I was baptized into the Russian Orthodox Church in New York City on Thomas Sunday, the Sunday after Easter, in 1994, and when I moved back to the Twin Cities in 1995 I joined a small monastic church in Fridley.
When Holy Week came around, I really had no idea what to expect. I was raised Lutheran, and I don’t recall going to any Holy Week services as a child, so I had no comparisons to make. But if any of you have gone to services in any monastic church, you know how immersive an experience it is.
This is especially true in Orthodoxy, where all the senses and the whole physical person are involved in worship.
On the evening of Holy Thursday (rather than Maundy Thursday), there was the Twelve Passion Gospels service, where every Gospel passage containing any part of the Passion was chanted aloud to candlelight; on Holy and Great Friday (rather than Good Friday), we carried a life-sized icon of Christ around the church three times in a burial procession.
My most vivid memory, though, is from a Friday service incorporating an ancient hymn called the Song of Mary.
“Seeing her own lamb led to the slaughter, Mary His Mother followed him with the other women, and in her grief she cried: Where dost thou go, my Child? Why dost thou run so swiftly? Is there another wedding in Cana, and art Thou hastening there, to turn the water into wine? Shall I go with Thee, my Child, or shall I wait for Thee? Speak some word to me, O Word; do not pass me by in silence.
“I wish to take my Son down from the wood and to hold Him in my arms, as once I held Him when He was a little child,” said the All-Pure. “But alas! there is none to give Him to me.”
I was around four months pregnant with my own son the first time I heard this hymn. By the end of it, the Theotokos – “God-bearer” – was as real to me as if she stood beside me and held me as I cried.
“Shall I go with Thee, my Child, or shall I wait for Thee?” This still resonates with me too deeply for words, as I’m sure it does with every parent who has ever had to watch a child face the unthinkable. “Shall I die with you?” doesn’t seem like an unreasonable or rhetorical question at all.
The measure of Mary’s grief was the profound depth of her love for her son. This much of the story I can understand, I can make my own, I can live in.
There is, I’m sure, something like this in Holy Week for everyone who seeks to accompany Jesus. Come to the services, eat with your fellow seekers, walk the labyrinth. Listen to music that moves you. Walk in nature – talk to the stones that cried out, to the clouds that veiled Calvary, to the trees that were forced to be his cross. Talk, and listen, and find your way into the story.