Orthodox America

  Holy Week, Holy Russia

Palm Sunday

 The Lord is at hand. (Phil. 4:5)

In former times, and in Holy Russia not so very long ago, all worldly bustle froze in stillness during these days. Mills and factories shut down, business came to a standstill, schools closed. During these ever memorable days, the life of the Russian people became altogether preoccupied with the experience of those events which occurred in Jerusalem nearly two thousand years ago.

During these days the Lord Jesus Christ drew near to the great majority of people in our Orthodox land. The memory of His unprecedented exploit on the Cross--of His frightful torments, humiliation, crucifixion and Resurrection--was on everyone's lips, in everyone's heart.

These days, unfading, indelible, have already begun. Yesterday He raised His friend Lazarus from the dead; today sees the fulfillment of the prophetic words concerning His entry into the city of Jerusalem in order to suffer for the sins of the whole world. And the soul rejoices, seeing its true happiness so close at hand. During these days the Lord and the brightness of His Kingdom draw close to the soul. very close.

Our village is unusually animated. All the thoughts and activities of its denizens are directed towards meeting the coming great days. Everyone has a lot of work to do, but it is goodly work, related to the name of Him Who is the joy. the truth, the light, the life of all.

Everywhere streams rush noisily in their coursing. Each passing day brings more sun, more warmth. The quiet, gentle wind of sprint flows in its advance. Beyond the hedges, liberated from their snowy coverings, fields hung with pale mist grow black. All His creation announces the day of Has coming, His joy drawing near. At this season God's graciousness is so clearly manifest.

     The church is full of life, its entire enclosure crowds with His servants. All have come bearing willow branches. [1] Many hearts bring Him .Hosanna!" Those who have come to Him today cannot conceal their excitement, their trembling joy, uniquely audible throughout the church. Perhaps it is because the heart perceives its happiness, for now the Lord is "at hand".

    The time has come for the polyeleos. The censor is lit. The candles in the hands of the faithful flicker with light. I draw open the Royal Gates and go out to the people. How many branches there are in our church! And next to each branch there glows a flame. The hand clasps tightly its branch and burning candle. Treasured within this tiny flame lies the mercy of God, His goodwill towards a needy humanity. The hand, holding the branch, knows that the Lord is nigh.

    "We also cry to Thee, 'Hosanna in the highest!'" The Jews' "Hosanna!" carried echoes of the word "Crucify!" May this not be said of our "Hosanna!" Heavy is our burden of sin. We still cannot rid ourselves of it, Our conscience convicts us. After all, how many promises to Him lie broken, how often have we digressed from His path. But the heart cannot forget Ham, it cannot be consoled except by Him. Only in Elm does it find peace, Him alone does it yearn to serve. And now, seeing how He gives joy to all--worthy and unworthy--it sings to Him "Hosanna!"


    The spring twilight thickens rapidly over the village. The feast-day services have come to an end. From the church entrance there unfolds a wondrous sight. One can hear the murmuring streams, the thin ice crunches beneath the feet of those leaving the church, the bells peal exultantly. Pale stars stud the dark sky above, while below, the flames of burning candles run from the church in all directions--as if alive. Together with the willox,, branches, the worshippers guardedly carry home these flames, and with them the joyful knowledge that "the Lord is at hand." All of this is so ineffably simple and profound ! Nothing more than a small willox,, branch and a penny candle--and yet, those carrying them experience a joy which all the latest wonders of science and technology cannot impart.

    The faithful carry these holy flames into their homes. With them they light the vigil lamp in the icon corner. The willow branch is placed by the main icon, bringing to all the occupants the glad tidings that "the Lord is at hand."

    Great sinners! Pay heed to these holy days, and you will see how very close to you your Lord has come.

    You, who are ignorant of the Lord, who have no desire for faith! The Lord Who created you is now on His way to suffer in order to save you. You reject Him, but He stands close by and knocks at your heart.

    You, who so zealously serve this world Through His Most Pure Blood which was shed for you, the Lord begs you to tear yourselves away from the sweetness of temporal sins and to draw near to Him through repentance.

    You, who imagine yourself to be righteous ! Each man who comes into the world is offered salvation through His Cross and Resurrection. For you, too, His most precious Blood was shed. This Blood will never cease to convict you until you come to realize that without the Lord at hand, the vessel of your soul is hollow and unclean.


Great and Holy Wednesday 

    In walking through an old forgotten cemetery, I once saw a wooden cross bearing the inscription: "Nor will I give Thee a kiss as did Judas." Grief in tears grasped my heart as I was drawn to recollect the fate of a priest whom I had known.

    Unnoticed by the world while pleasing God, he had served at first in a village parish. Then came evil times. This priest was called to a building of considerable notoriety where he was ordered to commit the sin of Judas. He categorically refused. When he returned to his parish, he had noticeably changed. He began to pray more, to prefer silence. When he did speak, in conversation and in his sermons, one frequently heard the words: "Nor will I Give Thee a kiss like Judas...'

    Three times he was summoned and offered the honor of playing the role of Judas. They say that there, in that building, his only words were: :"Nor will I give Thee a kiss like Judas."

     Sensing his approaching exile, as those close to him later related, he would often chant the hymn: "Of Thy Mystical Supper, O Son of God... At such times he would be especially calm and pensive. Soon he was taken into exile. He did not settle in the northern Siberian village to which he was assigned, but withdrew into the taiga. There, in a dilapidated hunter' s cabin, he lived quite literally with the animals. He needed such a life for the sake of prayer, and he needed prayer for the sake of repulsing the temptation of Judas. But even in exile, the authorities overseeing the exiles gave him no peace. More than once he was summoned and again offered the reward of earthly well-being in exchange for the sin of Judas. Very likely he had moments of weakness, but he prayed and the Lord protected him.

    After exile he was confined in a concentration camp. There, too, Judases were needed. And the priest was hounded by similar temptations. At night, when his exhausted fellow prisoners were sound asleep, he prayed this prayer: "Nor will I give Thee a kiss like Judas..." A manifest miracle of God's mercy liberated him from the camps.

    But here again he was pursued by a tormenting trial of faith. His relatives and close ones begged him by all means to abandon the priesthood and enter the civil service for the sake of self-preservation. When they entreated him to this end he was silent; if he spoke he would often repeat: "Nor will I give Thee a kiss as did Judas."

    He would not serve in the renovationist churches. "That is not my Faith," he replied to those who invited him there.

    Warned that he was in danger of re-arrest, he took upon himself the podvig of a wanderer. Those who give him shelter relate confidentially that he spends a great deal of time in prayer, that he often weeps and secretly liturgizes, that he has a small group of followers faithful to the Church. They also say that he often sings, "Nor will I give Thee a kiss as did Judas..."


Great and Holy Thursday

     I cannot forget them. On this day they stand before my inward gaze as they once stood in the church, when we prayed together.

    One after another, they approach me in an unending line. I have in my hands the Cup of the New Testament. My hands are exhausted from holding the Cup. It is held by some other power. As each person comes up to me, I try to say to him as clearly as possible, so dearly that there should be no doubt: "The slave of God (N) receives the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ for the remission of his sins and for life everlasting." Several hours have already passed since I began communicating the people with the Most Precious Body and Blood, and still, there seems to be no end to the communicants. One after another, in an endless line, they draw near. The reader chants ceaselessly: “Of Thy Mystical Supper.. ,” and ceaselessly the slaves of Christ are given birth, living members of His Church.

    That was not so lone ago. Not so lone ago there were so many churches open on that day, and each had so many people who came to confess their sins and to partake of the Holy Mysteries. Not so long ago I had so many spiritual sons and daughters. And on that day I was with them in Jesus Christ. Not long ago they protected me. they stood up in defense of the church property. Where are they now? Where did they go?

    I know, how well I know that they possessed a deep love for Christ the Saviour. I know that it is not possible for such a love to disappear at once. It is not possible at once to stifle it, to destroy it. Wherever they may be now, in some distant land, on this day they must surely experience pain of heart. 

Of Thy Mystical Supper O Son of God. accept me today as a communicant; for I will not speak of the Mystery to Thy enemies: I will not give Thee a kiss like Judas: but like the Thief do I confess Thee: Remember me O Lord in Thy Kingdom. (prayer before communion)

 After all, they cannot be without pastoral care. And who will console them now ? Where will they partake of the Mystical Supper? I am full of thoughts concerning them; Perhaps they have encountered some of the temptations of our times. Have they managed to withstand them? I don't know. I only know that they loved Him, I know that He was close to their souls and that they cannot forget His graciousness toward men. Maybe they are being pressured to forget this day, to forget His Name. But what can such pressure do to a Christian soul? It will only cause it to draw close to Him with even greater tenderness, to draw near in suffering, and then He will defend it from enemies visible and invisible.

    They are standing now before my eyes. Every last one of them, all those I knew. And I want to send them a message from my heart: "I remember you, and now I am living with you. You are with me in an extended family. When I experience especially difficult times, I remember you, I pray for you, and it becomes easier for me, more peaceful.

    O Lord, unsearchable are the paths upon which Thou leadest us. Thy love in our hearts has kindled the flame of Thy fire. Thy wisdom unites us, those both near and far, in a union no earthly power can destroy.

     Lord! On this awesome and festive day, the day of Thy Mystical Supper, I cannot be without them. In my spirit I cannot be without those souls whom Thou didst mystically and ineffably entrust to me. On this day I sense keenly my indissoluble ties with them, and my heart beats painfully for them.

     Lord! There, too, I want to be with them , indivisibly, indissolubly, always... (Translated from "A Priest's Reminiscences" in Nadezhda, No. 13; Oossev, 1986. Another segment appeared in "O. A ." #58, April-May, 1986) 

[1] Pussy willows are used in lieu of palm  fronds in Russia.