Note: Originally published on Progressive Southern Theologians on April 18, 2019.
And thus our question is: did Christ, the Son of God, rise from the dead on the first day of the week, did He send His Spirit on the day of Pentecost, did He, in other words, enter time only that we may ‘symbolize’ it in fine celebrations which, although connected with the days and the hours, have no power to give time a real meaning, to transform and redeem it? 
Holy Week is a remarkable time of extreme highs and lows that encompass us in an array of joy and pain. Indeed, Holy Week sets our eyes toward the most joyous and wonderous event of Christianity—the Resurrection of Christ. Yet getting there is no easy task, as this march toward Easter takes us from the dizzying heights of Palm Sunday and into the despair of Good Friday. The week finally ends in the silence of Saturday, as our hope seemingly culminates into nothingness.
Truly, the time of Holy Week is like none other in Christianity. For it marks a unique sacramental time that is meant to shape and prepare us for the Easter to come. Certainly, we might even describe it as a liminal time, as Holy Week progressively prepares our hearts and minds for Easter’s transforming effects. Liminality, a ritualistic time of being neither here nor there, perhaps best marks this mysterious time we call “Holy Week.” We do not finish the week as we began it. The week is meant to transform us as we come face-to-face with the week’s tragic end. And yet, we learn to bear this journey of adoration, betrayal, death, and silence. For despite all the pageantry and ceremony, Holy Week isn’t a time of celebration. Instead, it marks the despair, cruelty, and hardness of existence—an existence that Christ lived, experienced, and ultimately died in. Therefore, our journey from Sunday to Saturday is a cruel one. And it’s this cruelty that prepares us for the redemptive love of the Resurrection.
On its own, Holy Week is but a futile endeavor into a story of failure. However, Easter transforms time itself and refashions Holy Week into that mysterious and awe-inspiring journey of redemption. Easter gives Holy Week, along with all its ceremonial flair, meaning and purpose. For without Easter, such spectacles would represent the hollowest of pursuits. Moreover, there would be no escape from Holy Week, no eighth day to rescue us from the previous week’s purgatory. Thus, Easter isn’t only a day or an event. It’s the transformational crux that gives meaning to the entire Christian calendar. It is the remaking of time past, present, and future.
Alexander Schmemann (1921-1983), Orthodox priest and one of the most influential Orthodox writers of the mid-twentieth century, suggests as much in his book For the Life of the World. For Schmemann, Easter marks the appearance of “real time.” Meaning that Easter removes the burdens of our time, our busyness and unfulfillment, and remakes that time into what it was meant to be—opportunities for joy, hope, and expectation. Schmemann writes,
Easter is not a commemoration of an event, but—every year—the fulfillment of time itself, of our real time. For we still live in the same three dimensions of time: in the world of nature, in the world of history, in the world of expectation. And in each one of them man is in a secret search for joy, that is, for an ultimate meaning and perfection, for an ultimate fulfillment which he does not find. Time always points to a feast, to a joy, which by itself it cannot give or realize. So needful of meaning, time becomes the very form and image of meaninglessness.
Here Schmemann points to the tragedy of time, our time. Perhaps we might best describe this as the lack of time. For though we live in time, we only have the faintest notion as to its meaning. Time continually vexes and frustrates us. We consistently have too little of it, and we don’t know what to do with the time we have. Time, Schmemman suggests,
Is the only reality of life, yet it is a strangely nonexistent reality: it constantly dissolves life in a past which no longer is, and in a future which always leads to death. By itself time is nothing but a line of telegraph poles strung out into the distance and at some point along the way is our death.
Schmemann paints a bleak picture of time. It’s not so much the philosopher’s problem as it is the problem of the everyday individual. Time is our burden and our curse, primarily because we perceive time as an end rather than a beginning. We see time as what’s lost and gone forever—lost moments, lost opportunities, lost love. Time reflects what could’ve been and not what could be. And thus, time carries a cynical meaninglessness for us. Of course, we attempt to fill this meaninglessness. Relaxation, vacation, expensive gadgets, and media consumption are our attempts at distracting ourselves from the true culprit of our dissatisfaction—the absence of meaningful time. Therefore, it’s no wonder that these things or activities have “no meaning for the real time in which the real man must live, or rather, for the absence of time, which makes his life a nightmarish alteration of ‘rush’ and ‘relaxation.’” Our time has no meaning because it lacks a beginning. We feel the inescapable burden of time’s end; thus, we obsess and fill time in whatever way we can. We live life with our sights set on the end.
Holy Week is the commemoration of the end. As we enter it, our sights are set toward the end of the week. Holy Week bears the burden of time, as it represents loss, failure, and disappointment. It makes us wonder what could’ve been—What if He didn’t die? Indeed, Holy Week reveals time’s “impossibility, its sadness—because by revealing the perfect man it revealed the abyss of man’s alienation from God and the inexhaustible sadness of this alienation.” As such, Holy Week forces us to encounter this alienation and the subsequent sadness it bears on our soul. For Holy Week reflects the heartbreak of betrayal, the pain of death, and the fear of silence. In a way Holy Week parallels life itself—what begins in joy often ends in disappointment and ultimately death.
But it doesn’t need to be so, for the Resurrection rescues us from life’s trauma. It lifts the burden of time, repurposing it so that we can see the joy of life. Easter rescues Holy Week, but it also rescues us. As Schmemann puts it,
Every day, every hour acquired now an importance, a gravity it could not have had before: each day was now to be a step in this movement, a moment of decision and witness, a time of ultimate meaning . . . [Sunday] gave all days their true meaning. It made the time of this world a time of the end, and it made it also the time of the beginning.
Sunday restores Holy Week by giving its end a new beginning. It restores the joy of the week by giving it meaning and purpose. Easter transforms the past by turning failure into victory. Even the Cross, that detestable and horrifying sign of death, becomes our sign of joy. And it’s this joy that becomes “totally and absolutely a gift, the ‘charis,’ the grace. And being pure gift, this joy has a transforming power, the only really transforming power in this world.” It’s as if the event of Easter reaches forth and turns all those old symbols of hate and destruction into something life giving and affirming. And this remarkable power isn’t restricted to the past but lives every day in the enduring present. For Easter’s transforming power is something we can experience now, without hindrance or delay.
The darkness of sin is clarified, and its burden shouldered. Death is robbed of its finality, trampled down by Christ’s death. In a world where everything that seems to be present is immediately past, everything in Christ is able to participate in the eternal presence of God.
We are always between morning and evening, between Easter and Easter, between the two comings of Christ. The experience of time as end gives an absolute importance to whatever we do now, makes it final, decisive. The experience of time as beginning fills all our time with joy, for it adds to it the ‘coefficient’ of eternity.
Here Schmemann beautifully illustrates the true meaning of Easter. It isn’t about an event, a commemoration in which we celebrate the past with the most breathtaking displays of pomp and ceremony that we can muster. Instead, Easter is about the inbreaking of the eternal present, whereby the past is robbed of its finality and the future is renewed without end. And yet, this is a hard lesson for us to learn. We seem to always be “between,” stuck in that space between despair and joy. Indeed, there are days that feel more like ends rather than beginnings. Sometimes the burdens of the past weighs to heavily, while the future appears to only point to our end. Our personal “Holy Week” is one of longing, perhaps even begging, for that eighth day—our Easter.
It is true that the burdens of this world often seem too much to bear. Truly, it’s hard to live in Easter when the world is full of inequality, hatred, violence, and racism. How can we have a new beginning when we’re surrounded by the destructive marks of time’s end? It’s not easy to live in the despair of a world that’s seemingly gone mad in its hatred of one another. So many of us longingly wait for our new beginning. But for now, that end appears to be very far from the beginning. Schmemann asks,
How can one be joyful when so many people suffer? When so many things are to be done? How can one indulge in festivals and celebrations when people expect from us ‘serious’ answers to their problems?
For Schmemann, the Church has a responsibility. That is, “joy was given to the Church for the world—that the Church might be a witness to it and transform the world by joy.” Thus, the Church cannot forget that its role is to remind the world that Easter has come. But even more so, it must live that Easter for a world so desperately needing a new beginning. We can’t forget those caught within their own “Holy Week.” Particularly those whose burdens (both internal and external) have caused them to lose all hope and joy. As such, we must become bearers of Easter’s eternal present. Thus, we are a reminder to a suffering world that love is never far away, life does have meaning, and our time has a new beginning.
For our eyes have seen salvation and a light which will never fail. And because of this, the time of this world is now pregnant with new life. We come into the presence of Christ to offer Him our time, we extend our arms to receive Him. And He fills this time with Himself, He heals it and makes it—again and again—the time of salvation.
This Easter, let us extend our arms to receive Him. Let us extend our arms to receive one another in Him who heals and remakes our world in acceptance, grace, and love.