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April 26, 2021

The Meaning of Holy and Great Week

By Metropolitan Kallinikos Karousos of Piraeus

We have already entered the most beautiful days of our ecclesiastical festal calendar - Holy Week, which opens before us, floods our hearts with chills and feelings of emotion.

Especially for us Orthodox, the Easter of the Crucifixion and Resurrection, that is, the Passion and the Resurrection of our Lord, has a special significance and weight. Because it is the center of all our liturgical and worship life. In order to benefit from these days it is necessary to delve into the meaning of Holy Week.

They called this week Holy and Great. If we go deeper into these names we will more easily understand the deeper meaning of these days.

1. Holy Week
The week we are entering is primarily Holy. It is holy, because it is the culmination and the pinnacle of a sacred spiritual journey, which we started on Clean Monday.

That is, if during the whole period of Great Lent we are called to live a holy life, then especially during Holy Week, the Church invites us to live an even more holy and spiritual life. We are called to attain during Holy Week the zenith of our spiritual struggles, the highest point of our performance, the culmination of spiritual experiences and achievements.

This reminder of our debt for a holier life is also emphasized by the beautiful Exaposteilarion:

"I see Your Bridal Chamber adorned, O my Savior, and I have no wedding garment that I may enter therein. O Giver of Light, make radiant the garment of my soul, and save me."

It is also like the beautiful and inspiring verse from the Praises:

"Come, then, and with our minds now purified, let us also go with Him and be crucified with Him and die for Him to the pleasures of this life, so that we may also live with Him and hear Him...."

Here, then, is our special debt during Holy Week. To cleanse our souls from the rust of sin and to brighten the garment of our soul with works of virtue. We must ascend to Golgotha and our own cross and bury our passions and weaknesses there. Only in this way will we experience the holiness and splendor of our virtue, which will help us to taste the holiness of the Week of the Passion of our Lord. Negligence, spiritual indifference and rashness are unforgivable for the believer, especially this week. We will hear later in the day the Church rebuking the negligent with severity:

"Why are you lazy, my pitiful soul? Why are you thinking about unprofitable cares at such a time? Why are you busy with things that pass away? The final hour is at hand and we shall soon be parted from all that is here. While you still have time, get sober and cry, 'I have sinned against You, my Savior. Do not cut me down like that unfruitful fig tree....'"

We are therefore called to live this during Holy Week a more intense spiritual life, with a greater struggle against sin, with holier feelings, with more spiritual thoughts, with a more careful spiritual journey. This Week is therefore Holy because of its meaning and its content, but we must make it Holy with our most careful and holy life. 

2. Great Week
But it is not only Holy, but this Week of the Passion is also Great.

Why is it called Great? Is it longer than the other weeks of the year? Of course not. It is called Great because during this Week the events that take place are really great and wonderful. This week reminds us of the tragic events on our planet 2,000 years ago. It will restore before us the horrible spectacle before which the sun was darkened, the curtain of the Jewish temple was torn, and the whole creation was disturbed. It will bring to life in our memory the most unique and supreme sacrifice that was ever offered on earth, the sacrifice of our Lord on the Cross for our own salvation.

"Man saw two great and paradoxical miracles in the world," says Elias Miniatis, "a God coming down from heaven and becoming man and this God-man being lifted onto and dying on a cross."

The event of the crucifixion of the God-man is so great that our thoughts are unable to penetrate it. We are faced with the combination of two mysteries: the Mystery of Divine Love and the Mystery of Divine Justice. Some images from the wonderful hymns of these days help us understand the shocking events that we will celebrate.

One of these images is of the pelican. We will hear it used by the inspired hymn writer (verse from the second stanza of the Lamentations of Great Friday):

"Like the pelican, You gave life, O Word, to Your dead children, wounded in Your side, You let life-blood flow, letting fall life-giving drops of blood on all."

To understand the exalted meanings of this hymn, it is necessary to look at a folk tradition, which refers to the life of the pelican. The pelican is an affectionate bird. It builds its nest on the rocks. But if one day, in its absence, a snake happens to crawl near the nest and bite its little birds, then tradition says, the pelican, seeing that its little ones are dying, it will stab its breast, and with the blood it will feed its young, which are revived and saved. This is because the blood of the pelican acts as an excellent antidote and neutralizes the venom of the snake. The pelican, of course, dies shortly after the uncontrollable bleeding. But his little ones are saved.

So the Lord, in order to free our souls from the poison of sin, in order to enliven our sinful souls, poured out His holy Blood on the cross. And this blood has since become a medicine for our sinful souls. He cleanses "the conscience of men from dead works", as the Apostle Paul says. And as Saint Gregory the Theologian emphasizes: 
"He assumed the worse that He might give us the better; He became poor that we through His poverty might be rich; He took upon Him the form of a servant that we might receive back our liberty; He came down that we might be exalted; He was tempted that we might conquer; He was dishonored that He might glorify us; He died that He might save us; He ascended that He might draw to Himself us, who were lying low in the fall of sin."

Holy Week will lead us before the suffering Son of God. In the face of Crucified Love, even the most stony heart will crack. We will consider the Sufferer and those for whose sake He suffers. Our hearts will be cleansed. We will think of our sins, for which the Lord is crucified. And our eyes will weep. And our lips will utter words of worship and devotion and gratitude to our Jesus. And we will say to Him: 
"You were crucified for me to become the source of forgiveness for me. You were pierced in the side so that streams of life would flow out to me. With nails You were fastened, so that having seen the depth of Your Passion I confirm the height of Your power, O Christ, and I cry to You, the Giver of Life, Glory to Your Cross and Your Passion, O Savior!"

My brethren,

In a few words, this is the deeper meaning of Holy and Great Week. If we succeed, so that we feel compunction before the shocking events of the Divine Passion, and our hearts will be led to contrition and this contrition to the great decision to remain faithful and devoted to the point of death to our Crucified Redeemer, then Holy and Great Week will find its most beautiful justification in our decision. And it will be a Holy and Great Week for an additional reason: for the holy and great decisions we made during it.

Source: From the book Η Εβδομάδα των Παθών, Δ΄ έκδ., Αθήνα 1983. Translated by John Sanidopoulos.