Holy Week, Pascha, and War: A Year of Reckoning

Two years ago, we thought we had endured a Holy Week and Pascha like no other when most of us prayed at home because of COVID. Now in 2022, we confront a new challenge, one no less formidable – observing the most solemn feasts of year when Russia, a nominally Orthodox country, brutally violates Ukraine, committing unspeakable atrocities and war crimes.

Many of us are weary from nearly two months of witnessing these crimes. We are saturated by bitterness, anger, and disappointment. We are weary and bleary-eyed. Our patience runs thin. Many people have told me that they have no enthusiasm for the feast.

Validating the Pain of the War

There is no single pattern or formula to make it through an unprecedented and extra somber Holy Week. As one still recovering from a massive personal loss, I was preparing myself to expect the unexpected this year, and to take it one day at a time. One of the essentials of coping with grief and loss is to refrain from stifling your feelings, and to validate your pain.

The intensity of Holy Week leads to the temptation to tell faithful to lay aside their thoughts about the war and concentrate on Christ.

This approach is mistaken because it creates a false dichotomy between the reality of the pain we are experiencing in the present and the saving events of Christ in the past. Holy Week invites us to focus on the love and faithfulness of Mary, who anointed Jesus’ feet with her hair, Judas’s betrayal of Jesus, the intimacy of a solemn meal of friends and disciples, the envy and hatred that led to the arrest of Christ, and Christ’s own passion, described in excruciating detail in the garden of Gethsemane. We hear of the fear of the disciples, the shock and lament of the faithful onlookers, Joseph and Nicodemus, and the women who come to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body.

The Gospels of Holy Week are a Window into the Present

As hearers of these biblical stories, we often tend to look upon the characters from an external perspective, from the outside looking in. The liturgy doesn’t work that way – the Holy Spirit creates a space that allows us to hear the stories as a way of looking through a window into the atrocity of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. We see the traitors, we recoil from the hatred and jealousy, we are sickened by the raw grief of the survivors, we marvel at those who place themselves in danger and tend to the dead, the wounded, and the refugees.

If we refuse to acknowledge the pain of the war, remain silent in the face of vicious brutality, and hesitate to expose and condemn the perpetrators, we are rejecting God’s invitation to be witnesses to these things. We have missed the point of Holy Week, which is not to marvel at past events as if they were summarized in an educational film at a museum, but to recognize that Jesus Christ is in Mariupol, Bucha, and Borodyanka. In other words, the passion of Christ is quite real in the present – not only in our beloved rituals, but even more so among the victims of violence incited by hatred.

Observing Holy Week and Pascha while lamenting Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is yet another opportunity for us to reconsider our own role in this catastrophe. Many are worried that a collective call to bring Church leaders to justice for supporting this brutality will be too costly. Instead, we continue to pray for peace, and dangle hope that God will intervene.

Divine Intervention in the Body of Christ

The events of Holy Week show that God did not stop the crucifixion of the only-begotten Son from taking place. God did not stay the hand of the soldiers who mocked Christ and put a crown of thorns on his head. God did not bring Pilate or Caiaphas “to their senses” to put an end to the madness. God did not set the disciples on fire with courage and fervor to remain with the master, friend, and Lord. In our context, God’s representatives – the body of Christ – have everything they need to find the courage to condemn this evil and call for trials for war crimes for both Putin and Patriarch Kirill.

The events of Holy Week revealed the inertia caused by fear. The task for Orthodox observers of Holy Week in 2022 is to recognize that we, too, have been frozen, and we, too, have a heightened fear of the unknown, of what could happen if we do not maintain neutrality.

The Dry Bones and New Life of Witness

The disciples were set on fire after the resurrection, after the risen Lord appeared to them. At that point, no earthly treasure was more precious than witnessing to the gospel, to the arrival of God’s reign. The Pascha of 2022 is the day of our reckoning. God is offering to rebuild our dry bones into the body of Christ that loves, serves, saves, and bears witness. God grant that we will have the courage to receive the gift of the Spirit on our day of reckoning, to bear witness by venerating the true presence of Christ in the longsuffering victims of Putin’s brutal assault on Ukraine.

Most Orthodox and Greek Catholic Christians begin Holy Week on Monday, April 18, 2022. 

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