Earlier this week, I saw a colleague pacing with a book from a distance. My colleague was absorbed, in deep concentration, holding a liturgical book of some kind. I thought about that level of concentration after our brief, cordial conversation about business. Surely, this was sermon preparation. Or maybe it was a quick reference for study and catechesis, to explain the meaning of a hymn to those who will hear it.
My colleague’s absorption was familiar to me. I have an annual ritual of opening a book I do not often crack, to check the homilies on Holy Week and Pascha of a brilliant, early 20th century preacher. I doublecheck the rubrics for services and hunt down obscure musical settings. Occasionally, I write something new.
All over the world, people are absorbed with preparation. Musicians rehearse more frequently and fine-tune their own performance of core settings. Pastors make sure that everything is clean, repeatedly review the order of services, and try to come up with a sermon that resonates with a crowd. Much attention is devoted to Easter Baptisms. Altar guilds and other lay leaders order flowers and candles, prepare the Easter candle, print fresh bulletins, and make sure the congregation’s parts are correct and in order.
In small to medium-sized communities, Holy Week and Pascha convert the parish into what Mark Searle called a ‘company of strangers’. Good Friday and Easter are certain to draw people who come to Church once or twice a year. In my tradition, this can cause trouble, especially when the non-regulars want to sing in the choir without having attended rehearsal or knowing the repertoire. Singers get huffy when the choir director chooses someone else to sing the seemingly limitless trios composed for the services (especially if it is the non-regular family member of best friend!). Clergy get irritated, too, and occasionally try to spin the homilies in such a way so as to draw the non-regulars into community life.
(In the Slavic tradition, pastors are particularly irritated by “companies of strangers” who ask to have their Easter baskets filled with savory foods blessed on Holy Saturday so they do not have to lose sleep during the midnight Vigil!).
On the domestic front, traditions are passed on. Many Orthodox parishes teach children how to make crosses out of palm branches for Palm Sunday. A variety of exotic foods are prepared in kitchens. I have already taken note of the sales for Easter hams and Polish sausage here in northwest Indiana. Many people will be coloring eggs, and baking sweet breads (such as kulich or paska). Some people live for the lamb margeritsa meal after the Pascha liturgy. In North America, the ethnic traditions have adjusted to local cuisine. I have seen Pascha baskets filled with pizza, and fondly remember the altar server who offered to get me a fatburger to break the fast at 3:00 a.m. because “everyone does that here!”
Some people go to the services all week long. Others come once or twice; many attend what they can.
The liturgical theologian in me wants to break the silence and inform everyone that what’s most important in the Holy Week services is the proclamation of the Word of God. Really, the services all pivot on hearing the narrative, worshiping the one crucified for us, wondering at his descent into hades, and crying out “Alleluia!” when we are told that he is risen.
The truth, though, is that piety drives ritual participation. Some people anticipate the singing of a beloved hymn. Byzantine piety focuses on the shroud (epitaphios, or plaschanitsa). It does not matter, at all, that this tradition is among the newest additions to the Byzantine Holy Week offices. The excitement of venerating the shroud, carrying it in procession, and walking underneath it dominates the season. For many people, venerating the shroud is equal to an annual confession, a sacramental event. Invalids normally unable to attend services are brought to Church to kiss the crucified Messiah. When my grandmother was too ill to make it to Holy Week to venerate the shroud, she wept in frustration and prayed aloud that God would forgive her.
A ton of human energy is invested into this week, both liturgically and domestically. We stand shoulder to shoulder with people we see once a year. We come because of deep love. We don’t completely understand it, nor do we receive his love perfectly, but we come nonetheless.
There is no other season, no other holiday that gives us the courage to confront our mortality like Easter. He died and rose, so that we may live. We need not fear death. To put it quite simply, God is telling us, “do not be afraid; all will be well.”
I can’t speak for the crowds of strangers and their motivations for praying with us during this holy season. But I dare to hope that they are like us more than we care to admit, and are coming because they hear God through the daily noise saying, “do not be afraid; all will be well.”
If that is the case – and I believe it is – then our concentration, rehearsal, and energy fueled by divine love is the best gift we can offer to the one crucified and risen for us.