Within the liturgical life of the Church there is nothing like the experience of Holy Week culminating in the Paschal service as we celebrate the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. After several weeks of fasting, participation in the Lenten services and placing our focus more attentively on our inner condition, we anticipate with great joy the Feast of all Feasts. There is a focus, especially from Holy Thursday on, that puts us both spiritually and psychologically in another space. The Passion narrative, the image of Christ hanging on the Cross and the stillness of the night after the service as we sit in silence and reflect on the sacrifice that Christ made for our life and salvation, touches us. The image of Christ hanging on the Cross before our very eyes after hearing the gospel accounts, which refresh our minds of the pain and suffering that He willingly endured, moves us to tears and deep gratitude. This sets the stage for the following days as we begin to anticipate the triumph of Christ’s life-giving death.
The services of Holy Friday appeal to our senses of sight and smell, as we bear witness to the Kouvouklion draped in flowers. We are struck by the removal of Christ’s Body from the Cross as He is tenderly wrapped in a new cloth and taken into the altar and laid on the Holy Table representing the tomb in which His Body was placed. These events as well as Holy Friday night and Holy Saturday set the foundation for the Holy Resurrection service. The days of Great and Holy Lent along with the drama and splendor of Holy Week create unforgettable memories for all of us. There is nothing like this period of time in the Church, and it is no wonder that after such a time there is a letdown when all is said and done.
Some years ago I thought that it was our duty to maintain this joy for as long as we can, maintaining it throughout the following weeks as much as possible, and in a sense we do this collectively as we chant, “Christ is risen” for thirty-nine days after the Resurrection. However, the more I thought about it I came to realize that we’re not meant to maintain this experience. For now we experience this joy in part and the experience is given to us to create a spiritual hunger. Recall, for example, the encounter of Motovilov with St. Seraphim of Sarov. Motovilov said to the Saint, “How can I know that I am in the grace of the Holy Spirit?” The Saint replied, “We are both in the Spirit of God now, my son. Why don’t you look at me?” Motovilov replied, “I cannot look, Father, because your eyes are flashing like lightning. Your face has become brighter than the sun, and my eyes ache with pain.” The Saint responded, “Don’t be alarmed, your Godliness! Now you yourself have become as bright as I am. You are now in the fullness of the Spirit of God yourself; otherwise you would not be able to see me as I am.” This experience as awesome as it was did not last for Motovilov, it was for a moment in time, but the experience was transformative. What’s more, this experience allowed him to see darkness in a “new” light. The joy of the Resurrection is not to be experienced in totality here and now, it is only a foretaste of what is to come. To feel a letdown is to be expected. It acts as a reminder and inspires us to keep our mind fixed on the world to come. The letdown signals to us that we have in fact been lifted up in the joy of the Resurrection, much like Motovilov experienced.
The last lines of the story of St. Seraphim and Motovilov, remind us that our experience is not just for us to have, but is given to us to share with others: “I don’t know, Father,” Motovilov said, “whether the Lord will grant me to remember this mercy of God always as vividly and clearly as I feel it now.” “I think,” Father Seraphim answered, “that the Lord will help you to retain it in your memory forever, or His goodness would never have instantly bowed in this way to my humble prayer and so quickly anticipated the request of poor Seraphim; all the more so, because it is not given to you alone to understand it, but through you it is for the whole world, in order that you yourself may be confirmed in God’s work and may be useful to others.”
Christ is Risen!