Holy Week: A Series of Meditations

By Multiple Authors

St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press. Pp. 185. $25

Review by Hannah Bowman

Illumination is the repeated idea throughout the otherwise disparate meditations in Holy Week. They begin with Lazarus Saturday, celebrated in Orthodox churches on the day before Palm Sunday, and continue through several delightfully melancholy writings for Pascha, Easter Sunday. One of the unexpected joys of the book, beyond the recounting of traditional Passion-week stories, is the illumination of scriptural passages used in the Holy Week liturgy in ways unfamiliar to the West.

Lazarus Saturday, before Holy Week even begins, marks the proclamation of, and proleptic participation in the general resurrection. On the weekdays of Holy Week, Old Testament readings use the salvation history of Israel to illumine the events of Jesus’ last week.

Priest George L. Parsenios discusses Joseph, whose flight from Potiphar’s wife is read on Holy Monday as a model of fleeing temptation. Hieromonk Herman Majkrzak analyzes the readings for Holy Wednesday, which juxtapose the anointing of Jesus by the sinful woman, under threat of Judas’ betrayal, with the anointing of David as king, concealed and under threat by Saul.

Also surprising, to Western ears, is the emphasis in Holy Week liturgies on the apocalyptic and the “dread day of judgment.” Peter C. Bouteneff writes that the services for Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday evenings of Holy Week are known as the Bridegroom services because of their emphasis on preparing ourselves for Christ’s arrival.

The non-linear weaving of covenant history with eschatological apocalypse gives a new way of seeing Holy Week as an icon of the creation’s full redemption. I was reminded of Fleming Rutledge’s phrase “apocalyptic transvision,” by which we see events as they are now (or the historical past) but at the same time as they are in God’s promised future. Transvision is perhaps its own form of illumination.

As Richard Schneider writes here, icons are also texts, “pictorial analogues to the Scriptures themselves.” Theology in engagement with the Scriptures is emphasized over and over. In the final meditation, “A Feast of Theology,” Archpriest John Behr ties the Paschal feast to the illumination of the Scriptures: “the food that we will feast on is the Body and Blood of the Word, the one who opens the Scriptures to show

how they all speak of him and provide the means for entering into communion with him.” The illuminative work of theology is not just transvision, but transformation: theology is “the challenge to transfigure our own lives by allowing God’s own transforming power to be at work within us.”

In his meditation for Holy Thursday, Archpriest Alexander Rental describes baptism as a primary locus of illumination, placing it in the context of “the hymnography of Holy Thursday [that] speaks of the washing of the feet as the time ‘when the disciples were illumined.’”

The illumination inherent in baptism is participation in Christ’s transforming death, because in Christ death has been transformed into resurrection. The meditations for Pascha are refreshing because they keep the focus firmly on the connection between Christ’s resurrection and his crucifixion. Behr identifies the Church, consisting of those called in baptism to the Great Commission, as the body whose glory “is one that is only seen by those whose sight has been trained to look upon the Cross and see the Lord of Glory.”

The missional character of the baptismal life is shown by this light to be our entrance into the life of risen Christ, who, by his death, has already won all the earth to himself. Schneider describes a hymn sung at Great Compline on Pascha, verses from Psalms 81 and 82 illustrated with an image of the risen Christ displaying his wounded hands:

“‘Arise, O Lord, and judge the Earth, for to thee belong all nations!’ Hell’s doors have opened up to become the doors of paradise.”

May we see and be transformed.

Hannah Bowman, a literary agent for Liza Dawson Associates, is a laywoman in the Diocese of Los Angeles. This review was published in the February 24, 2019 issue of The Living Church.