According to our tradition and in harmony with an archetypal religious perception, ritual is not just a spectacularly intricate form of remembering past events or a mere memorial of the divine economy of salvation. Ritual is, originally and essentially, the most appropriate way of experiencing faith’s existential substance, its living content. At least this is the understanding of ritual in Orthodox Christianity. At close inspection, recapitulating the living dimension of faith by way of remembering the events of salvation, through reenactment ritual on the one hand recalls those events and on the other hand transports the participants from the here and now in the vicinity of the events. This amounts to a transformative experience. Thus, similar to motion through space, the ritual movement through time or the journey towards the remembered events, effected within the context of divine grace, changes the participants. Ritual constitutes therefore a mystical vehicle, a way of transferring the celebrating community illo tempore, “to those times.” That said, and at a closer look, ritual does not transport the participants from the immediacy of the present just towards the past of the original events—it transports them to the eschatological realities foreshadowed, signified, and anticipated by the events of salvation. Indeed, the events themselves or rather the great deeds of salvation as narrated in the New Testament are, as Saint Maximus had it, “images of the future goods” (Chapters on Theology and Economy 1.90) or prefigurations of the perfect, eschatological realities. In other words, our grace-endowed ritual, a genuine sacrament, builds a bridge over the abysses of history, creating a knot between present times, the remembered events, and the Kingdom to come. In so doing, ritual produces the simultaneous metamorphosis of the participants into witnesses of the events of salvation and partakers of eternal life, contributing to the continuous renewal of God’s people.
This complex function of ritual is abundantly evidenced throughout the Holy and Great Week of the Lord’s Passion, which begins with Saturday of Lazarus, as suggested by the dismissal hymn of the feast, which shows that the revival of Lazarus was effected so that we believe in Christ’s resurrection, to end with Holy Saturday, when, calling on the Lord to rise, we celebrate the victorious descent of Christ to hell as preliminary to his resurrection. It is a week that encapsulates the whole message of the New Testament by way of a dramatic Christcentred narrative—punctuated by powerful eschatological overtones—a week which actually transcends the cursory seven day pattern by paradoxically comprising the eight days between the two mentioned Saturdays. The same way, and symmetrically, the Bright or Paschal Week, a glorious manifestation of the eschaton or final fulfilment anticipated in the here and now, in the midst of God’s people, comprises the eight days between the Sunday of Pascha and that of Antipascha (in ancient times, the ‘Higher Sunday’). By the complex structure of the Holy Week and the Bright Week, both encompassing eight instead of seven days, this crucial time of the liturgical year draws attention to the quality of ritual to bridge times, places, and witnesses. In what follows, I do not focus on the entire architecture of these two weeks, choosing rather to reflect on the mystical meaning, existential significance, and transformative grace of three celebrations between Holy and Great Friday and the Holy Pascha, which make obvious the temporal bridge between past and future that crosses through the present time.
Matins of Holy and Great Friday (officiated Thursday night)
Corresponding to the Lenten fashion of celebrating the services upside-down, namely, vespers in the morning and matins in the evening, the office of the twelve gospel readings guide us methodically toward the apex of the theodrama of the Logos incarnated and crucified for our salvation. The designated readings, beginning with the first, which prefaces the final stages of Christ’s journey through revealing the accomplishment of the New Covenant at the mystical supper and depicting the serenity of Jesus facing death, to end with the account on the Lord’s entombment, represent an extremely dense narrative which refreshes the memory of God’s people. In so doing, ritual becomes however the vehicle of our transportation back to the historical setting of the events. We are no longer, therefore, mere listeners of a story; we are witnesses. Hearing the sacred account, we become participants in events that happen this very day, under our very eyes. As we chant, “today is hanged on a tree the one who hung the earth upon the waters.”
The story’s threads gradually draw us illo tempore to finally place us among the disciples at the mystical supper and the last sermon, then making us witnesses of the betrayal, the disciples’ cowardice, the unjust condemnation, and humiliating death of the Lord. The climax of the experience is reached with the presentation of the icon of the crucified Christ in the middle of the church as if on Golgotha, acknowledged and worshipped by the faithful as Creator God and Lord of glory. By the bridging function of ritual, under our very eyes Christ stands alone on the cross, immolated for our salvation and an embodied call to repentance, to change. He is rejected, despised, and mocked, although not by shouting crowds, but by our sins and failures. Yet, celebrating full of reverence the tremendous mystery of his divine humility, we evade the tragic choreography of irrational hate. It is as if we are ready to climb up on the cross together with the humble Lord of glory, like all the martyrs of old, to achieve “the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Ephesians 1:23).
Matins of Holy and Great Saturday (officiated Friday night)
The Lordly burial service, the lamentation, finds us crucified with Christ. We are once again active witnesses of the events, participants in their unfolding, and objects of a mysterious transformation. And indeed we are the beneficiaries of the Lord’s immaculate Passion; for us has he descended into the waters of our transience and death; we are those to whom he brings salvation. Witnessing the agony of the Lord, his death and interment, we contemplate both the all-encompassing salvific love of the Crucified one and the profound misery of a humanity failing to acknowledge its Lord. What matters is that we are the faithful disciples accompanying the Lord to his tomb, for this is the meaning of the lamentation and procession: “you who are the life, O Christ, were laid in a tomb.”
From a different viewpoint, ritual signifies that we perform our own memorial service together with that of Christ, while still travelling together with him toward the tomb. Being put to death every day (see Romans 8:36) for the name of the Lord (see Matthew 5:11), we are now literally interred together with him, willingly and compassionately. This is in fact the significance of us passing ritually under the holy epitaphion (a large piece of cloth on which is embroidered or painted the image of Christ’s preparation for burial), the very symbol of Jesus’ tomb and reminder of the day when—in the baptismal waters—we died to the old ways to walk the path of a renewed life (see Romans 6:3-4). The tomb remains the ultimate testimony of the entire drama and its unexpected end, the glorification of the Crucified one and of us, his faithful.
The epitaphion being now laid on the sanctuary’s altar, there it will rest—as an unquestionable witness of Christ’s resurrection this time—till the eve of the deifying ascent of the Lord. Made transparent by the resurrection, the tomb becomes a window to the promised Kingdom to come; for the moment, however, it offers no hope.
The Paschal Vigil (officiated Saturday night)
After the Saturday of the Lord’s descent to hell where he found also us (this is why on this Saturday we do not eat, since the dead no longer need food), enslaved by our sinfulness, we meet again in the lightless church, a desolating scene of death and defeat. “We were hoping that it was he who was going to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21). Living the fear and hopelessness of the old Israel (see Hebrews 2:15), it is as though we are not yet God’s people, a nation of trust, joy, and light (see 1 Peter 2:9). Still dominated by the prince of darkness, we are terrified by the darkness of “this world.” The darkened church is now an image of our own tomb and the tomb has no comfort yet to bring us. It is also, and properly, the cave where the Lord was interred and us with him: in the darkness of the tomb there is no horizon, no zenith, no escape… We remain silent and disoriented, since there is no sign yet of a victory; the only thing that keeps us safe, above all insecurity, is the power of prayer.
Suddenly, however, the joyful light emerges in the tomb and rapidly spreads from the Lord of glory (the Light which shines in the dark) toward us. We are now resurrected by him and together with him! “Trampling down death by death and on those in the tombs bestowing life.” We are witnesses and participants, the righteous—sanctified by his grace—brought to the renewed life (see Matthew 27:51-3). Neither the soldiers have seen him first nor the myrrh-bearing women. It is us who have, since we are those being raised today together with him, a reality witnessed and poetically proclaimed by St John Damascene, the author of the divine Paschal Canon:
The day of resurrection,
let us be radiant, O peoples!
Pascha, the Lord’s Pascha;
for from death to life,
and from earth to heaven,
Christ God has brought us,
those chanting the hymn of victory.
The gospel reading of the liturgy deciphers this mystery: Christ is the light shining triumphantly in the darkness (see John 1:5), transforming those who believe in him into sons and daughters of God (see John 1:12-3).
The narrative of the sorrowful and glorious journey of Christ, the Lord of Glory, within the ritual framework becomes a pretext to explore our own spiritual journey as God’s people. We cannot achieve renewal without first dying mystically. Therefore, along with the ritual we have to learn to die to our old habits and rhythms, to our mind corrupted by the darkness of ignorance. Only in this way are we ready to enter the paschal week, an image of the eighth day, announcing the unending day of the Kingdom to come—of the Kingdom that has already dawned in the radiant night of Pascha and in the glorious day of ascension. The transformative energy of this radiance will pervade the entire world and history through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in the Sunday of Pentecost, the eighth of the Pentikostarion.
Acknowledgment. An earlier version of this article was published in The Greek-Australian Vema (April 2008) 10.
5 April 2018 © AIOCS