As we move through the Liturgical Church year, how easy it is for us to settle into the sluggish routine of Divine Liturgy on Sunday morning and all our “important” business the rest of the week. Church on Sunday is something automatic—part of our lifestyle, our culture, our religion. We are faithful in making it to Church and participating in her Sacraments; this is always a good thing, but for everyone it can become a struggle to remember our purpose in worship. We know who we are worshipping and we constantly remind ourselves of His glory, but very easily all the other cares of the world envelope our thoughts, pushing God and His Church to a secondary place within our hearts. Thank the Lord His Church has provided us with an annual reminder of the rightful place He should occupy in our lives. As we persevere through Great Lent we are given instructions on what our Orthodox approach to the world should look like with a focus every week on a different significant event or person within the Church. The services of the parish church increase in frequency and we begin to anticipate the coming feast. Great Lent ends with the beginning of Holy Week and we wrap ourselves with our wedding garment in preparation for the Bridegroom; we are immersed in the Church as we follow Christ through His death, descent into Hades, and Glorious Resurrection. This immersion can be understood as a magnified view of our Baptism.
In the apostolic age of the Church, there was not a clear time when new members of the faith would be baptized. During this period there was often a sense of urgency in the Church as persecution was always a threat and secrecy was often desired. As the Church grew in membership and organization, it became important for catechumens to receive instruction in the faith before their initiation, through baptism, into the Body of Christ. It probably made sense that the accepted date for baptizing catechumens became Pascha as our immersion in water increasingly became understood as a participation in the death and resurrection of Christ. After Constantine’s conversion, Pascha was the established time when catechumens entered the Church, after a couple years of religious education, and it was in this way an Empire became Christian.
It was not long before all who were left to baptize were infants. Quickly the Christian world became comfortable and complacent in their routine which is why this period corresponds with the explosion of monasticism. By the Ninth century, the baptismal nature of Lent and Holy Week was mostly absent. This is when two brother monks, Theodore and Joseph the Studites, began work on the Lenten Triodion—the collection of hymns and prayers we use today in our preparation for Pascha. Since Lent had by this time lost its correlation to Baptism, these monks themed the Triodion on repentance. Beginning with the desire of Zacchaeus and moving to the spiritual purity of Mary of Egypt, the Triodion guides us through the repentant and transformative nature of Great Lent. When Holy Week begins with the Triumphal Entrance into Jerusalem, we are ready to immerse ourselves in the worship of the Church.
While the Triodion moved away from the Paschal theme of Baptism as initiation into the Church, it kept the theme of continuous renewal, through repentance, by living out our Baptismal life. During Holy Week we are immersed in the worship of the Church, sacrificing our “normal” lives for the sake of Christ’s Body. To the unrepentant, this immersion is painful and unjust, but to the spiritually prepared, “dying” to the outside world finds meaning and life within the walls of God’s Holy Temple. During this time we are re-educated about our place within the Divine Plan and so we are ready to meet Christ at the Cross on Good and Holy Friday, wait with Him in the tomb on Holy Saturday, and rise again during the Paschal Feast. Our total immersion in the worship of the Church re-presents our immersion in the waters of Baptism. In this sense, the Baptismal theme was never lost; it has found renewed meaning for the established Church.
In our modern world, where comfort and luxury are readily available, it is easy to settle into a mundane routine. Church council meetings, new construction, education programs, and financial planning become our Christian experience. These are all good and necessary things, but they are meaningless without the truth of our Paschal worship. Fr. Alexander Schmemann laments the separation of Church life from her Worship saying it is “this secularization of the Church itself that causes so many people, especially among the youth, simply to leave the Church in which no one reveals to them what is her real essence and life, what it means to be her member.” Thanks be to God for Holy Week and Pascha—the continued renewal of our Baptismal life and our reminder of who rightfully sits upon the throne which occupies the hearts of Orthodox Christians.