We live in a “linear” world. This is to say that we experience time and events in a sequential manner. “B” does not happen before “A”. It would be, perhaps, just as accurate to say that we live on a “flat earth.” Though we may know that the world is round, we live like it is flat. Thus we say, “The Sun rises,” rather than, “the Earth rotates,” etc. “Things fall,” rather than “things are attracted by gravity.” Physics and reality (as we live it) are often two very different things. All of this is to say that even on the most mundane level, we speak about things in an inaccurate manner – and this speach largely colors our thought, even though we “know better.”
Something of the same can be said about our perception of the feasts of the Church – our perception of time and the reality of the Kingdom are not at all the same thing. The tendency within our lives is to reduce the feasts of the Church to mere celebrations – days we decide are special and that we treat in a special way. Thus, nothing about the day is, in fact, different. “Reality” is only found in the make-believe of the liturgical game we all play.
Of course, this is a complete contradiction of the Church’s self-understanding and its understanding of the relationship between God and the Liturgy. It is true that the calendar may be somewhat relative (despite the Orthodox propensity for arguing among themselves about the calendar). However, that which is celebrated is not relative, nor is it only in “our minds.”
The celebration of Pascha, for example, is not a mere annual remembrance of the events of that day (on which Jesus rose from the dead) – it is, instead, by the grace and condescension of God, a true participation in the event itself. This is not because the time itself is special or even significant – nor is it because we ourselves are thinking in special ways. The liturgical and spiritual reality of holy events are a gift from God – a condescension to us – not unlike the condescension of His incarnation. God gives Himself to us in our worship of Him.
This is the very heart of worship. As Archimandrite Zacharias of St. John’s in Essex notes: “The heart of worship is an exchange.” The exchange that takes place in our worship of God is that we offer ourselves and all that we have (including our sin) and receive in return the very Life of God. “Thine own of Thine own, we offer unto Thee, on behalf of all and for all.” This mutual participation in the life of God and man is also the very content of our salvation. God becomes what we are, that we might become what He is.
In our liturgical life, this reality is also expressed in the exchange of time. We offer to God what we have (the time we give in our worship) and this time is exchanged: God gives us the eternity of His Pascha. Thus we do not merely remember Pascha, we participate in Pascha. Christ “tramples down death by death and upon those in the tombs bestows life,” and in our liturgy He tramples our death by His death and grants us lives in the hopelessness of the tombs we have created for ourselves.
I have stood at the historical places of Holy Week: I have touched the rock of Golgotha and knelt and prayed; I have knelt within the tomb of the risen Christ as a priest beside me prepared the bread for the Eucharist; I have kissed the rock upon which His lifeless body was laid and prepared for its burial. These and many other things were the content of a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in which I participated several years back.
Those places, locked within the geography of the earth, had their share in the events which took place within and upon them. Their veneration was worthy and deeply moving. But none of them can compare to the reality of the exchange and the Pascha that occurs within the worship of the Divine Liturgy.
It is a misunderstanding of place and time that leads us to value the linear – the place and time – over the transcendant – which makes this place and time to be united with that place and time – and makes us to be united with Him.
Thus every Christian makes pilgrimage to the Holy Land and to the tomb of the Crucified and Risen Christ as he approaches the Holy Mysteries in faith and love. God grant us a good Holy Week and good Pascha. Let us not deny or despise the exchange that awaits us.