Guest Post #1 for May's Different Beautiful Church Series:
by Phoebe Farag Mikhail (beingincommunity.com)
I drove to church this morning with dread. Two kids were already in church, and my two year old was with me in the car. All of Holy Week has been difficult. The toddler had been refusing to sit still and play in his seat, coloring only working on the first two days. My older kids got restless. I was out of ideas and out of steam, with eight more hours of church still ahead of me.
I thought wistfully of those days when Holy Week was a personal retreat; a time of church, prayer, reading and meditation, uninterrupted by children wanting snacks, making noise, wanting to play, needing the bathroom… This Holy Week consisted of going to church, back home to eat a meal and entertain the kids, and off to church again. My husband, who is a priest and who leads the services, got the afternoon nap. I got the kids, who love Holy Week services but also want play dates with their friends during their spring break.
In the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, Holy Week (which we call Pascha Week) and the Feast of the Resurrection are the climax of the liturgical year. After Palm Sunday liturgy is over, for those whose work or school requirements permit, we come back to church for the Eve of Monday Pascha services, which last about three hours. The following morning we are back from Monday Pascha services, again for three hours. Those who are physically capable do prostrations (an Orthodox act of worship where we kneel down towards the East and then touch our heads to the ground, each time praying “Lord Have Mercy”) with every litany. A litany is a series of petitions to God. We ask for the peace of the church, for the clergy, the laity, for the poor, the widows and orphans, for the peace of the world, for the crops of the fields, for the travelers, for the catechumens (people preparing to be baptized), and more, in the closing morning litanies.
We return again in the evening for the three hour Eve of Tuesday service. We return again on Wednesday morning, and then the Eve of Thursday. Pascha services consist of special hymns and lengthy readings from the Old and New Testaments, following the entire salvation story from Creation to the prophecies to our Redemption on the Cross.
On Holy Thursday we start church at 9 am with Thursday Pascha services, then continue with the liturgy of the Blessing of the Water and the washing of feet, then the Divine Liturgy. We come back in the evening for the Eve of Great Friday Pascha services, during which the “Paraclete” chapters of the Gospel of John, when Our Lord Jesus Christ promises the gift of the Holy Spirit, are read.
And then, on Great Friday of the Holy Pascha week we pray continuously from 8 am to 6 pm, continuing the prophecies and following each Gospel’s account of Our Lord Jesus Christ’s betrayal, trial, crucifixion, and burial. These services are also full of singing and multiple prostrations. Even those who cannot take off work or school earlier during the week usually try to take Great Friday off, and so church is unusually crowded.
As I drove to church that Friday morning, still full of dread, it dawned on me that Holy Week was no walk in the park for my Lord Jesus Christ either. In fact, my Holy Week experience with kids might be a little closer to what Holy Week is all about than during my childless years. I was exhausted heading for Great Friday services, and so was He—in fact He was sleepless. I spent a lot of time carrying a toddler on my shoulder—He carried His cross. I gave up the peaceful Pascha weeks of my past so that my children could experience Holy Week and make it truly their own—He gave up His life. No, my struggles are nothing compared to His Passion, but I struggled—and so did He.
This isn’t supposed to be a walk in the park. This is hard. This was hard. This was the salvation of the whole world. I had been counting the days since Palm Sunday, every day willing the week to end. Surprisingly but perhaps unsurprisingly, the concluding prayer of every service seems to echo this sentiment: “May Jesus Christ our True God who of His own goodwill accepted sufferings, and was crucified on the cross for our sakes, bless us with all spiritual blessings, and support us, and complete for us this Holy Week of Pascha and bring forth upon us the joy of the Resurrection for many years and peaceful times.” In other words, it’s a prayer asking God to help us do Holy Week—because it’s difficult, grueling in its disciplines, and we cannot do any of it without His grace.
During Great Friday, a large icon of the crucifixion is placed in front of the altar on a stand. At the beginning of the service people bring flowers, and they are attached to adorn the icon during the service. We place red rose petals underneath the icon, reminiscent of the blood shed by our Lord Jesus Christ.
Photos courtesy of Toni Milak
We begin the Twelfth and last hour, and eventually the readings are all read and the 400 prostrations completed. After the long day of worship, I am almost taken by surprise when the final procession of the icon of the crucifixion begins. During this procession, the icon of the crucifixion is removed from its stand and processed around the church three times while singing twelve times, in Greek, “Lord have mercy” (Kyrie Eleyson).
Relieved our commemoration of the crucifixion is done, I find I still do not want to leave the church. My toddler is now nestled on my lap, as exhausted as I am. My older two children are clamoring for snacks but also excited about the procession and the “burial.” It is during this portion of the service I hear the words of my favorite hymn, Golgotha. I start crying. It was over. It is finished. My Lord Jesus Christ has been taken down from the cross, His dead body wrapped and then quickly buried in time for the Sabbath. Tears still streaming, I sang along with the congregation,
The righteous Joseph and Nicodemus came and took away the Body of Christ, wound it in linen cloths and spices, and put it in a sepulcher, and praised Him saying "Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, who was crucified for us, have mercy on us."
After the procession of the icon, it is taken into the altar, the front part of the church that is curtained off (called the iconostasis), and the same rose petals are rubbed with spices and placed on the icon. The petals are then wrapped in a white linen cloth, and the icon is placed on the altar, which is a table in that curtained off section, as if we are burying Christ Himself. Children are invited to take the flowers used to adorn the “burial.” I watch as my daughter takes an extra one.
I want to stay there, at the tomb. This day, this week is everything. This is what makes me a Christian. It’s what bore millions of Christians around the world, over ages and ages. A story too crazy to be made up; God became man, lived among us, died for us, and then three days later would rise from the dead, conquering death and granting us eternal life.
Eventually, we do go home, and within a few hours we were back at church for the Bright Saturday vigil that would last until dawn. I was still exhausted, sleepy, and my throat hurt. At around midnight the kids finally fall asleep on the floor in the baptism room, a room right outside the sanctuary where the baptismal font is and where baptisms take place. While they sleep peacefully, Christ the Lord was harrowing Hades. I’d nod off myself in a few more hours, but at that moment I stood up with the rest of the congregation, joyously singing the third canticle (Psalms 148, 149, and 150) between every three verses adding:
Praise Him, Glorify Him, and exalt Him above all forever His Mercy; He is praised, He is glorified, He is exalted above all ages. His mercy is forever.
Phoebe Farag Mikhail blogs about faith, community and life at her blog Being in Community. She is a writer and educator, a wife and a mother of three children who teach her about God.