In the tomb, or More thoughts from Holy Week

Christ is in the tomb.

In a very tangible, yet transcendent way, we have gone with Christ from His glorious entry to His Passion, and now…

He’s in the tomb.

On Thursday evening, we read the “12 Passion Gospels”–a dozen passages referring to His suffering and death, some from His mouth in prophecy, and others recounting the details of His betrayal and crucifixion.

We said goodbye to the sad and tender Christ in the Bridegroom Icon, His hands bound, a crown of thorns on His head, and His eyes averted. I love that icon. Something stirs within me each time I see it and it’s all I can do not to embrace the thing. I know, that sounds a little nutty.

In the midst of the 12 Passion Gospels, Fr. Isaac nailed a wooden icon of Christ to a cross, and lifted it up next to the Royal Doors. With each wack of the mallet in the darkened nave, you could hear people gasp and cry.

That’s how it should be.

I grew up with the Easter Cantata–a giant staged program complete with smoke and lights as He arose from the tomb. It was fine, and it was a good way to watch the events unfold.

But there’s nothing quite like being there yourself–which we believe, in a mystical way, happens during our services. When I venerate the wooden cross and kiss the feet of that Christ, in a way I can not explain my adoration is passed on through space and time to Him who died to free me from sin.

While our chanters sang “Him who hung the earth upon the waters is now hung upon a Cross,” and we venerated the icon of Christ on the Cross, I wept like a friend had just died. It was the strangest thing EVER. But I guess my Friend did die.

The hymns often refer to our Holy Lady Mary and the other women who followed Christ to the Cross, watching in horror as He was brutally and unjustly killed, and weeping as He was removed from the Cross. I always forgot about them before. How hard it must have been for Mary–to love Him so much, and all that time knowing, yet probably hoping it would not, this would happen. What a tremendous gift she is to us–the example of her unselfish obedience and constant love for Christ, who was fully human.

All week as I looked at the various icons of Christ I was struck by His feet–the Creator of the Universe walked on the earth, had blisters, got dirty. How much more human is there than feet?!

On Friday evening, we took Christ from the Cross, laid Him in a bier and sang funeral songs for Him. The icons of Christ in the Church were covered with black veils (making it interesting when we pray for those of us growing accustomed to having something to affix our eyes to). Then He was taken off the bier, and placed into the tomb.

He was in the tomb this morning, when 12 people joined our Church, four through the waters of Holy Baptism–dying to sin and being raised to new life in Christ. The service, which ran no less than 3.5 hours, is one of the oldest in Christian tradition, dating back centuries, if not longer. The icons were still covered, though our hymns were a little lighter, alluding to the coming Miracle.

In about eight hours, He’ll be out!

Offerings of Holy Week

Updated from yesterday, with our text of the Bridegroom hymn:

Some liturgical food for thought, from the Bridegroom Matins service for Holy Wednesday:
Kontakion–
Though I have outdone the harlot in sin, yet I have offered You no shower of tears. Rather, I fall before You fervently kissing Your spotless feet, praying silently that, as Master, You will remit my debts as I cry: “Savior, free me from the foulness of my deeds!”

And another hymn–
While the sinful woman brought oil of myrrh, the disciple came to an agreement with the transgressors. She rejoiced to pour out what was very precious, he made haste to sell the One who is above all price. She acknowledged Christ as Lord, he severed himself from the Master. She was set free, but Judas became the slave of the enemy. Grievous was his lack of love. Great was her repentance. Grant such repentance also unto me, O Savior who has suffered for our sake, and save us.

This one, the song sung throughout all the Bridegroom services, reduced me to a puddle last night. Growing up with the “sinner’s prayer,” I thought I understand the language of the primary conversion experience. This, however, paints a whole new and glorious picture of “inviting Jesus in.”

Verily I behold thy Bridal Chamber adorned, O my Savior, and I possess no wedding garment with which to enter therein. Delight Thou, in the robe of my soul, O Giver of Light, and save me.

And the thought that I won’t sing that hymn in church again until next year…sigh.

Come, and see!

To all readers: This is the second of my posts today (I know, shocking!), so look below for the other one.

To my Protestant, or non-Orthodox readers (if there are any), this is for you:

If you have ever had any kind of itch or curiousity to go to an Orthodox service, this is the time to do it. There is absolutely NOTHING on this side of Heaven that can compare to a Pascha service. So, find an Orthodox friend, or get out your phone book/visit the websites of the Orthodox churches here in America (the Antiochian Orthodox Church and the Orthodox Church of America are linked on the left). Find out what time their service is.

The Church, as the bride of Christ, eagerly awaits the appearing of our Bridegroom. We miss Him, we long to be with Him in the way we were intended. We love Him.

And on Saturday night, somewhere around midnight, we will rejoice in this His great and glorious gift of Salvation. You may find, will likely find, you have no idea what is going on, or that it’s not all in English, or that it seems like it’s something out of a National Geographic special. That’s ok. It’s like the clearest, purest, deepest river you will find.

But come on in, the water’s great!

Come forth

Well, Great Lent is officially over. We have now entered the holiest period of the year, aptly named “Holy Week.” It means 11 services over seven days, culminating in the glorious Paschal celebration at about midnight on April 30/May 1. I CANNOT WAIT!

As I’ve said before, I came into the Church last Holy Saturday by the Sacrament of Chrismation. I renounced heresies. Fr. Isaac led me into the Church, annointed me with oil, and I took my first Communion. I was told I glowed like a bride on her wedding day. The honeymoon is far from over. I still get chills thinking of that day–the waves of peace flooding my soul as I realized that, after 30 years, I was spiritually HOME, and the overwhelming sense of how blessed I was to have been captured by the Truth.

Yesterday, we celebrated Lazarus Saturday. Liturgically, mystically, we watched Christ call forth His four-days-dead friend from a tomb. We know that He calls us forth as well, our souls long-dead in sin, asking us to come forward, to meet Him, to respond.

Growing up in the altar-call churches, I always felt a great pressure to march down the aisle, to rededicate, to get right with God. It’s a good pressure to feel–we always stand in need of His mercy. But at the same time, intellectually, it didn’t make any sense to me, because in those churches, there was not lot of language about transformation. We were SAVED. Once. No need to repent any further. Sure, we could be sorry for the sins we commited, but we were supposed to stay on the path. I always felt lost in all the talk of what we were supposed to do “for” Jesus. I kind of got hung up at the very first step. I felt like I just wasn’t getting it.

I know that I stray. I know that I am prone to wander, to quote the great Protestant hymn. I always felt great guilt about that. Maybe if I believed more, maybe if I could just trust Him more, I would stay by His side. But it seemed like I never had the tools to stay there. I really, honestly, did not know how to do it, and it wasn’t for lack of effort.

In the book of Acts, St. Luke records that one of the earliest names for the followers of Christ was those who were part of “the Way.” Orthodoxy is very much the Way. It is a roadmap, a guide, a companion, and guardrails. It enables me to more clearly hear the voice of the One calling from beyond the place where I am, saying “come forth.” And it gives me the tools to respond–through Holy Communion, through Confession, through participation in the liturgies.

All those tools are available to us all the time, but no more so than during this period of our year. Today we responded with our palm branches, welcoming Him as King. And as Orthodox Christians, we prepare to enter with Him into that holiest week, to His death, and His glorious Resurrection. It is a week-long process. We remember the parable of the bridegroom and the foolish maids–unprepared for His coming. We will mourn His suffering and His death, keeping vigil at the tomb until the appointed hour, when like the myrh-bearing women, we will proclaim His resurrection to the world.

This Mystery

For my Godmother–who’s been pestering me to blog.

Tonight’s CD–St. Vladimir’s Seminary Choir singing hymns of Pascha. I think it may be close to the angelic chorus…

Earlier in the evening I was listening to an Orthodox hymn set to a very modern melody, describing in Greek the paradox of the Crucifixion. He who hung the earth among the stars hung on a Cross. The One who cannot die, died.

Please forgive the very amateur philosophy here, but I understand one of the legacies of the Reformation and the Enlightenment to be this belief that we can figure “it” out, whatever “it” is. Since that it is not the history of my Church, there’s not this hang-up over that which we cannot know. We say, with all seriousness and earnestness, it is a Mystery.

The Orthodox Church seems comfortable in paradox. We understand, as Bishop Kallistos said, it is not the job of Christianity to provide easy answers to every question, but rather “to make us progressively aware of a mystery. God is not so much the object of our knowledge as the cause of our wonder.” Or as St. Gregory of Nyssa said: “God’s name is not known. It is wondered at.”

We see some of these paradoxes in our hymns to the Theotokos–for her obedience in the Incarnation led the One who cannot be contained to be contained in her womb, the eternally begotten was born on a specific date in time.

I tend to like the plan of attack. I like to know what’s coming up so I can prepare to be spontaneous. But, of course, that’s not what life allows.

The things I try to control, those are the very things I need to let go of. The things I try to figure out, those are things I cannot figure out. It revealed itself so profoundly last year as I drew closer to chrismation–coming from a Christian “tradition” where theologies were systematized and categorized, I was flummoxed by a theology that was OK with that which cannot be explained, only believed in faith.

So in my life in this Holy Church, I ponder some of these big paradoxes, such as this notion of the Triune God, the Most High, taking on human flesh and dwelling among us, being fully man and yet fully God. Right now, two weeks from Pascha, I wait to sing about the big one, the one those seminary guys are singing about–how He trampled death by death and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!

And as I do that, I find that somehow I am able to accept or work through some of those daily paradoxes of growth that trip me up. In the boundaries of the faith I cannot understand, only express, I find great freedom.

The Original Days of Purpose

Before the Forty Days of Purpose, there was Great Lent.

Contrary to conventional wisdom in much of Western Christiandom, the early church was not overly “seeker sensitive.” Now, the early Christians were very seeker sensitive, always seeking to give an answer for the hope that was in them, but the churches, not so much. Church, in my limited understanding, never seemed to be intended to be solely an evangelistic outreach.

Rather, it existed to serve as an “ark” for the believer, a place of safety. The actual language of the church buildings indicate this—we gather not in a sanctuary, but rather in the “nave”, a word taken from nautical language. You came to church to worship God, and to be healed. But you came on God’s terms, not yours. It is the hospital where we go to be made well, and we submit to the treatments prescribed therein.

Every Sunday I am reminded of this reality, when just prior to reciting the Nicene Creed, the priest intones “The doors, the doors.” Historically, that’s the point in the service when the catechumens would leave. Because the Church taught that the bread and wine was mystically transformed into the Body and Blood of her Savior, rumors of cannibalism abounded, and gave apparent justification for persecution. So spies would sneak into services, in hopes of catching the Christians in the “act.” The Eucharist, and actually even being in the nave for Communion, was reserved for those who had submitted their lives to Christ and entered His Church.

It was so much more than walking an aisle, reading a tract, or praying a prayer. And historically in part, the spring run-up to Pascha was the time for this process to occur. It was a serious matter, and those converting spent much time in prayerful study and other disciplines. There’s a much better post about this topic over at Touchstone Magazine’s “Mere Comments” blog, but I’m going to try to sum up, and touch on a bit of my own experience as I entered the Church.

In the Didache, an early Church devotional text, those preparing for Baptism were urged to fast prior to the sacrament, which was often administered on Holy Saturday, prior to Pascha (Easter). But those that did the Baptism were also urged to fast. It was a process the community entered in together.

I was chrismated on Holy Saturday in 2004—my forehead, hands, and feet anointed with oil, as I received the seal of the Holy Spirit. My godmother was there, as were members of the congregation. I had been specifically prayed for during each Sunday service as I approached my chrismation. And while I was grateful that, in the months prior to my chrismation, the Church no longer asks catechumens to leave the service, I was even more grateful, afterward, that it was still something I was asked to take seriously, asked to pray about, study, and physically submit to.

We have a number of people preparing to join the Holy Orthodox Church in about a month, on another Holy Saturday. When Fr. Isaac prays for them during the service, I get chills, just like I do when he says “The doors, the doors.” I can’t wait for them to partake of the Divine and Life-Giving Mysteries. I can’t wait to continue together with them along this journey home.

There is often talk in much of Western Christianity of this need to be relevant, to be seeker sensitive, to give Joe and Jane American a reason to come through the doors each Sunday (or Saturday or whenever). If salvation, complete and total healing of soul, and eternal life is not enough of a reason to decide to come, I really don’t know what else it would take.

Drama on County Road 200 South

I drive a lot. And sometimes those trips present wonderful opportunities to see spiritual truths reflected in the natural world around me.

On Wednesday, I watched an enormous red tailed hawk wrestle a poor, unsuspecting squirrel off the middle of the road. As I drove up, the bird sat on the shoulder, clutching the barely dead squirrel in a taloned-foot, and glared at me with this predatory smugness. I suspect that the squirrel scurried out into the road, worried about dodging cars, and maybe didn’t notice the giant danger perched in the trees above the road.

Lent’s a hard trip, and a good wake-up call for how arduous our walk of faith is EVERY day.

I feel, this week, a lot like that squirrel. I have worried about temptation X and Y bearing down on me at a high speed from ground level, threatening to reduce me to the spiritual equivalent of a crimson stain on the pavement. But at the same time I have ignored passion Z, perched atop the trees, and eagerly waiting to devour me.

On Sunday, Fr. Isaac preached a bit on St. Gregory Palamas, who taught that, while we cannot partake of God’s Divine Essence, we can partake of His Divine Energies–His grace, His love, and His light. Then he talked again about the Ladder of Divine Ascent, and how our passions and the the devil himself seek to pull us off, trying to keep us from fulfilling our journey. But, he said, God calls out to us, cheering us on, encouraging us to keep coming towards Him, to continue to pursue Him. “Come unto me, all you who are weary” is His cry to us.

It was a good sermon, and I’m sure a topic he will revisit again during Great Lent. And I was again reminded, in a kind of parable, of the dangers around me as I watched that poor squirrel.

I need to pay more attention.