31 March 2010

Wednesday in Holy Week, Spy Wednesday

Caravaggio, The Taking of Christ in the Garden (1598), the National Gallery of Ireland ... the betrayal of Christ is a major theme for the Wednesday of Holy Week

Patrick Comerford

This week, the week between Palm Sunday and Easter Day, is the last week of Lent. This week is known in the Western Church as Holy Week, and in the Orthodox Church as Great and Holy Week.

The dates of Lent, Holy Week and Easter fall on the same days this year for the Western Church and the Orthodox Church. In the Western Church, this week lasts from Palm Sunday until but not including Easter Day. In the Orthodox Church, Great Week lasts from Lazarus until but not including Easter Day.

On this week, we recall the last week of Christ’s earthly life culminating in his crucifixion on Good Friday and his resurrection on Easter Day. Then today, which is popularly known in Ireland and many other countries as Spy Wednesday, the tempo of Holy Week is stepped up.

In the chapel of the Church of Ireland Theological Institute this morning, we continue our series of readings of dramatised versions of the Passion Narrative, reading from the Gospel according to Saint Luke. At the Community Eucharist at 5 p.m. this evening, the visiting preacher is Archbishop Alan Harper. Choral Evensong in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, at 6 p.m. is sung by the Cathedral Girls’ Choir. Then at 9 p.m. this evening, we end the day with Tenebrae, a traditional Holy Week service.

The word tenebrae comes from the Latin word meaning darkness. In this service, all of the candles on the altar and in the church are gradually extinguished until the whole church is in complete darkness. At the moment of darkness, a loud clash occurs symbolising the death of Jesus. The strepitus, as it is known, may also symbolise the earthquake that followed his death: “Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last. At that moment, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split” (Matthew 27: 50-51).

The Betrayal by Judas, Giotto, ca 1304-1306

This Wednesday is traditionally known as Spy Wednesday because it is said that on this day Judas Iscariot agreed to show the chief priests where they could easily capture Christ, betraying him for thirty pieces of silver (see Matthew 26: 14-16; Mark 14: 10-12; Luke 22: 3-6).

Jesus was in Bethany, visiting the house of Simon the Leper. There he was anointed on the head by Mary with very expensive ointment. Some of the disciples were indignant about this apparently wasteful extravagance, claiming the myrrh could have been sold and the money given to the poor.

But Christ told them that the woman’s actions would be remembered wherever the Gospel is preached (Matthew 26: 13), for she had anointed him in preparation for his burial (Matthew 26: 12).

Judas went to the Sanhedrin and offered them his support in exchange for money. From this moment on Judas was looking for an opportunity to betray Jesus. Because that betrayal took place on Wednesday, many Orthodox Christians fast on most Wednesdays during the year.

In the Orthodox Liturgy today, Great and Holy Wednesday, the hymns of the Bridegroom Service remind us of the woman who poured precious ointment on Christ’s head at the home of Simon the Leper (Matthew 26: 7).

The story of the woman who washed Christ’s feet in the house of Simon the Leper in Bethany is recalled in the Hymn of Kassiani

The Matins (ὄρθρος, Orthros) for Great and Holy Wednesday was served towards the end of the Bridegroom service yesterday [Tuesday] evening. The troprarion, ‘See the Bridegroom comes at midnight,’ was sung last night, as on Monday and Tuesday evening, and the Hymn of Kassiani was sung too. This hymn, which was written in the ninth century by Kassiani the Nun, tells the story of the woman who washed Christ’s feet in the house of Simon the Leper in Bethany.

The two principle themes of the day in Orthodox liturgy are interwoven in the texts: the betrayal of Christ by Judas, and the anointing of Christ by the nameless woman in the house of Simon in Bethany (Matthew 26: 6-16), which is read at Vespers.

The hymns sung at Vespers are drawn from those of Matins and – as on Monday and Tuesday – the service is part of the Liturgy of the Presanctified which, in practice, is celebrated this morning.

Much of the Hymn of Kassiani is written from the perspective of the sinful woman:

O Lord,
the woman who had fallen into many sins,
sensing your Divinity,
takes upon herself the duty of a myrrh-bearer.

With lamentations
she brings you myrrh in anticipation of your entombment.
“Woe to me!” she cries,
“for me night has become a frenzy of licentiousness,
a dark and moonless love of sin.

“Receive the fountain of my tears,
O you who gathers into clouds the waters of the sea.
Incline unto me, unto the sighings of my heart,
O you who bowed the heavens by your ineffable condescension.

“I will wash your immaculate feet with kisses
and dry them again with the tresses of my hair;
those very feet at whose sound Eve hid herself from you in fear
when she heard you walking in Paradise in the twilight of the day.

“As for the multitude of my sins
and the depths of your judgments,
who can search them out, O Saviour of souls, my Saviour?

“Do not disdain me your handmaiden,
O you who are boundless in mercy.”

The Byzantine musical composition expresses the poetry so strongly that it leaves many people in a state of prayerful tears. The hymn can last for 25 minutes or more and liturgically and musically it is one of the high points of the year.

The woman figuratively draws a sharp contrast with Judas. She is a repentant sinner, and as she prepares for the death and burial of Christ she is reconciled with God. Judas, who has been given everything by Christ, shows no gratitude and turns his back on salvation.

The theme of anointing is continued in most Orthodox parishes this evening, when the principle service is the Anointing of the Sick. Although these services are not canonically liturgical, they attract large numbers of people, who ask for anointing for both spiritual and physical healing.

Collect of the Day:

Lord God,
whose blessed Son our Saviour
gave his back to the smiters,
and did not hide his face from shame:
Give us grace to endure the sufferings
of this present time,
with sure confidence in the glory that shall be revealed;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord. Amen.

Post-Communion Prayer:

Lord Jesus Christ,
you humbled yourself in taking the form of a servant
and in obedience died on the cross for our salvation.
Give us the mind to follow you
and to proclaim you as Lord and King,
to the glory of God the Father. Amen.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.

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