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Orthodox Spirituality

Sermons of Archpriest Anthony B. Gavalas

Participating in Holy Week

Palm Sunday
The Entry of Our Lord into Jerusalem
7/20 April 2003

+ + + In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. + + +

May the Name of our Lord God be glorified, may the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ be glorified by every mouth and in every heart of all of us who have been deemed worthy by the grace and compassion of the All Holy Trinity to pass through this blessed time of Great Lent, to have passed through this stadium of the virtues.

Having participated in and having received from this blessed period, blessed as it is blessed by the Holy Trinity with all of the gifts of which we are capable of receiving, with everything that the Holy Trinity could give into our hearts, each of us according to his capacity, for many of us have very narrow hearts, and we cannot hold much in terms of blessing. We would like to but are hearts are yet straitened, our hearts are yet narrow because of our sinfulness, because we have not yet ridded ourselves of those things which make it impossible for the grace of the Holy Trinity to fill us up completely.

Nevertheless blessed is the Name of our Lord God Who has allowed us to come through this period of the Great Fast. Blessed is His Name, in that He has permitted us to participate in these two days that are between Great Lent and Holy Week, that is the commemoration of the resurrection of Lazarus, and the commemoration of His entrance into the holy city of Jerusalem. These blessed days which are preparations for the Resurrection, these blessed days which hearken and send our voices skipping ahead, anticipating the day of Pascha. Even though we know that we have the days of Holy Week to come, yet the Church has given us as a small foretaste these two blessed days of rejoicing, these two blessed days of celebration in the spirit, these two days in which for a moment we lay aside the somberness of Great Lent as we prepare to go into the somberness and seriousness of Holy Week. We lay them aside for just a moment, and we are refreshed, and we draw our breath. We can smell the sweet flowers of springtime, and we can smell and taste and feel the glories of the Resurrection as a foretaste, as a preparation of the days that are to come.

Blessed is the Lord God Who has made it possible for us once again to embark starting this evening on those extraordinary days of Holy Week. In Christianity we never speak of being spectators of any of the feasts, of any of those blessed days in the ecclesiastical year. We always speak of participation. Because for the Orthodox Christian these blessed days, all of the days of Great Lent, Lazarus Saturday, Palm Sunday, Holy Week, and then Pascha, all of the feasts of the year, whether they are of the Menaion, or whether they are of the Pentecost cycle, the Paschal cycle, all of these are the pulse of the life of an Orthodox Christian. An Orthodox Christian can no more divorce himself from the feasts and the fasts of the Church than he can divorce himself from the very beating of his heart, and the rhythmical drawing of breath into his lungs. It would be just as impossible for a Christian not to note the festal calendar and cycle of the year as it would be for him to stop his heart and to stop breathing. For what are the heart and the lungs to the body, so the ecclesiastical year is to a Christian's soul. So integrally bound up with our lives are the feasts of the Church. Therefore as we draw near, as we approach Holy Week let us remember once again that there were two categories of people in the time of our Savior. Jesus Christ has that characteristic. He Himself becomes the dividing line. All of these things that the world says that Jesus Christ unites, all people in every place, if they can be united in Him, yes, but He does not unite dissimilar souls. I have come to bring division upon the earth, says Jesus Christ, I have come to divide a man from his family, from his wife, from his children, I have come to bring a sword. That is what Jesus Christ says, and this is true in every aspect of His existence here on earth, in every aspect of His preaching, in any aspect of anything that has to do with Jesus Christ.

In the Passion, Jesus Christ divides us, divides us into those people who participate in them, and those people who watch them, or even ignore them. The Passion of our Savior Jesus Christ for Orthodox Christians is not something to be watched; it is not something in which we see the beautiful services, and we hear the beautiful hymns, and watch the various aspects of this beautiful season. The people in Jerusalem did that; the high priests did it; the people who were so fickle that one day they called out Hosanna! and welcomed Jesus into the holy city, and the next day they were ready in a matter of hours to scream out depending upon where and upon whose whim they were swayed Crucify Him! Crucify Him!

For an Orthodox Christian there is no such superficiality. An Orthodox Christian is either numbered with Jesus Christ, and His Mother, and His apostles and disciples, or he is numbered with the spectators who watched. He is numbered with Jesus Christ, and His Holy Mother, and the Holy Apostles in that he participates in those things that are commemorated in Holy Week; for his heart is torn at our Savior's arrest; that his heart is bruised every time our Savior is struck; that his sense of justice and righteousness is outraged at the unjust trial of Jesus Christ. His brow is bloodied by the crown of thorns, and his back is wounded with bloody welts at the beating of Christ. He feels upon his back, does the Orthodox Christian, the weight of the Cross, and he becomes another Cyrenian seeking as best he can to lighten the burden of the Cross on the injured shoulders of Jesus Christ by especially keeping away from sinfulness. Because it is not the burden of the Cross that bore down our Savior, but the burden of our sins that weighed upon Him.

We taste the gall, we feel the nails, we even taste of the despair.

This is an Orthodox Christian's Holy Week. This is an Orthodox Christian's keeping of this pivotal, most crucial time in the ecclesiastical year. This is how an Orthodox person keeps Holy Week.

Many of us have already begun preparing for Pascha. We have cleaned our houses, we have painted; we have gone shopping. In our refrigerators already are eggs and milk, and cheese and butter, and lamb and sausages and hams and so forth. We've taken out the decorations; we've picked out the clothing that we hope to wear on Pascha and for ourselves and for our children. And all of that is fine; there's nothing wrong with that. So long as it has meaning; so long as this celebration has meaning; so long as this anticipation for the Resurrection has content. If today Jesus has entered into your heart even as He entered into Jerusalem, then you are justified in anticipating His Resurrection. If today you have made space for Him in your heart, so that there, in your heart He can be arrested, He can be tried, He can be beaten, He can be spat upon; if there in your heart our Savior God can be crucified; if there in your heart you will taste of that bitterness of the gall and the vinegar, then you are justified in anticipating Pascha, and shopping for Pascha, and being ready for Pascha. If all of these things of Holy Week are going to take place in your heart, then may God bless everything in your refrigerator; may God bless your Paschal clothes; may God bless your Paschal preparations, because they have meaning. May God forbid that all of this shopping and all of this preparation simply be an observance of folkways, an observance of our traditions, an observance which has as little meaning to most people as watching the rituals of some Patagonian tribe, of some strange group of people in Tierra del Fuego, or in New Guinea. May this not be so.

How are we going to participate in Holy Week? For I speak of terrible things. Who of us can really, really imitate in himself the sufferings of Jesus?

We have a hangnail, and you'd think the world had ended; we have a headache and we become monsters; we lose our patience at the least little pain, at the least irritation, at the least frustration. We are ready to pounce on anyone who gets in our way, especially when we are busy.

So how, having such weak constitutions, can we participate in Holy Week? My dear brothers and sisters, our Lord has mercy on us. He knows how much we can take; He knows our capacity; He knows how weak we are. And so it is that He sends to us not the horrendous things that He suffered; He sends to us little difficulties: a sharp word from our wife; a harsh look from our husband; an uncooperative child; heavy traffic; no place to park the car when we get to church; the noise, the bother--all of these things. So that when we feel a little bit discomforted, maybe we will think and remember of our Savior's imprisonment. If someone is impolite to us, maybe we can think of the gross disrespect of the slaps and the spittings that our Savior's face withstood. Maybe with the irritation and the disappointment of a child, of a spouse, of a friend we can taste a little bit of the gall of the cross, and of the despair that our Savior allowed Himself to feel so that He could feel everything of humanity, causing Him to cry out to His Father that He had been forsaken. Because if we can do this, if we can live Holy Week, then at the end of the arrest, the betrayal, the trial, the beatings, the spittings, the abuse, the Cross--at the end of all of that, at the end of the burial, if our heart has been Jerusalem all of those days, then surely it will be Jerusalem again, but now the Jerusalem of resurrection, the Jerusalem of light, the Jerusalem of salvation, the Jerusalem of heavenly, heavenly rest.

And we might truly say that we have celebrated the Pascha of our Savior. Then our table laden with all of the good things will not simply mean that a poor lamb had to die so that we could eat, but rather that in that lamb, we remember the Great Lamb that was sanctified and sacrificed for our salvation. Every bite that we eat will be in thanksgiving, and every time we say Christ is Risen, it will not come from empty lips, but from people for whom the Resurrection is a true experience, for their souls will have been resurrected; their hearts will be leaping from a chamber of death; and their entire household will be full of the light of Pascha.

To all of us I wish nothing but participation in Holy Week, and a true celebration of Pascha, a Pascha of the Lord, our Lord Jesus Christ, Who for our sakes underwent all that He might be resurrected, and with Him resurrect us. To Him, to His Father, and to the Holy Spirit be glory and honor unto the ages of ages. Amen.

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