Melkite Greek Catholic Church
 
IN THE YEAR AD75, the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus described the recent Jewish revolt against Roman rule and how the imperial army, led by Vespasian and his son Titus, had crushed the rebels. Vespasian was proclaimed emperor and an elaborate victory celebration was held. The treasures of Jerusalem were carried through Rome in a triumphant display of imperial power. Josephus describes it this way: “Vespasian and Titus came forth crowned with laurel, and clothed in purple … At this all the soldiers shouted for joy…”

A great triumphal march followed with Roman senators and uniformed troops. Treasures taken from the defeated Jews were paraded through the city. “…they made the greatest display carrying what had been taken from the temple in Jerusalem: the golden table, the golden lampstand … and the last of all the spoils, the Torah of the Jews” (The Jewish Wars, VII, 5).

What a contrast to the scene remembered by the Church today: the Lord Jesus, “humble and sitting on a donkey, a colt, the foal of a donkey” (Matthew 21:9). He was acclaimed, not by a conquering army, but by a ragtag crowd of children, pulling branches from the trees. Their shout was not “Hail, Caesar!” but “Hosanna to the Son of David!”

Christ as King

The Gospels consistently proclaim that the coming of Kingdom of God was at hand. The presence of the Kingdom was the main focus of the Lord Jesus’ teaching, as it had been the message of John the Baptist. The Apostles depicted Christ as One in whom the Kingdom was present and that He Himself was “the Son of David,” its King. What kind of kingdom He ruled was regularly misunderstood, however. People assumed that the Messiah-King would re-establish an Israel free of Roman oversight. When the magi asked Herod, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews?” (Matthew 2:2), Herod assumed that his position on the throne was threatened. He responded by killing the boys of Bethlehem whom we call the Holy Innocents.

When Jesus fed the multitudes with a few barley loaves and two small fish, people thought that this was a sign that, with Jesus, God was restoring Israel’s independence. “Therefore when Jesus perceived that they were about to come and take Him by force to make Him king, He departed again to the mountain by Himself alone” (John 6:15).

When the Jewish authorities accused Jesus before Pilate, it was that He had made Himself a king. Because of this, Pilate asked Him, “Are You the King of the Jews?” (Matthew 27:11). Much of what followed – the soldiers’ mockery, the purple robe, the crown and scepter, and the charge nailed over His head on the cross – point to the Romans’ belief that Jesus was claiming to rule the land of Israel.

The Lord had told Pilate explicitly that this was not so. “Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight, so that I should not be delivered to the Jews; but now My kingdom is not from here” (John 18:36). There is one further note in the Gospels pointing to the Apostles’ faith that the Lord Jesus truly is king. Jesus is buried, not as a homeless convicted rebel, but in a manner worthy of a king, surrounded with “a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds” (John 19:39) provided by Nicodemus. That people saw Jesus as a (supposed) Messiah-King is clear; that they misunderstood the nature of His kingship is undisputed.

A Kingdom “Not of This World”

When Pilate asked Jesus “are you a King?” the Lord answered, “You say rightly that I am a king. For this cause I was born, and for this cause I have come into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth” (Matthew 18:37). It is in the Gospel records of Jesus’ teaching – particularly the Parables – that we see what His kingdom was, and what it was not.

This teaching is summarized in the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-10). This text is so familiar to us that we may not see it as describing the lifestyle of God’s Kingdom:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, For they shall be comforted.

Blessed are the meek, For they shall inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, For they shall be filled.

Blessed are the merciful, For they shall obtain mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart, For they shall see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers, For they shall be called sons of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”


It is safe to say that the Lord is not describing the ruling elite of any worldly state.

Elsewhere we see that His Kingdom is based on:

Putting God First – “Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For after all these things the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you” (Matthew 6:31-33);

Child-like Simplicity - “Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3, 4); “Then little children were brought to Him that He might put His hands on them and pray, but the disciples rebuked them. But Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of heaven’” (Matthew 19:13, 14);

Imitating the Way He Empties Himself –“Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a servant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross” (Philippians 2:5-8);

Servant-Leadership – “Now there was also a dispute among them, as to which of them should be considered the greatest. And He said to them, ‘The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those who exercise authority over them are called ‘benefactors.’ But not so among you; on the contrary, he who is greatest among you, let him be as the younger, and he who governs as he who serves. For who is greater, he who sits at the table, or he who serves? Is it not he who sits at the table? Yet I am among you as the One who serves. “But you are those who have continued with Me in My trials. And I bestow upon you a kingdom, just as My Father bestowed one upon Me, that you may eat and drink at My table in My kingdom, and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Luke 22:24-30). “So when He had washed their feet, taken His garments, and sat down again, He said to them, ‘Do you know what I have done to you? You call Me Teacher and Lord, and you say well, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet” (Jonn 13:12-14).

This is the Kingdom we celebrate today.
 
THERE ARE TWO ICONS put forth for veneration this Sunday in those Byzantine churches which follow the Gregorian calendar. Because it is March 25, we are celebrating the Great Feast of the Annunciation. Because it is Palm Sunday, we are commemorating Christ’s entry into Jerusalem a few days before His passion.

Both of these occasions are among our Church’s greatest feasts, each pointing to a different moment in the life of Christ. On the Annunciation we reflect on the conception of the Word of God as a man in the womb of the Theotokos. On Palm Sunday we join in welcoming Him as the One who comes in the name of the Lord, the Savior. These seem to be very different aspects of the mystery of Christ; on both occasions, however, He was glorified with the same title, Son of David.

Why “Son of David”?

David, the son of Jesse, was the second king of the united kingdom of Israel, reigning at c. 1000 bc. The Old Testament describes his era as the golden age of Israel. Variant versions of his life are found in 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 Chronicles and the Book of Ruth. As king, David conquered Jerusalem and established it as his capital, bringing the Ark of the Covenant to the city. David wished to build a temple there to house the Ark, but the prophet Nathan related to him a message he had received from God: “When your days are fulfilled and you rest with your fathers, I will set up your seed after you, who will come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for My name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be his Father, and he shall be My son” (2 Samuel 7:12-14).

David’s son Solomon did, indeed, succeed his father as king and built the first temple in Jerusalem, fulfilling the first part of the prophecy. After Solomon’s death, his son Rehoboam became king, but he could not hold the nation together. The northern tribes broke away and formed their own kingdom and so the second part of the prophecy – “I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever” – was not fulfilled in him.

When the independence of these kingdoms was threatened, the prophets foretold that a “son of David” would establish a lasting kingdom. As Isaiah foretold repeatedly:
- “Of the increase of His government and peace there will be no end, upon the throne of David and over His kingdom, to order it and establish it with judgment and justice from that time forward, even forever. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this”;
- “There shall come forth a Rod from the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots”;
and
- “In mercy the throne will be established; and One will sit on it in truth, in the tabernacle of David, judging and seeking justice and hastening righteousness” (Isaiah 9:7, 11:1, and 16:5).

Similarly, the prophet Jeremiah foretold: “‘Behold, the days are coming,’ says the Lord, ‘that I will raise to David a Branch of righteousness; a King shall reign and prosper, and execute judgment and righteousness in the earth” (Jeremiah 23:5). These and similar prophecies gave rise to the belief among many Jews that the Messiah would be, in fact, of David’s lineage.

Jesus as Son of David

By the first century ad, it was commonly taught that the Messiah would be this “son of David” and, therefore, from Bethlehem. As we read in John’s Gospel, some who heard Jesus speak “…said ‘Truly this is the Prophet.’ Others said, ‘This is the Messiah.’ But some said, ‘Will the Christ come out of Galilee? Has not the Scripture said that the Christ comes from the seed of David and from the town of Bethlehem, where David was?’ So, there was a division among the people because of Him” (John 7:40-43).

In their teaching about Jesus, the Gospels all present Him as the Son of David. Matthew’s Gospel begins with the genealogy of Jesus which opens with these words: “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham” (Matthew 1:1).

When the magi came seeking the One whose birth they had read of in the stars, they were sent to Bethlehem as the prophet Micah had foretold, “‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are not the least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you shall come a Ruler who will shepherd My people Israel” (Matthew 2:6). The Ruler to come out of Bethlehem was presumed to be the Son of David.

The greatest witness to Jesus’ role as Son of David is the Archangel Gabriel. In the Gospel story of the Annunciation, Gabriel says of Jesus that “…the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David. And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:32. 33). The Lord Jesus is clearly depicted here as fulfilling the words of the prophets.

Throughout His ministry people referred to Jesus as the Son of David. The most graphic representation of their belief came when Jesus was escorted into Jerusalem as a king while people cried out “Hosanna to the Son of David! ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!’ Hosanna in the highest!” (Matthew 21:9). Thus. the proclamation which the angel made at Jesus’ conception is repeated by His people as He approached His passion.

The final allusion to the Lord Jesus as Son of David is found in the Book of Revelation, the last New Testament book, which speaks of the Lord’s return in glory. In one of the author John’s last visions, Christ proclaims, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End, the First and the Last… I am the Root and the Offspring of David” (Revelations 22: 13, 16). Christ is not only the descendant of David, but his Creator (root) as well: a claim that only the eternal Word of God incarnate could make.

Fully Us, Fully Other

In many societies, it is customary to take one’s paternal name as part of one’s own. This expresses a person’s roots in a particular family or clan. If a person’s ancestor was of some repute, he would emphasize the connection by laying claim to his name in particular. It is in this sense that an angel addresses St Joseph as son of David (see Matthew 1:20). Calling the Lord Jesus “son of David” says that He is a part of human history in this particular family.

The Gospels of Matthew and Luke both include genealogies which expressly connect Jesus to Abraham (Mt) and Adam (Lk) as well as David. Emphasizing these human connections, the Gospels indicate that the Lord Jesus is truly one of us, fully man, in order to transform us, as later theology would express it: “Today is the announcement of joy, today is the virginal festivity, today Heaven is joined to earth, Adam is renewed and Eve released from sorrow; the dwelling-place, our own essence, has become God’s temple because a portion of it has been deified!” (Vespers for the Annunciation)

The Messianic title “Son of David” also points to Christ’s role as our Creator and Redeemer. As Messiah, the Son of David is unique, completely different from His creation. In this sense, calling Jesus Son of David emphasizes how different Jesus is from us. The Son of David is like no other. Thus on Palm Sunday we sing, “He who sits upon the throne of the Cherubim, for our sake sits upon a foal. Coming to His voluntary Passion, today He hears the children cry, Hosanna!, while the crowd replies, "O Son of David, make haste to save those whom You have created, blessed Jesus, since You have come for this reason: that we may know Your glory!"
 
THE THE YEAR 75 the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus described the recent Jewish revolt against Roman rule and how the imperial army, led by Vespasian and his son Titus, had crushed the rebels. Vespasian was proclaimed emperor and an elaborate victory celebration was held. The treasures of Jerusalem were carried through Rome in a triumphant display of imperial power. Josephus describes it this way: “Vespasian and Titus came forth crowned with laurel, and clothed in purple … At this all the soldiers shouted for joy…” A great triumphal march followed with Roman senators and uniformed troops. Treasures taken from the defeated Jews were paraded through the city. “…they made the greatest display carrying what had been taken from the temple in Jerusalem: the golden table, the golden lampstand … and the last of all the spoils, the Torah of the Jews” (The Jewish Wars, VII, 5). What a contrast to the scene remembered by the Church today: the Lord Jesus, “humble and sitting on a donkey, a colt, the foal of a donkey” (Matthew 21:9). He was acclaimed, not by a conquering army, but by a ragtag crowd of children, pulling branches from the trees. Their shout was not “Hail, Caesar!” but “Hosanna to the Son of David!”

Christ as King

The Gospels consistently proclaim that the coming of Kingdom of God was at hand. The presence of the Kingdom was the main focus of the Lord Jesus’ teaching, as it had been the message of John the Baptist. The apostles depicted Christ as One in whom the Kingdom was present and that He Himself was “the son of David,” its King. What kind of kingdom He ruled was regularly misunderstood, however. People assumed that the Messiah-King would re-establish an Israel free of Roman oversight. When the magi asked Herod, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews?” (Matthew 2:2), Herod assumed that his position on the throne was threatened. He responded by killing the boys of Bethlehem whom we call the Holy Innocents. When Jesus fed the multitudes with a few barley loaves and two small fish, people thought that this was a sign that, with Jesus, God was restoring Israel’s independence. “Therefore when Jesus perceived that they were about to come and take Him by force to make Him king, He departed again to the mountain by Himself alone” (John 6:15). When the Jewish authorities accused Jesus before Pilate, it was that He had made Himself a king. Because of this, Pilate asked Him, “Are You the King of the Jews?” (Matthew 27:11). Much of what followed – the soldiers’ mockery, the purple robe, the crown and scepter, and the charge nailed over His head on the cross – point to the Romans’ belief that Jesus was claiming to rule the land of Israel. The Lord had told Pilate explicitly that this was not so. “Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight, so that I should not be delivered to the Jews; but now My kingdom is not from here” (John 18:36). There is one further note in the Gospels pointing to the apostles’ faith that the Lord Jesus truly is king. Jesus is buried, not as a homeless convicted rebel, but in a manner worthy of a king, surrounded with “a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds” (John 19:39) provided by Nicodemus. That people saw Jesus as a (supposed) Messiah-King is clear; that they misunderstood the nature of His kingship is undisputed.

A Kingdom “Not of This World”

When Pilate asked Jesus “are you a King?” the Lord answered, “You say rightly that I am a king. For this cause I was born, and for this cause I have come into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth” (Matthew 18:37). It is in the Gospel records of Jesus’ teaching – particularly the Parables – that we see what His kingdom was, and what it was not. This teaching is summarized in the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-10). This text is so familiar to us that we may not see it as describing the lifestyle of God’s Kingdom: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, For theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, For they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, For they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, For they shall be filled. Blessed are the merciful, For they shall obtain mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, For they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, For they shall be called sons of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” It is safe to say that the Lord is not describing the ruling elite of any worldly state. Elsewhere we see that His Kingdom is based on: Putting God First – “Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For after all these things the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you” (Matthew 6:31-33); Child-like Simplicity - “Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3, 4); “Then little children were brought to Him that He might put His hands on them and pray, but the disciples rebuked them. But Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of heaven’”(Matthew 19:13, 14); Imitating the Way He Empties Himself – “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a servant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross” (Philippians 2:5-8); Servant-Leadership – “Now there was also a dispute among them, as to which of them should be considered the greatest. And He said to them, ‘The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those who exercise authority over them are called ‘benefactors.’ But not so among you; on the contrary, he who is greatest among you, let him be as the younger, and he who governs as he who serves. For who is greater, he who sits at the table, or he who serves? Is it not he who sits at the table? Yet I am among you as the One who serves. “But you are those who have continued with Me in My trials. And I bestow upon you a kingdom, just as My Father bestowed one upon Me, that you may eat and drink at My table in My kingdom, and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Luke 22:24-30); “So when He had washed their feet, taken His garments, and sat down again, He said to them, ‘Do you know what I have done to you? You call Me Teacher and Lord, and you say well, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet” (John 13:12-14). This is the Kingdom we celebrate today.
 
ON THE DAY BEFORE the Great Fast began we heard these words from St Paul’s Epistle to the Romans: “Now our salvation is nearer than when we first believed. The night is far spent, the day is at hand. Therefore let us cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armor of light” (Romans 13:11,12). They announced for us the time of preparation for entry into the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection at Pascha. Today we hear these words: “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say, rejoice! Let your gentleness be known to all men. The Lord is at hand” (Philippians 4:4-5). The time of preparation is over for those who have been observing the Fast. We are beginning to celebrate the mystery of Pascha. In the Byzantine tradition there is no more joyful celebration of this mystery than when it coincides with the Feast of the Annunciation. The Greeks call this Kyriopascha (the Lord’s Pascha) and see it as a proclamation of all that Christ is for us and for all creation. When Holy Friday or Saturday fall on March 25 Greek Churches often move the Annunciation to Pascha to maximize the joy of these days. Slavic Churches generally do not move the Annunciation, celebrating it on whatever day it falls. When Holy Friday and March 25 coincide the Annunciation is celebrated with a Divine Liturgy, the only time when the Liturgy is served on Holy Friday. A Kyriopascha occurs in Churches that follow the Julian or “Old” Calendar and in Churches that keep the Gregorian or “New” Calendar. It never occurs in Churches that observe the Revised Julian or Mixed Calendar as many Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Churches do today. On this calendar Pascha always comes after March 25. Western Christians, whose Churches are accustomed to move the Annunciation when it coincides with Pascha, often find this double celebration jarring. It was not always so. When these feasts came together in 1608 the English poet John Donne observed, “Today my soul eats twice” (“Upon the Annunciation and Passion Falling upon One Day”). This two-course feast is especially helpful for us as we reflect on Christ’s mission in our world.

Christ Transfigures Us and Our World

The Feast of the Annunciation celebrates the incarnation of the eternal Word of God in the womb of the Virgin Mary. The Gospel of Luke tells how the angel Gabriel was sent to the Virgin with this news: “Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call His name Jesus… The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore, also, that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God... for with God nothing will be impossible” (Luke 1:31-37). The Gospel thus proclaims and this feast celebrates that Jesus is both Son of God by nature and son of the Virgin by the power of the Holy Spirit who came upon her. He is, as the early Councils would later confess, both fully God and also fully man: the ultimate presence of God in the world He created. The Eastern Fathers taught that, by taking up our fallen human nature in Himself, the eternal Word raised it up and transformed it back to what it was meant to be from the beginning: the image of God. He truly became like us in all things except sin, uniting His divinity with our humanity. The following sticheron from the vespers of the Annunciation expresses this teaching poetically: “Today is the announcement of joy, today is the virginal festivity, today Heaven is joined to earth, Adam is renewed and Eve released from sorrow; the dwelling-place, our own substance, has become God’s temple because a portion of it has been deified!” By taking our lesser nature, the divine Son of God transformed it – humanity became holy because it was the dwelling place of God. Human nature became like the chalice used to hold the blood of Christ: holy because of what it contained. This teaching is expressed even more forcefully at orthros: “The eternal mystery is revealed today. The Son of God becomes the Son of man. By sharing in what is imperfect, He makes me share in what is perfect. Of old, Adam disobeyed: he wished to become God, but failed. Now God becomes man that He might make Adam god. Let the creation rejoice, let nature sing with joy: for the Archangel stands before the Virgin with great respect and greets her with good news that takes away our sorrow. O our God, who took flesh in Your merciful compassion, glory to You! This concept would be extended in our remembrance of Christ’s baptism on the Feast of the Theophany. Christ enters into the Jordan, not to be sanctified by its waters but to sanctify them by His presence in them. He transfigures not only human nature but all creation by being present in it. As we sing on that feast, “Today the nature of the waters is sanctified, and the Jordan is parted in two. It holds back the streams of its own waters, seeing the Master being baptized.”

Christ Transforms Death

The mystery of the incarnation is only fully understood, the Scriptures teach, in light of the death and resurrection of Christ. In the Epistle to the Hebrews we read that God became man in order to die and transform death. “Since, therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same nature, that through death he might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage” (Hebrews 2:14-15). To escape or at least postpone death people attach themselves to all kinds of empty behavior, pursuing wealth or pleasure, enslaving themselves to what they think is the “good life.” Perhaps some modern symbols of this “lifelong bondage” might be the mortgage or credit card debt which people assume in order to own things which only serve to own them. Others might be the addictions to which some people are bound in their desire to be freed if only for a time from the living death of a meaningless or degrading life. Becoming man meant that Jesus would die; that is what happens. But because He was the eternal Word of God death would not transform Him; He would transform death. As a result of sin, death separated us from God. Christ transforms death so that, freed from the embrace of sin, it could be for many the gateway to God. The Son of God, who assumed our nature at the Annunciation, did so in order to destroy the power of death by His own death and Resurrection. From the first the Infant Jesus is described in terms of His mission for our salvation. As Joseph was told by the Lord’s angel, “you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). The mystery of the Incarnation begins with the death and resurrection of Christ already in view. The cross and tomb are life-giving because Jesus is the incarnate Word of God. Celebrating both mysteries together doubles our joy.
Behold, our recall is now manifest, for God is ineffably joined to mankind, and error has vanished at the voice of the Archangel. The Virgin has accepted the joyful news, the earth has become Heaven, and the world has been relieved of the ancient curse. Let the whole creation rejoice and sing a hymn of praise: “O Lord, our Maker and Redeemer, glory to You!”
Sticheron at Vespers
 
WHEN DOES A DAY BEGIN? The clock says that a new day starts at 12:01 AM, which most people see as the middle of the night. For others a new day begins when the sun rises and reveille (or the alarm clock) is sounded. The Eastern Churches follow the pattern set in the Book of Genesis: “the evening and the morning were the first day” (Genesis 1:5). The liturgical day begins with vespers and continues through the night. Matins (orthros) at dawn followed by the hours and the Divine Liturgy complete the daily cycle of prayer and the next day begins with vespers. Based on this pattern the Great and Holy Week begins at sunset, with vespers, in the evening of Palm Sunday. There are a great number of services appointed for this week: more than most parishes would schedule. A few important points should be noted about them:
  • Fast Days – Every day of this week (including Saturday) is a fast day, as every day (except Holy Friday) is a Eucharistic day. Either the Presanctified Liturgy or the Liturgy of St Basil is celebrated at vespers. Holy Friday is a strict (i.e. day-long) fast in memory of Christ’s saving death.
  • “Anticipation” – While the praying day begins in the evening and continues through the night, the average parish has only one service, in the early hours of the evening. In some parishes this is vespers; in others it is matins, anticipating the morning’s observance. When the morning service (matins) is anticipated the precious evening, the evening service (vespers) is often anticipated the previous morning!
  • Focus of these services – Some of these services are “thematic”: focusing on the meaning of the paschal mystery in our lives. These include the reconciliation of penitents, holy unction and the baptism of catechumens. Other services are historical, focusing on the events of this week in Christ’s life: the last supper, the crucifixion and His burial. These historical services became popular after shrines were erected in Jerusalem in the time of St Constantine the Great (fourth century). Today several of our services combine both thematic and historical aspects.
Holy Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday – The Gospel story of Christ’s teaching in the temple during these days is read at each Matins and Presanctified Liturgy. The troparion sung on these days is based on the parable of the wise and foolish virgins (cf., Matthew 25:1-13), particularly appropriate for this time: “Behold the Bridegroom is coming in the middle of the night – blessed is the servant He shall find awake! But the one He shall find neglectful will not be worthy of Him. Beware, therefore, O my soul. Do not fall into a deep slumber lest you be delivered to death and the doors of the kingdom be closed on you. Watch instead and cry out, ‘Holy holy, holy are You, O our God…’” This parable is such a powerful image of the paschal mystery that the services themselves are popularly called “Bridegroom matins” or “Bridegroom Services” and the icon of Christ displayed for veneration on these days is called “the Bridegroom.”

The Wedding and the Bridegroom

When we think of weddings we think almost exclusively of the bride. In Western churches the bride appears with great ceremony and the groom merely joins her at the last moment. Among first century Jews it was very different and it is their practice that we see reflected in Scripture and in our Holy Week observance. A Jewish marriage of the time consisted of two parts. There was the betrothal in which the bride’s father agreed to the marriage and the marriage covenant was established. The man and woman were considered committed to one another but did not yet live together. There followed a time of preparation: the bride was prepared to take on the role of a wife. She was kept apart to safeguard her purity and be trained in the conduct befitting a wife. For his part the groom devoted himself to preparing a dwelling place – usually in his father’s house – where they would live. When the time was right the groom would come with great ceremony to claim his wife and bring her to their new home. “And at midnight a cry was heard: ‘Behold, the bridegroom is coming; go out to meet him!’” (Matthew 25:6) This practice is outlined in the Gospel portrayal of Mary and Joseph: “After His mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Spirit. Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not wanting to make her a public example, was minded to put her away secretly. But while he thought about these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take to you Mary your wife…” (Matthew 1:18-20). We also see similar imagery both in Scripture and the liturgy concerning our relationship with Christ the Bridegroom. According to St Paul, the Christian has been pledged to Christ. Like their father he tells the Corinthians: “I have betrothed you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ” (2 Corinthians 11:2). Christ speaks of Himself in similar terms when He says: “In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you” (John 14:2). Our betrothal and time of preparation are mirrored in the Great Fast. At its beginning the catechumens professed their faith (their betrothal). With them the devoted faithful purified themselves during those forty days, preparing to unite with Christ at Pascha. Then, as the Bridegroom takes His own by the hand and leads them to their new homeland, we will sing “O Jerusalem rejoice… for you have seen Christ the King coming out of the tomb as fair as a bridegroom” (Paschalia).
Other Holy Week Observances
Holy Wednesday – The story of Christ’s anointing by Mary at Bethany “for the day of my burial” (cf., John 12:1-11) is read at the Presanctified Liturgy. The mystery of Holy Unction is often served as well, preparing us to die and rise with Christ at Pascha. Holy Thursday – The betrayal by Judas is remembered: “While the glorious disciples were enlightened at the supper by the washing of their feet, Judas the wicked betrayer, fell into darkness and betrayed You…” (troparion). The bishop reenacts the washing of the feet and the institution of the Eucharist is commemorated at the Vesper-Liturgy of St Basil. Holy Friday – The arrest and passion of Christ is remembered at orthros/matins and at the royal hours as the passion Gospels are read and the cross is venerated. Christ’s body is taken down from the cross and wrapped in the holy shroud at vespers. Holy Saturday – The burial of Christ by Joseph of Arimathea and the sealing of the tomb by Roman soldiers is observed at orthros. “The noble Joseph took Your most pure body from the tree, wrapped it in clean linen with aromatic spices and laid it for burial in a new tomb” (troparion). The Vesper Liturgy of St Basil is the time when (adult) catechumens would be baptized, hear the first proclamation of the resurrection and share for the first time in the Eucharist.
 
From Armenia to every corner of the Middle East Palm Sunday is celebrated as a feast for children. Describing Christ’s entry into Jerusalem, St Matthew’s Gospel highlights the participation of children in the event. “When the chief priests and the scribes saw the wonderful things that He did and the children crying out in the temple and saying ‘Hosanna to the Son of David’ they were indignant and said to Him, Do you hear what these are saying?’ And Jesus said to them, ‘Yes – have you never read ‘Out of the mouths of babes and nursing infants You have perfected praise?’” (Matthew 21:15-16) Children are singled out for mention in the first historical witness we have to this feast as well. Towards the end of the fourth century the Spanish nun Egeria, on pilgrimage to the newly-adorned holy places of Palestine, described what she saw on that Palm Sunday: “As the eleventh hour draws near … all the children who are [gathered at the top of the Mount of Olives], including those who are not yet able to walk because they are too young and therefore are carried on their parents’ shoulders, all of them bear branches, some carrying palms, others, olive branches. And the bishop is led in the same manner as the Lord once was led. … From the top of the mountain as far as the city and from there through the entire city … everyone accompanies the bishop the whole way on foot, and this includes distinguished ladies and men of consequence.” The scene Egeria witnessed has been repeated ever since. While today this procession is held at the end of Orthros or the Divine Liturgy, Egeria describes it as taking place “at the eleventh hour,” our 5 PM. This practice echoed the Gospel witness that “Jesus went into Jerusalem and into the temple. So when He had looked around at everything, as the hour was already late, He went out to Bethany with the Twelve” (Mark 11:11). There they spent the night.

Children and the Church Today

Palm Sunday services attract large numbers of families who may never attend the Liturgy otherwise. Many clergy blame negligent parents; others feel that the Church has not tried hard enough to reach these parents. Some say that the Church spends too much effort educating children while ignoring adults. After all, they reason, the Lord blessed children but directed His teaching at adults. Archimandrite Tikhon Shevkunov, superior of Moscow’s Stretensky Monastery offers another insight. He suggests that, instead of debating about whom we should teach, we should reexamine what we do with them. Are we emphasizing secondary matters when we should be introducing them to Christ? He writes:
“Children at the age of eight or nine go to church and sing on the kliros, amazing and delighting everyone around them. But by the age of fourteen to sixteen, many – if not the majority – stop going to church. “Children have not become acquainted with God. No, they of course are acquainted with the rites, with Church Slavonic, with order in church, with the lives of saints, and with sacred history as arranged for children. But they are not acquainted with God Himself. No encounter has taken place. The result is that parents, Sunday schools and – sad as it is – priests have built the house of childhood faith upon the sand (Matthew 7:26), and not upon the rock of Christ. “How can it happen that children do not notice God, despite all the most sincere efforts of adults to instill faith in them? How can it turn out that children still do not find within themselves the strength to discern Christ the Savior in their childhood lives and in the Gospel? “When responding to this question, we raise yet another adult problem, one that is reflected in our children as in a mirror. This is when both parents and priests teach one thing, but live in another way. This is a most frightful blow to the tender strength of childhood faith, an unbearable drama for their sensitive minds.”
If children only come to church on Palm Sunday, is it because their elders – parents, relatives, adults around them – have not reflected to them their own encounter with the Lord themselves?

Our Holy Week and Jerusalem

In 326-28 the Empress Helena, mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great, traveled to Palestine at the behest of her son to mark the places where Christ lived and died by constructing shrines and churches. According to Eusebius of Caesarea she was chiefly responsible for two churches, the Church of the Nativity, in Bethlehem (still in existence), and a church on the Mount of Olives, the site of Christ’s ascension. Jerusalem. She also took part in the excava-tions at the site of the Lord’s death and burial where the Great Church of the Resurrection stands today. It soon became the practice for great celebrations to take place at these sites, particularly when the events which took place there were observed. It was at these shrines that historical commemorations of the events of the Lord’s passion were first conducted. In time local Churches throughout the Mediterranean world began to imitate the appealing Jerusalem practices, developing the historical observances of Holy Week as we know them today.

The Power of the Redemption

The first observances of Pascha in both East and West, however, were not attempts to recreate the events of the Lord’s passion. Rather they were focused on the effects of the Lord’s death and resurrection in the lives of the faithful. Thus the highpoint of the Resurrection celebration was the baptism of catechumens, which took place before the Paschal Liturgy, and the reconciliation of penitents on Holy Thursday: those whose serious sins had excluded them from the community,. In the same spirit Byzantine Churches today offer the Mystery of Holy Unction on Holy Wednesday. People are anointed for the healing of their spiritual infirmities, uniting with Christ in the power of His death and resurrection.
On Celebrating This Feast
In His humility Christ entered the dark regions of our fallen world and He is glad that He became so humble for our sake, glad that He came and lived among us and shared in our nature in order to raise us up again to Himself. And even though we are told that He has now ascended above the highest heavens – the proof, surely, of His power and godhead – His love for mankind will never rest until He has raised our earthbound nature from glory to glory, and made it one with His own in heaven. So let us spread before His feet – not garments or soulless olive branches, which delight the eye for a few hours and then wither – but ourselves, clothed in His grace, or rather, clothed completely in Him. We who have been baptized into Christ must ourselves be the garments that we spread before Him. Now that the crimson stains of our sins have been washed away in the saving waters of baptism and we have become white as pure wool, let us present the Conqueror of death, not with mere branches of palms but with the real rewards of His victory. Let our souls take the place of the welcoming branches as we join today in the children’s holy song: Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Blessed is the king of Israel. (St Andrew of Crete)
 
CHILDREN LOVE A PARADE – they may not know – or care – what it’s about, but they know it’s great fun. They may march out of step or make music out of tune but they know that they’re involved with something special and want to be part of it in their own way. The children processing in our churches on Palm Sunday are invariably out of step and out of tune, but it is likely that those children they imitate were even more of a rag-tag bunch. Jerusalem’s religious leaders were offended – it was a mockery, they fumed, and those children should be silenced (Luke 19:39-40). The Pharisees were right in a sense – for the Kingdom of God inaugurated this week does mock our ideas of power, glory, dignity and status. This “King” rides a donkey. His entourage is made up of hillbillies (Galilee was thought a backward province), women and children. His royal chamber was an open field; His throne, the altar of the cross. Who in his right mind would take this king seriously? Over the course of the Great and Holy Week we will see other paradoxical signs of the Kingdom of God. During the first three days of this week it is customary to venerate two specific icons of Christ. The icon of Christ as the Bridegroom of the Church depicts Him in His wedding finery: the mock crown and royal robe of His passion which He put on for the sake of His chosen bride, the Church. The icon called “Extreme Humility” portrays Him in death, having given up His last breath for her. Clearly our standards of a royal wedding do not apply here. Perhaps the most daring image of this King appears on Holy Thursday. He portrays His method of ruling in the Washing of the Feet (John 13:1-17). He waits on His servants in the most menial way then tells them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call Me Teacher and Lord, and you say well, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example that you should do as I have done to you” (vv. 12-15). The constitution for the Kingdom, then, calls for mutual submission, service to one another in love in contrast to the world’s way of the weak submitting to the domination of the rich and powerful. Commenting on the Gospel passage of the Washing of the Feet, St John Chrysostom wrote, “Christ washed the feet of the traitor, that sacrilegious thief, practically at the time of his betrayal. He made him, incurable as he was, a partaker of His table; and are you so self-important that you look down your nose? … He who sits upon the Cherubim washed the feet of the traitor, and do you, O man – you that are earth and ashes and cinders and dust – do you exalt yourself, as above such behavior? Then how great a hell would you not deserve? “If then you desire a high state of mind, come, I will show you the way to it; for you do not even know what it is. The man then who gives heed to the present things as being great, is of a mean soul… For as little children are eager for trifles, gaping upon balls and hoops and dice, but cannot even form an idea of important matters; so in this case, one who is truly wise, will deem present things as nothing, (so that he will neither choose to acquire them himself, nor to receive them from others;) but he who is not of such a character will be affected in a contrary way, intent upon cobwebs and shadows and dreams of things even less substantial than these” (Homily 71 1,2).

Living in the Kingdom of God

Our world has few political kingdoms left, but it still values signs of status and power. These signs vary from age to age, from culture to culture: but they are always with us. Every social group – the ruling elites of nations, religious hierarchies, professional leaders, even clubs and informal gatherings of friends or neighbors – have ways of defining and recognizing who is “better” by reason of their power, wealth, or abilities. Who has the more expensive car? Who eats at the better restaurants? Who lives in the bigger house? Christ’s kingdom avoids the world’s status symbols. That they mean nothing in the Kingdom of God is revealed in the Gospels. There we read that the trappings of earthly domination are a hindrance rather than a help to life in the Kingdom: “Then Jesus looked around and said to His disciples, ‘Assuredly I say to you, how hard it is for those who trust in riches to enter the kingdom of God!’” (Mark 10:24). Being attached to what this age values inevitably leads us to neglect and perhaps forget the values of God’s Kingdom. The opposite of attachment is detachment – the inner ability to do without the world’s wealth in light of something greater. In the Sermon on the Mount the Lord Jesus urges His followers to develop that kind of detachment: “But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things [that satisfy our material needs] shall be added to you” (Matthew 6:33). Relying on God with the simplicity of children and the birds of the air, followers of Christ are to give priority to the Kingdom of God in their lives. In his Epistle to the Philippians St Paul gives us another term which describes the confidence in God of the person who puts the way of the Kingdom first in his or her life. He calls it “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding” (Philippians 4:7): This inner assurance in God’s protecting care is not the fruit of reason or human understanding, but comes from accepting the Kingdom of God and His righteousness as the governing principle of our life. This Week, with its celebration of the Kingdom of God which overturns the expectations of the Jewish leaders, is an invitation to all Christians to reexamine the values by which we live. Do we remain focused upon what St. John Chrysostom calls “cobwebs and shadows and unsubstantial things” or are we following the Lord Jesus to the Kingdom. Looking at the events of this week with the eyes of the Kingdom we see the splendor of the Lord’s glory and beauty where His enemies saw weakness and folly. In the robes of mockery we will see honor. In the shouts of the children we will hear the praises of angels. And seeing Christ humble Himself at the Washing of the Feet we will see the way to “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding.”
From the Canon of Palm Sunday Matins
The Lord and King of the ages comes clothed in strength. The surpassing splendor of His beauty and His glory is revealed in Sion. Therefore we all cry aloud: “Glory to Your power, O Lord!”
God who is enthroned on high upon the Cherubim and yet cares for the lowly, is Himself coming in power and glory, and all things shall be filled with His divine praise. Peace upon Israel and salvation to the Gentiles.
Greatly rejoice, O Sion, for Christ your God shall reign for ever. As it is written, He is meek and brings salvation. Our righteous Deliverer has come riding upon a foal, that He may destroy the proud arrogance of His enemies who will not cry out, “All you works of the Lord, bless the Lord!”
 
Updated: Images of Palm Sunday

During the fourth century, at the very place where the glorious entrance into Jerusalem had occurred, Palm Sunday was commemorated in the following fashion: first, a public reading of the gospel in which Christ is hailed as the King of Israel taking possession of his capital city, Jerusalem, symbol of the Heavenly City; then a bishop, riding an ass and surrounded by a multitude of people carrying palms and singing hymns, went up to the Church of the Resurrection. Every Eastern Church took up this celebration in the form of a procession. This also was adopted by the Church of Rome in the year 1039.

“O Christ God, enthroned in Heaven and on earth riding upon a colt, You have accepted the praise of the Angels and the hymns of the children who were crying out to You: 'Blessed are You who come to restore Adam.' ”

Procession begins

Procession begins

Blessing of the palms

Blessing of the palms

Leaving the Church

Leaving the Church

Procession continues around the Church

Procession continues around the Church

Father Philaret Proclaiming the Gospel of the Feast

Proclaiming the Gospel of the Feast

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