My family became members of the Orthodox Church on Palm Sunday, 2000. This year, the Palm Sunday services at St. Aidan’s re-emphasized to me why we became Orthodox. All the services during the week before Pascha (also known as Easter) are designed to transport the worshipper to the reality when the events actually happened. I like to think of this as a form of time travel.
The week before His death, Christ raised his friend Lazarus from the dead. The Orthodox Church remembers this event on Lazarus Saturday with hymns and readings and as a foretelling of Christ’s own death and resurrection.
The next day, Christ entered Jerusalem riding on the foal of a donkey. The crowd cheered Him paving His way with palm branches and clothing. They were expecting the Kingdom of God to appear. They proclaimed Him as Messiah, as King, the saviour of Israel, the one who will defeat the Romans and make Israel great again. They rejoiced in His presence, singing the refrain from the Psalm which we know as 118; “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!” In our Palm Sunday service, we rejoice with them, waving palm branches and pussywillows as we sing, ‘Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord’.
The Pharisees were outraged and demanded Christ quiet the crowd, but He replied, “if these should hold their peace, the stones would immediately cry out”. The earth knew who He was, and so do we, after the fact, but the people back then, didn’t yet realize Jesus was proclaiming Himself as one of them by humbly riding on a foal of a donkey rather than a conquering king who would ride a magnificent beast. Few, if any recognized Christ’s greater purpose which was to redeem all of Creation, not just the state of Israel. Many of those who joyfully greeted Him as a conquering king would, only a few days later, demand His crucifixion when He didn’t live up to their expectations.
The following week, which the Orthodox Church calls Holy Week, Jesus spent with His disciples.
During this week, the Orthodox Church has services every day. The Church recognizes Christ as the suffering Bridegroom. There is an anointing service in remembrance of Christ being anointed with myrrh and a service acknowledging Christ as a servant who washed His disciples feet. On Thursday night, all the accounts of Christ’s passion in the Gospels are read.
Friday is very solemn with a service to transport us back to the crucifixion of our Lord and to lament with Mary and Joseph of Arimathea as Christ’s body is laid in the tomb. We have the opportunity to keep vigil at the tomb of Christ, reading the Psalms or in quiet meditation until we celebrate His resurrection.
The vigil is interrupted by the Saturday morning service when the mood changes. We read all the Old Testament stories, stories like the young men in the fiery furnace and Jonah in the whale, all portents of the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. Hope grows as the Church continues to keeps vigil until the midnight service when we joyfully celebrate the resurrection of our Saviour and His defeat of death with His life.
For me, this is worship; entering into the life and death and resurrection of the Saviour of the world. Because this just didn’t happen two thousand years ago, it happens every year, during our cycle of services. It happens every week as the Church commemorates Christ’s resurrection on Sunday, and it happens every day during the daily services observed by the Church.
I need this constant reminder of Christ’s love for all of creation including me. I need to remember loving Christ means loving my family, fellow church members, my neighbours, my friends, my enemies and the strangers around me. These are the people for whom Christ conquered death and opened the gates of paradise. These are the people whom Christ has placed in my life.
The Church is my support system. The services transport me through time and into eternity, stripping away all earthly cares showing the reality of love.