Below is a post I wrote two years ago, just before the start of Holy Week 2016. As we near the start of another Holy Week, I thought this would be the perfect message for today. I hope you enjoy it and I pray that you all have a fruitful and blessed week as we prepare to celebrate the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.
If you’re not an Orthodox Christian, you probably read that title and thought “Hey Fr. Anthony, you’re a little late to the party. Easter was a month ago!”
That may be true for many, but for us Orthodox Christians, Easter is on May 1 this year. And that means that we are now preparing to enter the most holy and sacred week of the year…HOLY WEEK!
Today I want to share my thoughts on what this week means and how we should be approaching it. And oddly enough, my regular daily Bible reading just happened to take me to two passages which speak directly about this subject. The passages come from what I’ve always said is my “least favorite book in the Bible” – the book of Leviticus.
Both passages speak about the most sacred day in the Jewish calendar – “Yom Kippur”, aka the Day of Atonement. That was the day that the high priest would lay his hands on the head of a live goat and “confess over it all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions, concerning all their sins, putting them on the head of the goat, and shall send it away into the wilderness” (Leviticus 16:22).
In other words, it was the day that the sins of God’s people were atoned for by the sacrifice of an innocent goat. That goat – from which we derive the term “scapegoat” – bore the sins of the people and was sacrificed in order to make atonement for the sins of the people.
Sound familiar? That’s Holy Week! Specifically Good Friday.
The Day of Atonement was merely a foreshadowing of what was to come – the sacrifice of Christ as the true Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Yom Kippur was not the end goal; it was given to prepare us for the true sacrifice of Christ on the cross (see Hebrews 9 and 10 for more on this).
So what did the people do to prepare for the Day of Atonement? What did God command?
“This shall be a statute forever for you: In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall afflict your souls, and do no work at all, whether a native of your own country or a stranger who dwells among you. For on that day the priest shall make atonement for you, to cleanse you, that you may be clean from all your sins before the Lord. It is a sabbath of solemn rest for you, and you shall afflict your souls. It is a statute forever.” Leviticus 16:29-31
Two things: “afflict your souls” and “do no work at all.” And at the end He said “This shall be an everlasting statute for you, to make atonement for the children of Israel, for all their sins, once a year” (Leviticus 16:34). Everlasting means the principle still holds true today.
What do those two commands mean to us?
AFFLICT YOUR SOULS
That's another way of saying “you shall fast” – and fast in the right way, not by choosing soy milk for your latte instead of regular milk or having pizza with vegan sausage instead of real sausage. It means to fast in such a way that your soul feels it.
We’ve done our best in modern times to fast in such a way so that we NEVER actually feel it (meatless meatballs, soy ice cream, tofu chicken omelettes, etc.). I understand that fasting may not always be easy, but during this week – the week of our atonement – we must push ourselves to fast in such a way that it fulfills the command to “afflict your souls.”
How? Pope Shenouda III once wrote “Whoever puts the suffering of Christ before him will not take any pleasure in eating and drinking or pampering the body.” In other words, the focus of this week should be the great sacrifice of Christ; not the great sacrifice of our favorite breakfast foods. One sacrifice pales in comparison to the other and as long as keep our eyes on that sacrifice, fasting comes naturally.
DO NO WORK
This one is a sensitive topic for me because I hate making people feel guilty about having to miss church services in order to go to work. I understand that some of us have circumstances outside of our control and we can’t always take the time off (another huge reason we NEED to unify our church calendars and celebrate holidays on the same day). I get it 100% and I promise, my goal is not to make any of you feel guilty.
But I also know that some of us do have the ability to take off work or school, but simply choose not to. We choose to do what’s convenient instead of what’s commanded. To those people I want to point your attention to what Moses wrote in Leviticus 23:
“And you shall do no work on that same day, for it is the Day of Atonement, to make atonement for you before the Lord your God. For any person who is not afflicted in soul on that same day shall be cut off from his people. And any person who does any work on that same day, that person I will destroy from among his people. You shall do no manner of work; it shall be a statute forever throughout your generations in all your dwellings.” Leviticus 23:27-31
If God commanded such reverence for the Day of Atonement – a “copy” or “shadow” of things to come – how much more should we honor and revere the true sacrifice in which the copy was fulfilled?
If the foreshadowing required such reverence, shouldn’t the same be true for the reality?
Forgive me. I’m not trying to make anyone feel guilty. I promise you that’s not my goal. If this hadn’t come as part of my regular daily Bible reading, I would have written something completely different today.
But I can’t read those words that God commanded – afflict your souls and do no work on the Day of Atonement – and then tell you that whether or not you go to work on Good Friday doesn’t matter. I can’t say “yeah, just do what’s convenient and don’t worry about it. I’m sure you can stream the service from somewhere.”
I can’t say that.
If you’re starting to feel guilty here, please go back and read what I said above about I understand that some of have extenuating circumstances. I get it, I get it, I get it.
The question for all of us to ask ourselves is this: does the sacrifice of Christ on the cross – which is being done for the atonement of MY sins, not His – does that sacrifice warrant a little extra reverence during Holy Week? Something above what I’m doing or plan to do?
Jesus isn’t making that sacrifice for His sake; He’s doing it for us…for you and for me. The least we can do therefore is push ourselves to fast a little more and take a day or two (or more) off of work. Sure it won’t be easy and we might have to work overtime the week after or maybe even cancel a weekend trip in the summer…
…but given what’s taking place this week – the atonement of your sins by the sacrifice of One who committed no sin – don’t you think it’s worth it?