“There are some who believe that the Lord suffered death for love of man, but because they do not attain to this love in their own souls, it seems to them that it is an old story of bygone days. But when the soul knows the love of God by the Holy Spirit she feels without a shadow of doubt that the Lord is our Father, the closest, the best and dearest of fathers, and there is no greater happiness than to love God with all our hearts, with all our souls, and with all our minds, according to the Lord’s commandment, and our neighbor as ourselves.” -St Silouan.
“Blessed is the soul that knows her Creator and has grown to love Him, for she has found perfect rest in Him. The Lord bids us love Him with all our hearts and all our souls—but how is it possible to love Him Whom we have never seen, and how may we learn this love? The Lord is made known by His effect on the soul. When the Lord has visited her, the soul knows that a dear Guest has come and gone, and she yearns for Him and seeks Him with tears: ‘Where art Thou, my Light, where art Thou, my Joy? Thy trace is fragrant in my soul but Thou art not there and my soul yearns for Thee, and my heart aches and is sad, and nothing rejoices me because I have grieved my Lord and He hath hidden Himself from my sight.’” – St Silouan.
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Christ is with us! Wherever you are in the world, if you are observing the solemn liturgies of Holy Week, or if you have forgotten to attend them, were too busy, or are not yet Orthodox, I hope you are well! This Holy Week, my first as an Orthodox Christian, I have been thinking of my fellow Orthodox, especially those newly illumined in the Faith, like me, and also the catechumens preparing for their chrismations at Pascha. Yesterday’s service of the Anointing was absolutely remarkable, and the anointing at the end reminded me very much of my chrismation.
In these holy days, when God’s grace fills the hearts of all of us who are partaking in the beauty and majesty of the Holy Week services, I think constantly of my family members, both Catholics and lapsed Catholics, and how I so wish they could be a part of the fullness of this Faith, experiencing the incomparable richness and profound depth of our observance of Holy Week leading up to the Passion Gospels of Holy Thursday. In the Liturgy of St Basil’s Mystical Supper this morning, the Church remembered her Bridegroom Christ’s institution of the Eucharist at the Last Super two thousand years ago in Jerusalem.
The twelve Gospels of the Passion of our Lord which we heard tonight recall in vividly transportive and soul-stirring detail the dramatic final hours of Jesus’ earthly life as a Man: His betrayal by Judas for thirty pieces of silver, His trial and humiliation, Simon Peter’s denial of Him three times, the chief priest and the blood-minded crowd’s mockery and hatred for Him, Whom they would not know or believe, and His Crucifixion whereby, by submitting to death on the Cross, He opened the possibility of eternal life to all who believe in Him.
I’ve just returned to my flat from the chanting of the 12 Gospels of the Passion at St Andrew’s church here in Edinburgh. Holy Thursday is always profoundly moving for me, in part because it was two years ago at the Holy Thursday Liturgy at St Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Washington that I first experienced Orthodox worship and liturgical life. Since that day, my life has truly never been the same!
Tonight I was more conscious than ever before of the words of the fifteenth antiphon of the Matins service for Great and Holy Friday. Here the Orthodox Church in America’s late Archbishop +Job (d. 2009, Memory Eternal!) sings the beautiful antiphon:
Today He who hung the earth upon the waters is hung on the tree,
The King of the angels is decked with a crown of thorns.
He who wraps the heavens in clouds is wrapped in the purple of mockery.
He who freed Adam in the Jordan is slapped on the face.
The Bridegroom of the Church is affixed to the Cross with nails.
The Son of the Virgin is pierced by a spear.
We worship Thy passion, O Christ. . .
Show us also Thy glorious Resurrection.”
The services of Holy Week so far has been so ethereal, so other-worldly, unlike anything I’ve ever experienced! In the kathisma chants tonight between the Gospel readings, I was struck by the enormity of the cosmic shift presented in the words of the Church’s fifteenth antiphon of the Matins for Holy Friday, which St. Andrew’s parish here chanted on Thursday night. As we all stepped forward to venerate the icon of Christ hanging on the Cross, I recalled the words of St. Paul in Romans 8:21-22:
“The creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now.”
How the Crucifixion altered the cosmos, all of creation, I cannot hope to rationally understand, but only contemplate in wonder! What an earth-shattering contrast, what a horrifically awe-inspiring sight it must have been for those who believed in Christ as the Son of God and God Incarnate- His disciples, male and female, and His mother – to behold Jesus allowing Himself to be put to death on the Cross! That the God who created the heavens and the earth let Himself be nailed upon the Cross, that the God who led the Hebrews out of Egypt in the Exodus and protected them as His people is mocked, abused and condemned by the very chief priests of Israel and a Jerusalem mob! What an extraordinary, horrifying, fearfully awesome thing!
As we wait for the risen Lord, beseeching that He “show us also Thy glorious Resurrection”, I hope you know, wherever you might be, that right now, there are thousands of holy people, nuns and monks, priests and bishops praying ceaselessly for you. Every Orthodox Christian prays for you in the antiphons of the Liturgy- whether these people are your brothers and sisters in faith, or strangers unknown to you, they still pray for you. The saints pray continually for us. As St Silouan reminds us,
“The Saints grieve to see people living on earth and not knowing that if they were to love one another the world would know freedom from sin; and where sin is absent there is joy and gladness of the Holy Spirit. The Saints in heaven though the Holy Spirit behold the glory of God and the beauty of the Lord’s countenance. But in this same Holy Spirit they see our lives too, and our deeds. They know our sorrows and hear our burning prayers. When they were living on earth they learned of the love of God from the Holy Spirit; and he who knows love on earth takes it with him into eternal life, where love grows and becomes perfect. The souls of the Saints know the Lord and His goodness toward man, wherefore their spirits burn with love for the peoples. They were chosen by the Holy Spirit to pray for the whole world.”
If you are not yet Orthodox, I earnestly hope you will seek out the fullness of the original Faith, a fullness which, in all my own searching, I have never experienced anywhere else, in any other faith tradition or community. I know many wonderful men and women living in the Roman Catholic faith in which I was raised, and I met many people in the different churches, synagogues and mosques I have visited who truly love God. But truly there is nothing like the Church’s liturgical worship and its Orthodox Faith.
The prayers of holy men and women especially are jewels to be valued above any other earthly thing (See James 5:16). These saints, living on earth and those now departed, alive in Christ, love each of you, Orthodox or not. Christian or not, believer or not. As St Silouan reminds us,
“The Holy Spirit is love; and the souls of all the holy who dwell in heaven overflow with this love. And on earth this same Holy Spirit is in the souls of those who love God. All heaven beholds the earth in the Holy Spirit, and hears our prayers and carries them to God.”
Wherever you are, I hope you have a joyous Pascha! If you are not Orthodox but want to experience the indescribable beauty and other-worldly mystical transcendence which the Orthodox liturgy alone offers, do not delay: visit your nearest Orthodox church and attend the Paschal Liturgy, the feast of feasts, the miracle of miracles! This time of year, more than ever, you will behold people exuding a quiet radiance, an inner joy which comes from participating in the full richness and mystery of this ancient Faith, the reservoir and the jewel of the timeless Church.
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