Monday, April 25, 2016

Why Does the Church Have Holy Week?

As part of our continuing series of answering why we “do” certain things as Orthodox Christians, this month I will discuss Holy Week and why the Church has developed such an intense and beautiful week leading up to Holy and Great Pascha.

The first thing we need to understand about Holy Week is that in the earliest days of the Church, the faithful attended Church services EVERY DAY. Life revolved around the Church with morning and evening prayers functioning almost like “bookends” to the day. Christians would begin their day in the Church, go about their daily work, and then return to the Church to finish their day in prayer and fellowship. This wasn’t only for prayer, but mutual support of their Christian journey. I can’t emphasize enough how important it was for the early Christians to gather for support and protection. They were living in a world that wasn’t Christian. Many were killed “just because” they were Christians. Gathering daily not only gave them the sense of prayer, it provided the practical benefit of encouraging each other to remain faithful. We must also remember the earliest Christians expected Jesus Christ to return at any moment in their life time.

As the early Church approached the anniversary of Pascha, the day they (and we) commemorate the Passion of Christ (His death, burial AND Resurrection), the daily services in the Church included Scripture Readings from the Old Testament Prophecies about the Messiah and stories (now Scriptures) about the Passion events. Eventually hymns and dedicated prayers were written to teach the faithful the truth of Christ’s Saving Passion, and the ‘first’ Holy Week was formed.

Originally just a couple days, the Church spent these days in prayer and fasting as the faithful commemorated the last days and events of the Passion. Using today’s terms, they would have fasted Holy Friday and Holy Saturday which were the days Christ was crucified and in the tomb. The fast was a COMPLETE fast, similar to what we could call a medical fast today. As the years went on, and as the faithful switched to preparing for an immediate return of Christ to an expected return at an unknown time in the future, Holy Week began to expand into the week-long season it is today. And as the number of days of fasting increased, so did the prayer and hymns. By the late Third Century Holy Week pretty much looked as it does today with minor adjustments over the centuries with influences by monastic traditions and world events.

As Holy Week has been handed down through the centuries, as we have received it today, it is a full week that begins AFTER the Feast of Palm Sunday and continues through to the last moments before Pascha. Palm Sunday, while part of the final days of Christ’s earthly mission, is not a part of Holy Week. Instead, Palm Sunday is a celebration of God’s Coming Kingdom. The themes of Holly Week are as follows:
v  Holy Monday, Holy Tuesday, Holy Wednesday – Being prepared and expecting the Lord’s return
v  Holy Wednesday is a day of transition – The Church remembers the events immediately prior to Christ’s Passion including the betrayal by Judas and anointing of Christ by the sinful woman.
v  Holy Thursday – The Mystical Supper and the begin of the Holy Eucharist
v  Holy Friday – The trial, sentencing, crucifixion, and burial of Christ
v  Holy Saturday – Christ is the tomb rescuing our forefathers from Hades

For us Orthodox Christians living in 2016 we still benefit from the ancient custom of dedicating a few days in prayer and fasting to prepare for the Feast of Pascha. Pascha is and was a life-changing event. We should set aside the time and energy to take full advantage of the experience of the Church. Think of it as a gift for your soul. I hope to see you in Church for Holy Week. A schedule is in this newsletter.

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