Entries with tag holy week .

Overcoming Emptiness - Holy Week and Pascha

Holy Week.

Everything over the last several weeks – the services, the commemorations, the prayers, the fasting – has been leading to the events of this week. All of it has been designed to open our hearts to fully experience these high holy days and the Resurrection in which they culminate. 

Though these events are distinct, they nonetheless work together in perfect unity with one another. In truth, we celebrate the events of Christ’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection together! 

We cannot isolate the Cross from the Resurrection any more than we can isolate the Resurrection from the Cross.  Doing so would make the Resurrection empty and the Cross meaningless.  

All of the events of Holy Week are undertaken as Christ’s one, seamless Passion, in which He works to free fallen humanity from sin, death, and the devil. As we will sing at midnight on Saturday: “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs He is bestowing life.” 

Even on Pascha, the feast of His Most Holy and Glorious Resurrection, we are remembering His death – trampling down death by death. It is in the Cross, in His Death, that Christ’s victory occurs; but it is only in the light of the Resurrection that the darkness of the Cross is seen for what it is. Without the Resurrection, Christ stays in the grave and is just one more nameless victim of the Roman Empire. And so this whole week should be undertaken as one, wholly united and saving act of God. 

It’s important to remember that, before Christ, the Cross was a symbol of death and despair.  Untold thousands died painfully on crosses across the Roman Empire, often for no other reason than because the authorities sought to exert their power and deepen their control.

These were meaningless deaths.  

Yet Christ did not run from the Cross.  Though He was innocent of any and all wrongdoing, He accepted the most brutal and final of punishments.  He accepted a meaningless death.  

Yet, in doing so, He revealed the true meaning of the Cross, as He showed it to be the key to the Resurrection.  He bravely stared into the void, and filled it with hope and life.  
Without the Cross, there is no Resurrection.  And without the Resurrection, the Cross is the meaningless death of a poor carpenter’s poor son.

The Resurrection gives meaning to the Cross, illuminating it as the “Life-Giving Cross” of the Lord. As St. Athanasius puts it, the Resurrection reveals to us that the Cross is “the glorious monument to death’s defeat.”1  But it bears repeating (again and again) that it is only in Christ’s voluntary Passion and His Glorious Resurrection from the dead that we understand death to have been destroyed by His death.

After all, hindsight is twenty-twenty.

Indeed, isn’t this the case in our own lives?

Like everyone, I’ve felt stuck in situations that, at the time, seemed dark, hopeless, even meaningless.  To the extent possible, it is only by looking backwards through my life that I can understand the different steps and turns that I needed to take (to be taken on?) in order to arrive where I am today.

And isn’t that the case with all of us?

Haven’t there been times in each of our lives when we have thought, “There is absolutely no way this is going to work out. I may as well give up.” And haven’t we all been proved wrong at some point, even if it took an uncomfortably long time? And standing on the other side of it, don’t we all have that blessed moment of understanding: “OHHHHHHHHHHHH!” 

Each of us walks through life being pummeled by life’s many mini-deaths, crosses – job loss, divorce, a child’s death, mental illness, addiction ¬– and often, in the midst of it, it simply feels meaningless. 

And we’re not alone in that despair.  Even the Scripture records the despair of great figures like King David who, in the midst of his troubles, cried out to God with doubt, imploring, “How long, O Lord?” (Ps 13).

Even Christ cried out, as He hung from the Cross, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Mat 27:46).  Imagine it. God Himself, hanging from the Cross, experiences feelings of abandonment by God. In this way, God is present even in the experience of  being godforsaken. There are no words to do this justice!

By entering our suffering, God imbues it with meaning, not because He sends the suffering, but because He shares it.  Because He loves us. 

Sometimes we believe that we receive trials and troubles as punishment for…something (not praying enough? not fasting? not giving that homeless gentleman a dollar?). We turn God’s action in our lives into some kind of cosmic yet strangely personal tit-for-tat (at best) or infantile yet powerfully punitive judgment (at worst). As if good things happening in our life were evidence that we are on the right path while the so-called bad things are evidence that we are on the wrong path.

But if that were the case, how does this account for Christ, the Innocent One, who bravely and voluntarily went to His own death?  Was His suffering a punishment?

No. God is the source of life and joy, not death and despair.  Yet the world, which is still in the process of being saved, is still imperfect.  And our walk through life will, unfortunately, be interrupted by crosses.  

Each of us experiences these crosses as being too heavy, too overwhelming, and perhaps that is precisely the point. Even Christ fell carrying His Cross; crosses are HEAVY. And frequently, we may find ourselves falling under the weight of them, asking ourselves and God, “What’s the point?”

Honestly, there may not always be the point.  Life just sucks sometimes.  

But perhaps that is just the point. Maybe the choices we make, and the way we respond to apparently meaningless suffering, will allow us to make sense of that pain when it’s all done.

Maybe we’ll be able to make sense of pain when we’re delivered from it, when we look backward from the Kingdom of God.

Maybe our paths through life will only make sense when we stand resurrected by the Resurrected One and look back at all that our lives have been. Maybe only then, after we stand unbroken and transformed, will our crosses – job loss, divorce, etc. – become monuments to the defeat of death in our own lives. 

God understands that our crosses hurt us. He understands that we are prone to despair and confusion and feelings of utter meaningless. And He does not want us to endure it alone. Instead of allowing these things to simply be meaningless, Christ took up the Cross and transformed darkness into light. He took the meaningless, and gave it meaning inasmuch as pain, suffering – indeed, the Cross – has become the location of His very life-giving presence. 

It is in His death that He fully unites Himself with humanity, drinking to the dregs all that it is to be a human in this broken, fallen, and dying world.

And perhaps this is the message of Holy Week for us. Our paths may be dark. Our crosses may be heavy. But they only last for a little while, and in the end, the light of Christ’s Resurrection reveals to us that they are the very means by which we can share in Christ’s victory over death in our own lives. Indeed, we must not view our own crosses apart from Christ’s victory in the Cross, illumined by His Resurrection.

Christ’s Passion and Resurrection show us that, even when our own suffering seems arbitrary and meaningless, this emptiness can be overcome. That no darkness is too dark to be overcome by Christ’s light, as we join Him on the path to Golgotha. 

And what’s more, Christ’s Passion and Resurrection demonstrate to us that we do not walk this path alone. As Andrew Root writes, “God does not meet us in the natural order, in power, or in individual holiness, but in lowliness, weakness, and suffering; for God desires to be with us and for us. Out of great love, God chooses to be found in places of despair and suffering; God chooses to be found on the cross.”2 

But God also shows us in His Resurrection from the dead that these places of despair and suffering are about to be broken through, that an all-new reality is bursting forth from the grave, for even now, “upon those in the tombs He is bestowing life.” Presently. And always.

So let’s take up our crosses, walk the path of following Christ, who is Risen from the dead, trusting that as we walk with Him in the likeness of His death, so, too, will we live with Him forever in the likeness of His Resurrection.

-Christian Gonzalez

1 St. Athanasius, trans. A Religious of C.S.M.V., On the Incarnation (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, Crestwood: 1993), p. 54.

2 Andrew Root, The Promise of Despair (Abingdon Press, Nashville: 2011), p.84.

Christian is a husband, father, mover, shaker, coffee drinker, and occasional CrossFitter. He works full-time as a child and adolescent therapist, and in his off-time likes to devote his mental energy to the Church and the Church's ministry in and to the world. Christian has his MA from Azusa Pacific University in Marriage and Family Therapy and is working toward a second MA in Children, Youth, and Family Ministry from Luther Seminary. Christian and his family live in Phoenix, Arizona.

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For more on our salvation in Christ, check out this episode of Be the Bee:

For more on the Resurrection, check out this episode of Be the Bee:

Work, Rest, and Holy Week

I look forward to Pascha.  I don't look forward to Holy Week.  It isn't that there aren't plenty of things in Holy Week that I find stirring and compelling every year, from Bridegroom Matins early in the week and especially the haunting and humbling exaposteilarion ("Verily I behold Thy Bridal Chamber adorned, and I possess no robe to enter thereinto") to the singing of "The Noble Joseph" during the veneration of the shroud at Great Vespers on Friday afternoon and the rousing "dry bones" reading from Ezekiel that follows the lamentations of Holy Saturday Matins on Friday evening.  The issue isn't lack of interest in the liturgical richness of the week; it's the daunting thought every year of the energy it will take to participate in it, or at least to participate as much as I'd like.          

There’s a lot out there about the challenges today of balancing work and family commitments.  Whereas in my parents' generation, a single income was enough to purchase a house in a nice suburban neighborhood and send three children to college, the difficulties of making ends meet even in a dual-income family today are well-known, and one consequence is an increased level of all-around exhaustion, certainly for working parents.  At the university where I'm employed I teach an undergraduate course entitled "Theology of Work and Rest".  In some sense, the entire framework of the course is set by Jesus' statement "Come to me all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest" (Mt. 11:28), that remarkable and profound invitation to take a load off.  This year as Holy Week approaches once again, and insofar as coming to Jesus and coming to the services of the church in the most important week of the liturgical year are not unrelated, I’ve been wondering to myself in what sense attending the Holy Week services will entail rest, for me or my wife, Julie.  It looms on the horizon more like the opposite: an additional burden to bear on top of a life already so loaded up with the demands of our jobs and of raising our children that we typically feel, by the time we put them down at the end of the day, that we've got nothing left.         

Our move to Scranton four years ago from the area around Washington, DC has meant that at least the drive to church on weekday evenings no longer involves Beltway traffic.  But this year we have the fury of our youngest, Jonathan, to contend with anytime he's allowed less than full and free access to one of the two winding staircases at the back of our church that lead up to the choir loft.  When I'm not serving in the altar, Julie and I take turns detailing Jonathan.  (There's no nursery at our parish.) The choir director and members are generous and gentle souls who smile amiably as our fifteen-month-old capers between their legs and I dash after him stooped over so as not to block their view of their music, but I naturally worry about testing their patience.  When I recently read a comment of Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, chair of the Department of External Church Relations of the Russian Orthodox Church, that because of the beauty and integrity of Orthodox divine services "two hours are never sufficient for me, since the time goes by so quickly and the dismissal comes too soon," I had trouble remembering the last time I felt my heart sink when a church service had to come to an end. 

Real, though, as the sheer physical demands are of juggling work, ordinary parenting responsibilities, and Holy Week, I’ve become increasingly aware in the last few years that my angst as the week approaches is tied up at least as much if not more with something other than the physical strain of it all.  The heavier load comes from an unspoken expectation that I should be at all the services, bar none. This is an expectation that truly is unspoken: nobody has ever said it to me.  I miss some services every year -- not since I was single and at seminary have I had a perfect Holy Week attendance record -- and always feel vaguely uneasy about missing, but what's become clearer to me is how the anxiety about falling short of my religious commitment is itself rooted in some pretty sinful stuff.  My concern is less about really falling short than about being perceived as falling short.  Paul urges the Colossians to do their work not as “menpleasers” but with God in mind (Col. 3:22), an admonition that echoes what Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount when he cautions against doing one’s praying in order to be seen by others rather than God (Mt. 6:5).  I get uptight about missing Holy Week services, it turns out, because it makes me uncomfortable to know that others aren't seeing me there, praying.

It's true that I like being at the services, know I am enriched by them when I can go, and am sorry to miss for these reasons, but none of this leads me to get short-tempered and irritable about missing; only the sinful stuff, the worry about what others might think, does that.  God knows it's possible to miss a Holy Week service in perfectly good faith and with one's will fully surrendered to God's.  The converse is also true -- it's possible to make a willful decision to attend, not in faith but in pride and regardless of whatever pressures it might put on spouse and children, or even on oneself in a way that then spills over onto loved ones. 

Certainly it's possible to miss church services out of mere sloth:  a feeling of just not wanting to be there where, all else being equal, God has called me to be and of preferring to be somewhere else.  What lies behind sloth in its genuine religious sense is what the church fathers called acedia.  In an excellent chapter on sloth that I assign my students, from her book Glittering Vices: A New Look at the Seven Deadly Sins and Their Remedies, author Rebecca DeYoung notes that a-kedeia "literally means 'lack of care'" and that according to Evagrius of Pontus and other desert fathers, it was "a grave spiritual malady, expressed in dejection or a feeling of oppressiveness or even disgust." (83)  Much more than just laziness, acedia boils down to resistance to God's love, which always means resistance to being transformed by God's love.  DeYoung points out, drawing on philosopher Josef Pieper, that sloth in this perspective can manifest itself, surprisingly perhaps, in the form of workaholism, insofar as I may overwork to avoid the contemplative stillness in which I can hear God.  Saying yes to so many professional commitments that I find myself without room for the services of Holy Week could be a sign of a slothful preference to keep God at arm's length.     

So I'll always have to view the "I have too much to do" reason for not attending a service with some healthy mistrust.  And I'll have to take care that an apparently more pious decision to attend, on some given occasion, isn't driven more by vanity than love.  There are those Holy Week moments where it's all we can do to send up the simple question: God, what will please you here? Less important than the frequency of the prayer is the quality: I have to really want to know the answer.  If how I ask is with my heart still subtly half-set on pleasing someone besides God -- myself or other people -- then my heart won't have been prepared to receive the answer.  "You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly," says James (4:3), who identifies the problem as "double-mindedness" (James 4:8).  The purification of heart that James says has to occur in order for this double-mindedness to be overcome is a process that God ceaselessly wills for each of us, and I pray that I'll be open to it again this Holy Week, both when I'm in church, and when I'm not.  It's a hope that makes Holy Week something to look forward to.

Christian Gonzalez
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