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Keeping Watch in the Night

Orthodox Holy Week nears its end


St. Geneviève and I kept watch from 11pm till midnight in the darkened church, by the tomb of Christ. My son Matt read the Psalms aloud for the previous two hours, then I took over. A fellow parishioner relieved me. At home now to sleep for a couple of hours, then headed back to church to recite the Psalter until five a.m. This is what you do through the night, after the last service of Good Friday, which blends into the first prayers of Holy Saturday. The tradition is not to leave the “tomb” alone, but to keep the night watch, chanting or reciting the Psalter. It’s something special to be in the pitch-black church, with only a reading light and the sound of your own voice chanting sacred poetry of the Hebrews. And the Psalter readings will continue without interruption throughout Holy Saturday, until the 3pm prayer service, the last before Pascha.

Orthodox Holy Week is exhausting, but it’s a good kind of tired. By the time tomorrow morning rolls around, I will have spent about ten of the previous 24 hours in church. Holy Week is a marathon. But as demanding as they are, I have been especially encouraged by the liturgies and the prayer services of this week, in light of the events in this country the previous two. Those events, and memory of the events we commemorate this week in the Orthodox church, and the prayers and Scripture readings, remind me of who I am, who we are, who we are not, and what is at stake in life.

UPDATE: Now I’m back from the three-to-five shift, and I’ve thought a bit more on this. It’s holiness. Everything about Orthodox worship points to the majesty and sanctity of God, and the intense drama of participating in His life. I heard myself reading some of those lines in the Psalms and thought, oddly: if you really believe these words, you can’t live an ordinary life. I mean by that that life is not mundane. The world truly is enchanted. It’s not just in the Psalms, but in the beauty of Orthodox worship, and its chants, its rhythms, its pageantry, even in a country mission like ours, which is tiny and poor. The length of the services teaches you something too, though you might not realize it till later. It saturates you in the experience of sanctity, makes it present and visceral. I think it’s this way all the time, but never more intensely than during Holy Week. It is a rich, rich ground in which to grow in steadfast faith and the joy of wonder.



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