Holy Week is fast approaching. In the Eastern Orthodox Church we are still in the bright sadness of Great Lent right now. Because of different calendars and different ways of configuring when Pascha (Easter) is, the East and the West often celebrate the Resurrection of our Lord on different days. So, while for the West, Easter has come and gone, Orthodox Christians are still focusing on the fasting, repentance, and almsgiving that characterize Lent.
Each year as we draw near to Holy Week, my husband and I sit down and make a plan. This is similar to our process for creating Our Family’s Plan for Lent. We think of ways that we can help our children (and ourselves) experience the depth of the sorrow and joy of Holy Week, to walk with Christ to the cross and sing for joy at his resurrection.
This year I would like to share that plan with you, but I have three important caveats first.
-This plan is unique to our family and our situation. Our children are young (aged almost 7, 3, and 2); I work full-time; my husband is in the frantic-finishing-stage of his dissertation. All of these things play a part in our decisions as to what things we included or did not include in our plan. If you homeschool or are particularly “craftsy,” you may want to do some of the activities I share in Holy Week Activities for Children.
-This is not the “ideal” or “perfect” plan. I am an ordinary, busy mom who struggles with maintaining my patience with my children while trying to live out my faith in an imperfect way. This is by no means the definitive way to observe Holy Week.
-As always, speak with your spiritual father. I am also (obviously!) not a priest. Be sure to speak with your spiritual father as you think through your family’s plan for Holy Week.
Our Family’s Plan for Holy Week
We will all attend Divine Liturgy for Lazarus Saturday in the morning. Then my husband and oldest son will stay for the work party at our church. Every year our church comes together to do a thorough church cleaning, plant flowers, do yard work, etc. in preparation for Holy Week. We want our children to learn how to serve the church in this way.
Before Evening Prayers, we will read the story of Lazarus from our Children’s Bible. We will also read the children’s book St. George and the Dragon in honor of St. George’s feast day (and our youngest son’s name day!). During prayers we will be sure to pray The Prayer of St. Ephraim and sing “Having Suffered the Passion for Us.”
Palm Sunday is always such a joyous day! We will attend Divine Liturgy as a family, receive our new palms to put into our icon corner, and sing out a triumphant “Hosanna!”. That evening we will read the story of Palm Sunday from the children’s Bible and read about the Feast of the Triumphant Entry in the beautiful book Heaven Meets Earth: Celebrating Pascha and the Twelve Feasts by John Kosmas Skinas. During prayers, we will have our children hold the palms again and sing the Troparion:
“By raising Lazarus from the dead before Your passion,You did confirm the universal Resurrection, O Christ God! Like the children with the palms of victory,We cry out to You, O Vanquisher of death;Hosanna in the Highest!Blessed is He that comes in the Name of the Lord!”
I will attend Presanctified Liturgy at church alone that evening and chant with the choir. My husband will keep the children at home. We try to have a few nights during Holy Week where our children stay at home and go to bed on time. This ensures that they are well-rested for the end of Holy Week, and it helps my husband and I to be able to have some quiet time to reflect and worship throughout the week.
My husband will read the story of Mary pouring perfume on Christ’s feet to the children from the Children’s Bible. He will lead them in Evening Prayers and put them to bed early.
I will attend Bridgroom Matins alone that evening and chant with the choir. My husband will stay home with the children and read the story of the 10 virgins to them.
In our church, the service for Holy Unction does not begin until 8:00. This is quite late for our children. Therefore, my husband will attend the Presanctified Liturgy and the Sacrament of Holy Unction, where he will be an altar server. The kids and I will stay home and learn about the sacrament. (For non-Orthodox readers, this sacrament is anointing the faithful with holy oil for healing and forgiveness.) I will explain it to the children by reading from the book of James:
“…let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven” (James 5:14-15).
We will also read the book H is for Holy by Nika Boyd, an Orthodox alphabet book. In the book, U is for Unction, so it leads nicely into a discussion.
Our priest administers Holy Unction for small children and their families before the 5:00 Vesperal Liturgy on Holy Thursday. So, I will bring the children to this service. We will receive the anointing, then go into the church’s fellowship hall where I will give the children a light supper of peanut butter sandwiches. Once they have finished, we will go back in for the Vesperal Liturgy (a combination of Vespers and Divine Liturgy). We will stay as long as the children are able to handle it–hopefully we’ll make it until communion! My husband will be an altar server.
Then, my husband will stay and serve for the Reading of the 12 Gospels. This is one of my favorite services of the year. The 12 Passion Gospels are read–meaning that the faithful hear about the betrayal of Christ, his trial, and crucifixion again and again. The church is darkened and the whole atmosphere is very somber and reflective.
My husband, oldest son, and I will attend the Royal Hours together. This service is comprised of all of the “hours,” or prayers and psalms assigned for specific hours. It is filled with Psalms, Old Testament readings, an Epistle reading, and the Gospel reading. Again, it is very quiet, meditative, and filled with Holy Friday imagery.
We will then help prepare for the Holy Friday procession later that evening. I will arrange flowers for the shroud (cloth with an icon of Christ being laid in the tomb) and get items ready for the children’s procession. My husband will get out candles as well as other items for the adult portion of the procession.
Our entire family will attend Holy Friday Vespers together. At this service, Orthodox Christians process around the Church three times. Many items are carried in the procession with particular significance and symbolism–the Gospel, a cross, banners of Christ and the Theotokos, icons, incense, a crown of thorns, nails, a sponge, myrrh. In the Ukranian tradition, the priest holds up the shroud at the end of the procession. At the conclusion, all of the faithful enter back into the church walking under the shroud. The symbolism gets me every time. We can only enter the Church through Christ’s death, and our own.
Finally, we will put the kids down to sleep at the church. My husband and I will then stay for Jerusalem Matins. This service is also called the Lamentations at the Tomb. It is another of my absolute favorite services of the year. In it we lament the death of Christ–entering fully into the realization of what this death truly meant to creation, to his mother, to his followers, and to us.
We will stay at home for most of this day. The mood will be very somber and quiet–no television, no secular music, etc. We will dye our eggs red for Pascha, prepare items for our Pascha basket, and rest. I will read the book Catherine’s Pascha by Charlotte Riggle to our children again to help prepare our little ones for what will happen later that evening.
Finally, at 11:00 p.m. we will go to church for Pascha. (Orthodox Christians called Easter “Pascha,” from the same word as Passover.) Oh, the supreme joy and beauty of Pascha! The feast of feasts! I will be writing a post next week with a more in-depth explanation of Orthodox Pascha. But, the quick version is that Pascha is the most important day of the year for Orthodox Christians.
We come together at midnight to celebrate the Lord’s rising from the dead. We process around the church again, hear the Gospel proclamation that Christ has risen. Then, we sing over and over and over again:
“Christ has risen from the dead! Trampling down death by death! And upon those in the tombs bestowing life!”
The service lasts for a few hours, and then the feast begins. Orthodox Christians bring baskets filled with all of the foods that we have been abstaining from during Lent–meat, dairy, wine, and more. The entire church gathers together, shares food, and celebrates for hours. We will return to our homes around 5:00 in the morning. Our children will be happy and exhausted, and we will be the same!
Finally, my husband, oldest son, and I will attend Divine Liturgy on Bright Monday. (In the Orthodox Church, the week following Pascha is called Bright Week.) This is a beautiful ending to Holy Week. We will then go out for brunch together and take a nap!
As you can see, our Holy Week consists primarily of church and readings. We try to keep all other activities to a minimum. My husband and I have taken Holy Friday and Bright Monday off from work, and we will take our son out of school on those days as well. We will also try to limit outside distractions (television, computer, radio, etc). I will be reading only Scripture and Orthodox books. It may sound a bit austere, but Holy Week is truly the highlight of our year.
By entering fully into Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection, our faith takes deep root within us. We begin to experience what Paul wrote, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”
Do you have any questions about Orthodox Holy Week? What will you be doing for Holy Week?
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