Holy Week Journal: Pascha

It’s 11:00 p.m. on Holy Saturday night.  Hilary is wide awake and running on adrenaline.  She’s excited to have the flowing white dress on that she wore as a flower girl in my brother’s wedding.  I made a sash out of a pink patterned ribbon and a matching headband to give it a little color.  Many of the kids in my parish come to the service in their pajamas and sleep, but Hilary always wants to take this opportunity to dress in her fanciest, girliest clothes.

There’s a lot of whispering and electricity in the air.  It is dark and subdued in the nave, the candles from the tomb glowing in the center of the church.  At 11:30 p.m. the Nocturns service begins.  We sing verses and set the tone for the evening.

At midnight, all the lights are put out in the church.  It is completely dark.  A hush falls throughout the crowd.  We wait in expectation.  Then, one light is lit behind the altar.  The glow fills the space and reaches out to us.  Father sings:

Come, receive the light from the Light that is never conquered by night.  Come, glorify Christ, who is risen from the dead!

Then, the men from the choir who have gathered behind the altar pick up the next lines along with Father.  More and more voices are added each time until everyone joins and sings:

Your Resurrection, O Christ our Savior, the angels in heaven sing.  Enable us on earth to glorify You in purity of heart.

Father comes out through the Royal Doors with the Paschal light, the new fire of Christ.  The children gather up front and light candles from his candle.  Everyone in the church passes the light to their neighbor, until everyone’s candles are lit.  The clergy and altar servers lead the way as we all exit the church.  We process around the outside of the building three times, continuosly singing:

Your Resurrection, O Christ our Savior, the angels in heaven sing.  Enable us on earth to glorify You in purity of heart.

We arrive back at the doors to the church.  Father reads from the Gospel of Mark.  Early in the morning, the Myrrhbearing Women went to the tomb, but when they arrived, all they found was an angel.  He asked them such a basic question…Why do you seek the living among the dead?  He is not here.  He is risen!

Then, Father beats on the door of the church with the cross and sings the song that fills the world with joy:

Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!

The doors of the church are thrown open, and the bells, which had been mournfully tolling a funeral dirge as we processed, break into an ear-splitting, resounding proclamation of celebration.

Over and over we sing the good news as we enter the church.  Several of the members stayed behind while we were outside and transformed the nave.  The tomb is gone.  So is the darkness.  Everything glows in brilliant white and piercing light.

Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!

The choir continues to sing of the Resurrection, as the clergy shout to the people: Christ is Risen!  Everyone shouts back with smiles and glistening eyes: Indeed He is Risen!  The Paschal greeting is repeated throughout the service in many languages, a bow to the ethnic heritage of many of our parishioners and a testament to the universal Truth.  This isn’t just an announcement for our time and place.  This is an announcement for the ages.

  Christ is Risen!  Christos Anesti!  Christos Voskrese!  Hristos a înviat! Христос воскрес!  Tá Críost éirithe!  Kristus aq ungwektaq!  Al Maseeh Qam!

We sing the words of the Psalms:

Let God arise!  Let His enemies be scattered!  Let those who hate Him flee from before His face!… As smoke vanishes so let them vanish.  As wax melts before the fire… So the sinners will perish before the face of God, but let the righteous be glad…This is the day which the Lord has made.  Let us rejoice and be glad in it!

And always, always we cry:

Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!

Father does not preach his own words this night.  He reads the sermon of St. John Chrysostom.  The church has established eight weeks of fasting before this day.  There have been rigors of long services, prostrations, hunger and self-denial.  Not all have done this.  Some because of illness or age.  Some because they just didn’t.  But St. John reassures us that even if we have delayed until the third hour, or the sixth hour, or even the eleventh hour, we all can rejoice the same.  Christ descended into Hell and smashed it.  Death has held us captive, but Christ turned that captivity onto Hell itself.  Oh, it was embittered to see Christ!  It was embittered to be overthrown!  Again and again St. John’s sermon talks about the embitterment of Hell, and every time Father reads the word, we shout back in triumph “Embittered!”

At this point, the Divine Liturgy begins, and we prepare for the Eucharistic service.  This week, we watched Christ break the bread and share the wine.  We watched Him willingly sacrifice His own body and blood.  We watched Him be tortured and scourged and beaten and killed in a horrific way.  We watched Him be laid in a tomb.  We sat by the tomb in the darkness of death and despair.  And now, we join in the new day of brightness.  We grab the hand that pulls us up from the depths of death and Hell.  Christ is Risen!  Indeed He is Risen!

It’s time to sing to the Mother of God.  She watched her Son’s unimaginable suffering.  Her heart was indeed pierced.  To her, too, we announce the glory:

The angel cried to the Lady Full of Grace: Rejoice, rejoice, O Pure Virgin!  Again I say: Rejoice.  Your Son is risen from His three days in the tomb.  With Himself He has raised all the dead.  Rejoice, rejoice all ye people.

Shine!  Shine!  Shine, O new Jerusalem!  The glory of the Lord has shone on you.  Exult now, exult!  And be glad, O Zion!  Be radiant, O pure Theotokos!  In the Resurrection, the Resurrection of Your Son!

It is after 2:00 a.m. when we finish.  We have sung “Christ is Risen!” so many times, that virtually every other thought is pushed out.  Isn’t that glorious?  No thoughts of pain or suffering or despair or sorrow or death.  I sat by the tomb of my soul yesterday and watched it fester and rot.  Today, though, the tomb is gone.  The barriers, the hindrances, the chains are broken.  Christ is risen from the dead…there is no more sorrow.  Christ is risen from the dead…there is no more separation.  Christ is risen from the dead…there is no more defeat.  Upon those in the tombs…upon me…He has bestowed life.  Not mere existence.  Not just getting by.  LIFE.  Everlasting union with God.  Everlasting joy.  LIFE… LIFE… LIFE.

We began Lent at Forgiveness Vespers by exchanging the kiss of peace with each other.  We end it by doing the same.  Everyone approaches Father and receives a red egg from him.  Then, we go around to each and every person in the church, kiss them and tell them as if for the very first time: “Christ is Risen!”  And they say back, “Indeed…He IS Risen!”

In the parish hall, we have all laid out our Pascha baskets.  The baskets traditionally contain many things.  Salt to show we are the salt of the earth.  A bitter herb to remember Passover.  But mostly, the baskets contain all the meat and dairy items we haven’t eaten in two months.

The first couple years of being Orthodox, I tried very much to make my Pascha basket traditional.  I brought kielbasa.  I did everything the “right” way.  Then, I embraced the fact that I don’t really like kielbasa, and the rest of my family doesn’t really love the traditional cheese everyone makes…and that’s O.K.  The Paschal meal is about celebrating what we love and have missed during the Fast.  So, our Pascha basket has a big bucket of fried chicken, candy, pop, and breakfast sausage (biscuits and gravy on the morning after Pascha is the best thing ever!!!).

We all sit around with our family and friends, laughing and eating and licking chicken grease off our fingers in an extremely undignified and wonderful way.  Finally, the adrenaline begins to wear off.  We gather up the remnants of our basket and the Pascha light to take home to light the lamp in our icon corner.

About 3:30 a.m. we crawl into bed, and my heart sings as I fall asleep:

Christ is Risen!  Indeed He is Risen!

We wake up and go to one last service in the early afternoon.  At Agape Vespers, we sing again of the Resurrection.  Father reads the Gospel about Thomas, who doubts.  Then, others in the parish come forward to read as well.  The Gospel is read in many languages.  Greek and French.  Serbian and Latin.  In some monasteries and parishes this will go on for some time.  The Resurrection is proclaimed to all people in all lands in all tongues.

We go back home and collapse in a heap.  Nineteen services since Lazarus Saturday.  If you include the day before that, then it is twenty-one consecutive services in ten days.  So, as the day comes to a close, I try to savor the memories of each of those services…each of those days.  I’ve been in church so much this week…but what does that mean?  If it just means that I feel good about myself for being pious or just plain don’t feel anything, then it was a waste of my time.  These services, these prayers, they were not for my ego or to earn bonus points.  They were opportunities to see what life is and what it should be.  This is the day of my resurrection.  May I not continue to live as one who is dead.

As we move into Bright Week, it feels odd to not go to church.  I’m glad for that feeling of loss.  It makes me remember that my life should be one continuous prayer.  Just because the services ended doesn’t mean the prayer has to stop.  Here is another opportunity.  It is up to me now.  Will I take this joy and nurture it and grow it and develop it into a deeper relationship with God, or will I go right back to the tomb?  There is an opportunity here.  Lord, help me not to miss it.

Christ is Risen!  Indeed He is Risen!


Holy Week Journal: Holy Saturday

Vigil.  Defined as a period of watching; spiritual preparation; staying awake when everyone else is asleep.  On Holy Saturday, we keep vigil.  We watch.  We prepare.  We stay awake.

Someone reads (the Psalms for one period and the Acts of the Apostles for another) for twenty-four hours straight from the end of the Lamentations service on Holy Friday to the beginning of the Pascha service.  Not as many people were able to come this year as in times past, so my family picked up some extra slots.

As I came back throughout the day on Holy Saturday to the tomb, I continued to be touched more and more.  As I sat by the tomb, I thought the same thing I do every year, which was actually the topic of Father’s sermon on Holy Friday.  When we sit by the tomb, we do not just see the icon, the flowers, and the candles.  We do not even see Christ alone.  We see ourselves.

I keep vigil by the tomb of Christ.  The tomb of my own soul.  Sin and death hold me captive in their bonds.  I am sick and troubled and bound by the weight of my own transgressions.  No one else to blame.  No one else to compare to.

So, I read the Psalms by my own grave and watch.  I light a candle in the sand in preparation.  I stay awake when the call of the bed is strong and persistent in my ear.  I keep vigil.

The bonds of sin, the heavy chains of death, will no longer hold men captive.  The vigil will not end in darkness.  The Light is only a few hours away.

Holy Week Journal: Great and Holy Friday

Three services today.  We begin with Royal Hours, or as I call it, the best kept secret in Orthodox services.  Of course, it’s not a secret, but I think most people don’t realize how profound it is, therefore, it is usually not well attended.

For each and every day, there are prayers and services appointed for different times.  At the Royal Hours service, we read the prayers for First, Third, Sixth, and Ninth Hours, as well as Typica all in a row.  Royal Hours is served on Christmas Eve, Theophany, and Holy Friday.  The readings for Holy Friday are jaw dropping.

We read Psalms of Christ.  Then, an Old Testament prophecy referring to the Crucifixion.  Then, an Epistle reading commenting on that same prophecy.  Then finally, the Gospel account where that prophecy was fulfilled.  In between, we sing hymns expanding on the themes.  We repeat the same process until we have gone through all the services for that day’s Hours of Prayer.

I know I’ve said it before, but the layers!  Oh, the layers!  I’ve read Scripture since I was a little girl, which my Protestant raising instilled in me…something I’m extremely grateful for!  But never, never have I seen the connections in this way.  The Orthodox services are dripping with Scripture.  The prayers.  The songs.  The actual readings.  The words of Scripture flow in and out and weave a story, a picture.  Perhaps I could have made those connections all by myself in a scholarly way.  Perhaps…but I didn’t.  I stand in Church today, and I am enveloped by the fullness of the Faith.  The awesomeness of the ways and plans of God.  I am struck by the “Aha!” moments of realizing what things mean, and am just as quickly struck by how much I still don’t know and never will.  God is mighty.

After the morning service, we set up a tomb in the center of the church.  It is traditional to prepare an area in the church where a large, cloth icon shroud of the dead Christ can be displayed.  In Greek, it is called an epitaphios.  Depending on the ethnic tradition, this tomb is constructed in different ways.  In the afternoon, we have Vespers.  No service with Communion today, for this is the day of the Lord’s death.  During the Vespers service we pause, and Father comes out to remove the icon of Christ from the cross.

At night, we return for Lamentations.  The rain has been nearly incessant this week, but it blessedly pauses for us to process around the outside of the church with the shroud.  We sing the familiar prayer to the Holy Trinity, this time in the tune reserved for funerals:

Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal have mercy us!

We are at a funeral.  Christ is dead.  We lay Him in the tomb.  However, there is still a hint of brightness to this service.  As we mourn, we also sing gently, almost in a whisper:

Do not lament Me, O Mother, seeing Me in the tomb.  The Son conceived in the womb without seed.

And then our voices rise to a thunderous shout:

For I shall arise and be glorified with eternal glory as God.  I shall exalt all who magnify you in faith and love.

Immediately after the service, someone begins to read the Psalms in front of the tomb.  The Psalms will be read continuously throughout the night and the next day.  After the Vesperal Liturgy on Holy Saturday afternoon, the reading will switch to the Acts of the Apostles, taking us up to the beginning of the service for Pascha.

Finally this day, we take advantage of the fact that we live in an area overflowing with Orthodox churches.  Many local parishes (usually the ones of Slavic descent) also have someone keep vigil by their tombs, so the churches are open to visitors all night long.  We all get in a caravan and go what we affectionately call “tomb-hopping”.  Over the next few hours, we visit eight local parishes (including my own) : St. Innocent Orthodox Church, Olmsted Falls, OH; St. Matthew the Evangelist Antiochian Orthodox Church, North Royalton, OH; Archangel Michael Orthodox Church, Broadview Heights, OH; St. Sava Serbian Orthodox Church, Broadview Heights, OH; St. Sava Serbian Orthodox Cathedral, Parma, OH;  Holy Trinity Orthodox Church, Parma, OH; St. Sergius Russian Orthodox Cathedral, Parma, OH; and St. Theodosius Orthodox Cathedral, Cleveland, OH.

It is our unity in the Faith that makes my heart swell this night.  All the Orthodox Christians wait by the tomb this night.  And this year, we share the same date as the Western churches’ Easter, so we join with them in vigil as well.  The world is waiting.  In the darkness, we pause and contemplate this unimaginable event.  It seems so impossible that God would become man and die.  Absolutely mind-boggling impossible.  But there are even more impossible things to come…

As we’ve been traveling around to the different tombs, we pause at several of them to sing the song whose lyrics are printed around the edges of the shrouds:

The Noble Joseph, when he had taken down Your most pure body from the tree, wrapped it in fine linen, and anointed it with spices, and placed it in a new tomb.

As we sing for the last time, lightning flashes outside the windows of the cathedral we’re visiting.  The heavens open and torrential rain pours from the sky.  We all get drenched to the bone running back to our cars.  Even the heavens weep this day.  Even the heavens…

Holy Week Journal: Holy Thursday

No morning service today.  Poor Lonna stayed home from school sick.  We took advantage of a slow morning.  We’ve been limping through the week school-wise, trying to still get the basics in.  After today, though, we’ll take off until next Tuesday.

We prayed the Canon to the Lord for a Sick Child for Lonna, and anointed her with oil.  She has been suffering from a bad cold-like virus for the last few days.

In the afternoon, we went on a nature walk.  I had vowed that we would walk the same trail once a month for an entire year, tracking the progression of seasons, etc.  We never made it there in January or March, so we’re off to a horrible start!  On our February trip, it was an icy tundra, but yesterday, the signs of spring were evident.  Although it was about 42 degrees, it seemed much warmer.  There was this bright, glowing orb in the sky…I think I vaguely remember it, but it’s been so, so long since I’ve seen it…yes, I believe it’s called the sun!

The sun shone and showed off the pond swelling from spring rains.

Spring waters and buds are nice, but the real attraction was the wildlife.  This preserve is Canadian Goose Central in the spring.  Here, dozens of geese lays their eggs and hatch their young.  The air thundered with the honk…honk of the geese on water, land, and sky.  No goslings yet, but one mama for some reason built her nest out in the open by the trail, so we watched her for a bit (or was it the dad???).  Then, we were treated to bath and show off time from the rest of the crowd.

I always try to get out in nature during Holy Week.  The natural world is not separate from us.  In our modern society, where we spend most of our days indoors, we have forgotten our close ties to nature.  God is present in His Creation…all of His Creation…and by learning about the world around us, we learn more and more about God and more and more about ourselves.  Pascha is in the spring for a reason.  The parallels between the awakenings of the trees and the awakenings of our souls; the birth of baby animals and our deliverance from death; these should not be missed.

At Vesperal Liturgy in the afternoon, we remembered the Last Supper.  Also, Father put Communion in the tabernacle on the altar.  On every Orthodox altar is a container called the tabernacle.  Every year on Holy Thursday, the priest takes some of the bread and wine consecrated at the Liturgy and places it in the tabernacle.  That way, throughout the year, if someone is sick or dying and needs to take Communion right away, the gifts are there and available.  They are the body and blood of Christ, so they do not spoil or rot.  They are mystically preserved in case the need arises.

Of Your Mystical Supper, O Son of God, accept me today, as a Communicant.  For I will not speak of Your mysteries to Your enemies, neither like Judas will I give You a kiss, but like the thief will I confess You, Remember me, O Lord, in Your Kingdom.

Lonna felt better by evening, and we all returned in the evening for the service of The Twelve Passion Gospels.  Remember, Orthodox liturgical time runs from evening to evening, not morning to morning, so this is a service for Holy Friday.  My first year as Orthodox, the whole week was jolting and seemed off kilter.  It just seemed wrong to remember things on the “wrong” day.  Now, though, I enjoy this wise arrangement. On Thursday night, we remember the Crucifixion.  Your heart contemplates the mysteries of the events all throughout your sleep, and when you wake up Friday morning, it is fresh in your mind.  You go through the day already in remembrance, rather than living a day and then only talking about it at its conclusion.

Today He Who hung the earth on the waters is hung upon the tree.  The King of the angels is decked with a crown of thorns.  He Who wraps the heavens with clouds is wrapped in the purple of mockery.  He Who freed Adam in the Jordan is slapped on the face.  The Bridegroom of the Church is affixed to the Cross with nails.  The Son of the Virgin is pierced by a spear.  We worship Your passion, O Christ.  We worship Your passion, O Christ.  We worship Your passion, O Christ.  Show us also Your glorious Resurrection.

15th Antiphon— The Twelve Passion Gospels

This service is one of layers.  The accounts of the Passion in all four Gospels are read in one service.  In between each of the twelve readings, we sing about what we’ve read.  There’s one layer.  And then another.  And then another.

Midway through, the clergy come out from behind the altar carrying a life-size icon of Christ, as well as a cross.  They lay Christ on the cross and nail Him to it.

The sound of the rock hitting the nail pierces the air in the room.  My breath catches in my throat.  They raise up the cross, and we all come forward to prostrate before it and kiss the feet of the Lord.

By the end of the service, I cannot explain the feelings.  All I can say is that I truly feel.  They crucified Christ.  They spit on and slapped Him.  They killed the King.  And I am the one to blame…

As I lay down in bed on Holy Thursday, I mourn.  The Lord is dead.  Indeed, the anticipation of Resurrection is in the air.  It’s not a mysterious ending to this story.  We all know what happens in the final act of the play.  But today, today is not a day to celebrate.  It is not a day to jump ahead.  I try to live like the Apostles of Jesus who did not understand what was happening at the time.  I try to stand beside that Cross in misery.  Christ is dead.  Let the whole world weep.

The most memorable song of The Twelve Gospels service refers to the thieves crucified alongside Christ.  One jeers at the Lord, but the other sees that this man beside him is not just any man.  He utters the words on my lips as I drift off to sleep, “Remember me, O Lord, in Your Kingdom”.

The wise thief, You made worthy of Paradise, in a single moment, O Lord.  By the wood of Your Cross illumine me as well, and save me.

Holy Week Journal: Holy Wednesday

The last Presanctified Liturgy this morning and the last Bridegroom Matins this evening.  The week feels like it is barreling by at light speed.  I want to slow it down and hold onto these moments in some way.  I want to be free enough of my ties to the world that time doesn’t matter anymore anyway.

In the afternoon, we also had the service of Holy Unction.  As one of the Sacraments of the Church, Unction is a time where we encounter the grace of God.  Specifically in Unction, we are seeking God’s healing.

The service is a series of Epistle readings, followed by Gospel readings.  Seven readings total of each.  The Scripture passages refer to stories of healing…body and spirit.  At the end of the service, we are all anointed with the Holy Oil of Unction.

During the Gospel readings, the priest turns to the faithful, and we crowd around him.  Those in front kneel down, and he places his stole on their heads.  The rest of the people touch the shoulder of the person in front of them, so that we are all physically linked, forming one, unified prayer.

The beauty of the Unction service is twofold to me.  First, is that unity.  Whether we are close friends or not, all of us in the parish are joined in Christ.  We are all one body, and saved in community, we need each other.  Sometimes that isn’t so obvious, but when we join together in Unction, laying aside our pride and huddling close just to touch and hear the Gospel, we are unashamed to admit that we need healing.  For that is the second beauty.  Unction isn’t just about healing of bodies.  Everybody needs healing, even if their bodies aren’t sick.  We all need healing of our souls.

I know about sickness of body.  The short story is that I have had over a dozen different interventions/surgeries for cardiac problems in as many years (I think it is: five catheterization procedures for arrhythmia, three pacemaker surgeries, six catheterizations/angioplasties for the damage done to my pulmonary veins from the first procedures, and open heart surgery for valve repair).  It is a roller coaster I ride between health and sickness.  I am in a blessed time of relative stability right now.  I have the usual complaints, but no emergencies, so therefore, I have no complaints.

I do pray for healing of my body at Unction.  I do believe that it is possible.  How small and simple my problems are in the face of the healing power of God!  I could be healed.  But I haven’t been yet…and that’s O.K.

Bodies are important.  As temples of the Holy Spirit, they are to be valued.  Orthodox treat the body with the ultimate respect.  We do not believe in cremation of the dead.  We treasure the relics of our Saints.  It is not that the chip of bone or tissue is a magic wand, but when someone devotes their lives to God, the grace and holiness does not just disappear at death.  It clings to the body and is still able to be shared with others.  Bodies are not disposable shells.

However, bodies are temporary.  Any suffering in them is brief and momentary.  It sure may seem like eternity sometimes, but it isn’t!  These times that I suffer, they are so short.  It is not my worry to rid myself of them.  It is my opportunity to make the most of this suffering.

We have had a baby explosion recently at church.  Newborns everywhere.  I also went to an Orthodox homeschooling conference and was surrounded by mothers with multiple small children.  Most of the time, I succeed in not thinking about what I cannot do.  I craft my life in a carefully designed web of accommodations.  I can do this on this day, but not if I do that.  I can bear with this, but not that.  Etc., etc.

But lately, I’ve come face to face with what I cannot do.  Namely, that I cannot have anymore children.  I still call almost six year old Hilary the baby, much to her chagrin, but when I see babies, I know how false that is.  And it’s not that I even actually want a baby.  I really don’t think that I do.  Newborns are so lovely…but I’m not sure I want one in my house, ya know?  Seeing nursing mothers, though, makes me think about the day I had to suddenly and unexpectedly ween Hilary when she was sixteen months old, so I could prepare for open heart surgery.  Seeing mothers with toddlers on their hips make me think about when Hilary would cry for me to pick her up, and I couldn’t.  I thought that was the worst agony possible.  I was wrong.  The day she stopped bothering to ask was much, much worse.  I didn’t get to live my “dream” baby experience with Hilary.  The one who had been my second chance.  And now, I never will.

So, I had a bit of a pity party for myself, and then, I fell down before God in compunction.  I’m not living a dream…glory to God!  I’m living a real and authentic life of suffering, and I’ve never been more grateful than at this moment.  Would I realize how much I need God if I hadn’t closed my eyes and thought they might never open again?  Would I feel the depths of joy in the Light if I hadn’t waded through the darkness of pain?  Would I recognize God, if I hadn’t had reason to look for His face?

I don’t think so.  I don’t think I would appreciate life…and death…if I hadn’t been through the suffering.  I am beyond thankful for a lifetime of graces and mercies, but each and every day, if you ask me what I’m most thankful for, I will not hesitate to tell you: I am thankful that I have suffered.  For in the suffering, I have seen God.

During Unction on Holy Wednesday, I prayed for my body, but I spent most of my time praying for my soul.  Bodies are temporary.  Souls are eternal.  Heal my body if it is Your will, O Lord, but if it isn’t, please give me the strength to bear the suffering.  In all things, though, Lord, heal my sins…heal my soul.  The brokenness.  The sickness.  The wretchedness of the infirmity of my soul.  That is the healing I seek.  Heal me, Lord.  Heal me…

Holy Week Journal: Holy Tuesday

Same schedule as yesterday…Presanctified Liturgy in the morning and Bridegrooms Matins at night.  I’ve officially lost track of what day it is…and it’s wonderful!  I love this chance to live a life based around multiple services a day.  Pray, work, pray, work, pray, sleep.  The pattern on which every day should be based, whether it’s a “special” time or not.  But sometimes it is tough to keep to the pattern without that external call from a scheduled service.  When the day’s pattern is fully up to me, it’s far too easy get out of the rhythm.

During Lent, we say the Prayer of St. Ephraim over and over.  It is prescribed hundreds of times throughout the Lenten season.

O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, despair, lust of power and idle talk.

Cross myself, fall to the floor on my knees, make a prostration by touching my forehead to the ground, and stand back up.

But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love unto me, Your servant.

Prostrate again with my body and concentrate on doing the same with every corner of my soul.

Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own transgressions, and not to judge my brother, for blessed are You unto ages of ages.  Amen.

Prostrate one more time and mentally beat my head on the floor extra hard for that one.  How tempting it is to judge others.  To look.  To assume.  To harden.

I adore Presanctified Liturgy.  It is such a participatory service.  Granted, all Orthodox services demand the participation of the faithful.  We are not there to observe.  We are there to offer all of our hearts and bodies to Christ.  Love is not a word or state of mind.  It is an action.

Presanctified, though, the special Liturgy that we serve on weekdays during Lent, calls for even more participation.  We prostrate as we sing the words, “Let my prayer arise in Your sight as incense, and let the lifting up of my hands be an evening sacrifice.”  We prostrate again during the Prayer of St. Ephraim.  We prostrate again as the priest comes out from the altar with a candle and proclaims, “The light of Christ illumines all men.”  We prostrate again during the Entrance, silent and still as the priest carries the gifts of bread and wine, already sanctified on Sunday and now the body and blood of Christ.  We prostrate again for the Prayer of St. Ephraim a second time.

We have fasted for weeks.  We have put our bodies through paces and workouts in long services filled with prostrations.  We have felt hunger.  We have felt sore legs and tired feet.  We have told our bodies, “No”, so that one day, when the temptation of sin comes, we will have the strength to say, “I’ve been here before, and now…now I have the strength to say ‘No’ again.”

When I prostrate in church, sometimes I admit that I’m more focused at that moment on not tripping on my skirt when I stand up than on some deep and profound moment before the Lord.  Sometimes, unfortunately, it’s just something done out of habit.  At those times, I always try to look at little five year old Hilary.  Whenever she prostrates, she does not go down on her knees.  Instead, she lays down on her stomach and spreads her arms and legs out completely.  Fully down.  Fully exposed.  Fully open before God.

I guarantee you that no one wants to see ME actually do that in church, so I’m not tempted to replicate her physical action.  However, I want to be just like that in my heart.  Fully down.  Fully exposed.  Fully open before the King of All.  I lay all of me before You, Lord.  There is nothing I could hide even if I wanted to.  I fall down before You, Lord.  There is nothing I can do without You, nor do I want to.  Blessed are You, O Lord, teach me Your statutes.  Blessed are You, O Master, make me to understand Your commandments.  Blessed are You, O Holy One, enlighten me with Your precepts.  Blessed are You, O Lord.  I bow down before You…body…mind…and soul.

Holy Week Journal: Holy Monday

Behold, the Bridegroom comes at midnight.  And blessed is the servant whom He shall find watching.  And again, unworthy is the servant whom He shall find heedless.  Beware, therefore, O my soul, do not be weighed down with sleep, lest you be given up to death and lest you be shut out of the Kingdom.  But rouse yourself crying: Holy, Holy, Holy are You, O our God!  Through the Theotokos have mercy on us!

Troparion (Bridegroom Matins)

Bridegroom Matins is one of those services that just gets under your skin.  The melodies, the words, the Scripture…all of it lifts up that tough exterior layer and crawls in deep.

On Holy Monday, we went to Presanctified Liturgy in the morning and Bridegroom Matins at night.  The Matins service was for Holy Tuesday, so we remembered the parable of Christ that gives the service its name.

Ten virgins went to a wedding feast.  Five were wise and came prepared with enough oil for their lamps.  Five, however, were foolish, and their lamps went out.  The Bridegroom was delayed, and the foolish virgins scurried to buy more oil, but while they were away, the Bridegroom returned.  They were shut out of the wedding feast.

A continuation of the theme for Holy Monday, this parable reminds us that we cannot rest on our Christian laurels.  It is not enough to just bear the Christian name.  We must fill our lamps with the oil of virtue; the flame of good works.  More of that bearing fruit idea that we heard in the story of the withered fig tree.

It is so fitting that in Orthodoxy, we call the Christian life a struggle.  It isn’t easy.  When left to our own devices, humans will run home to what is comfortable; what is familiar.  It is sin that we drift toward if we are not vigilant.  Sometimes it rears its ugly head in dramatic fashion, but more often then not, sin is a quiet slither and a hushed word.  It dims and darkens the light with such sneakiness that before we know it, the lamp flickers and flutters and goes out.  We must always struggle against this tendency.  We must always meet sin head on.  For there is another, greater element of human nature…goodness.

Sin is not just an action, it is an event.  Sin separates us from God with a wall that climbs higher brick by brick.  Sometimes it’s a thin wall, one more of laziness than deliberate action.  But sometimes, the wall is thick, sealed and strengthened with years of hard work on our part.  It is I who draw back from God.  He never backs down from me.  If there is a wall, then I am the one who mixes the mortar and lays the brick.  Sin came into the world and caused a separation, but that barrier is no more.  Christ is risen from the dead!  Any separation between me and God now is of my own making.

But how can this be?  How can God want a relationship with me?  How can I, the chief of sinners, be one who He desires?  One, who as part of the Church, is the Bride for this Holy Bridegroom?

Your bridal chamber I see adorned, O my Savior, and I have no wedding garment that I may enter.  O Giver of Light, enlighten the vesture of my soul, and save me.

Exapostelarion (Bridegroom Matins)

In Baptism, we are given our wedding garment.  It is a white and brilliant garment.  The purity of Christ.  No sin.  No darkness.  No death.  Just life.  Sometimes I look at myself and my wedding garment.  There’s the spot where I drug the hem in the mud.  There’s the corner that got caught and pulled and ripped.  There’s a gaping hole in one spot.  A general dinginess to the whole thing.  Hardly fit for a wedding feast.

The virtuous life is a struggle, but it is not a battle to fight alone.  As it says in the Psalms over and over and over…God is my helper.  He’s not going to make the struggle disappear and make life easy and calm and uneventful, but He’s also never going to stop being my helper.  The word “help” implies, though, that I have to do my part.  I struggle and God helps.  I go forward and never look back.

In the early days of Holy Week, we are warned of what can happen if we do not renounce our sin and seek God.  It is a well-deserved warning.  But also, we must remember that with the warning is an invitation.  We are invited to the wedding banquet.  We are invited to become one with God right here and now.  The Kingdom is coming.  The Kingdom is here.

Daily, I work out my salvation with fear and trembling.  I strive to be with God.  To live in Him.  Not to be good or good enough..but to be of God.  Speak words of God.  Think thoughts of God.  Grow and nurture and preserve a heart of God.  Wake up lazy soul!  The Bridegroom is coming!  Let us prepare for the Feast.

You are more beautiful than all men, O Bridegroom.  You have invited us to the spiritual banquet of Your bridal chamber.  Strip me of the ugly garment of my sins, as I participate in Your passion.  Adorn me in the glorious robe of Your beauty, that proclaims me a guest in Your Kingdom, O merciful Lord.

Aposticha (Bridegroom Matins for Holy Tuesday)

Holy Week Journal: Palm Sunday

Palm Sunday has a festive atmosphere.  A foretaste.  A mini-Pascha.  Hilary eagerly grabbed her palm branch and prepared for the service.  At my parish, we tie bells to all the palms and wave them throughout the entire service, especially whenever we sing, “Hosanna in the Highest!  Blessed is He that comes in the name of the Lord!”.  The tiny bells tinkle, and some parishioners bring larger bells to add to the noise.  I made Hilary a necklace of a large bell, but she was shy to ring it.

The bells rang and the palms gently swished.  It sounded like a sandy beach in the tropics somewhere.  We needed the thought of warmth!  I had been hoping all month that Pascha coming late this year, would give us a better chance of a warm Holy Week.  I guess it is true that we did have a chance…we also had a chance that it would be low 40’s and windy, which is what we got!

At the end of the service, we processed around the church, the cross of Christ leading the way.  Such a striking image.  Christ, coming as the suffering servant on a foal, at one moment a King being welcomed, and at the same moment the crucified Lord.

Palm Sunday leaves us uplifted and encouraged for the week ahead.  We went home, and I replaced last year’s palms in the icon corners with new ones.  I am always so struck by the beauty of Orthodoxy in these moments.  The Traditions of the Church and the smaller traditions of the cultures who have preserved the Faith for two thousand years are so meaningful.  We are not outsiders to these events.  We are not remembering some historical occurance a long, long time ago.  We are living the celebration in Jerusalem right now at this moment.  We are letting go of our sad little perceptions of human time and opening our hearts to yesterday, today and forever.

On Palm Sunday, the fast is modified, so we enjoyed a fish dinner.  Then, it was time for Bridegroom Matins.  Oh, Bridegroom Matins!  This service that is only served four times a year is one of those that never leaves you.  I’ll still be humming the hymns in November.

This week, we’re also required to lose our perceptions of time even more.  The liturgical day begins at Vespers the night before.  Night to night.  Not morning to morning.  So, on Sunday night, the service is for Monday, not Sunday.

So, on Palm Sunday night, we switch gears with Bridegroom Matins…a service for Holy Monday.  On Holy Monday, we remember the cursing of the fig tree.  It isn’t all about celebrating.  Our relationship with God can’t be one emotional high to another.  We have to show in how we live our lives that it is no longer us, but God.  We have to bear fruit.

As my priest said, we must always remember the difference between leaves and fruit.  Attending services, saying our prayers, fasting…those are leaves.  Leaves are important.  You gotta have leaves.  But these are not the goal of the Christian life.  They are the means to the end, and the end is a drawing near to God.  If attending a thousand services and reciting a million prayers still leaves me cold, bitter, and self-absorbed, it was all just a waste of time.  The fruit of the Spirit, that is what has to come after the leaves have budded.  Joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, and love…always love…must be present in our lives as Christians.

If we want to celebrate with Christ at the Triumphal Entry, we have to be willing to follow Him through this week.  The tide is turning.  He will no longer be welcomed.  He will be reviled and persecuted and finally killed.  It is a long walk we still have to go.  This is only the beginning.

Holy Week Journal: Lazarus Saturday

Lent ends with Lazarus Saturday and Holy Week begins.  I so identify with Lazarus.  I have definitely felt four days dead on many occasion!  I have also felt a bit like he looks in the icon.  There he comes out of the tomb, waddling in his grave clothes, looking a little unsure whether this rising from the dead thing is actually a good idea.  Sometimes it’s easier to just stay dead.

On this day, it is a Greek tradition to bake a sweet bread in the shape of Lazarus in his grave clothes called Lazarakia.  I have tried to make the tradtional Lazarakia twice.  Both years, the results were far from spectacular.  I think I know what I did wrong both times, but I think my main problem is that I don’t have a strong Greek Yiayia to show me how its done!

So, this year, I took the inspiration of Lazarakia and did my own non-ethnic version.  An ode to Lazarakia…in sugar cookie.

Definitely not traditional, but these guys were a hit after Liturgy this morning.  Granted, they were slightly creepy looking, but that was part of their charm!

After Liturgy, we decorated the church with palms.  The last few years, we have had several palm disasters.  There was the year they looked so lush and perfect on Saturday, and then when we came in Sunday morning, they had shriveled up into nothing.  We had to take them down, because they were a fire hazard.  Last year, there was a palm shortage, and what we could get from the florist was far less than what we needed.  It almost got a little ugly when there weren’t enough to go around!

This year, the palms were abundant.  Such a wonderful thing.  We strung bells on ribbon and tied them around groups of the palm branches.  Tomorrow, everyone in the parish will get a palm to wave throughout the service.  The tinkling of the bells and the swoosh of the palms will fill the air.  We also folded individual pieces of the palms into crosses for the parishioners to take home and add to their icon corners.

At tonight’s Vespers service, we sang of Lazarus and the Triumphal Entry.  Holy Week has a pair of resurrection bookends.  We begin with today’s resurrection of Lazarus.  We’ll end the week with the Resurrection of Christ.  So much will come in between.  The same people who cried, “Hosanna in the Highest!” also shouted “Crucify Him!’ just days apart.  It is amazing how quickly the human heart drifts, wavers, changes, and transforms.  Amazing that it’s possible, and so convicting to me.  Back and forth.  Extreme to extreme.  I can see this in my own life.  Lips filled with prayer one moment are dripping with angry words the next.  A heart brimming with warm, fuzzy love on one day is a dark, brooding cauldron of selfishness the next.  Like I said…sometimes it’s easier to just stay dead.

But in Christ, we are not dead.  We are a new creation.  The darkness.  The tomb.  The grave clothes.  They’re gone.  We are alive in Christ.  If we choose to stay dead, then it’s just that…our choice.  Christ calls to us to come forth from the tomb.  To take off the binding entrapment of this life that keeps us wrapped up in the path that leads only to death.  Even if we’re really, really dead…four days dead…stinking up the place and beyond the help of anyone anywhere, Christ can make us live again.  He promises us that indeed He is the Resurrection and the Life.

So, we begin this week that is outside of normal time and space.  We enter into the last days of the life of Christ.  The Church provides a carefully and artfully crafted series of services that lay out the truths of the Faith.  Layer upon layer, each day adds to the story, creating a beautiful portrait of the love of God.

I am so blessed and grateful that God willing, I will be able to take advantage of the nineteen services offered at my parish from Lazarus Saturday to Pascha.  Nineteen chances to stand in church.  Nineteen chances to hear and smell and feel the layers.  School and work commitments will only allow Lonna and my husband to attend certain services.  Homeschooling enables Jared, Hilary, and I to attend all of them.  In years past, Hilary didn’t really complain much about church.  She’s used to going to Sunday Liturgy, Saturday Vespers, and Wednesday Liturgy.  A few more didn’t seem to rock her boat too much.  This Lent, though, when the two additional services on Fridays started, she began to show some strain.  I think her developing mind is realizing just how much time is involved with these extra services.  She’s constantly asking, “How many times do we have to go to church today?”  “How many times tomorrow?”  Dear child, this is not the week to get fed up with church!  I want to do everything I can to help her enjoy this time and not see it as a burden.  First off, I’m playing around with an idea to help her have a tangible way to grasp the number of the services.

I took our Resurrection icon and laid it on a wire floral frame.  I am in the process of crocheting nineteen flowers and a whole bunch of leaves.  Every time we go to a service, Hilary can add a flower to the frame.  On Pascha, we’ll have a fully decorated floral icon to display throughout the Paschal season.  I’m still working out the logistics and will probably make adjustments, but I let her add two flowers today.

I have no idea of knowing if we’ll actually be able to go to all the services.  Anything could happen, and besides…it’s not a contest.  But the opportunity is there, so it our goal to take advantage of the opportunity if we’re able.  Regardless, I try to make all the children realize that this is a week to slow down and pray.  This is not just any other time.  We will acknowledge that in the way we live our lives.  This week will be different.  We’ll pray in church as much as we’re able.  We’ll pray at home and in every moment everywhere.  We’ll focus our fasting and limit distractions.  Shaking off the grave clothes, we’ll wiggle our way one day at a time out of the darkness and with the freshness of spring birth, we’ll step boldly into the Light.

Upcoming Holy Week Journal

How can Lent be ending?  It has flashed by at record speed.  I have that tugging feeling that I didn’t “do” enough, while knowing that it isn’t about “doing” at all.  I didn’t be still enough.  I didn’t breathe enough.  I lived through Lent.  I didn’t let Lent live in me.

So, this week I’ve been treasuring the last moments and soaking up every bit of peace that  I can.  But here we are at the end.  Hilary took Friday’s door off our Lenten Calendar today, so next is #8…Lazarus Saturday.  Holy Week stretches before us.  Now, more than ever, it’s time to enter in and just BE.  Live the last week of Christ.  Wait by the tomb.  Welcome the Resurrection.  It is time.

Normally, I keep computer use to a bare minimum during Holy Week, and I definitely plan on avoiding the frivolous use of electronics.  However, I am going to be doing a blogging journal of Holy Week.  Each day, I’m going to post pictures and thoughts about the services, our family’s traditions, and the journey of the heart to Pascha.  If you’re online starting tomorrow, please stop by.  If you know any non-Orthodox who are interested in what we do, please tell them!  I pray I will accurately share what it means to live the Orthodox Faith in this central time of the year.

Wishing you a blessed remainder of the Lenten season!