It is Holy Week for us Orthodox folks, and I feel totally peaceful for a moment. Holy Week is a big part of what drew me to Orthodoxy. Some think I’m drawn to the “glitz”, that is the incense, the candles, the icons, the vestments, but initially, that was off-putting. But I had a craving for something more…
I had vaguely heard of Holy Week services, although I could not have told you what or where, but I thought that somewhere the church was celebrating these moments, going through and commemorating the events of the Passion Week. I tried on my own to pay attention to what would have been happening in the life of Christ in that week preceeding his death, burial and resurrection, but I had a sense that it was missing that communal–something. The shared reverence, the shared expression of faith, the shared suffering, the shared joy…all of that was somehow missing, and a longing that I cannot describe came from the depths of me. I was hungry for this and yet could not find a way to satisfy this hunger.
Where did this hunger come from? Surely not from my upbringing. I’m not faulting anyone; we did as we have always done. We prepared for Easter with a cantata, a choral presentation of the story of Christ. Yet still, my heart longed for more.
Where I attended church at the time was insufficient. I have written about this previously, so I will not restate it now, but suffice it to say that the Easter service of that year, in that church was a defining moment in my life. I was done. How is it that the defining moment of our faith was not commemorated in a suitably massive way? Why weren’t we happier about it? Where was the joy? Where was the deep spiritual focus? Was it really this thing?
I did not jump easily. In fact, I secretly explored this weird Orthodox thing in Venice, Italy, the middle of a Roman Catholic city and was moved far beyond anything I could have imagined. I was particularly moved by an ancient icon of the Nativity.
It…disturbed me. Even today, the memory of that sort of empties me. It is a mystical thing that is difficult to describe adequately. Gazing at that icon I was both less and more than I felt I had ever been. It was and is holy. The prayers of hundreds, perhaps thousands, have made an impression here. The prayers of the one who wrote the icon, the blessings of priests, perhaps of bishops, it is there and it is a palpable thing.
It shook me.
This Holy Week I am similarly emptied and filled, just as I was at that museum. As I think of the path of Jesus and his disciples this week, in some ways we live this with them. The death, burial and resurrection are all too real. Glorious and humbling in the reality. There is a touch of holy in these weeks leading up to the triumphal celebration with which we will welcome the resurrection on Saturday night into Sunday morning.
At midnight, with lit candles we will circle around the church as we sing. We will gather at the church doors, our candles lit, our faces glowing as we hear the gospel reading and then begin to sing for the first time this year, “Christ is Risen from the dead! Trampling down death by death and to those in the tombs restoring life!” It is a joyous occasion, and we celebrate with song, with shouts, with bells ringing, with scripture… oh my it is glorious and my heart is so ready to drink in this celebration. How I love these people that I celebrate with! And as it happens, the same will be happening all over the world. We will be celebrating with those in our time zone, but as the celebration continues, we will continue to sing. Children will fall asleep only to waken each time we shake those bells and shout “Christ is Risen!” “Indeed He is Risen!”
In the meantime, we grow quiet inside as we pray. Many of us go through great trials at this time. It seems almost universal that great challenges arise at this time, whether illness or struggles at work, or family issues…it is difficult. I’m learning to rest in it. After all, my God shall supply all my needs. And really my struggles are small. So many are going through horrific things.
The so-called glitz is not what drew me. At first I found it repellent, but I had read Exodus and was dumbfounded by the elaborate nature of the preparations for the tabernacle. The plans are so precise, so detailed, so beautiful and ornate, how can I find an Orthodox church overmuch? It isn’t the church that is the problem, it is me that was the problem. That scripture, read over and over and over again, came back to me and informed my view of the Orthodox church. And I have grown to love it, to learn the beauty of icons, to enjoy the smell of incense and to appreciate the smoke swirling through the room, to enjoy the faces as they light their candles and place them in the stands as they pray.
The glitz did not draw me, but the thing which once made me uncomfortable is now a delight. I love the gleaming candle stands, love the swirling smoke rising from the censors, swinging from the hand of the priest or his helpers. I love that we bind the Gospels in the finest we have to offer. I love that our treasures are here and shared with the community as a fitting offering to our God.