Holy Saturday 


Yesterday was Good Friday, a day when all of Christendom takes a moment to stop and pause at the memory of sacrificial love. 

But what happens between Good Friday and Easter Sunday?
What happens to us on the days between tragedy and healing? What transpires when the crisis is over, but the end is not yet revealed? The days after the car accident, but before the broken leg has healed and the insurance has been paid. The days after diagnosis of cancer, but before treatment. The days after a funeral, but before we’ve adjusted to the loss.
These are the days between, when instead of darkness or light there is a lingering nervousness and knowledge that something is not quite settled, not quite right. The days between are often the most difficult and the most lonely, and they are undoubtedly the most common.

So has this day often seemed to me – this day between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, where we are suspended between death and life. 

“It is Finished” has been spoken, “He is Risen” is yet to come. 

In the West the day is often filled with shopping for marshmallow chicks, chocolate bunnies, and fake grass to line plastic easter baskets. 

 As I’ve moved into the Eastern Orthodox Church, I’ve formed a different view of this day between. A day between – yes, but a day of immeasurable importance in the Christian faith tradition. 

Madeleine L’Engle describes her journey of greater understanding of this day in her book, The Irrational Season:

In the Western Church, we jump directly from Good Friday to Easter Day, with Saturday a vague blank in between. But in the Eastern Church, Great and Holy Saturday is one of the most important days of the year.”


She goes on to say:


“Where was Jesus on that extraordinary day between the darkness of Good Friday and the brilliance of Easter Sunday? He was down in hell. And what was he doing there? He was harrowing hell, or to put it in simpler words, he was ministering to the damned.”


Madeleine L’Engle says this about the first time she ever saw the fresco of the Harrowing of Hell over the altar in the Chora Church in Istanbul: 

“I stood there, trembling with joy, as I looked at this magnificent painting of the harrowing of hell. In the center is the figure of Jesus striding through hell, a figure of immense virility and power. With one strong hand he is grasping Adam, with the other, Eve, and wresting them out of the power of hell. The gates to hell, which he has trampled down and destroyed forever, are in cross-form, the same cross on which he died. . .”

This same icon has become a part of my church tradition. 

I am almost ready to head out the door to our Holy Saturday service, because I have come to realize that what happens in the days between, between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, is crucial to the final outcome.

Lenten Journey: Palm Fronds and Hosannas


Palm fronds await us as we enter into our parish. It is Palm Sunday – that joyous day before Holy Week, where all of life makes sense as Jesus rides into Jerusalem, greeted by masses of people proclaiming him king. Unlike those crowds who gathered that day so long ago, we know what is coming. We know the grief and sadness, the immense pain and suffering that filled the following week. 

I think of this as I stand listening to our choir chanting. Two things blot the joy of this day: a bomb has exploded at a church in Alexandria Egypt, killing people as they too worshiped on Palm Sunday. The second is that my mother-in-law is dying. She is surrounded by family and excellent hospice care, but that does not take away the fact that soon she will no longer be on this earth. 

How did Jesus feel as he rode into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, when he already knew the tension between joy and sorrow that would take place the week following? How did he feel knowing the very people who waved palm branches would shout “Crucify him!” This is when I am more interested in the humanity of Christ than the divinity. 

How did he feel knowing the grief and suffering his mother would experience as a sword pierced her heart? 

In the midst of joy, did he feel grief for what was ahead?  And then the reverse – on the cross when he was in anguish, did he also experience the joy of knowing that finally, death would be conquered? 

It will take a lifetime for me to understand the grief/ joy paradox and there is no week where it is more profound then Holy Week. 

I’ve written before about my friend Kate, and her experience during a church bombing in Islamabad, Pakistan. But I share it again, because I can’t think of a more profound illustration of the grief/joy paradox. So on this Palm Sunday, as I prepare to go into Holy Week, I give you this story. 

A couple of years after the 9/11 attacks on the twin towers, there was a terrorist attack on the International Church in Islamabad, Pakistan. The attack felt personal. It was a church we had attended for a year and a half while living in Islamabad; a church my oldest brother had pastored; and it was a church where many of our friends worshiped. There were several of our friends present in the church that day, one was Robynn’s father. Another was a friend who was there with her husband and small children. In the attack she shielded her small child from flying shrapnel and was severely injured in the process.

In a poignant letter describing the event, she and her husband speak of the indescribable joy she felt in saving her son.

I wanted to save my boy. I knew I was hurt badly, but when I looked down and saw that Iain was unhurt, in the midst of the pain and shock of the blast I felt an indescribable joy, knowing that I had taken the violence intended for him.

In the face of terrible violence and possible death, my friend felt indescribable joy at saving her boy.

This is the absurdity and irrationality of my Christian faith; an absurdity and irrationality that I will hold to for all my days. In the midst of suffering, in the midst of sorrow, there can exist indescribable joy.

A bomb in Egypt, a family member’s imminent death, palm fronds and hosannas, death and a resurrection – in the midst of grief and sorrow, indescribable joy. 

This I cling to as I enter into Holy Week, covered with an umbrella of grace. 

Photo credits: Cliff Gardner 

The Resilient Orthodox – Breathe in Holy

As I step into church, I breathe in pungent, sweet incense. I can see smoke rise in front of evening shadows on the wall. Fading light reflects off of gold and burgundy icons.

I take a deep breath and I breathe in holy.

I breathe it in, my whole being alive to incense and all that accompanies it. My ears take in three part harmony from the chant sung on the far side of the room. My body responds in reverence to the saints that surround us.

I was so hesitant to take this journey and yet, every time I enter, I know his presence in ways I cannot articulate. God is in this journey and I can rest.

So I breathe in holy and all else fades away.

Vigil before the Feast of the Ascension from Marilyn Gardner on Vimeo.

Pre-Paschal Reflections

It is ten pm on Saturday night. I sit on the couch in a darkened room. White lights peak through the window from the outside. We are the rare family that keeps Christmas lights up all year long, for who doesn’t need more light in their life?

All day there has been a sense of expectancy in the air, like something big is about to happen. It began this morning when, in the middle of a Vesperal Liturgy on Holy Saturday, the music and tone changed from somber to joyful; from dread to expectancy; from death to life. This afternoon, the entire church was alive with energy as vines were wound around pillars and white roses arranged by icons and stands.

In a short time, we will leave for Pascha – the height of the Orthodox calendar where we celebrate Christ’s resurrection from the dead. It is a time when we celebrate that he conquered “death by death” and “bestowed life on those in the tomb.”

It’s like getting ready for a wedding, without the stress of envious bridesmaids and relative angst.

It has been seven weeks of preparation, seven weeks of learning to say yes to something better than what we’re saying no to. Seven weeks of a season called Lent

“The strongest man or woman in the world is not nearly strong enough to triumph over his or her sin simply by saying no to it. What we need is the strength-giving grace occasioned by us saying yes to something else, by saying yes, and yes, and yes – ceaselessly – to Someone Else.” [The End of Suffering by Scott Cairns]

And tonight we say a final ‘yes’ to a Resurrection that we believe by faith. A Resurrection that brings life and light, for who doesn’t need more light?

 

The Resilient Orthodox – Healing a Hole in the Heart

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When I was six years old in boarding school, we had prayer and devotions every night. We would pray for the teachers and the house parents; we would pray for our parents who lived far away and did important work; and every night we would pray for Esther Cutherell. I had never met Esther Cutherell, but I knew that we prayed for Esther because she had a hole in her heart. As a little girl, I couldn’t imagine this. A hole in her heart? How is she living? How can she walk around? She was three years younger than I was. I didn’t understand it, but in my child-heart, I prayed.

And then one day the news came. Esther was better. The hole in her heart was gone. She had surgery and she was alive and well, and one day we would all meet her. There was great rejoicing in our little girl’s dorm. Our prayers had worked – a little girl was now well, the hole in her heart was healed.

Esther was a beautiful little girl and she turned into a beautiful woman. I always thought it had something to do with the miracle that had healed the hole in her heart.

I knew that it was doctors who had helped with the miracle, but that didn’t make it any less a miracle in my mind. As I got older, I began to meet people who had different sorts of holes in their hears. These holes were holes left from death and divorce, from pain and abuse, from betrayal and disappointment. I learned that they were just as life-threatening as the hole in Esther’s heart. I learned that those holes desperately needed miracles – only it was a different kind of miracle.

It’s been a long time since Esther’s miracle and the truth is, miracles are not something I talk about or think much about.  They don’t come up in conversation in my rational every day world. When they are talked about, it’s usually in dramatic terms like “we need a miracle to get this grant out the door in time,” where the reality is that we just need someone to do their job correctly.

But on Friday morning I longed for a miracle. The why is not important, it’s enough to know that my heart was heavy with things far beyond my control. It was grace that the timing was perfect. In the Orthodox Church icons play a big role in worship. And there are some rare icons around the world that are considered “miracle-working” icons. On Friday night, I would be going to see one of these icons, an icon of the Theotokos – the Mother of God.

I had purposely left Friday morning free to pray and read. I didn’t know if I would witness a miracle but I did know that my cynical heart needed softening. I reached out to Robynn, I told her about my cynicism, my sadness, and my hurting heart. She responded both wisely and practically.

“Light a candle. Take some deep breaths. Take your heart (frayed, fragile, falling apart) and lay it down next to you….ask Jesus to come be there with you next to your heart. If you are brave, ask him to take it up–all of it: the pain, the disappointment, the longings, the hole, the cynicism…..Imagine your heart in his hands….he’s turning it around, he’s looking at it gently with care and compassion….He looks up at you…into your eyes….quiet yourself and listen–what is he saying to you as he holds your precious heart and all it contains? Consider what he says. Receive it. Rest in it. If he doesn’t say anything rest in the silence. Even silence is sacred and sweet when Jesus is making eye contact with you…when he’s holding all that is you. Can you identify where the hole is?”

I found myself sobbing as I read the words. “Can you identify where the hole is?” As I sat in silence, I knew exactly where and what the hole was, and I longed for it to be healed. My broken, hurting heart needed the touch of the One who heals. In one of those all too rare times of soul confession when it’s just you and God, no human to comfort or collect the tears, I gave it up to God. All of it. Like handing over a back pack that is so heavy I could hardly bear the weight of it another second, I handed it over to God.

The day moved on and at five in the evening I found myself in Friday traffic heading to our church. I knew only one thing – I wanted a moment with that icon, preferably alone. I knew the minute I arrived that the alone moment was not going to happen. The church was packed with people, mostly strangers to me. Word had traveled far – I was not the only one with a hole in my heart.

And so we came, the holes in our hearts wide open with longing for the touch of God.

It is too difficult to explain with mere words the power of the evening. But as I think back on it, and as I contemplate miracles, I know this: In every situation, the real miracle takes place in the heart. It may have outer manifestations, like the miraculous healing of the body, the eyesight, the hearing – but the real miracle always, always includes the heart. Because it doesn’t matter how whole the body is, if the heart is not right, if the heart is not fixed, then the healing can only go so far. A healed body is temporal, a healed heart is eternal.

On Friday night, like my friend Esther so long ago, the hole in my heart began to be healed. And that is miracle enough for me. 

The Resilient Orthodox: We Come Needy

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The morning light reflects off the gold of the icons and it is beautiful. The church is quiet, save footsteps walking up to venerate the icons. We are in community, yet we are alone.

We come needy. We come with hearts heavy with the burdens of the week. We come with anger and with pain, emotional and physical. We come with sickness and sorrow. We come with hearts longing for more, knowing that though we are created for eternity, we get mired in the clay of the every day.

And in this place, where Heaven meets earth in divine liturgy, we will glimpse the eternal. 

In any group of people, there are so many stories of life lived, good and bad,

We have children with autism and diabetes; foot problems and depression. We have bodies that betray us and hearts that are alternately hard and soft. We have tongues that choose to speak life-giving words or words that damage and destroy. We have children who weigh heavy on our hearts, ones who we pray will not lose their way. We have parents who can no longer move well, or speak well, or think well. We have burdens deep and wide. But in this space, we can place them before the altar of God’s infinite love.

We are humans made in the image of God, made for his glory and in this space we take time to remember that.

We come needy to the altar and hear the words of the priest as he gives us the Holy Gifts on a spoon. For a short time, we remember. We enter into the eternal and time doesn’t matter. We don’t try to solve the mystery of salvation, we accept it as the needy ones. 

We come needy, and we leave full. 

When Someone Takes Your Paschal Cheese

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Let me tell you about Paschal Cheese. Paschal cheese is a special, sweet dish that originated in Russia and made its way to the United States and I thank God it did.

Paschal cheese is made of cream, eggs, butter, confectioners sugar, candied citron, chopped almonds, golden raisins, vanilla, and farmers cheese. It goes into a special mold where it comes out creamy and delicious, with the Orthodox cross molded into the sides. It is indescribably delicious.

I discovered this cheese at my first Pascha. It was four in the morning and I took one bite and thought it was a bite of heaven. It is creamy goodness full of ingredients you are encouraged to abstain from during Lent. It is the opposite of Lent – indulgence, extravagance, and luxury as compared to moderation, abstinence, and simplicity.

I never make this Paschal cheese because I have discovered that in a church full of Russian immigrants (and an American chef who is incredible) there is no need. Why try to duplicate what someone else already does so well? But at the end of our early morning feast I always try to take a container home, excited to eat it for the next two weeks.

This year was no exception. There was the Paschal cheese in the center table. One large one with a decorated cross on the top and several smaller molds surrounding it. A beautiful centerpiece for the table. I pushed my way through the jubilant crowd of hungry Orthodox Christians until I got to the table. And I loaded a piece of kulich, a sweet yeast bread that is more like a cake, with the cheese. So good.  Put it this way – to describe how good it is you need a thesaurus with a hundred options.

When it came time to head home I had my two take away boxes — one of them full of the cheese and kulich. There were many of us filling take away boxes with delicious foods that we hadn’t eaten for seven weeks.

We drove over the Charles River as the sun was coming up, its early morning glow reflected off the tall buildings in Boston that we see from the bridge. We arrived home tired but euphoric – it had been an amazing celebration and it was now time to sleep. Except first I would look at my Paschal cheese before putting it into the refrigerator.

I looked in the first take out box. Nothing. Oh right – that’s because I put it into the other take out box. As I peeked in I couldn’t believe what I saw.

There was no Paschal cheese. Since all the take out boxes looked the same, someone had taken my Paschal cheese and I was left with a poor substitute. I couldn’t believe it! No Paschal cheese??? I need my Paschal cheese. It’s the only thing I really wanted from that table that was laden with food. My husband had purposely not taken any, knowing that I would fill a take out box with this sweet, creamy goodness.

No Paschal cheese. And oh how I wanted that Paschal cheese. 

Other folks would probably just let it be, but because I am who I am I pondered this. How much I had looked forward to this dish, how disappointed I was that I ended up without it. Why was I so disappointed? It’s just a yummy food – and the truth is I don’t need it at all.

But I wanted it! And it was special! And it was tradition! 

It’s Monday morning and I can’t help thinking that life is full of moments of Paschal cheese where what we long for, what we want more than anything is not available. And usually it’s way bigger than Paschal cheese. We make ourselves crazy trying to get what is unavailable. Or we feel someone took our take away boxes. We try so hard to box up what we love, what we long for, and someone accidentally exchanges our takeout boxes for theirs.

All the while God gently but persistently urges us that if we trust and rest in Him, we will have enough. He will enter those longings and slowly, steadily re-shape them, until we realize that in Him we have what we wanted for all along. 

Photo Credit: http://pixabay.com/en/russia-golden-ring-historically-704855/