P a s s i o n W e e k
in the middle of the night"
By Protopresbiter Kyrillos Leret-Aldir.
Year after year this sentence drops in the well of my heart with a deep splash and an even drier, sharp and longer sound. In our churches we anticipate the Office of Mattins for Holy and Great Monday to the late evening of Palm Sunday. The invading dusk through the church windows assists to strike my emotion and thought in a simple vision. That one that we carry in our hearts, when we contemplate the reminiscences of our childhood and youth projected to the shortening future of the matured, or even shorter future, of the old age. Life is a night with so many imponderables. If we look to the past, how many events we would have liked to change! Our present, … are we totally happy with it? If only that little thing or factual point or feeling would be just a little different! And, our future how uncertain it is, how difficult, how unknown, and certainly to be concluded with our death. So many things are beyond our understanding, so many things escape our ability, so much we would love to enjoy. Life is a night, a very dark night which we survive to the next dawn and to the next dusk. Indeed, life is a dark night.
A great number of Orthodox Christians do not have this experience because they have not attended the three services of Mattins that correspond to Holy and Great Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. Which, as I was saying earlier, we celebrate on the evenings of Palm Sunday, Monday and Tuesday of Holy and Great Week. There is another reason also which may contribute to not experiencing this awareness and that is ignorance, or lack of training to perceive the language of the Church. I do not mean lack of understanding the ecclesiastical Greek – which also, obviously, could be a reason – but that personal care to enquire, to ponder, to attend frequently and lovingly the Church’s services. That is, as the Gospel says:
“The sower sows the word. And these are the ones by the way side where the word is sown. When they hear, Satan comes immediately and takes away the word that was sown in their hearts. These likewise are the ones sown on stony ground who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with gladness; and they have no root in themselves, and so endure only for a time. Afterward, when tribulation or persecution arises for the word’s sake, immediately they stumble. Now they are the ones sown among thorns; they are the ones who hear the word, and the cares of this world, the deceitfulness of riches, and the desires for other things entering in choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful” (Mk. 4:3-20).
Year after year this troparion sinks into and wounds my heart, not with pain but to alertness towards my future, my eternal future! It is an openness of my unreadiness for my death because I feel the multiplicity of tides with and interests in this fleshy life. They all occupy my heart in place of the presence of my God.
“…blessed is the servant whom He shall find watching, but unworthy is he whom He shall find in slothfulness.”
The priest comes out from the Sanctuary with the icon of Christ. Not the icon of Jesus the mild, the teacher, the glorious. But the Christ, the one who took on Himself the sins of the World, its insults, affronts, revilements, abuses, its scoffs, its mockeries and its persecutions. Not the Jesus dead in the Cross, but the Christ in the midst of His suffering:
“The Creator is struck on the face… By His own consent… He is smitten with a reed… The Judge is spat upon… God who has adorned the whole earth with flowers is crowned with thorns; He is scourged, and patiently He endures mockery and wears the scarlet robe of disgrace. All these things He who is God accepts and suffers in His flesh.” (Canticle Five, Small Compline of Holy and Great Thursday.)
Am I in slothfulness? Beware, then, my soul, and be not overcome by sleep, return to soberness, you are not alone:
“Let your heart not be troubled: you believe in God, believe also in Me” (Jn. 14:1),“…keep my commandments” (v. 15), “I will not leave you orphans” (v. 18).
The parable of the ten virgins is used now to introduce us into a psychological metamorphosis in our heart.
A few times I have heard the sentence ‘the Church is a hospital’ and I have felt somehow uncomfortable with it. It was used to accommodate the toleration of some indulgence in misdeeds. Yes, the Church is a hospital where also there are amputations and drastic medicines. It is a hospital where there are ongoing treatments against sin and a rebuilding of the weaknesses left by sin in our physical and spiritual organism, that is, our Christian personality. And I say Christian personality very intentionally, because, once we are Christians, we are not anymore just men or women, we are a new creation, we are children of God. Therefore, the treatment of our ailments has to be appropriate for that type of being and existence. The treatment we receive in the hospital of the Church is geared to our eternal life.
What is our eternal life? “Truly, truly (Αμήν, αμήν) I say to you he who hears My word and believes in Him who sent Me has everlasting life, and shall not come into judgement, but has passed from death into life” (Jn. 5:24). Therefore, eternal life is Christ, to receive Christ. However, we must not forget His other words: “Who ever desires to come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me” (Mk. 8:34b). Neither, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in the heavens” (Mt. 7:12.)
Therefore, last year, I was writing that “Christian life is action: action of prayer; action of learning what is the will of God, that is His commandments; and action of fulfilling these commandments of God.” The Holy Mother Church, each year, drops in the well of our heart this warning, for us to sharpen our watchfulness; but also for us to rejoice in that our Lord and Master of our eternal life is the bridegroom of each one of us: He comes with love to love. The Church, in its ceremonies, makes us to repeat three times the poem -or troparion- and so, also, during the three days that antecede the Great and Holy Thursday. In this day it will be put before our contemplation the greatest act of love of Jesus the Christ, the Word of God –Ο Λόγος τού Θεού- Incarnate and the Redeemer and Saviour of mankind: the institution of the Eternal Mystery of His presence among us: “I will not leave you orphans”
“My Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is He who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world… I am the bread of life… that one may eat of it and not die … the bread I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world … Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in Him. As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who feeds on Me will live because of Me” (Jn. 6:32-58.)
So, in the hospital that is the Church we receive “the medicine of immortality, and the antidote which prevents us from dying,” says the holy bishop Ignatius of Antioch (who suffered martyrdom in 110 A.D.) in his letter to the Ephesians. This is what we do in the celebration of the Divine Liturgy, under the guidance of the Comforter, in obedience to the Archbishop and the presbyters with an undivided mind, that we should live in God through Jesus Christ. So, looking towards the Holy and Great Thursday the Church sings to us:
“Behold the Bridegroom comes in the middle of the night; and blessed is the servant whom He shall find watching, but unworthy is he whom He shall find in slothfulness. Beware, then, O my soul, and be not overcome by sleep, lest thou be given over to death and shut out of the Kingdom. But return to soberness and cry aloud: Holy, holy, holy art Thou, O God: through the Mother of God have mercy upon us.”
For us, later, to reply:
I see Thy bridal chamber adorned, O my Saviour, and I have no wedding garment that I may enter there. Make the robe of my soul to shine, O Giver of Light, and save me... and save me… and save me! (Exapostilarion of Holy and Great Week)
To be continued
© Protopresbyter Kyrillos Leret-Aldir, April 2003.
Icon of Christ the Bridegroom, written by Priestmonk Luca in Valamo Monastery in 1889. © Conciliar Press, 2003 (with permission).
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