The apex of the year for Orthodox Christians is easily Holy Week and Pascha. I had the opportunity in 2008 to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. To receive communion in the tomb of Christ, or to stand at Golgotha is no little thing. And yet, the services of Holy Week within one’s own parish are a greater thing. I say this not only from my own experience but on the testimony of the saints as well.
St. Gregory of Nyssa had some very perceptive words for would-be pilgrims:
When the Lord invites the blessed to their inheritance in the kingdom of heaven, He does not include a pilgrimage to Jerusalem among their good deeds; when He announces the Beatitudes, He does not name among them that sort of devotion. But as to that which neither makes us blessed nor sets us in the path to the kingdom, for what reason it should be run after, let him that is wise consider….
Change of place does not effect any drawing nearer unto God, but wherever you may be, God will come to you, if the chambers of your soul be found of such a sort that He can dwell in you and walk in you. But if you keep your inner man full of wicked thoughts, even if you were on Golgotha, even if you were on the Mount of Olives, even if you stood on the memorial-rock of the Resurrection, you will be as far away from receiving Christ into yourself, as one who has not even begun to confess Him. Therefore, my beloved friend, counsel the brethren to be absent from the body to go to our Lord, rather than to be absent from Cappadocia to go to Palestine; and if any one should adduce the command spoken by our Lord to His disciples that they should not leave Jerusalem, let him be made to understand its true meaning.
There is, indeed, a journey made in the services of Holy Week. The events of that week, carefully shared in the fullness of their significance, form the framework for a pilgrimage of the heart. Orthodoxy should never be reduced to mere mental exercise. A liturgical pilgrimage is physical, even sensual. Set in the context of the worshipping Church, it carries us into the mystery that is set before us. Just as the Holy Eucharist is that most perfect presentation of the death and resurrection of Christ, in which we not only remember, but actually partake, so, too, the liturgical drama of Holy Week forms an extended Divine Liturgy. It is, if you will, the whole of our salvation remembered, and mystically made present, over the course of days rather than mere hours.
The friend of St. Gregory of Nyssa, that other Gregory, called “the Theologian,” gave instructions to his congregation for Great and Holy Pascha. His words are as apt some 1600 years later as they were the night they were spoken:
If you are a Simon of Cyrene, take up the Cross and follow. If you are crucified with Him as a robber, acknowledge God as a penitent robber. If even He was numbered among the transgressors for you and your sin, become law-abiding for His sake. Worship Him Who was hanged for you, even if you yourself are hanging; make some gain even from your wickedness; purchase salvation by your death; enter with Jesus into Paradise, so that you may learn from what you have fallen. Contemplate the glories that are there; let the murderer die outside with his blasphemies; and if you be a Joseph of Arimathæa, beg the Body from him that crucified Him, make your own that which cleanses the world. If you be a Nicodemus, the worshipper of God by night, bury Him with spices. If you be a Mary, or another Mary, or a Salome, or a Joanna, weep in the early morning. Be first to see the stone taken away, and perhaps you will see the Angels and Jesus Himself. Say something; hear His Voice. If He says to you, “Touch Me not,” stand afar off; reverence the Word, but do not grieve; for He knows those to whom He appears first. Keep the feast of the Resurrection; come to the aid of Eve who was first to fall, of Her who first embraced the Christ, and made Him known to the disciples. Be a Peter or a John; hasten to the Sepulchre, running together, running against one another, vying in the noble race. And even if you be beaten in speed, win the victory of zeal; not looking into the tomb, but going in. And if, like a Thomas, you were left out when the disciples were assembled to whom Christ shows Himself, when you do see Him do not be faithless; and if you do not believe, then believe those who tell you; and if you cannot believe them either, then have confidence in the print of the nails. If He descend into Hell, descend with Him. Learn to know the mysteries of Christ there also…. And if He ascend up into Heaven, ascend with Him. Be one of those angels who escort Him, or one of those who receive Him. Bid the gates be lifted up, or be made higher, that they may receive Him, exalted after His Passion….
It was just this sort of understanding that yielded the depths of theology within the soul of St. Gregory.
Mohammed commanded his followers to journey to Mecca. The notion, like so much that he taught, was a distorted version of the Christianity he observed from afar. Christian pilgrimage to Jerusalem was thriving at the very time he was writing. It is obvious, however, that he only saw the outward throngs, perhaps even the business of hosting pilgrims. But he never saw the mystery of what Christ did in Jerusalem nor the reality shared with believers who made that inward pilgrimage wherever they lived.
St. Paul used the imagery of the journey in his own life. He placed himself in Christ in fullest way possible: “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless, I live. Yet not I, but Christ lives in me.” By faith, he became an eyewitness of everything he preached.
This is the same invitation that is given to us in Christ. In Holy Week, it is writ large so that we can read it with care, pausing over each letter and each word. Holy Week dwells among us and always calls to us. But how can we refuse to be there when such care and effort has been made by so many through the centuries to make this inner journey possible?
No one can go there in our place. Christ did not die in order to keep us from dying. He died so that we might die with Him, bearing the Cross He commanded us to take up. But dying with Him, we live and become partakers of the Kingdom.
This year in Jerusalem! It’s in your parish Church, a heart’s reach away.