He rules over the nations. Psalm 22: 23-28
Prayer of Protection from the Coronavirus
(Prayer by Grace Bishop Alexis (Trader) of Bethesda)
O God Almighty, Lord of heaven and earth, and of all creation visible and invisible, in Your ineffable goodness, look down upon Your people gathered in Your name. Be our helper and defender in this day of affliction. You know our weakness. You hear our cry in repentance and contrition of heart. O Lord who loves mankind deliver us from the impending threat of the corona virus. Send Your Angel to watch over us and protect us. Grant health and recovery to those suffering from this virus. Guide the hands of physicians, and preserve those who are healthy that we may continue to serve You in peace and glorify Your most honorable and majestic Name, of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, now and forever and to the ages of ages. Amen.
Focus on Christ this Holy Week, and less on rituals related to Him.