The Experience of Holy Week

Every so often, my habit of scrupulously proofreading my e-mails gets me into trouble. Last winter, when we were in the thick of planning this year's Sacred Music Institute, our director Paul asked for Holy Week pieces we use at our parishes. I ignored the first request, because I consider myself the low man on the totem pole in a field full of professional musicians and lifelong Orthodox. But when he started to shake the bushes again, I sent him a few of my favorites, along with a paragraph about each hymn explaining why it was significant to me.

He never responded, so I figured he had enough pieces and didn't need mine. But when the schedule came out months later, I was shocked to see my name next to the first General Session, called "The Experience of Holy Week." I asked him what in the world he wanted me to say. "Oh," he said, "Remember that great e-mail you wrote me a while back? I want to hear more of that." 

The journey from e-mail to lecture was a strange one. With every paragraph, I wondered whether what I had to say would be useful or even interesting to the highly-qualified audience of the SMI. Eventually I just had to say a prayer that God would use my words, and then re-read and re-edit it again. (the final edit took place on the drive there. Thanks, Mom!) 

Since I was hoping only not to embarrass myself and / or put my audience to sleep, I was surprised and humbled by the reaction to my story. It's not an amazing story, but I think that people were able to relate it to their own experiences of Holy Week -- family and friends, priests and choirs, struggles and joys -- and thus my story became theirs. Ours. Several of my friends asked for a copy, so I'm posting it below. Glory to God.


Like most American children, I can think of few mornings in my childhood that were more exciting than Christmas. We couldn't go to sleep. We were up long before the lazy winter sun. Sometimes I even woke in the middle of the night, padding softly downstairs to stare at the tree and presents and mysteriously bulging stockings, wondering what marvels awaited when the wrappings and ribbons lay in piles all around us later that morning.

I recall vividly the first Christmas I felt disappointed after all the hubbub was over. I sat among my gifts, lovingly chosen and painstakingly disguised by my family and friends, and I felt an unmistakable sense of letdown: my anticipation had been so huge that nothing, not even the coveted kitten (which I never received, by the way) could have matched it. That year I realized a crucial fact: opening the presents wasn't the best part. Waiting for them was. Knowing that my parents had picked something out just for me, wrapped it beautifully, and couldn’t wait for me to enjoy it – that was the gift: the anticipation itself.

As my family moved through our catechesis on our journey back home to Orthodoxy, we were thrilled to learn that the central focus of the church year was not Christmas, but the Resurrection. Our first Lent passed in a blur of evening services and French fries, and every other minute someone else was saying, "Pascha is coming. You won't believe how beautiful it is. Just wait." We waited. And it was beautiful, too beautiful for words. I understood why the church rubrics call for the Paschal services to be repeated every day of Bright Week: we just can't get enough of them.

But even here, there was a year when I remember being disappointed on Pascha. The choir wasn't quite as beautiful as I remembered. The Liturgy was longer. My feet hurt more. Somehow, the sum of the days and weeks we had spent preparing for the Feast of Feasts seemed greater than the Day of Resurrection itself.

And so, gradually, I returned to the lesson of my childhood: I learned to value each moment of the anticipation as an end in itself. Incredibly, while we have prepared so thoroughly for Pascha -- spiritually, emotionally, physically, musically -- once we get to Holy Week, time itself seems suspended so that it doesn't even matter if we reach the end. For weeks I'm counting the days, and then suddenly I'm thinking, "This is enough. If we never make it to Pascha, I'm happy to stay right here." The waiting itself is a joy.

I passed through our first Holy Week in a daze. I remember only bits and pieces: our priest nailing the icon of Christ to the cross, my little sister clutching her friend and sobbing with each blow. Endless rehearsals of pieces we would only sing once, our director trying to place each one in context for the newbies. A floor littered with what looked suspiciously like yard waste. And every moment of every service, a new mystery opened before us, stunning in scope, awe-inspiring in depth. We were driven, literally, to our knees, over and over again. That aspect of the experience, thank God, has never changed. Each year I am humbled and overwhelmed anew by the magnitude of this living, breathing, all-powerful Gospel story.

Holy Week is actually an eight-day week (undoubtedly this is where Paul McCartney got the idea) that stretches from Friday evening to the following Saturday. We all know what kind of a marathon to expect: at our parish there are fifteen services, totaling about thirty-two hours – the equivalent of one week of work in some European countries. It is a blitz, and yet, it is our blitz. We are to learn and see as much as possible.

Fr. Thomas Hopko puts it beautifully: “During these days of Holy Week, we should lay everything aside . . . we should even lay aside our own sins, our own personal repentance, our own problems, our own difficulties, our own diseases, our own pain – and try to open ourselves, as much as we can . . . our eyes wide open, our ears wide open, our attention totally fixed on the events that happen and are given to us in these church services. And if we do that, we will enter into the greatest mystery of human life: the mystery of God himself with us human creatures.”

At that first Holy Week service on Friday night, the Canon of St. Lazarus the Righteous, the Lenten focus on personal penitence is indeed gone. In its place is something so raw and visceral it almost passes for arrogance. Listen to these words from the Canon, in which the enemies of this world and the next commiserate about their plight:

"Woe is me! Now am I destroyed utterly," Hell cried out, and thus he spoke to Death, "See, the man from Nazareth has shaken the lower world, and cutting open my belly he has called a lifeless corpse and raised it up."

Later, Hell speaks directly to Lazarus himself, imploring him three times to depart:

"I implore thee, Lazarus," said Hell, "Rise up, depart quickly from my bonds and be gone. It is better for me to lament bitterly for the loss of one, rather than of all those whom I swallowed in my hunger."

Then: "Why dost thou delay, Lazarus?" cried Hell. "Thy Friend stands calling to thee: 'Come out.' Go, then, and I too shall feel relief. For since I swallowed thee, all other food is loathsome to me."

Finally: "O Lazarus, why dost thou not rise up swiftly?" cried Hell below, lamenting. "Why dost thou not run straightway from this place? Lest Christ take prisoner the others, after raising thee."

Death itself appears quite confused by the presence of the Lord. Why is this man giving me so much trouble? He wonders. And who is his Friend, Who calls him back with such authority? And, perhaps the toughest question of all, with which we all struggle: why are some allowed to live and others taken from us? We just don’t know. And yet we sing, over and over, “Glory to Thee, our God; glory to Thee.”

We celebrate Lazarus’ rising with Matins and Liturgy the next morning, and that evening and the next morning we commemorate the entrance of Our Lord into Jerusalem. I will confess to several spontaneous language tweaks over the years, when I saw the phrase and thought, “I just can’t sing this out loud with my mother in the room,” but the fact of the matter is, he chose an ass for a reason: it represents the basest creature imaginable, especially in the Jewish tradition, and yet the creator of the world humbled himself enough to sit on one. On this day we join the ancient people of Jerusalem in a procession outside of time, walking around the church with branches as we sing a beautiful hymn to a traditional Middle Eastern melody.

Ah, that traditional Middle Eastern melody. Let me just say that it was not easy for this white girl to learn. The rhythm is tricky: runs of sixteenth notes twirl around the plodding, relentless thump of each beat. The chromatic melody plummets spectacularly into the gutter and needs to be re-pitched about every four verses. Meanwhile, the children are gathering in an unruly mass, so eager for the procession that – despite the repeated pleadings of our priest – some are engaging in the ancient practice of palm fencing.

But what a beautiful struggle! We are strengthened in the knowledge that this service unites us with believers all around the world. It is one of the mysteries of our faith, how people from such different backgrounds and traditions can be united in the practice of worship. My friend Saydeh grew up in a village southeast of Tripoli; she has seen horrors I can’t even imagine, but she has also known what it is to cling to the Church in the face of these horrors. While many in the West consider Lent some kind of punishment, she says firmly, “Lent is a joy.” She tells me about the bells that ring at 5:00 every evening, summoning the faithful to Great Compline. Every man, woman and child answers their call, some walking all the way in bare feet to honor vows they have made. The prayers give way to a back-thumping, cheek-kissing buzz outside after the service, everyone echoing the wish, “May God strengthen you. May you have a good fast.” For weeks, they hold each other up like a long line of dancers with their arms linked. And then, on the day before Lazarus Saturday, schools and businesses close and the villagers swarm the wheat fields and gather bunches of tiny wildflowers, armfuls of dark pink blooms to lay on the graves of their loved ones as a reminder that Christ raised Lazarus and thus established hope for all of us. “We are simple people,” she said to me. “We want to hear the stories; we want to live them out.” They sing ‘Rejoice, O Bethany’ all weekend long, telling the story of Lazarus, the human response of grief and the Divine mercy of resurrection. And next to this kind of history, I see the truth and I am not sorry it took this long to learn the piece. It’s not supposed to be easy; it’s supposed to change me. And it does, every single year.

Listen to the story, told with beautiful urgency with the rich, ornate melody: “When Martha went to receive Him, grieving loudly with bitter tears, she poured out the sorrow of her heart to Him with great sadness, wailing her lament. She at once cried out unto Him: ‘My most compassionate Lord, my Lord, at the great loss of my brother Lazarus, my heart is broken, help me.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Cease your weeping; cease your grieving and sad lament; for your brother, My most beloved friend, Lazarus, very soon will live again.’”

So after the banners and the music and the frenzied excitement and the post-Liturgical naps followed by grilled salmon, we return to the church on Palm Sunday evening for the Bridegroom service, which is my favorite of the whole year. Okay, I say this about a lot of services, but this one is just transporting: it begins with that achingly beautiful Alleluia in Tone 8, for which I can barely hold myself together enough to chant the verses in between. Our choir knows better than to harmonize on a Byzantine hymn if I’m within glaring distance, but this is the one time all year when I find it too lovely to interfere with: it just soars above our heads, out of the church and into the sky, carrying our prayers and pain with it. Most Sundays, we’re lucky to have a dozen people at Orthros. For these three nights, we have upwards of fifty.

One of our parishioners, a Congolese convert, pulled me aside on Pascha one year and said, “Emily. What was that piece you sang this week?” I had to smile as I said, “Well, I sang a lot of pieces this week.”

“The sad one,” he kept saying, shaking his head. “So sad.” And right away I knew it was the Alleluia, even though the melody is in a major key and the words speak praise. There is a hidden agony hiding behind the lilting diatonic melody. The verses are a little unnerving, especially the last one: “Bring more evils, O Lord; bring more evils upon those who are glorious upon the earth.” If I may quote Father Hopko again, sometimes the Lord uses the evils of the world to bring us back to Himself.

This year during Lent I had the great blessing of taking a road trip with my dear friend Fr. Elias Bitar. On our way to the monastery, we talked very little – we were both tired – but we had a conversation about the Prosomia melodies. “My favorite is “I behold Thy chamber," he said. I agreed. Then he began to sing it, softly but with such great reverence that tears came to my eyes: “I behold Thy bridal chamber richly adorned, O my Savior, but I have no wedding garment to worthily enter. Delight Thou in the robe of my soul, O Giver of Light, and save me.” This man, this modern-day Job, having suffered as he had – was showing me a simple and perfect expression of salvation. God is unfathomable. We are unworthy. Somehow, He loves us anyway. Somehow, He delights in us.

After the Bridegroom services, we experience the healing power of the Cross in Holy Unction, a power that is as real as it is mysterious. A few years ago, a dear friend of mine asked for prayers for her mother, who had a tumor and was set to have surgery on Holy Friday. At her parish, the priests have a tradition of holding the Gospel Books over the heads of the infirm during each of the seven prayers. That year, they said all seven prayers over her, and at the hospital on Holy Friday, when the preliminary scan showed the tumor had completely vanished, no one was surprised in the least, except maybe her doctors. The Cross brings life and healing, though it comes at a great price to the Savior.

The morning after Unction, we gather for a Vesperal Divine Liturgy, where a familiar hymn serves as both Cherubikon and Koinonikon: “Receive me today, O Son of God, as a partaker of Thy mystical supper: for I will not speak of Thy mystery to thine enemies; neither will I give Thee a kiss as did Judas; but like the thief will I confess Thee: ‘Remember me, O Lord, in Thy kingdom.’”

At the conclusion of the service, in one of the most shockingly personal experiences of the Church, the priest kneels before each one of us and pours a stream of warm water, scented with roses, over our feet. Our feet! Let’s face it: the Lord chose a most unattractive body part. We are all a little shy about lining up shoeless, with good reason. There is so much that is strange about this ritual, and the strangeness captures our attention for a reason. Over his beautiful golden vestments, the priest ties an ordinary white towel, taking on the image of the Lord Himself. We watch him bend and pour and smile at us, a bit more slowly each time as his knees start giving him trouble, and we start to feel a bit like Simon Peter, cringing at the sight of a clergyman humbling himself to such a great degree – and simultaneously knowing without a doubt that we need it, not just on our feet but everywhere.

Suddenly, the Passion Gospels service looms large on the horizon. My mostly-convert parish had to figure its own way around three and a half hours of standing, singing, kneeling, listening and standing some more. So, years ago, when we were transitioning from Byzantine to four-part harmony, our director came across the Aposticha about a week beforehand and panicked. She’s an incredible woman – she’s also my mother – but there was no way she could teach it to the choir that quickly. So she drafted her two daughters into a tiny three-part ensemble. It was "just for this year" until we found a better solution, and then “just for one more year” until we got the choir on board, and for several more years it continued to get put on the back burner and get rescued at the last minute by the three of us. When we redid our service books a couple of years ago, we mentioned to my priest we were thinking of scrapping it, and he became very upset. Apparently we had accidentally started a tradition, and I don’t know if you know how the Orthodox feel about change? These days my sister doesn’t come to church much, so our time at the Passion Gospels service is all the more precious as we sing:

An impious and transgressing people, why do they imagine vain things? Why do they condemn to death the Life of All? O great wonder! The Creator of the World is betrayed into the hands of lawless men. He Who loves mankind is lifted up upon the wood that He might free those bound in hell, who cry: O Long-Suffering Lord, glory to Thee!

Our voices do blend well. I credit genetics, but there is something beyond that, too. Maybe a form of grace: the gift of beauty even when we don't deserve it.

We go home, come back for Hours, go home, come back for Vespers, and usually at that point we give up and stay at church until the glorious Lamentations service. These hymns, each more beautiful than the last, completely stunned us the first time we sang them in church. Someone told us, that first year, “This is the funeral Christ never had.” We marveled that a funeral could be so beautiful. The voices of children lead us in the Third Stasis: “Every generation to Thy tomb comes bringing, dear Christ, its dirge of praises.” A dirge of praise: what a beautiful contradiction.

And then, minutes later, comes the pounding rhythm of the Resurrectional Evlogetaria, when we test the limits of our old timber-and-plaster roof in an antiphonal hymn that’s really more of a shouting match: “’Wherefore, O women disciples, do ye mingle sweet-smelling spices with your tears of pity?’ the radiant angel within the sepulchre cried unto the myrrh-bearing women: Behold the grave and understand, for the Savior is risen from the tomb.” Behold the grave and understand. Truthfully, we will probably never understand, but we can grasp a little of the joy and disbelief those women must have felt on that morning.

We are feeling joyful ourselves: by the Alleluias, we are flushed and exuberant, our second wind carrying us through the hushed procession, the solemn prophecy reading and the piteous mourning of the veneration hymn, when Joseph pleads: “Give thou me this stranger Who from His youth has wandered like a stranger. Give thou me this stranger Whom his kinsmen killed in hatred like a stranger. Give me this stranger at Whom I wonder, beholding Him as a guest of death. Give me this stranger Who knoweth how to take in the poor and strangers. Give me this stranger Whom the Jews in envy estranged from the world. Give thou me this stranger that I may bury Him in a tomb, Who being a stranger hath no place whereon to lay His head.”

This powerful statement about the utter loneliness of our Savior transports us into the meditative silence of the all-night vigil by the bier. We stay until the last of the faithful has prostrated and received his flower, and even after that, when our throats are sore from singing “The Pious Joseph” for the seventy-seventh time, we stay longer. Simply put, we don’t want to leave. Some don’t. All night we read the Gospels, keeping watch with the Lord for an hour or two or six – except the choir members, who were forbidden from staying up all night after one particularly wobbly Holy Saturday liturgy. So we finally drag ourselves home for a few hours of sleep only to return the next morning, punchy and cranky and pining for a long nap and a plate of bacon.

And then, the story of the Three Holy Youths, which builds and builds until we no longer care what a sackbut is, we’re just holding our breath for the last line that leads directly into a rollicking antiphonal chant in which fire, snow, stars, wind and every aspect of nature rises up to “praise the Lord and exalt him, more and more, unto all the ages.” Riding the waves of this marching melody, we all finally wake up just in time for a tsunami of bay leaves, which stick in our hair and books and clothing and litter the floor with a fragrance that makes our eyes water. And we get to hear the Seventh Tone (which is also the best one) as we sing, over and over: Arise, O God. We are waiting, waiting for Him to rise, but every year I think, dozens of times, that if I never make it to Pascha, that’s okay. I could depart in peace right now.

Celebrating the anticipation of the Resurrection for a whole week is exhausting, and truthfully, I’m a little exhausted just thinking about it: there’s a reason we only serve the Holy Week services once a year. But it's why we're Orthodox. No one else prepares for the Resurrection like this.