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  • Writer's pictureJ. Basil Dannebohm

Practical Holy Week tips for sound-minded Orthodox Christians

By J. Basil Dannebohm

"Do not start examining the deeds of people, do not judge, do not say: “Why is it this way? What is this for?” It is better to say to yourself, “What does their work have to do with me? I will not answer for them at the Dread Judgement of God.” Divert every thought of yours from judging the deeds of people, and pray fervently to the Lord that He help you in this, because without the help of God we can do nothing good, as the Lord Himself said: Without Me you can do nothing (John 15:5)." -- St. Ambrose of Optina

A young lady recently shared with me that she's tired of being glared at by a group of women simply because she wears a smile on her face during the liturgy. She lamented that "tradition" seems to discourage joy.

Thankfully, she's wrong.

Tradition doesn't discourage joy. Rather, people who have a deranged, purely externalist concept of tradition discourage joy. The two are not mutually exclusive.

Look, I'll admit that I've been scowled at by more than one group of veiled busybodies for celebrating my faith. Fortunately our Savior's name is Jesus, not Karen. Indeed, He is our salvation, thus He is our joy.

There have always been those who somehow equate looking stern and miserable with being pious -- even during the earthly ministry of Christ. Pay no attention to them. Pray for them. Moreover, should you find yourself smiling during prayer, take comfort in the words of Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica, who said, "We must try to always be in good spirits and joyful, for the demons want us to be sad all the time."

Indeed, throughout His earthly ministry, Jesus met people where they were in an effort to bring them to a more intimate encounter with the unconditional love of His Father. Whether it was Mary Magdelene, Matthew the tax collector, the woman at the well, or any number of people He met along the way. He didn't expect perfection. Neither should you. Keep that in mind as we embark on the week ahead.

For Orthodox Christians, tomorrow is Lazarus Saturday, the beginning of the final days leading to Great and Holy Pascha. In most of our parishes, we will experience a significant increase in services during this time. On some days, there will be more than one service.

In his 2023 Lenten message, His Beatitude, Metropolitan Tikhon (OCA) noted:

"Great Lent, then, is not a time to show how pious we are in our observance of the fast and attendance at services. Neither is it a time to prove our great virtue by imagining that we, on our own strength, can take the fast like a cudgel to our sins in an act of moral heroism. No; Great Lent is a time to humble ourselves, to present ourselves to God as “willing and obedient,” and to allow him to cleanse the scarlet and crimson stains of our sins."

We have just concluded a forty-day journey of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving -- all of which were to cultivate the same fruit: repentance. The last thing any of us need to do is sully that forty-day fast by making somebody feel unwelcome at the services during this most sacred of weeks. This is not the time for legalistic fetishes with externals.

I realize, of course, that a growing movement of extremists have sought to hijack the True Faith, offering their armchair opinion on everything from the validity of Patriarchates to the rubrics of the liturgy. For such noisemakers, this week stands as an opportunity to tone down the rhetoric and increase in faith, hope, and charity. It was not many Sundays ago that St. John Climacus warned that, "an Angel fell from Heaven without any other passion except pride, and so we may ask whether it is possible to ascend to Heaven by humility alone, without any other of the virtues."

So before we commence with this special time of the year, allow me to share just a few practical tips for a spiritually edifying Holy Week:

  • Perhaps you have a Holy Week service book. If you are able to share it with somebody, by all means do so. If you're somebody who doesn't have a book to follow along with, don't worry. Simply listen and absorb the beauty that willl inevitably fill God's house during this time. Close your eyes, open your ears and your heart. Recall the words of St. Theophan the Reclusive who said, "All of our liturgical hymns are instructive, profound and sublime. He who listens to them attentively has no need for other books on the Faith."

  • Make every effort to arrive on time. However, if you cannot arrive on time, don't let that prevent you from attending the services. A realistic pastor and parish community understand that any number of circumstances can prevent us from a timely arrival: your job, your children, your health, or even absent-mindedness. The same goes for having to leave the service before it has concluded. Your presence at the service, no matter how brief, is a blessing.

  • Wear comfortable foot gear. Fashion is smashin' but it can also get uncomfortable when you find yourself standing at long intervals or processing. One of my favorite memories of Holy Week was at an Antiochian parish where I glanced down and observed that all of the choir members were wearing tasteful, discreet slippers. They weren't causing a distraction during the service and who knows, maybe comfortable feet somehow lended to their angelic harmony?

  • There's another issue that obsessive noisemakers like to prattle on about: pews. Frankly, most of the arguments I've heard condemning the use of pews ... well ... stink (pun intended). I get it. There are some jurisdictions that don't have pews. Does that make them somehow more superior or holy than another? Not even slightly. Don't get caught up in the noise surrounding the pew debate. That said, the services of Holy Week can be long. After a hard day's work, it is quite understandable that you might be a bit tired. The fact that you chose to attend the service means much more to God than whether or not you stand through its entirety. If your parish is one with pews and you find yourself weak, in pain, or simply tired then by all means, take a seat. If you can't stand or kneel during the portions of the service where such things are customary, remain seated and prayerful. If somebody glares at you, don't feel ashamed: pray for them.

  • There's an old rule of thumb when it comes to any church: if you don't hear crying, the church is dying. While the primary focus of Holy Week is to recall the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Christ, we must not lose sight of the lessons He taught us during His earthly ministry. Our Lord's message concerning children is no exception. Bring your children to the services. Dress them comfortably. If they require snacks or toys, bring them. Unless a child is screaming to the point that it becomes a major distraction, there is no need to remove them from the nave. I don't like cry rooms for this very reason. As members of the Body of Christ, children should not be corraled off into an area detached from the central place of worship. If a member of the community has a problem with a child, they have a couple of options: pray harder, or move to a less distracting location in the temple. Relax. As St. Nikon of Optina tells us, "Patience is continuous good humor."

  • Part of growing in spiritual maturity is learning to walk away from people and situations that threaten your peace of mind, self-respect, values, morals, or self-worth. If you are made to feel uncomfortable in a parish, speak to the priest. If that proves no good and you are in a region that affords you other options, then by all means, attend the services at another parish. Shake the dust from your comfortable footwear and don't even for a moment let your peace be shaken.

My fervent prayer this Holy Week, especially for that young lady who lamented feelings of isolation, is that each of us can experience as many of the services as possible, taking advantage of every spiritual grace that comes from them.

Soon enough, those who walk in darkness will see a Great Light. A light that as St. Irenaeus of Lyons reminds us, "has not ceased just because people have blinded themselves: it remains the same as ever, but those who are blinded are wrapped up in darkness of their own making."

Don't allow anybody to wrap you up in darkness of their own making. Come to the waters of the True Faith without fear or reservation. For in this 'tradition' there is indeed, great joy -- and nobody can stifle our celebration.

Kalo Pascha.

J. Basil Dannebohm


"Christ became man, calling to repentance thieves and harlots. Repent, my soul: the door of the Kingdom is already open, and pharisees and publicans and adulterers pass through it before thee, changing their life." -- From the Great Canon of Repentance

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