Old School Evangelism
Two weeks ago I was witnessed to. An evangelical armed with a King James Bible and a million dollar smile didn’t ask me if I knew where I would go if I died today. I wasn’t given the latest edition of The Watchtower by a group of Jehovah’s Witnesses. I wasn’t stopped by a couple of clean-cut young men in white dress shirts, sporting backpacks and the Book of Mormon. No, I wasn’t proselytized by any of these methods. People wearing exotic and ornate gowns and chanting ancient hymns in a foreign language evangelized me. I was witnessed to in a room filled with the smell of incense and the sight of God’s friends looking on from every wall. Two weeks ago, I experienced my first Holy Week since my family started attending a Greek Orthodox Church last summer.
For Orthodox Christians, Holy Week and Pascha (Easter) is the pinnacle of Christian worship. It’s all about the Resurrection! The many Holy Week services of the Orthodox Church allow Christians to walk with Christ during the week that changed (and continues to change) the world. Before offering my thoughts on attending my first set of Holy Week services, I would like to share the text from my parish’s monthly bulletin, which offers an excellent and concise overview of Holy Week.
PALM SUNDAY – On this day, we celebrate Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem. The people met Him with palm branches and cried, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
PALM SUNDAY EVENING – The service of Palm Sunday Evening helps us understand Christ’s passage from death to life and how each of us can also become free from sin and death. This evening we commemorate Christ the Bridegroom by singing “The Hymn of the Bridegroom,” warning us to be prepared for Christ’s coming. The priest carries the Icon of the Bridegroom in procession. We behold Christ as the Bridegroom of the Church, bearing the marks of suffering, yet preparing a marriage Feast for us in God’s Kingdom.
HOLY MONDAY EVENING – Holy Monday services urge us to be spiritually prepared to receive Christ. We should take this time to reflect on “The Parable of the Ten Virgins,” the maidens who filled their lamps with oil and were prepared to receive the Bridegroom. Those with empty lamps were shut out of the marriage feast. Thus each of us should light our lives with faith and good works and be ready to receive Christ.
HOLY TUESDAY EVENING – During this service, we remember the sinful woman who anointed Christ in anticipation of His death. Her repentance and love of Christ is the theme of the Hymn of Kassiani, which is chanted on this night.
HOLY WEDNESDAY – The Sacrament of Holy Unction is celebrated on this day when we confess our sins and seek to be reconciled with God. The priest anoints us with holy oil that we may be healed physically and spiritually.
HOLY THURSDAY MORNING – The Divine Liturgy of Holy Thursday consists of Vespers and the Liturgy. On this day we celebrate the meaning of what Christ said and did at the Last Supper.
HOLY THURSDAY EVENING – The service of the twelve readings narrates the events of Jesus’ Holy Passion, and His last instructions to the disciples. Following the fifth gospel, the crucifix is carried in procession. This symbolizes Christ’s coming to Golgotha to offer Himself as a sacrifice for the world’s sins.
HOLY FRIDAY – Holy Friday is a day of mourning, fasting and prayer. On this day we commemorate the Passion of Jesus Christ, for on this day, Our Lord went to the Cross and died to take away our sins. The power of death and the reality of evil rule the world on this day. Yet, Jesus Christ’s death marks the beginning of His – and ours – victory over death’s power.
APOKATHELOSIS – [Friday afternoon] During this service, we relive the death of our Lord and His removal from the Cross. During the Gospel reading, the Body of Christ is removed from the Cross and is wrapped in a white sheet. The priest then takes it into the Sanctuary.
THE LAMENTATIONS – [Friday evening] The Hymns of Lamentations are sung this evening as we lament Jesus’ undeserved death for our salvation. With both sorrow and joy we sing the Lamentations to Him who is symbolically buried, yet who we already know is risen. During this service, the Epitaphio is taken in a candlelight procession around the church. The flowers which adorn the tomb are given to the faithful, which are symbolic of the many gifts the Lord has given us, the greatest of which is eternal life.
HOLY SATURDAY MORNING – On Holy Saturday morning, we celebrate the Divine Liturgy of St. Basil. This is the Blessed Sabbath, a day of strict and fasting, but a day of hope and waiting. We know that because Christ died, death is no longer the end of life. Christ descended into hell that death itself might be destroyed. Anticipating Christ’s victory over the power of death, we sing: “Arise, O God, Judge the earth. For to Thee belong all the nations!”
EASTER SUNDAY – Today we celebrate Our Lord’s glorious resurrection. The Resurrection service at midnight begins in a darkened church. As the faithful receive the resurrection light from the priest, a procession is formed to the Narthex. The people hear the good news of Christ’s triumph over death from the Gospel. The joyous hymn of Christ’s resurrection is triumphantly chanted: “Christ is Risen!”
SERVICE OF AGAPE – At Noon, we gather to celebrate the “Agape” service and forgive our fellow Christians, in which the Gospel message is read in many languages to illustrate the Christian message going out to the whole world.1
Sadly, I wasn’t able to attend every service. Still, I made it to the bulk of them, especially the most important ones. The parish my family attends is actually quite large for an Orthodox church in the United States. As such, attendance varies widely throughout the year but generally the pews remain quite full. It was interesting to see how the Bridegroom services (those offered from Palm Sunday evening to Tuesday evening) were sparsely attended, but then as the week progressed, more and more people showed up. I didn’t mind this because I felt I was able to reflect and pray better during the services held earlier in the week.
Three services in particular seem absolutely crucial to attend in order to have a true Holy Week experience: the 12 Gospels on Thursday evening, Lamentations at the Tomb on Friday evening, and of course, the Resurrection service which takes places Saturday night at midnight.
The 12 Gospels service, as it is commonly called, commemorates the Passion of the Christ. This might actually be the longest Orthodox service of the liturgical year, but it is a very powerful service worth attending. Here, 12 Gospel passages (some quite lengthy) are read laying out every detail of Christ’s trial before Pontius Pilate and His Crucifixion. I’ve attended one or two passion plays in my life, but none could ever compare to solemnness of this service.
The Friday evening service, referred to as the Lamentations at the Tomb, is a beautiful service and seems to be one of the most popular judging by attendance and comments from fellow churchgoers. During this service, the congregation sings a special Orthodox hymn known as the Lamentations while holding paschal candles before following the Epitaphio (representing the tomb of Christ) outside the church in a procession. The Epitaphio is adorned with many flowers on Friday morning. At the end of the service, the flowers are given out to the faithful as they depart. This service is both sad, due to the torment our God suffered for us, and joyful, due to knowledge of how the story ends, with Christ conquering death by death!
In the Orthodox Church, it’s all about the Resurrection! Thus, the entire liturgical year, and indeed the entire life of the Church, revolves around Pascha. I don’t believe there is a more powerful and moving religious ceremony in the world than the Midnight Resurrection service of the Orthodox Church. Just a few minutes before midnight, every single light in the church is extinguished as the faithful await the light of the Resurrection. As the clock strikes midnight, the priest says:
“Come receive the light from the unwaning light, and. glorify Christ, Who has risen from the dead”2
Then from a single candle, the entire church slowly becomes illuminated as the light is spread to everyone as the entire congregation repeats that hymn. This represents the light of Christ’s Resurrection spreading throughout the world. As stated earlier, our church is fairly large so just imagine over a thousand people holding candles proclaiming the Resurrection and singing in unison. The Holy Spirit was surely in that room with us!
After attending my first set of Holy Week services, all I can think to myself is why wouldn’t every church in the world celebrate Easter this way? I am now firmly convinced that there is no better method of evangelizing than Holy Week in the Orthodox Church. Sure, the services are long and it can be exhausting, but it is truly a journey and an opportunity to walk with Christ during that last earthly week in Jerusalem. I finished the week both tired and refreshed. Instead of feeling “over-churched,” I am actually ready for more. Christ is Risen! Christos Anesti!
2 Greek Orthodox Holy Week & Easter Services: A New English Translation (Daytona Beach: Patmos Press, 1996).
(Photo courtesy of St. Barbara Greek Orthodox Church, Orange, CT)