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.
What must it have been like for Peter, the Chief of the Apostles, on that night Christ was betrayed? As Mark presents it, Jesus had recently, extravagantly, been anointed for his burial. Then, in Mark’s presentation, Judas agrees to betray Jesus. Peter, seemingly, walks through this unaware.
This comes perhaps four years late. But such a tardiness is not without design. I have been quite resistant to viewing The Passion, to some degree from “purist” notions. Not purist in the sense of the silly spats among Orthodox as to whether such a bloody portrayal of the Passion was in keeping with “true” Orthodoxy. Rather purist in the sense of what images I wanted my mind to hold of Jesus’ suffering and death. I wanted such images to be those of the icons and the Church’s hymns. And so, having watched The Passion once after Pascha 2004, I did not watch it again.
I cannot speak as to whether such intentions have been fulfilled, but I do think it accurate to say, I did not as fully appreciate the movie in the early summer of 2004 as I appreciated it this past Friday (when I watched it again for the first time since then), and, unless I am mistaken, as I will further and perhaps more deeply appreciate it in the future. I suspect that such a greater and more understanding engagement with it is due in no small measure to the fact that I have come through more of life in the past four years, including the birth of our second daughter, more Liturgies and worship, more Holy Weeks, and, if I may, more sorrows.
This year I took Bright Monday off from work. I am very glad I did. One factor that differentiates Orthodoxy from modern-day evangelicalism is the fundamental tenet that faith necessarily involves struggle. Y’all work out y’all’s salvation with fear and trembling, says St. Paul. And to my knowledge only the Orthodox know what it’s like to make worship the work of the people. So today is a day off.
We all were exhausted. We got the girls to bed a little earlier than normal last night, and, aside from Sofie crawling into bed with us about 3:00, everyone slept clean through till well past 7:00 when Delaina stood up in her crib and announced to everyone: “Wake up. To wake up, Mommy Daddy.” I’d already been just dozing for several minutes, so I was ready to get up with Delaina. Sofie followed soon after.
The girls loved getting into their Easter baskets yesterday afternoon–with their wooden toys, bunches of chocolate, and colored paper grass. Sofie especially is at an age which these holidays actually mean something to her. Delaina joins in the fun to be like big sister. But their laughter is infectious and endearing.
Yesterday was a wonderful day with pretty much no rules–in celebration of Pascha. The girls got to watch their videos whenever they asked and for the most part got to eat their Easter chocolate whenever they wanted. The lack of sleep and the sugar crash did result in a couple of nuclear meltdowns (one apiece), but otherwise the girls were fine. I struggled with a nausea-inducing headache for about an hour after my afternoon nap (which I can only surmise was from not eating since three that morning coupled with not enough water-intake). But after some acetaminophen, a very light meal and some Sprite, I felt much better.
Just in time, in fact, to go grocery shopping at one of my favorite food chains, Trader Joe’s. We stocked up on meat: salmon steaks, corned beef, pork tenderloin. I got a couple of treats: ginger flavored “Cats”cookies, and Trinity Beer, from Goose Island. And I had the added priceless laughter of shepherding both girls with their “littl’un’s” shopping carts. Both girls got into the shopping act by pretty much grabbing stuff at random and putting it in their little carts. At one point we had to reshelve a good half-dozen cans of tomato paste that Delaina apparently thought we should take home. The girls got some boxed cereals of their choice, and Momma got her Relax (brand) Riesling.
It was a great day. Maybe the best Pascha Sunday we’ve ever had.
As I said to Anna on the way home from the breakfast this morning at about 3:30: “Pascha Sunday is the one Sunday we can sleep in guilt free.” What this means, of course, in a household of a one- and a three-year-old, is that when Daddy crawls into bed at 4:00 and the little one gets up at 7:30, Daddy has “slept in.” Oy. I foresee a monster nap coming this afternoon.
In the mercies of God, this Holy Week, and especially the Triduum, has been especially rich for me. Perhaps the most meaningful service of them all, this year, was the Matins of Great and Holy Friday, or the Twelve Gospels service. This is a service which may well resonate with that amorphous group of self-described persons called “postmoderns.” We have a single story told from various perspectives (even within the same Gospel), each viewpoint added rich detail and startling clarity. But one cannot get this from a spare reading of the Gospels in private. This sort of experience requires a public telling in which the Twelve Gospels are heard, and heard in the midst of the believing community. In my own case, I had pre-marked the lections in my Greek New Testament, and I followed along with the reading in what was a truly stereophonic encounter.
This is also the service in which the Crucifix is brought into the midst of the congregation, and then placed square in the midst of the open Royal Doors. This Icon, I should note, is not a square icon of the crucifixion, but an icon in the shape of the Lord’s Body, still with its two-dimensional aspect, but somehow bringing a three-dimensional scope to the Icon. After the service we all went to venerate the Icon of the Crucified Lord. Everyone I observed kissed the feet of the Icon, some bowing, some kneeling on the step on which the Icon stood. There is an added dimension to the contemplation of the Passion of Christ when one can kneel before a Crucifix and reverently kiss the feet of the Lord, pierced through with the spike.
I have yet to make the Royal (or Imperial) Hours service, in all my years of inquiring into Orthodoxy, and the last four Holy Weeks attending All Saints. Previously it has been due to work obligations. This year it was because the girls had already been pretty worn out with the services. They were up late on Wednesday and Thursday nights (going to bed some two hours past their normal bedtimes), and were becoming a bit difficult to keep corralled during the services. So we opted to stay home and have early naps. And then Anna and I agreed that we would have Delaina attend the earlier Vespers service on Friday so she could get to bed earlier. And Sofie would go with me to the Matins of Holy Saturday service on Friday evening. That seemed to work well. Anna, unfortunately, was also pretty wiped out and so it was just the girls and I for Vespers of Holy Saturday yesterday morning. And it was, in some ways, the most difficult service of all for the girls. They were very cranky and restless. Overall they were fairly well behaved, but nonetheless acted out at inappropriate times (Sofie tried to take her dress off at one point).
I thought it was pretty ironic that I had a couple of people ask me how Anna and I did it by having both the girls at the Pascha services (which start for us about 10:00 on Saturday night, and go through to about 2:30 Sunday morning. I couldn’t tell if they thought that we might be “authorities” on how to get children to behave for a several-hour service in the middle of the night (which is the ironic part), or whether they were so desperate for solutions they figured even someone with such willful and high-spirited girls such as ours are might have something, anything, that they could use. I disabused my interlocutors of the former notion, and confirmed the latter, by simply saying: “We have no answers. We just go with the flow. We have no solutions.”
That said, the girls were actually much better behaved during the services last night than they usually are during the normal and “routine” Sunday Divine Liturgy. They clearly (as another parent put it to us of his own son) had “hit orbit” but yet other than some pretty mild crankiness and whiny-ness did pretty well. And they were awake for the whole service. The Lord be praised.
For my part, this Holy Week just wore me out–until the Pascha service. I have never crawled into bed quite so tired and worn out as I have these past three nights. I found myself wanting and needing significant nap times the last few days–which I didn’t get until yesterday afternoon. And, by way of comparison, during last year’s Pascha services I felt close to falling asleep while standing up. But this year, I was so invigorated for the Pascha service that I not only felt refreshed and renewed through the whole service (aside from sore feet and a sore lower back from standing so long and holding the girls at times through the service), but I was able to focus my attention throughout the whole service. For the first time the structure of the services made sense to me. Indeed, the lighting of the Paschal candle had me feeling like a kid on Christmas morning. I said to Anna, “I love this part!”
As it always does, St. John Chrysostom’s Pascha sermon moved me to tears. I always feel like the slothful, eleventh hour Christian St. John describes. And I always find myself feeling surprise bordering on disbelief that even someone like myself would be encouraged to join in the Feast. Every year I feel like the re-told parable of Jesus in which I enter without a wedding garment, but this time Christ tells me to stay anyway. Grace untold. Truly: amazing grace.
Speaking of “Amazing Grace,” or, rather, Protestant Christian songs, both my girls broke out into our bed-time songs (“Jesus Loves Me” and “Jesus Loves the Little Children”) at one point of the services last night. I mean, come on, everyone else was singing at the top of their lungs, and they wanted to sing at the top of their lungs, too–and the only songs they knew were the two we sing every night at bedtime. I don’t know if this is the only Orthodox Pascha service in which Protestant songs were sung, but we might have set a first.
Interestingly, when the catechumens (Abigail and Abigail–no, that’s not a typo, both catechumens chose that Christian name) were chrismated, I did not feel bitter sweet, but truly joyful. Not only for them, but in anticipation of that day, some weeks yet to come, but nonethless on the horizon, when I and my family will also be joined to the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Orthodox Church.
One of the strong impressions of Orthodox Holy Week is the disjunction of time. I know there are liturgical reasons, but Vespers are celebrated in the mid-afternoon and mornings, and matins celebrated in the evenings. And then the length of the Pascha services themselves (nocturnes, matins, and the Divine Liturgy), held in the middle of the night, significantly removes one from outside time. The effect on me this year felt life-giving: removed from mortality-inducing time into life-sustaining eternality. I can only imagine what it will be like to celebrate this one day as Orthodox.
Christ is risen!
So, there I was, minding my own business, Johann Sebastian Bach’s St Matthew Passion playing softly in my work background, when I heard a familiar tune. The words, however, were rather unfamiliar . . . at first.
O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden,
Voll Schmerz und voller Hohn,
O Haupt, zu Spott gebunden
Mit einer Dornenkron,
O Haupt, sonst schön gezieret
Mit höchster Ehr und Zier,
Jetzt aber hoch schimpfieret,
Gegrüßet seist du mir!
Du edles Angesichte,
Dafür sonst schrickt und scheut
Das große Weltgerichte,
Wie bist du so bespeit;
Wie bist du so erbleichet!
Wer hat dein Augenlicht,
Dem sonst kein Licht nicht gleichet,
So schändlich zugericht’?
Of course, a little translation work makes them much more recognizable:
O head of blood and wounding,
Of pain and scorn so full,
O Head, for spite now fettered
Beneath a crown of thorns,
O head, once fair and lovely,
With highest praise adorned,
But highly now insulted,
All hail to thee, I say!
Thou countenance so noble,
At which should shrink and quail
The mighty world’s great burden,
How spat upon thou art;
How pale thou art become now!
Who hath thine eyes’ bright light,
Alike no other light once,
So shamefully abused?
Of course, I know this piece as O Sacred Head Now Wounded: