Wednesday, 19 March 2008

Faithful stewards of the Mysteries of God

Patrick Comerford

Holy Week, from Palm Sunday to the end of the Easter Eve on the Saturday, is the most solemn, precious and sacred week in the calendar of the Church. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, this week is known as Great and Holy Week. On this week, we mark the last week in the earthly life of Christ before his Crucifixion on Good Friday, his burial, and his Resurrection on Easter Day.

The Early Church gave greatest prominence during the “Great Week” to Good Friday and then to the Sabbatum Magnum or Great Sabbath on Holy Saturday or Easter Eve. The earliest references to marking this week are found in the Apostolical Constitutions, when Christians abstained from wine and meat, observing absolute fasts on the Friday and Saturday.

During Great and Holy Week in the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Orthros or Matins services for each day are held on the preceding evening. Thus, the Matins service of Great Monday is sung on Palm Sunday evening, and so on, allowing many more people to take part. Fasting during Great and Holy Week is very strict, with dairy products, meat and meat products strictly forbidden, no-one drinks wine, and no oil is used in the cooking. Friday and Saturday are strict fast days, and nothing should be eaten on those days.

The services on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday evenings are often called the “Bridegroom Prayers,” with their theme of Christ as the Bridegroom of the Church, a theme movingly expressed in the troparion solemnly chanted each evening. As Tuesday evening draws to a close, the lengthy but sorrowful and deeply-moving Hymn of Kassiani is sung, recounting the story of the woman who washed Christ’s feet in the house of Simon the Pharisee (Luke 7: 36-50).

On Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday the Divine Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts is celebrated, without the anaphora or concecration, so that commuicants receive the Eucharist from the reserved Holy Mysteries. Many churches in Greece also have a service of Anointing on the Wednesday evening.

The Divine Liturgy of the Last Supper is celebraterd on the morning of Great and Holy Thursday. The Matins of Great and Holy Friday, with 12 Gospel readings, takes place on the evening of Great and Holy Thursday.

The Vespers of Holy Friday are sung on the Friday morning or afternoon, when the figure of Christ is taken from the Cross, and the eipitaphios, a richly-embroidered icon of cloth, is laid on the bier in the church and strewn with flowers. On Friday evening, rose petals and rose water are scattered and sprinkled over the epitaphios and the bier, which are then carried in a candlelit procession through the parish as the hymns of Lamentation are sung.

On Saturday night, the service begins in complete darkness with the chanting of the Midnight Office. While the church is still in darkness until the stroke of midnight. Then, the priest lights a single candle from the eternal flame behind the iconostasis or icon screen, and as he comes out from through the royal doors, the light spreads rapidly from one to another until everyone in the church holds a lighting candle and the whole church is filled with light. The priest and choir then lead the congregation in a procession out of the church, brnging the light of Christ out into the darkness of the world. The procession moves around the church, recalling the women who came with myrrh to the tomb on the first Easter morning. As the procession returns to the church, the closed doors are opened once again, symbolising the stobe being rolled away from the tomb of Christ on the first Easter.

The Chrism Eucharist

Traditionally, the Western Church has celebrated the Chrism Mass on Maundy Thursday or Holy Thursday, although it is often brought forward to one of the earlier days in the week so as many as possible of the priests and deacons in a diocese can join their bishop in renewing their ordination vows and for the blessing of oils for the anointing of the sick.

In the Western Church, we have often observed the Saturday of this as a day of silence and prayer which remembers the Christ lying dead in the tomb. No Eucharist is celebrated, and the sanctuary or chancel is left bare and unlit.

But in the West we have often neglected the significance of this day. When we use this as a day of preparing and decorating the church with flowers and Easter bunnies and chocalate eggs so that everything is in place for the children’s services on Sunday morning, we miss the great catechetical opportunity to teach about the significance of that day in the tomb, and the meaning of what the Orthodox know as the Harrowing of Hell.

Holy Week this year

Holy Week, or Great and Holy Week, began on Sunday, or Palm Sunday. On Sunday afternoon, I was in the Church of Saint John the Evangelist in Sandymount, where I read the Gospel and the Eulogy at a Memorial Eucharist for my friend and colleague, the Revd Dr Robin Wakeley, who died a year ago. Robin and I had been at the same selection conference nine years ago, and his tragic death last year robbed the Church of Ireland of a deeply spiritual priest.

On Monday evening, I led Compline in Whitechurch Parish Church in Rathfarnham, where Philip McKinley, the “Hard Gospel” Project Officer in the Republic of Ireland, spoke on the theme of “Sacrifice.”

On Tuesday at noon, I was in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, where Archbishop John Neill presided and preached at the Chrism Eucharist. During the Eucharist, 12 lay ministry candidates were commissioned as parish readers, and a further three were re-commissioned.

Most of the priests of the diocese, the two deacons, and many readers and ordinands were also present. The priests among us were reminded by the Archbishop that at our ordination we had taken “authority to watch and care for God’s people, to absolve and bless them in his name, to proclaim the Gospel of Salvation, and to minister the sacraments of his new Covenant.” And he asked us: “Will you continue as faithful stewards of the mysteries of God, preaching the Gospel of Christ, and ministering his holy sacraments?”

“By the help of God, I will.”

On Tuesday evening, we were with the parishioners of Whitechurch in the Chapel of the Augustinian House in Orlagh, at the top of the Ballycullen Road. This retreat house overlooks a large number of new houses in the sprawling suburbs of south Dublin, and out across the lit-up city and Dublin Bay.

The Service of the Word was led by the Revd Obinna Ulogwara, and Philip McKinley spoke once again, this time on “Confidence.”

Tomorrow evening, I hope to celebrate the Maundy Thursday Eucharist at 8 p.m. in Whitechurch Parish Church, when Philip will talk about “Receiving.” And I hope to lead the Good Friday evening service there at 8 p.m., when Philip will speak on the topic of “Arrest.”

For many years, I have argued that Holy or Great Saturday should not be marked in Whitechurch by taking our btime up with preparing and decorating the church for Sunday morning. I want us to remind ourselves about the significance of that day in the tomb, and the meaning of the Harrowing of Hell. Over the past few years, I have led an hour of meditation, readings and music on the theme of “Waiting at the Tomb.”

Once again, we will recall and rejoice in the Harrowing of Hell on Saturday at 5 p.m., with appropriate readings, meditations, drawing on music from the Orthodox tradition, and listening to other apporpriate music, including selections from Arvo Part and Verdi.

And then on Sunday we can celebrate Easter Day, the Day of Resurrection, with new hope and new joy.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation at the Church of Ireland Theological College.