This time is that time… Holy Week thoughts from Fr Stephen Freeman
At the very heart of traditional Christian worship is an understanding of time. “This time is that time.” When the Jews gathered for Passover and recited the words given to them, they said, “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt.” Passover was not (and is not) a historical re-enactment, nor a simple memorial in which things done long ago are remembered. The key word is “we.” The events in Egypt and at the Red Sea are described as happening to us. “This time is that time.”
This same understanding runs throughout the liturgies of the Church. The Eucharist is not a memorial meal that remembers something Jesus did “back then.” Everything is present tense – this meal is that meal – that sacrifice is this sacrifice – everything is for us.
Orthodox Christians complete their Lenten Fast this weekend and enter the days of Holy Week. Very specific events are recalled: the raising of Lazarus; the entrance into Jerusalem; the tears of the harlot; the betrayal by Judas; the arrest and trial; the mocking, scourging and crucifixion of Christ; the harrowing of Hell; the resurrection from the dead. All of these are marked in the present tense. This time is that time.
The sacraments and liturgies of the Church are not meant to be exceptional. Rather, they reveal the true nature of our lives and the true nature of creation itself. Our contemporary world is dominated by an extreme historical consciousness in which time stretches out in a linear fashion. That which has passed no longer exists, except as we think about it. It has the unintended consequence of declaring that we ourselves are the only people who exist. Others are either dead and gone or do not yet exist. We are the center of all things. The inherent arrogance of such a worldview creates a cultural amnesia as well as an imaginary notion of our own power. We can create our world however we wish for there is only us.
As Christians, we affirm that it is God “in whom we live and move and have our being.” That which has existence does so only because God sustains it in existence. Only God is self-existing. For God, all times are present. And if, in Him, all times are present, then all times exist as present. That this time and that time should coincide is nothing strange. Indeed, the “fullness” of time can only be known in that manner.
Learning to listen and pray in this manner is a threshold to noetic perception – that means by which we see the truth of things and God’s work in the world. When we choose to see the world in a non-sacramental manner, with a linearity that immediately destroys everything we see, we become spiritually blind. We neither see nor hear what God is doing. Noetic perception sees things as a whole, rather than analyzing the world in separate pieces (a function of reason). The modern linear imagining of time represents a championing of reason at the expense of the fullness of human experience.
The liturgical life of the Church is not a rationalizing activity. It is a sacramental presentation of the whole universe in the presence of God. All things are there as are all times. The actions of Holy Week are not required as an exercise in historical memory. They allow us to be present to the fullness of time. We do not merely think about the events of that week – we walk in their midst and take a share in their reality. All of those things are “for our sake.” St. Paul can say, “I am crucified with Christ,” because he is utterly present to that day, just as that day is utterly present to and in him.
St. Gregory the Theologian’s First Paschal Oration is filled with this understanding:
Yesterday the Lamb was slain and the door-posts were anointed, and Egypt bewailed her Firstborn, and the Destroyer passed us over, and the Seal was dreadful and reverend, and we were walled in with the Precious Blood. Today we have clean escaped from Egypt and from Pharaoh; and there is none to hinder us from keeping a Feast to the Lord our God — the Feast of our Departure; or from celebrating that Feast, not in the old leaven of malice and wickedness, but in the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth, carrying with us nothing of ungodly and Egyptian leaven.
Yesterday I was crucified with Him; today I am glorifiedwith Him; yesterday I died with Him; today I am quickened with Him; yesterday I was buried with Him; today I rise with Him. But let us offer to Him Who suffered and rose again for us — you will think perhaps that I am going to say gold, or silver, or woven work or transparent and costly stones, the mere passing material of earth, that remains here below, and is for the most part always possessed by bad men, slaves of the world and of the Prince of the world. Let us offer ourselves, the possession most precious to God, and most fitting; let us give back to the Image what is made after the Image. Let us recognize our Dignity; let us honorour Archetype; let us know the power of the Mystery, and for what Christ died.
This is the Day of days.