I came across the phrase “earthly life ceases” at the beginning of an explanation of Holy Week written by the late Father Thomas Hopko. What could he mean by saying that “earthly life ceases?” It is certainly not meant to be taken “literally” because, if so, Father Thomas would not be much of a thinker or theologian! The phrase “earthly life ceases” is not about death and dying. It is, rather, about how we conduct our lives during the week we designate in the Church as “holy and great.” This becomes clear when we look at the entire sentence from Father Thomas: “Earthly life ceases for the faithful as they “go up to Jerusalem with the Lord’” [Matins of Holy Monday]. During the approaching Holy Week, we will continue to arise each morning to a new day, carry out our commitments and responsibilities, and find rest from our labors in the peace of sleep—as well as “eat and drink” to keep alive! But we do these quotidian things in this “week of weeks” with an intense focus on the Paschal mystery of Christ’s redemptive death and life-giving Resurrection. Our sense of reality shifts as we realize—hopefully through the experience of participation—that what is taking place in church through liturgical worship is Reality at its most full and complete. Other concerns, important as they are, are laid aside or postponed to the extent that this is possible. I believe that this is what Father Thomas was trying to convey when he wrote that “earthly life ceases” during Holy Week. Only then could we, as the faithful, and in a good spirit, go up to Jerusalem with the Lord. As we also sing at Matins on Holy Monday, “As the Lord was going to His voluntary passion, He said to the Apostles on the way, ‘Behold, we go up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man shall be delivered up, as it is written of Him.’ Come, therefore, let us also go with Him, purified in mind. Let us be crucified with Him and die through Him to the pleasures of this life. Then we shall live with Him and hear Him say: ‘I go no more to the earthly Jerusalem to suffer, but to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God, I shall raise you up to the Jerusalem on high in the Kingdom of Heaven.’”
What might all of this mean on the practical level? How will this effect our lives during Holy Week? How important will it be for each one of us to “go up to Jerusalem with the Lord?” As a pastoral response, I would say that during Holy Week there are three basic places that Orthodox Christians know and find themselves: the home, work/school, and the church. Exceptions may abound with other unavoidable commitments, but I believe that this basic trinity of places could be a helpful starting point from which we ground ourselves and gain perspective, and around which we plan as we assess the possibilities and priorities of Holy Week in our lives. Certainly, this is not the time to seek entertainment or those other distractions that may appear attractive. And it is certainly not the time for a “vacation”—even if the children happen to be out of school. If, during Great Lent, we have managed to already put some of this into practice, then the approaching Holy Week is the time of an even greater effort in this direction. Our “free time” in the evenings could be redeemed by making it “church time.” If we are unable to attend any of the services, I would suggest that we transform our homes to some extent by seeking some level of stillness or relative silence. And if, over the years, you have purchased your own copies of the Holy Week service books, you could read those in the quite atmosphere of your homes when unable to be in church. Challenging, no doubt, but certainly not impossible, for “with God all things are possible” [Matthew 19:26].
As an Orthodox Christian no one can say, “Holy Week caught me unawares”—not with a preceding 40 days of Great Lent! Well aware in advance of the date of Pascha, hopefully some preparatory scheduling has already been accomplished. So, the above is written in the spirit of pastoral care and guidance. I am not trying to “tell” anyone what to do. As I like to formulate it, I am a pastor, not a policeman! But we are all in this great mystery together. And the source of this “mystery hidden for ages by God who created all things” [Ephesians 3:9] is the limitless love of God: “But God shows His love for us in that while we were sinners Christ died for us” [Romans 5:8]. And this mystery of an active—even “crucified”—love on the part of God draws us into that communion of love as the redeemed and transformed People of God, being “built… upon the rock” [Matthew 7:24] of our belief in the redemptive Death and life-giving Resurrection of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ.