How to Benefit from Holy Week?
How can we benefit from Pascha week? How can we truly be renewed and transformed by this week which follows the final days of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ in such detail and such intimacy?
The Church in its wisdom has set out for us a week full of prayer, worship, singing and reading. It drapes its walls with black and invites us to be transported to the side of our Lord and to share with Him in each moment leading up to His suffering on the Cross; to contemplate on its meaning for me as an individual. It is actually a gift bestowed upon us by the Church. It is a gift because it gives us an opportunity to discover who Christ is in His most intimate moments and it allows us to delve into it, be immersed in it and be transformed by it. And through it we begin to understand the meaning behind each event, and the fine fabric that is woven throughout the whole Bible, epitomised by the clear continuity between the Old Testament prophecies and the happenings in the Gospel. It is through this that we have proof of the Gospel from within. We are convinced of the authenticity of the Bible, with each of the writers of the different books of the Bible writing with one mind and one spirit, despite being separated by centuries, circumstances and contexts.
One of the most important things about this week is not to waste it, or to let it pass by without having taken something out of it. If we think about the small number of years we live here as sojourners on this earth, the number of Pascha weeks we attend is limited. And yet these weeks have the ability to change our lives and to allow us to redirect our focus towards what truly matters in our lives. That is, it can draw us nearer to the harbour of salvation, to the only One who is able to save us, to our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
But how can we do this? Reflection, Repentance, Revival and Revelation. These 4R’s can be the backbone for our approach to benefit from this week.
We must reflect on what our goal is, not what our goal as a church is – for this is clear – but what is my goal as an individual? Do I want to give up a particular sin, do I want to develop a particular virtue or do I want to understand a particular quality of God in more depth? An exercise to ensure I am focussed when I am in church could be stopping each time just before entering the church, closing my eyes and asking myself what do I want to achieve? This can help us to redirect our minds and thoughts, especially when they begin to wander during the service and we start judging the voice of the person singing the psalm, or thinking about when the psalm will end or about what we’re going to have for dinner later.
One of the major answers to the question of what I want to achieve this week must be repentance, and a goal must be to return to God in response to His loving sacrifice. When we realise the great mystery that is before us, that God, the Almighty, the Powerful, the Creator became man for us, and not only did He become man but He was slapped, beaten, cursed, spat upon and crucified all for my sake, then I am forced to consider the magnitude of these events and I am forced to respond. And the perfect response is repentance from the sins which caused my Lord to endure such things out of His love for us.
This repentance and renewed understanding of my Lord’s love and sacrifice should lead me to make a commitment to be revived and to rise above the superficialities and trivialities of the world, making a commitment to be in the world but not of this world… to be transformed. And this transformation should lead me to rush to be at the feet of the Lord, learning from His example of humble, obedient servitude.
This all leads to revelation, which is a gift from God where we realise one of His attributes that we had never dwelt or focussed upon, or we receive a revelation which adds to the depth of our personal relationship with Christ. Within this week there is an opportunity for the visitation of the grace of God. But this is dependent on us removing ourselves from the guiles of the devil, by focusing and ridding ourselves of our beloved sins and being decisive in progressing in repentance. If you make this commitment during this week, be sure that the Lord will not disappoint you. But this visitation requires a level of spiritual maturity so that we can truly understand the depths of the events and of Christ’s redemption of us from our sins and from our certain death. Asceticism produces and accentuates this understanding, whereas cheap pleasure dissipates it. And so it is important to understand the importance of fasting as a tool to unlock this depth of understanding of this great mystery of Love. And this maturity is not dependent on age. A little child can grasp this depth, whereas an adult may go many years attending without having truly understood the love of God and the significance of His actions. But this depth can only come if we avoid trivialities and if we shift our focus to the Cross, so that we are constantly reminded of the importance of crucifying our sins and constantly reminded of Christ’s love for us. Each time we stand before the crucifix we can say this prayer “Lord, change me completely when I look at your Cross”.
Now what should our mindset be during Pascha?
We should be focused on the love and hope that comes from being sure of Christ’s resurrection and defeat of the sting of death. Things that give us hope include the fact that Christ is waiting for us to return from whatever struggle or sin we have. During Pascha week we have the opportunity to leave that particular sin or habit at the foot of the Cross both figuratively and literally. There will be a “sin bin” at the foot of the crucifix icon where we can put down a sin which we want to be freed from on a piece of paper, showing we are resolute to rid ourselves of it and that we are awaiting the power of the grace of God to intervene to allow us to overcome it. This sin can then be wiped away and we can be renewed by going to Abouna for confession. If we do this we become Christs, as we attempt to share in His crucifixion, by crucifying our passions. In becoming His, Christ becomes obliged to defend us, to help us, and to take us to the new Jerusalem when we are raised up with Him.
Also, we have hope because we know Christ is always waiting for us to return, because we know He is merciful. How do we know this? Well, there was the Old Covenant, but what came after? The New Covenant! And so we know with God that there is always renewal, there is always a second chance, He is always looking for us to have an opportunity to return to Him. And we are filled with hope because we know He forgives us when we deny Him or leave Him. The perfect example of this is St Peter. Even though He made strong professions of love towards the Lord, we eventually see him abandoning the Lord when it came to the hardship of the Cross. And yet when Christ is resurrected He asks to see Peter. And what does He do? He doesn’t curse him, but He restores him and even entrusts him to become His honest and faithful servant. All of this is offered to us, and Pascha week is an opportunity for us to embrace it.
As a practical tool, how can we measure our love for Christ?
We can measure our love by considering the following: how sincere is your repentance and how quickly do you pick yourself up when you inevitably fall? Do you quickly stand up and pray, and then seek Abouna for confession as soon as possible, or are you relaxed and tell yourself that you’ll see Abouna when you get the chance? How eager are you for prayer? Do you just do it as a duty at night to tick a few boxes, or are you eager to stand before Him, to enjoy His presence, to converse with him, to stand humbly and reverently under the shadow of His wings. How about in attending services like the Pascha services or the liturgy? Are we just attending to please our families or to fulfil a social obligation, or are we doing it to have an encounter with the source of Life and our Saviour. How do you react to your enemies? Do you seek to forgive them, to placate their anger and to win them over or are you seeking an opportunity to get them back, or worse do you treat them with indifference? And importantly do you long and yearn for Heaven so that you can finally be fully in the embrace of Christ, not forgetting that this opportunity is afforded to us here on earth as a foretaste? Pascha week is the perfect opportunity to measure our love for Him and to take active steps to increase our love for Him.
Speaking of those long psalms, practically what should I be doing during them?
These psalms are an opportunity to spend time with Christ, to close our eyes to dwell in His presence in quiet contemplation. It can be a time of simplicity; it doesn’t have to be a time to be academic or a time to let our minds wander. And the inspired, ancient tunes of the psalm which have such power and force are able to facilitate our prayers and contemplation to come from the depths of our hearts and the depths of our beings. What about the busyness and the difficulty in finding a car spot and then in finding a seat? Instead of complaining about something that can’t be changed, embrace the chaos! How boring would it be to just be standing there by yourself or with just a few people. This is our opportunity to see the Body of Christ in full action with all these people from different walks of life gathered together in one mind and one spirit giving glory to God.
Now should Pascha week be a time for mourning at the pain of our Lord, or should it be a time of triumph at the victory of our Saviour?
It should be both with a steady movement from one to the other. We should lament over our distance from Christ and at our sins which put Him on the Cross. But just as weeping endures for a night, but joy comes in the morning, so too does the journey of Pascha Week according to the wisdom of the Church, take us in a movement from such sadness to the inexpressible joy at the abolition of death and the resurrection from the dead in our Lord Jesus Christ.
Glory be to God forever.