by Archbishop Stylianos of Australia


Returning by way of such a title to the mournful tone of Holy Week, while we are still in the period of chanting "Christ is Risen", is of course anachronistic and unsuited. Yet by analysing the "context" of Holy Week more carefully, we shall see that it is not possible for the faithful to "taste" fully the true joy of the Resurrection without first of all realising — as much as this is possible — the extent and depth of the sacrifice of Christ for the human person.

The names, which we give to Christ in the language of worship throughout the liturgical year, are expressive mainly of glory and power. We call Him "Lord and God", "Son and Word of God", "Saviour", "Ruler", "Giver of life", "Victor over death" and many other such descriptions, even the awkward term "super God" which is contained in one hymn.

Yet, all of these sound somewhat "mythical" in the ears of modern sceptical man. In addition, we see modern man being more sceptical and unbelieving than the previous generations of faithful precisely because our times uphold an almost allergic antipathy towards every notion of institutional power and authority. We remind ourselves at this point that this "antiauthoritarian" tendency recently found a new theoretical expression, even in art, following the surrealistic movement with the well known book of E. Schumacher "Small is beautiful".

Through these "socio-political" and "cultural" aspects of our times, that which perhaps becomes more intimate and more intelligible is not only the language, which describes the entire mystery of the Divine Incarnation, but also the manner in which the Divine will is fulfilled within history.

By bearing in mind that the "incarnation" of God is characterised from the outset by the very expressive term "kenosis" (which means self-emptying), we then understand why all the stages of Christ's earthly life were basically a full "reversal" of the logic of this world: "God the Word", whom the Prophets had declared to be "the wisdom and power of God", is born in a manger as a powerless baby. This inverted system of values would subsequently "erode" — by way of preaching and the example of "repentance" — the whole rebellious nature of the first Adam, so that the "foolishness of the Cross" could overcome the logic of this world.

Given this precise inversion of the logic of the "fallen" world, we see in Holy Week an abbreviation of the entire divine Economy summarised in the notion of the "expiatory sacrifice". As Christ comes meekly and guilelessly "to His voluntary Passion", it is only natural that He is characterised as "the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world", exactly as St John the Forerunner had stated (John 1:29). The same image of the "lamb", which does not resist shearing and is silently led to the place of slaughter, was given to us by Isaiah: "like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. By a perversion of justice he was taken away. Who could have imagined his future? For he was cut off from the land of the living" (Isaiah 53:7-8).

On the one hand, then, the Prophets of the Old Testament foresaw and foretold the coming Messiah as the "suffering servant of God" and as the "sacrificial lamb". On the other hand, however, the wounded "national" sensitivity of the Jewish people as a whole awaited the "anointed one of the Lord" to come with power and authority to "restore the throne of David". How could such apparently contradictory perceptions about the same person be reconciled? Can one be simultaneously a "king" and "slave", a "lamb" for the slaughter and a "ruler"?

In spite of this external "contradiction" of these two perceptions and images, Holy Week as the summary already mentioned of the Economy of God the Word in the flesh contains both to the same degree. It does not contain them in parallel or in succession, that is to say next to each other or after one another, but rather simultaneously, and they are indeed identified in one unique image expressed in the terms "bridal chamber" and "bridegroom". The fact that there is no reference to the "bridal chamber" and "bridegroom" at any other time of the Church year, except exclusively in the texts and actions of Holy Week, is most noteworthy and significant, as we shall see in the following section.

It is from this precise point, namely the identification of "lamb" and "bridegroom" and "sacrifice" and "kingdom", which our devout theological consideration must commence concerning the mystery of Christ as both God and man.

In commenting upon the curious fact that our Church worships Christ as the "Bridegroom" only within the context of Holy Week, we could say that one would expect to see Christ as the Bridegroom not during the week of Passion, but rather during the divine Transfiguration, which is unrivalled in both glory and splendour. It was then that "His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became as white as the light" (Mat 17:2).

It is clear that the imagery of the "wedding", the "bridal chamber" and the "bridegroom" do not at first glance appear to lend themselves to an expression of the self-emptying or "kenosis" of the Cross and sacrifice.

On the contrary, the notion of a wedding in human society, throughout all people and periods of history, is associated with joy and revelry because of the forthcoming enjoyment of "institutionalised" happiness. In fact, in modern Greek vocabulary, weddings are also simply called 'Joy". This is only natural, since the "communion" which is established between the couple through marriage implies a mutual enrichment, for which both the "bride" and "bridegroom" rightly celebrate. The legal terminology of Byzantine-Roman law expressed precisely this when it called marriage the "common experience of one's entire life".

With these thoughts, our query grows even greater about why the Church combines mourning and glory in the person of Christ by placing the image of the Bridegroom in the heart of Holy Week. Furthermore, the climax of this oxymoron is that the Church names the icon of the crowned Bridegroom "Utter Humility"!

To human logic and order, all of this is inconceivable and scandalous. Yet, for the "foolishness of the Cross", these things are not only possible, but also express in the most characteristic manner the infinite mercy of the love of God, which acts in totally "unforeseen" and "unrepayable" ways. It functions "antinomically".

The Church Fathers, who dealt in particular with the divine Incarnation, invariably and plainly emphasise that "He became poor, so that we may become rich", and "He became incarnate, in order to deify our nature". For this reason, it was not possible to speak about a "mutual" enrichment of both natures in the case of the Incarnation. The divine nature is in need of nothing, and remains "without change" even within the "hypostatic union". The human nature, even while being within the mystery of theandric communion and unity, does not cease to be "unconfusedly" united to God the Word. It therefore remains always within human limits, yet at the same time becoming enriched and exalted while being "deified".

However, precisely because the divine "kenosis" was the absolutely free and voluntary condescension of God towards humankind, it reveals an unexpected abundance of love, and therefore power, which we cannot consider to be the result of need or weakness.

According to this "illogical logic", the more the love of God empties itself the more the grandeur of that love is revealed in a manner that is more jubilant and becoming of God. That is why the crown of the "Bridegroom of the Church" is "of thorns", rather than a royal diadem "of precious stones". Only utter humility could embrace the furthest reaches of human adventure and sin. It is at this very point that the ultimate dimensions of the love of God are revealed: "greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one's life for his friends" (John 15:13).

This however does not only refer to the "sacrifice of life". Nor only to the friends of the one sacrificed. It is about sacrifice and humility simultaneously, which the only sinless one voluntarily fulfilled "once and for all" on Golgotha. Such unprecedented and universal dimensions of the kenosis and sacrifice of Christ are what show His utter humility to be supreme glorification. Therefore, that He would not only be the "King of the Jews" — as His crucifiers tried to parody Him — but the "King of glory".

The previously unheard of Ievelling" between "humility" and "glory" was plainly declared by the Apostle Paul when he wrote that "He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth" (Phil 2:8-10).

Within the context of such a "dialectic", therefore, everything is literally "turned on its head". There is more than simply the hope and possibility for even the harshest "criminals" to be saved. We could even say that they have a kind of scandalous "precedence", if not "privilege". Christ revealed this Himself when He reproved the "hard-heartedness" of Israel, and said "the tax-collectors and prostitutes enter the kingdom of God before you" (Mat 21:31).

The most mystical and contrite Fathers of the Church, for example St Maximos the Confessor, St Isaac the Syrian and others, always expounded this unique "precedence". In addition, Dostoyevsky described this in an astonishing way in "Crime and Punishment", with the well known dialogue between God the compassionate judge and the "Righteous" who protest.

No matter how amazing the enormous distance between human and divine justice may seem to us, we must remember that Christ always taught this during the most characteristic moments of His earthly life. He had declared from the outset that "I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance" (Mark 2:17), "for God did not send His son into the world in order to judge the world, but in order to save the world through Him" (John 3:17). Since, "it is not those who are well who need a physician, but those who are sick" (Luke 5:31) etc.

It was almost to be expected, then, that even during the final moments of His Passion, those who were "last" according to the world and become "first" according to God would have their distinctive place. It is therefore not by chance that the first "dweller in Paradise" is not one of the great Saints, namely the Apostles, Martyrs, Ascetics or Confessors, but the "thief' who murmured that smallest item of Faith with the words "remember me, Lord". For, with repentance, that which is least for the human person is rewarded by that which is the greatest of God.

It may seem strange, but we could also see the incident with the other "thief", Barabbas, in the same perspective. We could say that, when the crowds of Jewish people persistently requested that Pilate release Barabbas for them instead of Christ, they were "compelled to prophesy". For, without even realising it, they confessed that, in the unfathomable love of "the lamb slain from the foundation of "the world", even the most murderous of thieves goes "before" others.

This is why, in the eschatological vision of John, the "fearful judgement seat" shall have seated upon it one who has the appearance not of the "Ruler of all", but of the "slaughtered Lamb". Perhaps it is this "inverted" hierarchy of values, which is expressed unconsciously in the language of the Greek people who say that the sun "reigns" when it is setting, rather than when it is at its zenith.

In closing, it remains only to repeat that which is said in Holy Week: "Glory to Your forbearance, Lord, glory to You".

from Voice of Orthodoxy, vol 19/5-6, May and June 1994
a publication of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia