Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Holy Week - Crash Helmets Required

Accidents are by definition unexpected.  I was jogging down a hill at dawn several months ago, and before I had time even to think much less react, I was on the ground hard, having slipped on a patch of black ice that I never even saw.  As a five year old, I was so excited to try out my new fishing rod that I went down to the dock by myself, where I carefully baited my hook and the cast it so hard that I fell into the cold April water and went under.  If my older sister hadn’t noticed that I was gone and then heard a splash, I wouldn’t be writing this today.  Some of us are in situations today that, had we known this is where our paths would take us, we might have opted for plan B.

For the disciples, the week that we are about to commemorate was one accident after another; we might call it, anachronistically, a train wreck in slow motion.  Nothing went right.  Matters became increasingly muddled.  At every opportunity Jesus deliberately steered the ship towards the rocks.  They never took him seriously when he spoke plainly of going to his death.  They were holding out for a kingdom and were sure that Jesus was just feinting with his words to keep his powerful adversaries off balance until the right time.  And now that the right time had come, Jesus was instead purposefully snatching disaster from the jaws of glorious triumph.  The events of this week left them utterly disoriented.

We Orthodox are about to enter Holy Week.  For those on the outside, the list of services scheduled for the run up to Pascha (Easter) is staggering.  Even for us Orthodox, it’s daunting.

April 14th  (Holy Monday) - Presanctified Liturgy 6pm
April 15th  (Holy Tuesday) - Bridegroom Matins 7pm
April 16th  (Holy Wednesday) - Presanctified Liturgy 6pm
April 16th  (Holy Wednesday) - Holy Anointing 7:45pm
April 17th  (Holy Thursday) - Vesperal Liturgy 5pm
April 17th  (Holy Thursday) - Matins / Passion Gospels 7:30pm
April 18th  (Holy Friday) - Royal Hours 8am
April 18th  (Holy Friday) - Vespers / Shroud Procession 6pm
April 18th  (Holy Friday) - Jerusalem Matins 9pm
April 19th  (Holy Saturday) - Vesperal Liturgy noon
April 19th  (Holy Saturday) - Midnight Office 11:45pm
April 20th  (Holy Pascha!) - Divine Liturgy 1am
April 20th (Holy Pascha!) – Paschal Fellowship Meal 3am
April 21st (Bright Monday) - Divine Liturgy 8am

Having participated in this cycle of services in Nairobi, and now in Virginia, the multiplication of services is an invitation to walk with Jesus in his last week.  These services are full of Scripture, both the gospel stories themselves, as well as light shed from other parts of the Bible on what was going on and what it all means.  These services are full of prayer, attempting to comprehend the incomprehensible.  It is enough that God becomes a man, and even that this man becomes a slave.  But to watch as the incarnate Son of God takes deliberate steps towards execution as a Roman criminal is incredible.

One enters the storm of services simply trying to keep up with what is being chanted and prayed.  But something happens at some point during the course of these services.  I go from going through the motions of crossing myself, of bowing, of prostrating myself, of saying the responses, singing the hymns, chanting the prayers, to owning them.  The service, as a service, is just a reading through the liturgy; and as long as I remain on the outside, the service remains just a service.  But as with so many things Orthodox, the externals are deceiving, and are not even intended to be the reality, but rather a means into the real reality.  And just as an icon at one level is just paint on wood or plaster, but on another level is a window into the reality portrayed; so the service becomes a window, or the doorway, into the place where God is.  And in the case of Holy Week, the place where God is takes our breath away.  God is with disciples whose inability to get it comes to a dissonant climax during this week.  God is with mourning sisters and a dead brother.  God is with Israel and Jerusalem in one final supreme effort to extend his hands to a people who simply would not come.  God is with a thief being executed for his crimes.  And God is with us as he dies a bloody terrible death so that he might remove its deadly sting from our hearts.

At some point in the long liturgies of the week, we find ourselves in a different world, in a different place, seeing with different eyes, understanding with different perspectives.  It is very hard work.  And the liturgy has the priest saying repeatedly, and with good reason (!): ‘Let us be attentive!’  But maybe we have become so used to the virtual journeys afforded by our medias, ‘journeys’ or experiences that take us nowhere and cost us nothing,  that we forget that taking a real journey is never easy. There is always a cost.  And the purpose is always to take us to a different place.

Holy week is a time when accidents happen.  My reality, our realities crash into Jesus’.  Our moneychangers’ tables are flung to the side.  Our pharisaical presumption is left sputtering.  Our carefully constructed arguments against what Jesus might say are exposed as having missed the point entirely.  Our loud insistences that we can see just fine become further evidence of our blindness.  We watch our hopes for glory, security, power, control die a miserable death on a cross.

In the midst of this debacle, we hear Jesus’ call to deny ourselves, pick up our cross and follow him.  And by doing so these next few days, deliberately, we learn something of what this meant for him.  And something of what it means for us.  And we come out on the other side in a different place, profoundly grateful for the resurrection.

Holy Week is not for the faint of heart.  Crash helmets and seat restraints required beyond this point.

Full disclosure:  The idea of needing crash helmets at Christian worship services is not original to me.  Rather one of my favorite authors, Anne Dillard, put it this way:

Why do people in church seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute? … Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us to where we can never return.

—Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters (New York: Harper & Row, 1982), pp. 40-41.

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