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Holy Week In Plague Time

A time for Christians to sheathe our swords, and walk to Golgotha in humility
Spain, Diocesan Museum of Jaca, The betrayal in the Garden of Gethsemane: Judas kisses Jesus, and Peter cuts of Malchus's ear

Today is Palm Sunday for most US Christians (we Orthodox are a week behind you this year). Look:

Dr. Jerome M. Adams, the surgeon general, said on Sunday that the intensifying outbreak was expected to test the country’s “resolve” over the next week and called for governors of states who had not yet issued stay-at-home orders to put in place any restrictions they could.

“The next week is going to be our Pearl Harbor moment,” Dr. Adams said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “It’s going to be our 9/11 moment. It’s going to be the hardest moment for many Americans in their entire lives.”

The symbolism is heavy here.

Read this NYT account by a physician explaining what it’s like to be on a ventilator, and what it does to your body. Protecting us from this — and, obviously, death — is what all this quarantining is for. Protecting the community from the spread of death is what it is for. Protecting us from the drawn-out experience of economic destruction is what it’s for (that is, we can have short, sharp destruction, or drag it out over a longer period of time … but it’s unavoidable).

I find myself in total sympathy with fellow Christians who mourn what we have lost, in terms of having to miss church, especially in this holiest of seasons. But I also find myself sore at those who are meeting this crisis by stoking the fires of anger at state and religious authorities for telling them not to go to church. I know I’ve been harping on this, but man, it’s such a beatdown to read online how harshly some Christians are reacting.

I was feeling a bit sorry for myself this morning, the first morning that we haven’t been able to watch livestreaming liturgy from our own parish. Our priest and a skeleton crew of altar servers and choir members had been offering the liturgy under previous guidelines from the bishop. But last week, the Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church in America sent down new guidelines. Under them, a priest who has been in contact with someone who works in a hospital where covid patients are cannot serve the liturgy with others. In our case, our priest happens to be married to a physician’s assistant. So, no local liturgy, until further notice. But consider: every morning, our priest has to say goodbye to his wife as she goes to the front lines of this death-dealing battle. And every night, he has to welcome her back into their home, with their little girl, not knowing if she is carrying the virus. And she has to do this every day too, not knowing if this will be the day she gets the virus that might leave her daughter motherless and her husband a widower … or if she will bring the virus to them.

And the main thing the priest was put on this earth to do — say the liturgy, and pastor his flock — he cannot do, because of this virus.

The pressure on that clergy family must be enormous. Considering that, I find it hard to pity myself in my own loss. Believe me, I do … but when I start to welcome that spirit of self-pity into my mind, I chase it out. There is no way I  or anybody else is going to do what is required of us if we feel sorry for ourselves, or nurture within our hearts a feeling of spite towards bishops, pastors, and civil authorities. That can bring nothing but evil. We are all being asked to take an unusual share in Christ’s Passion this year. Even so, what a soft road to Golgotha this is for most of us: just staying at home! I feel sometimes like we are the disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night in which Jesus was betrayed: we can’t even stay awake to wait with him. We want to sleep when we want to, and not to have our rhythms disturbed.

Or we are like Peter, when he brandishes his sword and cuts the ear off the high priest’s servant accompanying the soldiers who arrested Jesus. Peter’s act was humanly comprehensible — but he was not fulfilling the will of his Lord. The more difficult struggle for Peter was sheathing his sword and allowing what had to happen, to happen. The greater struggle for Peter was the inner struggle to stand still and abide with Him. So it is with us.

The Christians who think they are being bold for the Gospel by going to church, against the orders of civil authorities, are behaving, in a way like angry Peter. What they are doing, without intending to, is bringing pain and suffering onto others, though they think they are serving Christ. It is self-righteous.

I find Christian self-righteousness and self-pity — which are closely connected — hard to take. Why? It’s because of having spent so much of the past year immersed in the experiences of Christians under Soviet-bloc communism. The sacrifices we American Christians are being asked to make at this time are nothing compared to what circumstances imposed on believers under the communist yoke. For whatever mysterious reason, God is putting us to the test right now, and so many of us are failing it. True, I have disciplined myself not to complain about having no church services right now, but I have not disciplined myself to compensate for it by doing more prayer, more spiritual reading, and so forth — even though, confined in the house, I have the time. In other words, I have stirred myself enough to tell Peter to put his sword away, but I am still asleep when Jesus asks me to be fully awake, and waiting.

I want to share with you all a letter that the Orthodox priest Father Stephen Freeman put on his blog, and that a reader sent to me. It’s a 1928 letter written on Easter (Pascha) from a Russian prisoner, suffering in a Bolshevik jail, to his exiled uncle living in Paris. The author is a relative of the well-known Russian-American priest Father Alexander Schmemann, and is recalled in the book his son Serge, a former New York Times correspondent, wrote about his family’s ancestral village in Russia, Sergiyevskoye. The book is Echoes of a Native Land: Two Centuries of a Russian Village. It is available on Kindle for $4.99; based on the letter you are about to read, and Father Stephen’s enthusiastic recommendation, I bought the electronic version, and will read it today.

Anyway, read this letter, and carry it in your heart into Holy Week:

30 March/ 12 April 1928

Dear Uncle Grishanchik,

I greet you and Aunt Masha with the impending Holy Day, and I wish you all the very best. For a long, long time I have wanted to write to you, dear Uncle Grishanchik; you always showed such concern for me, you helped me so generously in a difficult moment of my life, and, mainly, your entire image is so inseparably linked for each of us, your nephews, with such wonderful memories; you always are, were, and will be our dearest, most beloved uncle.

I am approaching the fourth Easter that I will spend behind these walls, separated from my family, but the feelings for these holy days which were infused in me from earliest childhood do not fail me now; from the beginning of Holy Week I have felt the approach of the Feast, I follow the life of the Church, I repeat to myself the hymns of the Holy Week services, and in my soul there arise those feelings of tender reverence that I used to feel as a child going to confession or communion. At 35 those feelings are as strong and as deep as in those childhood years.

My dear Uncle Grishanchik, going over past Easters in my memory, I remember our last Easter at Sergiyevskoye, which we spent with you and Aunt Masha, and I felt the immediate need to write you. If you have not forgotten, Easter in 1918 was rather late, and spring was early and very warm, so when in the last weeks of Lent I had to take Aunt Masha to Ferzikovo, the roads were impassable. I remember that trip as now; it was a warm, heavy, and humid day, which consumed the last snow in the forests and gullies faster than the hottest sun; wherever you looked, water, water, and more water, and all the sounds seemed to rise from it, from the burbling and rushing of the streams on all sides to the ceaseless ring of countless larks. We had to go by sleigh – not on the road, which wound through the half-naked fields in a single muddy ridge, but alongside, carefully choosing the route. Each hoofprint, each track left by the runners, immediately turned into a small muddy stream, busily rushing off somewhere. We drove forever, exhausting the poor horse, and, finally, after successfully eluding the Polivanovo field, one of the most difficult places, I became too bold and got Aunt Masha so mired that I nearly drowned the horse and the sleigh; we had to unharness to pull it out and got wet to the eyebrows; in a word, total “local color.”

I remember the feeling I had that spring of growing strength, but that entire happy springtime din, for all the beauty and joy of awakening nature, could not muffle the sense of alarm that squeezed the heart in each of us. Either some hand rose in senseless fury to profane our Sergiyevskoye, or there was the troubling sense that our loving and closely welded family was being broken up: Sonia far off somewhere with a pile of kids, alone, separated from her husband; Seryozha, just married, we don’t know where or how, and you, my dear Uncle Grisha and Auht Masha, separated from your young ones, in constant worry over them. It was a hard and difficult time. But I believe that beyond these specific problems, this spiritual fog had a deeper common source: we all, old and young, stood then at a critical turning point: unaware of it, we were bidding farewell to a past filled with beloved memories, while ahead there loomed some hostile utterly unknown future.

And in the midst of all this came Holy Week. the spring was in that stage when nature, after a big shove to cast off winter’s shackles, suddenly grows quiet, as if resting from the first victory. But below this apparent calm there is always the sense of a complex, hidden process taking place somewhere deep in the earth, which is preparing to open up in all its force, in all the beauty of growth and flowering. Plowing and seeding the earth rasied rich scents, and, following the plow on the sweaty, softly turning furrow, you were enveloped in the marvelous smell of moist earth. I always became intoxicated by that smell, because in it one senses the limitless creative power of nature.

I don’t know how you all felt at the time, because I lived a totally separate life and worked from morning to night in the fields, not seeing, and, yes, not wanting to see, anything else. It was too painful to think, and only total physical exhaustion gave one a chance, if not to forget, then at least to forget oneself. But with Holy Week began the services in church and at home, I had to lead the choir in rehearsal and in church; on Holy Wednesday I finished the sowing of oats and, putting away the plow and harrow, gave myself entirely over to the tuning fork. And here began that which I will never forget!

Dear Uncle Grishanchik! Do you remember the service of the Twelve Gospels in our Sergiyevskoye church? Do you remember that marvelous, inimitable manner of our little parson? This spring will be nine years that he passed away during the midnight Easter service, but even now, when I hear certain litanies or certain Gospel readings, I can hear the exhilarated voice of our kind parson, his intonations piercing to the very soul. I remember that you were taken by this service, that it had a large impact on you. I see now the huge crucifix rising in the midst of the church, with figures of the Mother of God on one side and the Apostle John on the other, framed by multicolored votive lights, the waving flame of many candles, and, among the thoroughly familiar throng of Sergiyevskoye peasants, your figure by the right wall in front of the candle counter, with a contemplative expression on your face. If you only knew what was happening in my soul at that time! It was an entire turnover, some huge, healing revelation!

Don’t be surprised that I’m writing this way; I don’t think I’m exaggerating anything, it’s just that I feel great emotion remembering all these things, because I am continuously breaking off to go to the window and listen. A quiet, starry night hangs over Moscow, and I can hear first one, then another church mark the successive Gospels with slow, measured strikes of the bell. I think of my Lina and our Marinochka, of Papa, Mama, my sisters, brothers, of all of you, feeling the sadness of expatriation in these days, all so dear and close. However painful, especially at this time, the awareness of our separation, I firmly, unshakably believe all the same that the hour will come when we will all gather together, just as you are all gathered now in my thoughts.

1/14 April – They’ve allowed me to finish writing letters, and I deliberately sat down to finish it this night. Any minute now the Easter matins will start; in our cell everything is clean, and on our large common table stand kulichi and paskha, a huge “X.B.” [Christos Voskrese “Christ is risen”] from fresh watercress is beautifully arranged on a white table cloth with brightly colored eggs all around. It’s unusually quiet in the cell; in order not to arouse the guards, we all lay down on lowered cots (there are 24 of us) in anticipation of the bells, and I sat down to write to you again.

I remember I walked out of the Sergiyevskoye church at that time overwhelmed by a mass of feelings and sensations, and my earlier spiritual fog seemed a trifle, deserving of no attention. In the great images of the Holy Week services, the horror of man’s sin and the suffering of the Creator leading to the great triumph of the resurrection, I suddenly discovered that eternal, indestructible beginning, which was also in that temporarily quiet spring, hiding in itself the seed of a total renewal of all that lives. The services continued in their stern, rich order; images replaced images, and when, on Holy Saturday, after the singing of “Arise, O Lord,” the deacon, having changed into a white robe, walked into the center of the church to the burial cloth to read the gospel about the resurrection, it seemed to me that we are all equally shaken, that we all feel and pray as one.

In the meantime, spring went on the offensive. When we walked to the Easter matins, the night was humid, heavy clouds covered the sky, and walking through the dark alleys of the linden park, I imagined a motion in the ground, as if innumerable invisible plants were pushing through the earth toward air and light.

I don’t know if our midnight Easter matins made any impression on you then. For me there never was, and never will be, anything better than Easter at Seriyevskoye. We are all too organically tied to Sergiyevskoye for anything to transcend it, to evoke so much good. This is not blind patriotism, because for all of us Seriyevskoye was that spiritual cradle in which everything by which each of us lives and breathes was born and raised.

My dear Uncle Grishanchik, as I’ve been writing to you the scattered ringing around Moscow has become a mighty festive peal. Processions have begun, the sounds of firecrackers reach us, one church after another joins the growing din of bells. The wave of sound swells. There! Somewhere entirely nearby, a small church breaks brightly through the common chord with such a joyous, exultant little voice. Sometimes it seems that the tumult has begun to wane, and suddenly a new wave rushes in with unexpected strength, a grand hymn between heaven and earth.

I cannot write any more! That which I now hear is too overwhelming, too good, to try to convey in words. The incontrovertible sermon of the Resurrection seems to rise from this mighty peal of praise. My dear uncle Grishanchik, it is so good in my soul that the only way I can express my spirit is to say to you once again, Christ is Risen!


One more thing. I am thinking about Terrence Malick’s recent film, A Hidden Lifewhich you can now rent from Amazon Prime for $5.99 — and that scene in which Franz visits the artist painting images from the life of Christ on the walls of the village church. The artist says that most people are admirers of Christ, when what Christ really wants is followers. The old artist tells Franz, “Christ’s life is a demand.  You don’t want to be reminded of it.”

Malick surely got this from the Christian philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, who, in his book Training In Christianity, wrote:

It is well known that Christ consistently used the expression “follower.” He never asks for admirers, worshippers, or adherents. No, he calls disciples. It is not adherents of a teaching but followers of a life Christ is looking for. Christ understood that being a “disciple” was in innermost and deepest harmony with what he said about himself. Christ claimed to be the way and the truth and the life (Jn. 14:6). For this reason, he could never be satisfied with adherents who accepted his teaching – especially with those who in their lives ignored it or let things take their usual course. His whole life on earth, from beginning to end, was destined solely to have followers and to make admirers impossible. Christ came into the world with the purpose of saving, not instructing it. At the same time – as is implied in his saving work – he came to be the pattern, to leave footprints for the person who would join him, who would become a follower. This is why Christ was born and lived and died in lowliness. It is absolutely impossible for anyone to sneak away from the Pattern with excuse and evasion on the basis that It, after all, possessed earthly and worldly advantages that he did not have. In that sense, to admire Christ is the false invention of a later age, aided by the presumption of “loftiness.” No, there is absolutely nothing to admire in Jesus, unless you want to admire poverty, misery, and contempt.

What then, is the difference between an admirer and a follower? A follower is or strives to be what he admires. An admirer, however, keeps himself personally detached. He fails to see that what is admired involves a claim upon him, and thus he fails to be or strive to be what he admires. To want to admire instead of to follow Christ is not necessarily an invention by bad people. No, it is more an invention by those who spinelessly keep themselves detached, who keep themselves at a safe distance. Admirers are related to the admired only through the excitement of the imagination. To them he is like an actor on the stage except that, this being real life, the effect he produces is somewhat stronger. But for their part, admirers make the same demands that are made in the theater: to sit safe and calm. Admirers are only all too willing to serve Christ as long as proper caution is exercised, lest one personally come in contact with danger. As such, they refuse to accept that Christ’s life is a demand. In actual fact, they are offended at him. His radical, bizarre character so offends them that when they honestly see Christ for who he is, they are no longer able to experience the tranquility they so much seek after. They know full well that to associate with him too closely amounts to being up for examination. Even though he “says nothing” against them personally, they know that his life tacitly judges theirs. And Christ’s life indeed makes it manifest, terrifyingly manifest, what dreadful untruth it is to admire the truth instead of following it. When there is no danger, when there is a dead calm, when everything is favorable to our Christianity, it is all too easy to confuse an admirer with a follower. And this can happen very quietly. The admirer can be in the delusion that the position he takes is the true one, when all he is doing is playing it safe. Give heed, therefore, to the call of discipleship!

If you have any knowledge at all of human nature, who can doubt that Judas was an admirer of Christ! And we know that Christ at the beginning of his work had many admirers. Judas was precisely an admirer and thus later became a traitor. It is just as easy to reckon as the stars that those who only admire the truth will, when danger appears, become traitors. The admirer is infatuated with the false security of greatness; but if there is any inconvenience or trouble, he pulls back. Admiring the truth, instead of following it, is just as dubious a fire as the fire of erotic love, which at the turn of the hand can be changed into exactly the opposite, to hate, jealousy, and revenge. There is a story of yet another admirer – it was Nicodemus (Jn. 3:1ff). Despite the risk to his reputation, despite the effort on his part, Nicodemus was only an admirer; he never became a follower. It is as if he might have said to Christ, “If we are able to reach a compromise, you and I, then I will accept your teaching in eternity. But here in this world, no, that I cannot bring myself to do. Could you not make an exception for me? Could it not be enough if once in a while, at great risk to myself, I come to you during the night, but during the day (yes, I confess it, I myself feel how humiliating this is for me and how disgraceful, indeed also how very insulting it is toward you) to say “I do not know you?” See in what a web of untruth an admirer can entangle himself.

Nicodemus, I am quite sure, was certainly well meaning. I’m also sure he was ready to assure and reassure in the strongest expressions, words, and phrases that he accepted the truth of Christ’s teaching. Yet, is it not true that the more strongly someone makes assurances, while his life still remains unchanged, the more he is only making a fool of himself? If Christ had permitted a cheaper edition of being a follower – an admirer who swears by all that is high and holy that he is convinced – then Nicodemus might very well have been accepted. But he was not! Now suppose that there is no longer any special danger, as it no doubt is in so many of our Christian countries, bound up with publicly confessing Christ. Suppose there is no longer need to journey in the night. The difference between following and admiring – between being, or at least striving to be – still remains. Forget about this danger connected with confessing Christ and think rather of the real danger which is inescapably bound up with being a Christian. Does not the Way – Christ’s requirement to die to the world, to forgo the worldly, and his requirement of self-denial – does this not contain enough danger? If Christ’s commandment were to be obeyed, would they not constitute a danger? Would they not be sufficient to manifest the difference between an admirer and a follower? The difference between an admirer and a follower still remains, no matter where you are. The admirer never makes any true sacrifices. He always plays it safe. Though in words, phrases, songs, he is inexhaustible about how highly he prizes Christ, he renounces nothing, gives up nothing, will not reconstruct his life, will not be what he admires, and will not let his life express what it is he supposedly admires. Not so for the follower. No, no. The follower aspires with all his strength, with all his will to be what he admires. And then, remarkably enough, even though he is living amongst a “Christian people,” the same danger results for him as was once the case when it was dangerous to openly confess Christ. And because of the follower’s life, it will become evident who the admirers are, for the admirers will become agitated with him. Even that these words are presented as they are here will disturb many – but then they must likewise belong to the admirers.

Now, reading this, I can imagine someone saying, “Don’t you see? To be a follower of Christ means to put ourselves in danger, for His sake. To risk catching this deadly disease by going to church — to not play it safe by sitting at home.” To which I say: What makes you so sure? Peter, in the garden, put himself at great risk to defend Jesus by physically attacking, and seriously injuring the high priest’s servant. But it was not what Jesus wanted him to do. Like I said, the greater struggle for Peter in that moment was the inner struggle. And as we know from later in the Gospels, Peter, so courageous in that moment in the garden, failed miserably when he denied three times knowing Jesus. Peter’s own conversion was incomplete, despite the fact that in that moment in the garden, he shed blood to defend his Master.

How do we, in our time, in this crisis, know whether or not we are to risk physical danger to serve Christ, or whether we are being called to stay home and deepen our conversion by cultivating a heart for sacrifice in stillness? Well, one good way to know is whether or not we are obedient to our bishops, even when we may not agree with them. Nobody has ever accused me of being soft on the episcopal class, but I think they are making some wise and difficult decisions here. This morning on CNN, Jake Tapper questioned Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards about why he declined to cancel the February 25 Mardi Gras celebration even though he had received a sobering federal briefing on February 9 about what was likely to come. I think it was a fair question, but it’s also important to say that at that point, had this or any Louisiana governor cancelled Mardi Gras, it would have taken a heck of a lot of courage, because it would have been an extremely unpopular decision. The people wouldn’t have stood for it. Yet as we now know, it would have been the right thing to have done. I feel the same way about the calls the bishops are making now. Many of us may think they are being cowardly, but I think judging them harshly for making a choice that stands to save lives is a matter of pride and presumption.

Again, the twist in applying Kierkegaard’s observation to our situation is that the comfortable thing for regular churchgoers to do is to go to church in this time of crisis. But is that what God is asking us to do? Who would Peter have been to question Christ’s order to put away his sword? Jesus asked Peter, “Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given Me?” The suffering the Father has given to us Christians in this grim Lent of 2020 is to abide with him in prayer and obedience, and inquiring into our own hearts what this little apocalypse is showing us about our own failure to be fully converted, to be completely conformed to Christ.

You have to know when to draw your sword, and know when to put it away. This requires wisdom and discernment. When you consider how your Lent is spent, think of John Milton’s words in Sonnet 19, about how those who serve God best are those who best bear his yoke:

When I consider how my light is spent,
   Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,
   And that one Talent which is death to hide
   Lodged with me useless, though my Soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
   My true account, lest he returning chide;
   “Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”
   I fondly ask. But patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, “God doth not need
   Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best
   Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is Kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed
   And post o’er Land and Ocean without rest:
   They also serve who only stand and wait.”
Here endeth the lesson.
How is your Palm Sunday?


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