The Meaning of Passion Week
When I was a little girl, my pappou and yiayia took me away for a brief vacation on the island of Aegina. (It was really an excuse to wrench me away from the agony of living with the reality that my newly born rival, my sister, that fat red piece of turd, had ripped me from my cherished throne as the center of the universe.) It must have been around Pascha season because I had vivid images of whole carcasses of lamb strung up from hooks in butcher shop windows. You know the image—the bulging black eyes, the mouth pulled back in a sinister smile revealing yellowed square teeth, the fronds of bloody veins running down the pale white skin blotched with skeins of fat like lace; the purple ink circle with certified numbers stamped on its side; its legs straight as bar stools without the hooves. I had a hard time looking at the carcasses of these dead animals—forced upon me in full window display so that I had to shield my face whenever we walked by.
And then there was the little chapel by the port of Aegina. Every afternoon after waking up from the Greek siesta, Pappou would take my hand and we would take a stroll along the aisles of the pier, lined with caiques and yachts bopping up and down in the tide. He’d buy me ice cream religiously. It was pleasant enough walking along hearing the slurping sounds of the waves smashing against the concrete pier, venturing to the edge to watch silver minnows cutting through the cerulean tide like flecks of sun, getting blinded by the scintillating scales of light on the waves, the salty sweetness in the nostrils. But at the edge of the pier stood a small, white-domed, one-room chapel dedicated to St. Nicholaos, my Pappou’s patron saint.
He would go and light a candle every afternoon with me in tow, my ice cream melting between fingers. I had grown very frightened to enter the chapel because of “The Lamb.” You see, contrary to Orthodox tradition, someone had placed one of those lenticular pictures of Jesus crucified next to the candle box. It’s one of those cheap cheesy pictures that when you move to one side the image changes a pose, and then when you move to the other it changes again. Standing as high as the candle box, I had the very life-like photo of Jesus right smack in my field of vision. When I moved my head a little to the right, I’d see His outstretched arms bloody with the iron spikes nailed to the Cross, the thorns of His Crown puncturing his forehead exploding into bloody streams, and His face in utter exhaustion and desperation—His eyes looking up to heaven in agony. When I moved my head to the left, His arms
The lenticular image of the Crucified Christ that scared the BeJesus out of me when I was a child in Aegina.
would hand a little lower, His face would hang down and His eyes would close in resignation. A four-year-old might not have words for life and death, but right there was the iconic realization. All you had to do was make a quick tick of the head, and boom, Life, and the struggle to stay alive in blood, sweat and tears; make a quick tick of the head again and boom, Death and the everlasting sleep. I was terrified. I had a visceral response every time I’d go near that chapel. I walked by the candle box squinting half wanting, half-not wanting to catch a glimpse of the holographic Crucified Christ. Between the cracks in my fingers and the flickering of the beeswax candle I’d bob back and forth—see the dead man, don’t see the dead man. My curious dread intensified walking from the bright white sun of the day into the dark dankness of a cave.
For a little girl, Pascha seemed like participating in a horror show.
Years later, after we had migrated to the US, I remember being off for Holy Week in grade school (lucky for us the Jewish Passover, the basis for the NYC public school calendar, coincided with our spring recess). Religiously, we were watching Franco Zefferelli’s “Jesus of Nazareth” on ABC. The moving music, the penetrating blue-eyed stare of the youth that played Jesus, the gruesome realism of the whippings, the spikes, and the blood brought my brother, sister and I to sobs. Gathered as witnesses around the glare of the old mechanical TV with the clothes hanger as antenna, we were a sloppy mob of snots and sorrow until my mother, quote unquote a devout Christian, walked in and turned the knob on the side panel, “That’s enough. We have to close it.” The excruciating scenes of Christ’s Passion were too much. Watching a lamb get slaughtered is not for the sensitive ones.
From childhood to adulthood, from the 1st century to the 21st century, the last week of Pascha climaxes into a pageant of death and suffering, presenting the raw realities of life and death like a butchered lamb on a charger. Holy Week as Passion Week forces us to contemplate the meaning of suffering. Some parts of the answer I understand while others still remain a mystery.
Christ’s Passion brings up the biggie: Why? Why is it that the innocent suffer? Why so much suffering?
This part I know:Life without suffering is not life. The late Victor Frankl made that point in Man’s Search for Meaning after going through the unfathomable suffering of the Holocaust. He says, “If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death human life cannot be complete.” It is pain and deep suffering that deepens the experience of living. It is inevitable and inescapable if you don’t suffer you can’t make the claim that you are living an authentic life. Frankl says again, “In some way, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning.” Life without suffering paradoxically has no meaning. It is from the darkness that light contracts its power; it is from the bitterness of winter that spring gathers its sweetness. You have to walk through the valley of the shadow of death to get to the Promised Land.
Another part I know: In order for suffering to be meaningful, it has to serve a deeper purpose. Suffering for suffering’s sake is little less than self-abuse. Christ took on the Cross willingly out of love for Creation. Yes, I get that part. But what is the fine line between sacrificing for others to the poing that you become miserable bitter and resentful? Shouldn’t there be a limit to how much sacrifice someone can muster if it comes at his or her own expense? I know the spiel about staying away from self centerdness. I know that it is honorable and life-creating to service others, but should you continue sacrificing and serving when you have been run ragged and dry? What about women who have been socially and perhaps genetically wired to give and give and give? That seems more like self-punishment. I have known people, a certain nun as a matter of fact, who has done all the right things—served the poor, chanted the daily cycle of prayers, fasted and given alms, but she was so miserable and resentful—just asking for her to pass the salt shaker during the trapeza meal brought an ice wave of antipathy. “Lord, may I never grow old to be that bitter and resentful” I couldn’t help but pray under my breath. Sacrifice, like anything else, should be done voluntarily with sweetness. If it does not come out of a well of overflowing love it is bitter. Those who are truly happy in themselves radiate joy and give those around them permission to find their own. Someone cannot be forced to sacrifice when they do not have the capacity. Sacrifice without joy becomes self-punishment. Can you imagine Christ swearing as He dragged the Cross? Would His sacrifice been so life-creating if He had done it out of a place of resentment?
But there are other parts of this suffering theme that I don’t understand—like why do the innocents have to suffer? The Lamb never deserved to die. I have read the memoirs of traumatized youth: girls who have been raped and molested by their fathers; boys who have been wrenched from their mothers juggled from foster home to foster home. So many stories of innocence suffering. It’s just so damn unfair. But that is the way it is. Maybe that is the answer. You suffer because you are innocent because you are good. “All who desire to live according to God will suffer,” Elder Ephraim of the Holy Mountain says. If Christ, the epitome of benevolence, innocence, and love had to suffer in this cruel way, what do we expect?
Another part of this story I have trouble understanding is—is it always wise to suffer silently? I think of the story of St. Thomais of Lesvos. She was a pious young woman who obeying the wishes of her parents against her own will married a fisherman named Stefanos. He was what we would call in the modern day an abuser and batterer. He beat her every day for 13 years besides emotionally berating her. Yet she bore this abuse patiently. I think he eventually beat her to death. Many miracles occurred after her death and her relics became myrrh-streaming so she was pronounced a saint, even a patron saint of marriage. Now I think of all the women I know who have suffered silently in domestic violence, who have had their unborn babies kicked out of their wombs, whipped with leather belts, or even murdered at the hands of their husbands and fathers of their children. I have seen the immeasurable amount of damage done to the children of these unions—damage that can never be “fixed” by however many hours or therapy or drugs. So many of these women suffer silently like the good Saint Thomais. But I wonder whether it would have been better for sweet Thomais to have taken a skillet to her husband’s head and climbed up on the rooftop screaming “Murder! Bloody murder!” and denounced the bastard. Would she have been less than holy if she had stood up to injustice and had become a champion of women’s rights and worked to stop the needless suffering of so many others? (Another message I can’t understand: By touting St. Thomais as a patron of marriage is it condoning silent suffering at the hands of abusers? Is the church marking as a paragon of marriage a battered wife and a class-A abuser who would in our time be jailed for assault and battery?) Not to mock the saint, but my greater question is when is suffering patiently a maladaptive strategy? When should it be replaced by righteous action. Mary Magdalene, St Nino and St Filothei are all good examples. As Hamlet put it, “Whether tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune or to take arms against a sea of troubles and by defeating end them”.
This brings me back to Passion Week. Passion Week so complex and contradictory. This week we witness the true nature of sacrifice, up close and personal with guts and blood sticking out. The experience of Christ’s Passion sensitizes us to the suffering that exists everywhere, across all times and places. We witness the butchering of an innocent lamb. We are reminded that for some paradoxical reason, someone has to die so that others may live. And we are grieved and brought to tears collectively at the sight of the Son of God battered, bloody, and berated by cruel mockers, dragging the weight of the Cross leaving a bloody trail behind as He climbs up Golgotha. We also feel the collective guilt that we too have contributed to this death. During Passion Week we experience the sting of injustice.
Yet it is paradoxically during Passion Week when we vicariously experience death that we feel what it means to be alive. Through Christ, the great role model, we see that it is only through the Cross that we fulfill our purpose here. It is suffering, lovingly, voluntarily, without grudge that gives purpose to life. In this one supreme act of love (as much as our minds can fathom it) we witness how deep and unfathomable the love of God is for His Creation. Ecce, Homo—here is love incarnate. A person who is willing to go to hell and back to bring you back to yourself, your true radiant self. To let you know the deeper unknowable core of you that you are worthy, you are beautiful, you are loved.
This is the meaning of Passion Week: that we are made to understand that love is so strong it is willing to die to break the bonds of death. That true love is stronger than death. That ecstasy comes lapping at the bloody heels of grief. This is the meaning of Passion Week: that life and death, joy and pain, suffering and relief are a tightly woven braid. Tick, cock your head a little to the right, and there is the Crucifixion. Tick, cock your head a little to the left, and there is the Resurrection.