Holy week and lent in the Orthodox Church

By Fr John Hainsworth

Every year in Holy Week I read to my congregation an eye-witness account of a certain Paschal night on Solovki Island in 1925. For centuries, this island in the White Sea had been the home of a venerable and very remote monastery. After the Bolshevik revolution in Russia the monks were replaced by political, and especially religious, prisoners. The once beautiful monastery became a concentration camp. The climate of that region was especially harsh and the island well out of sight; thus the newly formed gulag became a place of unspeakable horror for its inhabitants. Few survived here, but among those who did was a prisoner who worked in the camp's archives and museum holdings, and he left us the description of an extraordinary occurrence.

Through some favour, gained by one of the prisoners, Bishop Illarion, all the prisoners were allowed by the communist authorities to celebrate Pascha in the camp, but only Pascha, only that one night and never again. Preparations were made, vestments were secretly liberated from the vaults of the former monastery, and on Pascha night the whole camp gathered together. Here is the prisoner's description of that evening:

Long before midnight, along the walls built with colossal stones, you could see endless lines of gray shadows passing the silent snow covered towers of the monastery, moving toward the old church… It is quiet. In silence the exhausted souls wait the holy words of the paschal prayers. Their ears strain to catch the singing from the open doors of the church. During this dark night, playing in multiple colours, danced the rays of the Northern Lights…

Then, from the wide-opened doors of the church appears a procession – a procession never seen or imagined before. Seventeen bishops in vestments surrounded by lit torches, over 200 priests, as many monks followed by waves of those whose hearts and thoughts were soaring toward their Savior in this mysterious, unforgettable night… Suddenly, with a voice of unearthly power sounded the words pronounced by Bishop Illarion: “LET GOD ARISE, AND LET HIS ENEMIES BE SCATTERED”… Then, just as powerfully, “CHRIST IS RISEN!” “INDEED HE IS RISEN!” flowed over the snow covered fields. “INDEED HE IS RISEN!” resounded under the glorious dome of the lit up sky. “INDEED HE IS RISEN!” echoed in the depth of the forest… Swollen, white lips, bloody, cracked, whispered the words of the promised eternal life. In a victorious, joyous song joined those whose death was so near, death they could expect at any minute, any day… The walls of the prison built by bloody hands fell. Christ's blood spilled in love gives eternal and joyous life… That night the words “AND UPON THOSE IN THE TOMBS BESTOWING LIFE!” resounded as an inextinguishable truth. The joy of hope tore into their torn hearts and earthly suffering: the eternal life of the Spirit of Christ made them say, “We shall die, but we shall be raised! We shall be born again!”… And I will never forget it! NEVER!

What is so striking about this description is that the prisoners experienced the resurrection of Jesus Christ not as something that had happened but as something that was happening. They were not celebrating a historical event, they were participating in a current reality. What is more, Christ had risen in and through these prisoners. Broken and starving as they were, they were filled with a joy that completely transcended their earthly condition, a joy that surely would seem irrational, even insane, to the unbeliever.

Somehow, this Pascha in Solovki reached through time and place and locked arms with every Pascha before it and after it. These prisoners joined the whole Church at the tomb on the dawn of that first day. Clearly, the circumstances of this Pascha are extraordinary, but this Paschal experience itself is not.

This is indeed how Orthodox Christians around the world experience Holy Week and Pascha. We know that the events described in the Bible and which form the foundation of our faith all happened very far away (for most of us) and many centuries ago. We know what history is. Still, everything is sung and spoken as "today": "Today, Judas betrays the Master….", "Today, He who hung the earth upon the waters is hung upon the Cross…", "Today is the resurrection…" The churches every Pascha resound with "Christ is risen", not "Christ was risen."

Indeed, the hymnography of Holy Week (or of any time) is relentlessly in the present tense and anyone taking the Church at its own word must conclude that we actually think these events are happening to us, as if we are part of the story which is only now unfolding. What is more, looking at how the story unfolds in the services over the week, one cannot even say that this is a kind of passion play, since there are no props or acting to make good theatre of our ritual. What happens then in Holy Week and Pascha? How do the life, death and resurrection of Christ, events which happened in history, come alive for us today? How do we become involved in these events, or rather how do they involve us? And why? The answers to these questions lie in the way that the Orthodox understand Scripture, remembrance, and the covenant between God and Israel.

Scripture: "This is not a safe book"

There is a modern classic children's book which can give a good insight into how the Church uses the Scriptures and also into what happens to us in Holy Week. The Neverending Story, by the German author Michael Ende, is about a young boy and a book. The story begins with this boy, Bastian, taking refuge from the world in an antiquarian bookstore. The kindly but curmudgeonly owner of the bookstore, Mr. Coreander, tries to show Bastian the way out, but one of the books catches the boy's attention and he reaches for it. Mr. Coreander snatches it away, and tells Bastian that this is not a book for him. Naturally the boy is fascinated, and he asks why. Coreander replies in a menacing tone, "The books you read are safe." Clearly, this book is not safe.

When the owner's back is turned Bastian scrawls a note promising to return, grabs the book and flees the store. He finds a quiet place in the attic of his school and begins to read the book. As he does so, however, he begins to realize that he is not just reading but becoming an inextricable part of the book, and that the fate of its characters has something to do with him. The world of the book and the world of the reader continue to intertwine until the boy is forced to make a difficult and critical decision which will affect everything. So doing, he discovers that he has entered into a never-ending story where the characters in the book in turn have become part of his life, that his former life is forever changed.

I often think of that bookstore owner's warning, this is not a safe book, when I pick up my bible and for exactly the same reasons as in the story. Our bibles are not safe or tame books because they will demand that we be part of the story. When Christ cries out "he who has ears to hear, let him hear," he is crying out to us. When Christ says, "he who would be my disciple, let him take up his cross and follow me," he is calling us into His story.

Like the boy, we are challenged by our Book to make decisions about what we read, and to face the decisions we have already made. However, if we are not safe reading the Bible alone, we are much less so when we gather in the church to read the Bible. For the Orthodox, the Bible is primarily an ecclesiastical book. It was written by the Church, for the Church, and is fully revealed and experienced within the church. This is not to say that we should avoid reading it ourselves or stop committing it to daily and exhaustive study in our own homes. But it is to say that when we read it in the church, we are reading it differently.

To begin with, we read it corporately in the church. This seems like an obvious point, but it is one of the hallmarks of true Apostolic worship that we do so. There have been many accretions in our liturgy since New Testament times, but it has always retained its fundamental apostolic structure, namely the Liturgy of the Word followed by the Liturgy of the Offering. Both are necessary for the Church to become the Church, or to put it another way, for a scattered people to become the unified people, the Israel of God.

In the reading of the Word, the Lord reveals himself, the church is gathered into Christ the Word. In the celebration of the Eucharist, the church is revealed and the covenant is renewed, fulfilled. The Scriptures therefore become the medium through which we remember and encounter our God. More than that, they are the revelation of God in our midst and our translation into that revelation. When we read the Epistle, we are listening to the Apostle himself in our midst; when we read the Gospel, we are hearing Christ speak in our midst. The sermon which follows is the church in prophetic mode, opening, explaining, and distributing the treasures newly
revealed to us.

In Holy Week it is especially apparent that the Scriptures are the ground upon which we encounter the divine. The services of this period consist in little besides the reading of Scripture, and the services themselves are totally anchored to those readings. The hymns we sing, the vestments we wear, the candles we light and the processions we make are all ways in which we give expression to the story we are experiencing. They are also ways in which we elaborate upon and even give our own voice (of consent, of grief, of repentance, of praise) to what we are witnessing. The real action is in the readings.

This is especially clear in the service of the Matins of Holy Friday, in which we follow Christ to the Cross through twelve readings from all four Gospels, in some traditions lighting candles and ringing a bell after each reading. It is also clear on the Matins of Holy Saturday, when we stand in front of Christ on the Cross and read Psalm 119, inserting a short hymn between each verse. We are literally putting words into Christ's mouth --the words of the psalmist --but we are also responding to him, praising him, even in dialogue with him, through these hymns between each verse. Like the boy in the Neverending Story, we have by this night fully entered into the story of the Gospel; it is being fulfilled in our midst.

Now, it is clear that we are not, humanly speaking, present to the historical event itself, so that we can feel the dust beneath our feet, hear the jeers of the soldiers, or shiver in the sudden chill of the sun's eclipse. We do not need to be. We revel in the fact that God stepped into history, and we affirm the events described in the Scriptures to be fully accurate, but the power of Christ's crucifixion moves through all time since the One crucified was fully God, as well as fully man. The Scriptures as they are read and used in Holy Week lift us into the timeless power of the historical. Through the use of Scripture in the Church we become present to the everlasting mystical reality of Christ crucified and risen again.


No one can really grasp what happens in Holy Week or in any Orthodox Liturgy without some grasp of a very important Greek word: anamnesis. The only English equivalent for this word is "remembrance."

This is unfortunate, because "remembrance" has almost none of the meaning in English that it has in ancient Greek. Most people understand the word in its narrowest sense, that is, the present recollection of a past event. The way the word is used in the Bible encompasses much more than the mere mental activity of remembering.

Were any of the disciples at the Passover supper with Jesus actually present at the original Passover? Of course they were not, but mystically through that supper they were, just as when we celebrate our Pascha and Liturgy today we are mystically present at their supper. In Exodus 12:14 the Lord commands Israel to remember the Exodus: "This day shall be for you a memorial day, and you shall keep it as a feast to the LORD; throughout your generations you shall observe it as an ordinance forever."

The centrality of this feast to the Jewish identity almost cannot be overstated, since the event that it commemorates was the defining moment in the formation of the Jewish nation. Israel had been claimed by God and delivered from bondage to an eternal freedom, and by doing this, God had created a nation from a tribe, and an exalted people from a slave caste. However, this entire identity of the Jewish people rested entirely on a past event, and so the relationship of past and present had to be bridged, and was bridged, by an understanding of remembrance as making present an eternal action. Remembrance, therefore, cannot be understood as simply memory, however significant that memory may be; one cannot have a memory of an event that they had not been alive to witness. Rather, remembrance prescribed in Scripture can best be understood as the present participation in an event which has no relationship to time, but which arcs outside of the category of time.

The fact that the Passover had happened in the past was irrelevant to the Jews of the Lord's time, since that event was a memorialized revelation of how God always deals with his people. To remember in the Scriptures is to act, and therefore to remember God is to remember how he is acting now. Every battle becomes a battle with Pharaoh, the exile in Babylon becomes enslavement under Egypt from which God will free his people, and prophets like Isaiah and Ezekiel can refer to God's mercy on the enslaved Israel as a reason that Israel should repent and be reconciled with their deliverer. But this can only be the case if biblical remembrance is understood not as memory but as revelation.

Now, Holy Week and Pascha are built upon this scriptural model of the Exodus. If we miss this we miss the whole point of Pascha. We can even be bolder and say that the Exodus happened so that Israel would have a model by which it may see and understand what God would accomplish through Christ on the Cross. The Exodus of the Israelites was really the prophecy of the Pascha of Christ.

This is why Christ was crucified over the celebration of Passover, and why Christ says, "Do this in remembrance of me" at the Passover supper!

As the Israelites were enslaved to Pharaoh, the world was enslaved to sin;
As Moses came to be the deliverer, so came Christ, God himself, Immanuel;
As the lamb slain and its blood on the lintels saved the Israelites from the Angel of death, so Christ slain saved the world from sin and death;
As Moses would lead the Lord's people to freedom, their enemies being destroyed in the waters of the Red Sea, so Christ leads the whole world into the freedom of truth and everlasting life, destroying our enemies, sin and death, through the waters of baptism.

Moses was the type, Christ was the fulfillment.

But that is not all, of course: Noah was a type, Abraham was a type, the burning bush was a type, the whole of the Old Testament was a type; all point to the coming of Christ. The function of Holy Week and Pascha in the life of the Orthodox Church is to remember, precisely in the way we understood remembrance above, what God has done through His Christ, and in doing so to make that God present to us. More accurately, we become present to Him, since he is always saving us on the Cross, He is always raised from the dead, he is always being God to us.

In fact, every time we serve the Divine Liturgy we remember God in just the way Christ commands us to do, since we remember and recount the great and saving acts of God and enter into his presence. The Liturgy of St Basil the Great, served ten times a year in the Orthodox Church, reflects this most, with its numerous biblical references and its full presentation of what God has accomplished throughout History and on the Cross. But it is not unique. Every Liturgy retains this function by virtue of the fact that it contains the Anaphora, the prayers of offering, in which the bread and wine are consecrated precisely through this act of remembrance. In a way, every Liturgy is an epitome of Holy Week and Pascha, or to put it in another way, Holy Week and Pascha are the expanded Liturgy, remembering God in the fullest way possible, contemplating every angle of the saving work of Christ.


There is one last important key which we must have, and this is an understanding of covenant. There is a covenant between God and His people. What does this mean? It means that there is an agreement between God and Israel that God would be our God, and we would be His people.

Originally this was an agreement sealed by the blood of a sacrifice of a bull, sprinkled on the elders of the people (Exodus 24). This covenant of union meant that God would always care for, guide and be present with His people, and for Israel‟s part it meant that they would be obedient to the commandments of God, delivered through Moses His prophet. These commandments were not arbitrary (as some would have us believe); they were meant to guide and keep Israel in holiness and to help His people fulfill the calling to be a light among the nations, a lamp in the darkness of this fallen world.

However, Israel failed, and much of the content of the Prophets speak to that failure and make a plea to return to the arms of God. Yet, just like everything in the Scriptures before Christ, the original covenant itself was a type of the covenant that would be established between God and His people through His Christ. The first covenant and the laws which governed it were meant to train Israel in righteousness, to lead them to faith, to preserve them in holiness, and of course to govern their relationship with God. But it was never fulfilled completely by Israel. In other words, Israel never truly lived up to the terms of that covenant. The Exodus from Egypt made Israel a nation under God and, eventually, led to the possession of the Promised Land, but new enemies would be faced, sin continued to enslave people, and death was still inevitable.

In just the same way, while the original covenant was a true and everlasting covenant, since it was made with an everlasting God, it was never realized because Israel never fulfilled its purpose. Therefore, just as Christ had to deliver His people in a true Exodus from sin and death, so He had to fulfill the whole law, he had to be the One to fulfill our side of the covenant by being obedient to God in everything even unto death. He became not only the One to fulfill Israel's side of the agreement, but in doing so He became the pure and spotless sacrifice of love and obedience, and His spilled blood became the true seal of the fulfilled covenant.

In fact, it was fulfilled so perfectly that the promise and calling of the covenant spilled over the borders of Israel and reached out to the gentiles, and to all sinners. Before, "we were excluded from the commonwealth of Israel," says St. Paul, but now, those of us who repent through baptism and participate in His death and resurrection through the remembrance of His passion enter into the life and the blessings promised to those who have fulfilled the covenant, not because we have fulfilled it but because we are one with Him who has fulfilled it, we "have been brought near by the blood of Christ" (Ephesians 2:12-13).

His sacrifice of perfect love to God accomplished the terms of the covenant. His death removed the curse of the covenant, since He did not need to die, having never sinned, and since He, being God, was life itself which cannot know death. In the words of Fr Alexander Schmemann, the Lord's resurrection made death an act of life. That is, death was overthrown from its seat of power and made a mere doorman to greater life. We can see therefore that God fulfilled the terms of the covenant Himself on our behalf. He renewed the covenant. Our relationship to the covenant before Christ was through the law, but our relationship after Christ is through grace.

So magnificent and far reaching is this covenant as it is realized in Christ that the writer to the Hebrews actually calls the first "obsolete" in comparison (Heb. 8:13). Once we have some insight into the New Covenant, and understand our place within it, then we have a greater appreciation of what is happening in Holy Week. Through entering into the story of our redemption through the reading of Scripture and by entering into the presence of God through the remembrance of Him (involving the offering of the sacrifice of His Son), we once again enter into covenant with God through the blood of His Son, and once again we are a holy nation, a royal
priesthood, and citizens of the Heavenly Kingdom. And really, the same thing happens in the Divine Liturgy.

Every week, we come broken and divided, having sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, "having trampled his commandments," and every week "the Lord acts" (Ps 119:126) to redeem us through the Word and the Offering, the "work of the people," and to renew His covenant with us.

And in a way this should cause us to tremble in the face of the awesome act of our worship, not only at Pascha but at every Liturgy. "For you have not come to a mountain that may be touched and to a blazing fire, and to darkness and gloom and the whirlwind," says the writer to the Hebrews, as if encountering God upon Mt Sinai is not terrifying enough, "but you have come to Mt Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to the myriads of angels…and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood, which speaks better than the blood of Abel" (Heb, 12:18, 23-24).

It is clear, therefore, that the Orthodox do not experience Holy Week and Pascha passively. We are drawn into the story itself and encounter the God who redeems us through that story. This is also clearly a very dangerous week, since in entering it we find ourselves coming face to face with our redeemer and therefore with our fallenness and ultimate culpability for His crucifixion. But there is no other way to the Paschal glory than through the Cross. Perhaps that is another reason the prisoners on Solovki Island entered so fully into the ever-present reality of Christ‟s resurrection. They were already on their cross, already dead to this world. In that one bright and miraculous Paschal night they had already left the sad story of this world far behind, and awakened in the sweet morning air of the day that knows no evening.