I spoke briefly with our building’s handy-woman yesterday, and somehow the conversation meandered into Holy Week services. As I explained how many services we have at our parish (which are not all the services that can be done), and their length, I got that look that was a mixture of curiosity and disbelief. It happens every year. At least I could tell her that at our parish the services are all in English. I had just come from services at another parish which were half in Greek. The idea of a bunch of services half in another language would have made her eyes glaze over. But that’s how it goes. In the Orthodox Church, more is more.
I told how growing up, Easter services were limited to Easter Sunday morning; it was a real treat when a congregation had sunrise services. When I served as a pastor of a small town parish, the two other Protestant pastors in town (one a Presbyterian, the other a Southern Baptist) and I got our folks together for a Good Friday service. As an Episcopalian, we had the Triduum, the services of Holy Thursday and Good Friday along with the Easter vigil. This trend of adding more services to the celebration of Easter went into hyperdrive when I began worshipping in the Orthodox Church. Beginning on the Friday evening prior to Palm Sunday, with services oriented around the Gospel account of the raising of Lazarus, Holy Week for Orthodox begins. The Saturday before Palm Sunday, a Divine Liturgy is served. There is the usual Vespers Service that Saturday night, with Palm Sunday the next morning. These are a warm up for the celebration of Pascha (Easter) in one week.
In our parish, beginning Palm Sunday evening, we have services everyday. The first three nights (Sunday, Monday and Tuesday) are the services of Bridegroom Matins, which name is taken from the parable of the wise and foolish virgins in Matthew 25, and long sections from Matthew 22-25 are read each night. On Wednesday evening our parish observes the annual service of Holy Unction, in which the Orthodox participate in the Sacrament of Healing. On that evening, seven readings from the Epistles and seven readings from the Gospels precede the anointing of the faithful.
Without going into all the liturgical complexities, our parish celebrates Divine Liturgy on Thursday morning, which commemorates the Last Supper. On Thursday evening we have the services of the 12 Passion Gospels, in which, in twelve separate readings, entire chapters from the Passion narratives are read (the first reading is John 13-17, just to give an idea). On Friday morning is celebrated the Royal Hours (the “little hours” from the daily office), with several more readings from the Scriptures. On Friday afternoon, there are services commemorating Christ’s burial in the tomb. Friday evening is the Lamentations Service, which commemorates the sorrow of the Mother of God over the death of her Son. On Saturday morning, a Divine Liturgy is served which commemorates Christ’s harrowing of Hell (1 Peter 3:19).
I should pause and mention that the services get longer and the amount of Scriptures read increase as the week progresses, just as the number of daily services increase as well. Bridegroom Matins services go a little better than an hour, maybe close to an hour and a half. Holy Unction services in our parish go about two hours with the anointings. The Liturgies are a couple of hours. The Twelve Passion Gospels draw closer to three hours. The Divine Liturgy on Saturday morning includes baptisms and chrismations and will go for three hours or more. By the time Saturday afternoon rolls around, the counsel given is: Take a nap. Because Pascha (Easter) services will begin Saturday night around ten or ten-thirty and go till roughly two or three Sunday morning.
No wonder we get that look.
But by the time Holy Week and Pascha is complete, we have been bathed in cascading waterfalls of Scripture about the death, burial and resurrection of Christ. We have been plunged into endless depths of the most beautiful hymnography about the Passion of Christ. We have received his Body and Blood. We have been anointed with holy oil for our healing. We have confessed our sins. We have stood for hours on end in reverence and worship of God. We have wept with those who weep, and rejoiced with those who rejoice. When the white vestments, bright lights, glowing candles, fragrant incense, the smell of crushed bay leaves, the angelic chants, the countless repetitions of “Christos anesti! Christ is risen!” wash over our senses, our hearts truly have been lifted up to heaven–indeed, heaven has come down to us.
We’re almost there.