Holy Week in the Eastern Mode

Unlike a Catholic or Protestant church, there are no pews, no booklets, no projection screens.  No announcements.  Lots of icons; fewer stained-glass windows.  We’re worshipping in the lands where Christianity was invented: the eastern end of the Roman Empire.  The Mediterranean world of flat bread, wine, and olive oil.  The great centers of faith were places like Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople, and Jerusalem, where people spoke Greek.  Rome wasn’t even the capital of the Roman after Constantine gave up trying to defend it from Barbarians.   He moved the capital to Byzantium, which he named after himself.

For the past ten days, we’ve been taking part in a course at St. George’s Anglican College in Arab East Jerusalem.  With twelve others, mostly Americans, we’ve traced Jesus’ last week and explored the liturgies of six Orthodox branches of Christendom: Greek, Russian, Armenian, Coptic, Syrian, and Ethiopian.

Communion of Saints Icon, Holy Saturday, Russian Orthodox church

The worship services we visited were a kind of dance between solo and ensemble.  On the one hand, a choir or two and a group of clergy follow the service: an ancient sequence of chants.  On the other hand, individual people come and go, taking care of spiritual business around the church.  So you see people quietly whispering a prayer in front of an icon, crossing themselves or kissing the painting.  You see people bowing and even prostrating themselves, like Muslims at prayer.  They light long, slender tapered candles and place them in bowls of sand.  Scott Gunn Candle woman(Photo credit below: Scott Gunn)

And then someone in silk vestments catches everyone’s attention by swinging a thurible full of incense, three times in each of three directions.  As the choral music swells, the celebrant, perhaps wearing a crown or a brocaded hood, sweeps out of the doors from the mostly-concealed sanctum, and redirects the chant in a booming voice.


In the picture below, the Armenian Patriarch prepares to wash the feet of his twelve bishops, humbling his otherwise very exalted self on Holy Thursday as Jesus did.

Armenian Patriarch will wash the feet of his twelve bishops

Virtually every member of the cast is male in an Orthodox liturgy, though at the Russian service, a nun carried the Patriarch’s staff when he was not using it.  I was struck by the sacred seriousness of everything, but despite all the formality and traditions, people seemed at home.  It was like going to grandma’s for Thanksgiving: you dress up a little more, and remember not to slouch, and it’s just the same as last year, but that doesn’t make it boring.

We were surprised at the number of folks filming the services on their cell phones.  A young deacon, when he wasn’t moving a lectern or carrying a candle, seemed to be documenting everything.  I wondered if he would use the film later to prepare for next year, when he’d have a bigger role.  We were in our own private devotional worlds, where the veil between the visible and Icon of St. Gerasimus in Russian Orthodox Cathedral, Jerusaleminvisible worlds is thinner than usual.  You look at Mary’s sad eyes in a painting, or close your own eyes and listen to the singing.  It’s all in a minor key, which makes the prayer seem more profound, despite the fact that you don’t know any Armenian or Russian.

Most of the walls and ceilings are covered with paintings or mosaics: pictures of bearded men and veiled women, most with haloes and carrying symbols of their own struggles with the selfish distractions and obsessions of life.  Prominent are the fathers and mothers of the early church who retreated to the desert, seeking enlightenment in poverty.  The faces aren’t looking at you, but they are watching over you, somehow. Scripture calls them the great cloud of witnesses.  They chanted these very melodies, five hundred, a thousand, and even fifteen hundred years ago, in walled cities and caves in the desert.  Some were severe zealots trembling before a harsh divine judge, but many were open-hearted healers of the sick, or drum-majors for justice.

On the left is the monastic guru St. Gerasimus, who left his wealthy parents in Lycia, Asia Minor, to seek a more honest and compassionate life in the desert.  He was said to have tamed a lion by extracting a thorn from its paw.

One of the most dramatic rituals of Orthodox Holy Week comes when the Greek Patriarch enters the tomb where the crucified Jesus was laid.  He emerges with a new fire, which is transferred by candles, Screen Shot 2017-04-17 at 11.53.38 AMlamps, and lanterns to waiting congregations all over Jerusalem, and also flown by jet to Athens, Moscow, and the New World.  We learned that archaeologists believe it quite likely that this, or one of the tombs within a fifty-foot radius, was the resting place of Jesus.  Here is the Holy Fire just after it arrived in the Russian Orthodox Cathedral a mile west of where it was kindled.

Compared to our westernized worship, the Orthodox are much more into the sacredness of beauty.  More interested in mystery than belief.  They are swimming in spirituality.

For me, the point of Holy Week is that by following the actions of Jesus and his followers closely, I can better understand why he didn’t flinch from a fate I am sure he knew was coming.  If God could take on human form, Huston Smith once wrote, this is what God would look like:

  • a suffering servant, to whom no one was too lowly to care for
  • a critic of the empires that worship wealth, violence, and dominance
  • a spiritual doctor of paradoxical wisdom who unerringly seemed to know when prescriptions of yin or yang were indicated.

Jesus accepted the phony trials, the mob’s braying, and Pontius Pilate’s cynical hand-washing gesture.  And a few days after dying, he began appearing in some strange new form, a resurrected being.  He had been divine, after all.  An icon.

This week has confirmed my intuition that something very mysterious and inspiring happened.  Before that, resurrection had just been a theory: at the end of time, God will reunite bodies and souls.  Hundreds and soon thousands of people became convinced that Jesus’ teaching, healing, and passion were, in fact, a vision of the eternal goodness, truth, and beauty of The One in whose image we are made.

At its best, religion gives us windows that help us see that One.  Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism parted company a thousand years ago.  It was really political, although there were church matters at stake: Latin or vernacular?  Pope or Councils?  Filioque or not?

They quit looking THROUGH the windows.  All they could manage was to look AT each other’s windows.  Or to use one of Jesus’ best metaphors, they complained about the speck in the other’s eye, ignoring the log in their own.

It’s been eye-opening for me to come to the East and look through some ancient windows which are new to me.

LM inside Christ Anglican Church, Nazareth

Lynnell and I met at Christ Church, Detroit in 1983.  We took this picture two weeks ago at our sister parish, Christ Church, Nazareth–Jesus’ home town–34 years later.


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I am an Episcopal priest, retired Upper School Chaplain at Breck School in Golden Valley, MN, and the author of the world religions text "Tree of World Religions," available on amazon.com. I've also done two lessons for TED-Ed.

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