Orthodox Holy Week: An Insider’s View

St. Katherine Greek Orthodox Church, Redondo Beach, CA

“My feet hurt,” Fr J muttered quietly to himself as he closed the royal doors after Liturgy. “It’s only Palm Sunday – I’m going to be in big trouble later this week if I don’t find some quiet time.”

Born and raised James Zimmermann in Janesville, Wisconsin, James was known as “Fr J” by the people of Dormition Orthodox parish in Maple Grove, Minnesota. At the age of 55 with twenty years of ordained priesthood under his belt, Fr J was the pastor of a parish of 100 members in the northwestern suburbs of the Twin cities area.

Fr J had many things on his mind, chief of all the unusual silence from his 20-year old daughter, Nadia, who had not yet responded to his texts asking her if she would be home for Pascha. Fr J padded around the sanctuary of his modest church building, temporarily avoiding the stream of people who lingered in the church with questions and requests. Sure enough, his cell phone vibrated with a text. Not Nadia, but his wife, Susan. “Staying for 30 minutes then heading to the office.” Susan was a partner in her accounting office, with one week left before the annual IRS federal return deadline. He was impressed that she made it to church.

As he headed to the prothesis (table of preparation) to consume a chalice leftover from Communion – Deacon Gene was in the process of purifying the second chalice – Gina, the choir director, appeared in the vestry room adjacent to the sanctuary. “Fr J, a moment?”

“Gina, nice job today. How are things going for Wednesday’s Bridegroom Matins?”

“We’ve been focusing on Holy Week – especially the lamentations of Mary and Arise, o God, on Holy Saturday. Haven’t had a chance to look at Bridegroom Matins yet – I’ll look tonight.”

“OK. Bridegroom Matins is part of Holy Week – will we have a choir?” Fr J responded with an edge of anxiety in his voice.

“I’ll tell them. There are a lot of work conflicts this week. I’m taking a personal day on Friday, and am good for Thursday night. If no one comes on Wednesday, I can try to sing it myself.”

Gina was on her third year as Dormition’s choir director. A graduate of St. Olaf College’s prestigious music program, she raised the choir to a new level, but was learning the liturgical cycle on the fly. Upon graduating, Gina found that the market for high school conductors and vocal coaches was nonexistent. She got an MBA and had a responsible job as a product manager for General Mills, but occasionally had long hours. Fr J had considered sending her to seminary to learn the liturgy, but did not want to offer her as a sacrificial lamb to the merciless gods of theology graduate school finances.

“If you can’t make it, ask Deacon Gene. He can do it.”

Gina chuckled – “of course he can, but he should be with you, in the altar.”

Deacon Gene was nearing retirement and a job change had him move from the Chicago cathedral to Dormition when it was founded. He was musically gifted, even though he couldn’t read sheet music. He had led the choir as a substitute director and could sing all of the melodies and tones effortlessly and beautifully. FrJ was pretty sure he was some kind of Slav – he always smelled like garlic on holidays, and he doted on his insufferable mother, Vera, a cranky octogenarian who happened to move with him, and always voiced complaints at parish meetings. She was the only one who openly referred to Deacon Gene as “Zhenia” – at coffee hour, you always knew Vera was in the vicinity when you heard Vera “confiding” in Zhenia in a Slavic language unknown to FrJ. He put up with Vera because he loved Deacon Gene, who was always cheerful, if eccentric.

Deacon Gene came into the vestry and said, “FrJ, I finished your chalice because I know you’re busy. I can sing the Bridegroom matins! [he begins singing] ‘When the glorious disciples…’,” he tailed off as he left the sanctuary and headed to coffee hour.

FrJ shook his head, smiling, and said, “make sure you eat something before you go home, Fr. Deacon. You can be Gina’s backup for Bridegroom.”

Gina was studying her phone. “I have to run, Fr. – I’ll keep you posted.”

“Thanks.”

Fr J recalled the lunch he had with Fr Constantine of the Minneapolis Greek parish about two months ago, a fishing friend and Vikings’ fan who bantered with Fr J, a lifelong Packers’ devotee. Fr Constantine questioned Fr J’s decision to introduce the Bridegroom Matins service:

“Why don’t you have the sacrament of unction like we do? The Church is packed, and it’s a great chance to pitch the rest of Holy Week to them. You’ll get five times the number of people who will come to Bridegroom, Fr J, you should try it.”

“It’s not really part of our tradition, Kosta. My bishop really wants us to get people in church during Holy Week, but most of our regulars have done their annual confession by then. There is no natural relationship between Holy Week and the sacrament of unction, padre.”

Fr Constantine had disagreed in between mouthfuls of falafel: “I’m telling you, J, have the unction service. It’s better for your parish. And it won’t hurt the offering plate, either.”

“Excuse me, Fr J?” Brent, the parish council president, interrupted his thoughts as he walked around the church, making sure the candles were out. A young woman stood solemnly near the middle of the church, a little boy clinging to her skirt.

“I’d like to introduce you to S.ss..”

“Sveta” the young woman interjected.

“Yes, Sarah here…”

“Sveta,” she said again. “My name is Svetlana.”

“Nice to meet you, Svetlana,” Fr J greeted her. Nodding to the boy clinging to her, he added, “and who is this?”

“Ah, yes, this is my Kolia, my boy.” “Kolia, pozdorovatsia s otsom” she urged the boy, who then literally hid behind his mother’s skirt.

Sensing the woman’s impatience, Fr J said, “it’s ok. He’s shy. I’m Fr. James. Welcome to Dormition parish. I…”

“Father, I go to Confession, yes?”

FrJ’s heart sank. He needed to touch base with several people before they went home.

“I’m so sorry, I can’t at this second, I have to see people right now. Did you see our bulletin? We have open time for confession on Tuesday morning, and before Bridegroom Matins on Wednesday…”

“I work then. Can I come Saturday?” Responded Sveta.

Holy Saturday was one of the worst times to hear confessions. The Vesperal Liturgy was fairly long and it took time to arrange flowers for the tomb, clean the Paschal trikirion (a candlestick holding three candles) and all the candalabria in the church, remove the wax, polish the brass, make sure vestments were clean, and prepare the church. Plus, he was running out of open windows to hit the Ukrainian deli in Minneapolis for his beloved Polish ham and sausage…

“You’ll have to come at least 30 minutes before the Liturgy, and it begins at 10 a.m.”

“Yes, thank you, father! I bring Pascha basket for bless, too.”

Somehow, the Slavic tradition of blessing baskets filled with eggs, cheese, sweet breads, and meats from which the people had abstained during Lent had become popular among Orthodox who were not raised with that tradition. The people looked forward to the priest making the rounds with the holy water, preceded by incense with everyone singing “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death! And upon those in the tombs, bestowing life!” with parched voices after a week’s worth of grueling services, blessing their baskets bursting with food on the tables in the main dining room area underneath the church. FrJ had grown to love this tradition, and always chuckled at the new foods and drinks that appeared in baskets: entire bottles of vodka, cheeseburgers, and even slices of sausage pizza! FrJ had no love for the tradition of people asking the priest to bless their baskets on Saturday afternoon, before the midnight office, an unofficial sacred time of either quiet rest for aching feet and swollen vocal chords, or last-minute baking of breads and roasting meats.

FrJ was just about to tell her to bring her basket for blessing at the appointed time – after the conclusion of the Pascha Divine liturgy – when Brent, who had been hovering nearby, blurted, “yes, Father will bless your basket after the service on Holy Saturday.”

FrJ swallowed his irritation with Brent like acid.

“Yes, Sveta, though it is much more festive if you bring your basket for blessing at Pascha on midnight. We have a tradition of sharing our foods as a communal meal.”

Sveta beamed, Kolia buried in her skirt. “Thank you, Father. We will be here early on Saturday for confession and Pascha blessing.”

She left, holding Kolia’s hand, as FrJ walked slowly toward the stairs with Brent.

“We need to have a quick meeting, Fr,” said Brent as they approached the narthex.

Fr J stopped before the stairs.

“We discussed this last week, Brent. I agreed to bless baskets on Holy Saturday with reluctance. We really need to encourage people to come for Pascha. This is a cop-out.”

Something stirred in Fr J’s head – a memory of a conversation with a friend who insisted that Holy Saturday was actually the Paschal Vigil since Psalm 81 replaced Alleluia and the Gospel announced Jesus’ resurrection.

“No, this is about the epitaphios, FrJ. Last year, the women carried it during the Lamentations procession on Friday night. But we only have one person who volunteered for Friday afternoon. Plus, I can’t find any board members who can work Bridegroom on Wednesday night yet. I’m still asking around.”

FrJ was confused – this had never been a problem, but before he could respond, Mark turned the corner from the stairs and said, “I can help with the epitaphios father, and my nephews are available, too. I’ll come on Wednesday – put me to work, Fr.”

Mark had attended the Coptic church in St. Paul his entire life until he moved to Elk River. Fr J thought of him as “Mr Fixit.” He always solved small problems for the parish and offered his services without asking for anything. FrJ was pretty sure that God had sent Mark and his extended family to Dormition to make sure they didn’t stumble over themselves. At one particularly tumultuous parish council meeting, a dispute erupted about the financial shortfall for a much-needed repair from a tree that had damaged the exterior during a bad storm. Vera, who served on the council at that time, insisted that the people would never support another special-needs request. Mark sat quietly during the argument, and finally said, “why don’t we just tell the people what the problem is and ask them for help? Just talk to the people. They’ll come through, there’s no reason to be afraid.” Within a month, the parish raised the needed money without hurting the monthly budget, and within two months, the exterior was repaired. FrJ secretly hoped that Mark would earn a space on the parish’s iconostasis.

“Thanks, Mark. Brent, with that solved, let’s skip the meeting, ok?” Brent smiled – “what would we do without Mark?”

“The Coptic Church is under constant threat and persecution in Egypt, and it continues to save us here, Brent. Remember that.”

FrJ turned to go downstairs when he saw Maximus – 29 years old, single, with a long beard.

“hey, father – I have a question.”

Fr J groaned inwardly. What now? Maximus was Brad before Fr J had received him two years ago, and since then, he would hover after church, peppering FrJ with questions about the essence and energies of God, and why we shouldn’t associate with heterodox.  Maybe he would ask about the third finding of St. Basil’s nose today?

“Hey Maximus, what’s up?” Fr J hoped he didn’t sound annoyed.

“I’ve been comparing our service schedule with other churches online. Why are so many of the Scripture lessons repeated on Good Friday?”

What? Who compares service schedules with other parishes online? At least it was a reasonable question.

“Well, my understanding is that our lectionary is an amalgamation of traditions from Jerusalem and Constantinople, and we have never really considered pruning the lectionary, so there are lots of repetitions. So if you miss a service, you still get to hear the core message at the next one. Not a bad thing, Maximus.”

Maximus was about to respond when Fr J’s cell phone vibrated. Susan. Maximus drifted away.

Susan wrote, “Two new tax clients pushed to me. Have to work all day Thursday – no time to go to the deli.”

Fr J sighed. “I guess I’ll go Saturday afternoon when I finish here. Will need Advil for feet. Maybe Nadia will come with me.”

Nadia and FrJ enjoyed a tradition of coloring eggs and buying the right meats for Pascha. Then she went to college.

“Let her be, J. Don’t push.”

He knew Susan was right, but he was still depressed. It wouldn’t be Pascha without Nadia, without coloring eggs and smelling the fresh bread and garlic in the Ukrainian deli, he thought as he ventured downstairs.

He paused, hearing beautiful music from the choir room, and caught Gina leading rehearsal. The choir sang a new setting of the Paschal exaposteilarion, “In the flesh Thou didst fall asleep…” he heard laughter, and saw Deacon Gene holding court at a table, probably sharing another funny story from his past.

FrJ smiled, his spirits lifted. Not all was lost. God had sent him Deacon Gene, and Mark, and Gina, who essentially had two jobs. Everything was going to be just fine. Maybe he would get something special for Gina from the deli as a thank-you, for her hard work…

 

 

 

 

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