The COVID-19 crisis has brought the rhythms of daily life to a screeching halt. Schools and business have either closed or moved to online formats. Concerts, performances, sporting events, and community Gatherings are cancelled. The pandemic has affected Church life as well. The pandemic is scheduled to reach its peak in the United States just as Orthodox & Byzantine Rite Christians are gathering in churches each day and evening to celebrate Holy Week and Pascha.
Church leaders have responded to the crisis by limiting the number of people who can be in the Church and adopting a minimal liturgical schedule. Small crews of three to ten people will celebrate the services and livestream them so people can participate through the Internet. Clearly, however, Holy Week and Pascha won’t be the same in 2020. The vast majority of the Church will not partake of Holy Communion. This is the one year that we will not be able to decorate the epitaphios (burial shroud) and the tomb, and participate in the processions that we all anticipate.
Despite our disappointment over staying home for the feast of feasts this year, it is still possible for us to commemorate our Lord’s Passion, death, burial, descent into Hades, and resurrection from the tomb. The Church is a community wherever it is – while we love the appointed liturgical rites and traditions we cherish, they neither define nor exhaust who we are. The Church cannot be reduced to a ritual or a building – the Church is the community, and those who choose to commemorate Christ’s Pascha from home are doing so as their offering for the life and healing of the world during this dangerous pandemic.
Each member of the Orthodox Church can celebrate Holy Week and Pascha with solemnity and joy despite the limitations imposed by COVID-19. In fact, the primary sources of the good news of Jesus’ resurrection suggest that the original feast was quire compatible with small group gatherings of families in their homes.
Consider the sequence of events recorded by the apostles and evangelists that constitute the core of Holy Week. Most of the core events of Jesus’ passion and death occur with a few eyewitnesses gathered. His entrance into Jerusalem and the beginnings of his passion occur in public spaces, before large crowds. Otherwise, most of the episodes in his story involve a handful of select secondary characters mentioned by the evangelists.
Beginning with the main events of Holy Week, Jesus shares an intimate supper with his twelve disciples immediately before his betrayal and arrest. Biblical scholars state that the supper Jesus shared with his disciples is quite festive, anchored in the Hebrew tradition of a special meal involving appetizers, several bottles of wine, and the ceremonial sharing of the bread of thanksgiving and drinking from the cup. Jesus shares this supper with his disciples in private, in a prearranged room, similar to the private affair of a solemn dinner we plan with loved ones and enjoy when we make reservations. The point is that it is a small group gathering, one that is shared with the public through apostolic preaching and the continuation of the covenantal tradition that Jesus established.
It is also crucial to note that the core events of Jesus’ resurrection occur with small groups of people. A young man announces that Jesus is risen from the dead to the small group of myrrhbearing women who have come to anoint his body with spices (Mk. 16:5-7). The man charges the women with the unenviable task of going to tell his disciples and Peter the good news. It takes some time for the good news to spread from the women to the disciples before Jesus, risen from the dead, begins to appear to the disciples. The evangelist’s announcements of the good news did not include dramatic events of Jesus himself bursting from the tomb for the same crowd that first greeted him and then called for his crucifixion to behold in wonder. Jesus himself did not appear right away. The women and the disciples received the good news through the proclamation of the word – they were to believe that he was risen through hearing the word alone.
Even when Jesus appears among his disciples, he does so quietly and without dramatic public appearances. Jesus walks with the disciples on the road to Emmaus and explains how his passion, death, and resurrection came to pass through the written word, the scriptures (Lk. 24:15). Again, the Lukan account of Jesus’ appearance hinges on the proclamation of the word of God. When Jesus appears to the disciples in the Johannine account, he does so when they are gathered in a room with locked doors – yet again, not in the midst of a huge crowd, nor in a dramatic entrance in the synagogue, but when a small group of companions has come together to reflect on the events they had witnessed (Jn. 20:19). St. Luke notes that Jesus shared food with his disciples, so the risen Jesus is in the midst of his people – gathered in groups as small as three! – when they break bread (Lk. 24:42-3).
The New Testament accounts disclose a pattern of remembering Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection that can serve as the foundation for domestic celebrations of Holy Week and Pascha in 2020. The primary parts of this pattern are:
- Hearing the word of God;
- Keeping vigil;
- Waiting in silence;
- Breaking the fast in the presence of the risen Lord.
This pattern makes it possible for the people to pray certain offices of Holy Week and Pascha from their homes without requiring the presence of a bishop or priest. These services will be non-eucharistic, but because the people are the holy people of God and the fullness of Christ’s Church is present whenever two or three are gathered, they can be assured that the risen Lord is truly with them when they gather for prayer.
Faithful Orthodox and Byzantine Rite Christians might be hesitant to embrace observing Holy Week and Pascha from home. How can they duplicate the length and solemnity of the services? No one has a spare burial shroud they can carry around their house in procession. It is also unrealistic to expect families to have multiple services in one day, or to complete the lengthy services of the twelve gospels with all of the readings and hymns.
The current schedule of services in the Orthodox Church is the product of a complex historical process. To be sure, the public liturgies of Holy Week have always been rather long and somber, but the services are not mutually exclusive in their content. For example, many of the passages in the readings of Good Friday are repeated in the multiple services appointed for that day. It is neither necessary nor expected that families attempt to duplicate the liturgies appointed for parishes. The services of Holy Week combined elements from the Orthodox monastic and cathedral traditions, and therefore assume that the monastic and cathedral communities have a number of people available to sing the hymns and perform the rites. It’s simply impossible for most families and small groups.
Part 2 provides an outline for families, observing Holy Week and Pascha from home.