As we enter Holy Week, the festal atmosphere of Lazarus Saturday and Palm Sunday yields to the solemnity, sobriety and sadness of Holy Week as the Lord moves toward His voluntary and life-giving Passion. The Son of God came into the world “to bear witness to the truth” [John 18:37] and “to give His life as a ransom for many” [Mark 10:45.] It is our privilege and responsibility to accompany Christ to Golgotha to the extent that our lives make that possible, especially by our participation in the services that guide us to Golgotha and beyond—to the empty tomb. As Father Sergius Bulgakov wrote, “The beauty, the richness and the power of these services take possession of the soul and sweep it along as upon a mystic torrent” [The Orthodox Church, p. 131]. Therefore, during Holy Week we are challenged to “lay aside all earthly care” and focus on our Lord Jesus Christ, whether we are at a particular service or not. This is a week filled with school, church and other necessary responsibilities. There is no room or time for worldly entertainment—not when the Lamb of God will be slain for the sins of the world.
At the services of Holy Week, we enter into the “today” of the events being reactualized so that the event and all of its salvific power is made present to the gathered community. Thus, we are not simply commemorating a past event for its dramatic impact, or presenting something of an Orthodox “passion play.” Rather, we re-present the event of the Crucifixion so that we participate in it within the liturgical time of the Church’s worship. As Bishop Hilarion [Alfeyev] writes, “Each one of us receives Christ as our personal Savior, and so we each make our own all the events of Christ’s life through personal experience, to whatever extent we can. The feast day is a realization here and now of an event that occurred once in time but is always happening outside time.” And he adds, speaking of the great saints and their faith in the Resurrection of Christ, “They lived… by their experience of eternity and knew that Easter was not a single day of the year, but an eternal reality in which they participated daily” [The Mystery of Faith, p. 119].
That means that our presence at one of the Holy Week services confronts us with a series of choices and decisions, as it did the original participants: to be with Christ or to be with any of those who chose to crucify Him. Will our lives reveal us as imitators of the sinful but repentant woman, or as imitators of Judas the betrayer? Do we show signs of repentance or do we betray Christ in the small events of daily living? Or, perhaps like those for whom a moment of decision was at hand, we remain “guiltless” but apathetic bystanders whose very indecisiveness keeps us distant from the company of Christ. This is essential to bear in mind precisely because we are referring to actual, concrete historical events that occurred at a particular place in time among a particular people—the Jews to whom Christ belonged and the Roman authorities that controlled much of Palestine. In our piety we can inadvertently stand aloof of the actual dramatis personae caught up in the divine-human drama of our Lord’s Passion and harshly judge all of the “wrongdoers” from the safe distance of our Christian faith. However, if this blinds us to our own moral failings and weaknesses, then we undermine and subvert that very piety that we bring to the services. And we misunderstand the nature of the hymnography, which is meant to challenge us today as well as recall the events of the past that have shaped our faith in Christ.
Opinions may vary here, but I believe this to be especially true in our pluralistic society when it comes to the harshness with which “the Jews” are treated in some of our Holy Week hymnography. I believe that at least a few of the hymns stray into a dangerous area that today would be labeled “anti-Semitic.” (I believe that this phrase is tossed about carelessly at times, but it also calls for our vigilance as Christians never to embrace the reality expressed therein). If the Orthodox Church were better known, some of this hymnography would be brought to our attention in a challenging and critical manner. Certain of the Jews contemporary to Christ—notably the Sanhedrin or “religious authorities”—condemned the Lord as a false Messiah, and with the connivance of Roman power, had Him crucified. This is historically true. However, the Sanhedrin represents “institutional religion” in its more unattractive guise— self-defensive and self-protective, putting the institution before the Truth and guarding the status quo when challenged from without by an authentic voice that comes from God. We witness this today in all forms of “institutional religion” within the various Christian traditions, including our own. As we contemplate the harsh realities of a fallen and sinful world that is even capable of putting Christ to death (!), we need to mourn human corruption as it even tempts us within our institutions and within our hearts today. Would any one of us have stepped forward to defend Christ when unjustly condemned, or would our own passivity and fear have left Him just as alone and isolated today as during the end of His earthly ministry?
Yet, God was “working” throughout this unbearable human drama to fulfill His will for our eternal salvation. Christ was the not the victim of an unjust verdict, but the Victor Who was fulfilling His vocation as the Suffering Servant Who would be vindicated by His Father following His crucifixion and death. As Saint Peter was forgiven his weakness and restored to fellowship with his Lord, so are we today, by the grace of God so abundantly poured out on us through Christ Jesus our Lord.