These three days, which the Church call Great and Holy have within the liturgical development of the Holy Week a very definite purpose. They remind us of the eschatological meaning of Pascha. So often the Holy Week is considered one of the “beautiful traditions” or “customs” of our calendar. We admire the beauty of its services, the pageantry of its rite and, last but not least, we like the fuss about the paschal table... And then, when all this is done we resume our normal life. But do we understand that when the world rejected its Savior, when “Jesus began to be sorrowful and very heavy... and His soul was exceedingly sorrowful even unto death,” when He died on the Cross, “normal life” came to its end and is no longer possible. For there were “normal” people who shouted “Crucify Him!” who spat at Him and nailed Him to the Cross. And they hated and killed Him precisely because He was troubling their normal life. It was indeed a perfectly “normal” world which preferred darkness and death to light and life... By the death of Jesus “normal” world, “normal” life were irrevocably condemned. Or rather they revealed their true and abnormal nature, their inability to receive the Light, the terrible power of evil in them. “Now is the judgment of this world” (John 12:31). The Pascha of Jesus signified its end to “this world” and it has been at its end ever since. “the fashion of this world is passing away...” (1 Cor. 7: 31).
Pascha means passover, passage. The feast of Passover was for the Jews the annual commemoration of their whole history as salvation, and of salvation as passage from slavery of Egypt into freedom, from exile into the Promised Land. And Christ was the fulfillment of pascha. He performed the ultimate passage: from death to life, from the “old world” into the new world, into the new time of the kingdom. And He opened the possibility of this passage to us.
And thus Easter is not an annual commemoration— solemn and beautiful— of a past event. It is this Event, given to us, as always being efficient, always revealing our world, our time, our life as being at the End, and announcing the Beginning of the new life... And the function of the three days of Holy Week is precisely to challenge us with this ultimate meaning of Pascha and to prepare for the understanding and acceptance of it.
I. This eschatological— and it means ultimate, decisive, final, — challenge is revealed, first in the common troparion of these days:
“Behold the Bridegroom cometh forward in the midst of the night and blessed is the servant whom He shall find watching… But unworthy He whom He shall find careless Beware then my soul, lest thou be weighed down by sleep, Lest thou be given over to death And be shut out from the Kingdom; But awake, crying Holy, Holy , Holy art thou, O God Through the Mother of God, have mercy upon us all.”
Midnight is the moment when the old day comes to its end and a new day begins. It is thus a symbol of the time in which we live as Christians. For on the one hand, the Church is still in this world, sharing in its weakness and tragedies, Yet, on the other hand, her true being is not of this world, for She is the Bride of Christ and her mission is to announce and to reveal the coming of the Kingdom and of the new day. Her new life is a perpetual watching and expectation, a vigil pointed at the dawn of this new day... But how strong is attachment to the “old world”, to the world with its passions and sins. We know how deeply we still belong to “this world.” We have seen the light, we know Christ, we have heard about the peace and joy of the new life in Him, and yet the world holds us in its slavery. This weakness, this constant betrayal of Christ, this incapacity to give the totality of our love to the only true object of love are wonderfully expressed in the exapostilarion of these three days:
“I See thy Bridal hall adorned, O my Savior And I have no wedding garment that I may enter therein, O Giver of life, make radiant the vesture of my soul And save me.”
II. The same theme develops further in the Gospel readings of these days. First of all, the entire text of the four Gospel (up to JOHN 13, 31) is read at the Hours (1, 3, 6 and 9th). This recapitulation shows that the Cross is the climax of the whole life and ministry of Jesus, the Key to their proper understanding. Everything in the Gospel leads to this ultimate hour of Jesus and everything is to be understood in its light. Then, each service has its special Gospel lesson:
At Matins: Matthew 21, 18-43 — the story of the fig tree the symbol of the world created to bear spiritual fruits and failing in its response to God.
At the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts: Matthew 24, 3-35: the great eschatological discourse of Jesus. The signs and announcement of the End. “Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away...”
At Matins: Matthew 22, 1-23, 39. Condemnation of Pharisees, i.e. of the blind and hypocritical religion, of those they think they are leaders of man and the light of the world, but who in fact “shut up the kingdom of heaven to men.”
At the Presanctified Liturgy: Matthew 24, 36-26, 2. The End again and the parables of the End: the ten wise virgins who had enough oil in their lamps and the ten foolish ones who were not admitted to the bridal banquet; the parable of ten talents “... Therefore be ye also ready, for in such an hour as ye think not the Son of Man cometh.” And finally the Last Judgment.
At Matins: John 12, 17-50: The rejection of Christ, the growing conflict, the ultimate warning: “Now is the judgment of the world... He that rejects my words has one that judges him, the word that I have spoken; the same will judge him in the last days.”
At the Presanctified Liturgy: Matthew 26, 6-16. The woman who poured the precious ointment on Jesus, the image of love and repentance which alone unite us with Christ.
III. The Gospel lessons are explained and elaborated in the hymnology of these days. One warning, one exhortation runs through all of them: the end and the judgment are approaching, let us prepare for them:
IV. Throughout the whole Lent the two books of the Old Testament read at Vespers were Genesis and Proverbs.
With the beginning of Holy Week they are replaced by Exodus and Job. Exodus the story of Israel's liberation from Egyptian slavery, of their Passover. It prepares for the understanding of Christ's exodus to His Father, the fulfillment of the whole history of salvation. Job, the Sufferer, is the Old Testament icon of Christ. This reading announces the great mystery of Christ’s sufferings, obedience and sacrifice.
“When the Lord was going to His voluntary Passion He said to His Apostles on the way: Behold, we go up to Jerusalem, And the Son of Man shall be delivered up as it was written of Him. Come, therefore, and let us accompany Him, that we may live with Him, And that we may hear Him say to us: I go now, not to the earthly Jerusalem to suffer, But unto my Father and Your Father, and my God and your God, And I will gather you up into the heavenly Jerusalem, Into the Kingdom of Heaven...”
“Behold, O my soul, the Master has confined to thee a talent, Receive it with fear; Lent to Him who gave; distribute to the poor And acquire for thyself thy Lord as thy Friend; That when He shall come in glory, Thou mayest stand at His right hand And hear His blessed voice: Enter, my servant, into the joy of thy Lord.”