The third in a series of five Holy Week posts on the Pray Channel at Humane Pursuits
A comforting recognition of the passage of time is one of my favorite features of the Orthodox Church. In the liturgical calendar of the Orthodox church there are set seasons: Nativity leads into Lent that culminates in the death and resurrection of Christ which leads into Pentecost and the Apostles’ fast which then leads to the fast commemorating the Dormition of the Mother of God. In the Church it is revealed that all of human history is a transformation from darkness towards light, from sin towards repentance, from death to life.
The Church’s calendar and all her services are each an entire whole and a part of the experience of God in history. Each service in its own way encapsulates, in part or in whole, all of the human condition from the creation of the world, to man’s falling away from God, his learning and striving through the Old Testament righteous and prophets, to the Word becoming man to save us. No matter how large or small the perspective, one service, a fast within the year, the entire church year or the Church in all its existence in history, we can see this activity of God. The whole Church is itself a culmination; it is the new temple of Christ’s Body raised after the old was destroyed. Also, each liturgy every Sunday is this entire history in miniature, culminating in the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist.
Lent is just one such season that reveals this drama. For six weeks we are schooled in penitence through fasting, increased prayer and church services. This time, analogous to the time before Christ, culminates in Holy Week; a transition to the final Resurrection.
However, there is one particular service I would like to take note of, one that is not tied to a particular season of the Church: the memorial service. It is relatively short service done through out the year, mainly during funerals. However, it can also be done annually to commemorate the death of an individual or individuals each year.
It is a service not for those still alive, but for the deceased. All of it is intercessory prayer sung in mournful and penitent tones on behalf of the departed. It is a begging of God’s mercy.
Its atemporal nature relative to the rest of the services through out the year is fitting. It reveals not only the “reason for the season” for Lent and Holy Week, but the Christ’s entrance into the world and his Church that followed. It reveals the truth about the human condition, that we are fallen and in need of redemption. This is truth independent of time and place, much like the service is used throughout the cycle of the liturgical calendar.
There are two lines in it that strike to the core of our experience as fallen creations, yet give us hope. The first is as follows, “With the saints give rest, O Christ, to the soul of Thy servant where sickness and sorrow are no more, neither sighing, but life everlasting.” This line itself contains the whole issue. The world is riddled with sickness, sorrow, and sighing. We long and groan against this; we are acutely aware of how “unnatural” all those things are. We see death and we mourn. Why mourn if it is something natural, inevitable, and common place?
And this is even more emphasized by Christ’s condescension in bearing all these things, as well, in order to fulfill and transform what is imperfect. That is the essential mission of the Church: to wake us up to our fallen nature yet spurn us on to hope. This is the constant call of God through all of history and it is the very sinew of the Body of Christ. Out of love we are given everlasting life.
“…[M]aking our funeral dirge the song ‘alleluia alleluia alleluia’” is the other line. This is Christian life encapsulated: our funeral song that we sing is a joyous cry, praising God. Why? Because Christ has defeated death, what would normally be a grieving is now transformed into praise.
Holy Week is the culmination of that defeat, where sickness, sighing, and sorrow are transformed into alleluias. Where suffering is transformed into glory and despair is turned into hope.
Nathaniel Torrey is the editor of the Work channel at Humane Pursuits. He has been trying to live up to his namesake his entire life, but has only started in earnest since May 2013. He is a graduate from St. John’s College and works at the Institute on Religion & Democracy.