This Palm Sunday, Holy week started off with a bang. Actually it was a kick, more of a kickline, from the party-girl-in-utero. We had gone to church to observe the holiday and the choir was singing a hymn for the Blessing of the Palms service. This apparently inspired a frenetic, religious dance from the little one enlarging my stomach, who appears to love music of all sorts–techno at my cousin’s wedding, classic rock in the car, and now ecclesiastical hymns. All of these produce ecstatic celebration in the baby-to-be who apparently yearns to make a joyful noise unto the Lord, but instead has to sit here for hours listening to nothing more stimulating than the sound of me typing. It literally puts her to sleep, which is fine by her as she is on a Mykonos schedule–she won’t wake up before 11, then she does some stretches, eats, wonders what she’ll eat next, and starts dancing right around midnight. In any case, the Palm Sunday gymnastics were a Holy Week first.
Holy Monday is the Bridegroom service, commemorating the allegory of the church as a bride and Christ as a bridegroom. My Holy Mondays have been largely uneventful, although I remember fondly a few I spent in New York with other Greek-American pals; we’d hit church, then an Italian restaurant for pasta in tomato sauce (a satisfying, if meat-and-dairy-free option). The past several years I’ve had with me a bilingual prayer book that was a gift from a nonagenarian philhellene friend of ours who studied classics at Oxford or Cambridge or some other Harry-Potter-meets-Brideshead-Revisited institution of higher learning, before putting that knowledge to use as a codebreaker during World War II. I’m sure my ownership is a letdown for the prayer book, which keeps waiting for me to do something exciting like catch spies or write a paper in ecclesiastical Greek, when all I can manage is to think of which Italian restaurant has the best Puttanesca…
And speaking of Puttanesca, did you know Holy Tuesday is traditionally when prostitutes go to church? I didn’t either until I spent a Holy Week in idyllic Metsovo, a prostitute-free snow-globe of a village in the mountains of Northern Greece, and our host told me about the Troparion tis Kassianis, the beautiful hymn sung in church on Holy Tuesday. It is the only Holy Week hymn written by a woman–a learned nun and poet named Kassia who was a great beauty courted by the emperor Theophilos. He apparently was turned off by her when she didn’t dumb it down, and, instead of meekly agreeing with his comment that women were the source of all evil (a la Eve), countered with the observation that women are also the source of all good (hail, Mary). The text of her hymn is a confession by the repentant woman described in the gospel of Luke, and apparently women who consider themselves fallen identify with this and love a Holy Tuesday. The hymn does have a beautiful melody, so maybe it just brings them back to a time when they were party girls in utero, kicking away.
Wednesday is the Holy Unction service when the faithful are anointed with oil to renew them spiritually and physically. You’re allowed to take oil on a cotton ball for sick family members at home. Once I was at a church in New York when the priest urged us not to give the cotton balls to pets or to non-Orthodox invalids. I know that pets aren’t considered to have a soul (which is reflected in the fact that we use one word in Greek when a person dies, another when an animal does), but I think the instinct to help a suffering being with holy Unction, whether they are Orthodox or not, or of the two- or four-legged variety, is a good one. Like the bracelet says, What Would Jesus Do? I’m guessing He would anoint away. But what do I know?
Holy Thursday is the reading of the 12 gospels. It is a wicked long service, with a high point being the procession of the crucifix. One year in our village in Greece, when Father Prokopi was sick, he had to sit down during the reading of the 12 Gospels just to get through them all. But one of my favorite non-liturgical traditions takes place on Holy Thursday: the dying of Easter eggs. We make ours red (for the blood of Christ) and do this trick where we place a flower, or two blade of grass in the shape of a cross, on a white egg, wrap it in a square of old pantyhose, tie that in the back with some dental floss, and then boil the egg in red dye. When it comes out and you remove the cloth and flower, you have a white impression of the plant where it protected the egg from the dye, and a white star in the back where the cloth was tied up. My senior year in college my boyfriend was a graduate student with a kitchen, so I decided to take advantage and dye eggs. The tricky part was finding the white eggs. There was a campaign in New England at the time whose jingle went, “Brown eggs are local eggs and local eggs are fresh!” While I applaud a locavore movement, then and now, floral patterns don’t show up as well on brown eggs. So it’s nice to have a few imports on a holy Thursday.
Good Friday is the procession of the Epitaphion, a tapestry icon of Christ which is placed on a flower-bedecked wooden sepulchre and carried around the church. The note in my guide from Palm Sunday says, “The procession is often mistaken as a funeral procession. Rather, it depicts Christ’s descent to Hades to those held captive in the darkness, thus, liberating them by the radiance of His Resurrection.” I really like this description because it’s the myth of Orpheus revisited and done right, and this girl loves a happy ending. The highlight of the service for me is at the end, when we’re all back at the door of the church and the bearers of the flower-covered bier hold it up high so the rest of us can pass underneath it; it really underscores the passage into a new season for me.
Holy Saturday is the most sacred and profane day of the week for me, and not just because, one Holy Saturday when I was 16, my appendix burst after church. (They operated on me that evening and when I came out of the anesthesia we apparently sang the Resurrection hymn in the hospital. I don’t remember that but I do remember being flattered when my doctor told me he made a small incision–this was in the days before laparoscopic surgery–so that I could still wear a bikini. I don’t think I had worn one yet, at the time, but I remember thinking it sounded like a good idea).
It’s a sacred day because we fast completely prior to attending the Divine Liturgy of Saint Basil, where we get communion. And it’s profane because my family and I always try to beat the rush of other faithful and get communion first, so we can hightail it to IHOP to break the fast. This secular tradition is one of my favorites of the week–especially on those years when I don’t eat dairy during Lent, as you’re now allowed to bring dairy back. In recognition of this boon, I tend to have the German pancakes, which are more of a lemon crepe, and to sing a happy little high-pitched ditty that goes like this: “Pancake House! Pancake HAUS!” Clearly, Holy Saturday at IHOP reduces me to the maturity level of a five year old. But I am not alone; this same breakfast seems to be a highlight for other members of St. Spyridon’s parish in Worcester, Mass, because they all tend to turn up at the Pancake House too.
After breakfast I often nap in preparation of the midnight service that evening. It’s the most beautiful church service of the year, but you need your wits about you if you want to keep your hair from catching fire, and sleep deprivation plus a butter-and-sugar induced haze can be a dangerous mix. This year, I’m counting on the little party girl to kick me awake should I start to nod off. It’s a pretty safe bet because there will be singing of Resurrection Hymns, and this time I won’t be in an anesthetic haze for them.