Behold, the Bridegroom comes in the middle of the night, and blessed is that servant whom he finds watching; but unworthy is the one whom he finds slothful. Take care then, my soul, not to be overcome with sleep, lest you be given up to death, and be shut out of the kingdom; but rouse yourself and cry: Holy, holy, holy are you, O God; through the protection of Bodiless Powers, have mercy on us.
This evening in many Orthodox parishes, we will gather to begin our liturgical celebration of Great and Holy Week. Having left Great and Holy Lent behind with our celebration of Christ’s entrance into Jerusalem, we now fix our gaze more intensely on the Resurrection of Christ (Pascha or Easter).
We begin our journey—o f if you prefer, continue our journey—to Pascha by recalling not historical events (though we do that aplenty this week) but rather giving voice to our hope for the future. For all that we refer this week to the events in the last week of Christ’s life before His crucifixion, our point of reference is eschatological and not strictly speaking historical. Or to put it another way, the Church only looks back to the past in order to look look forward to a future that is wholly outside of our own control.
My daily life, my everyday attitude, is often filled plans. Just this morning after Liturgy, for example, I sat with the parish council and made plans for the near future. Planning is certainly not wrong—and more often than not it is essential.\
But there is something undeniably seductive about planning. You see my plans our mine. Whether I am planning a desirable future toward which I race or a future I dread and would flee from if I could, in both cases my plans can become for me an idol of my own making. G. K. Chesterton‘s observation about the relationship of truth and fiction are applicable to the relationship between the future and my plans for the future. “Truth, of course, must of necessity be stranger than fiction,” Chesterton writes in his work Heretics , “for we have made fiction to suit ourselves.”
Likewise my plans. Whether comforting of frightening, my plans for the future always seem somehow my attractive, more reasonable, and much less frightening than the future since—unlike the future—my plans are made to suit my own views of how the future ought to be. There is something inescapably narcissistic about planning.
Not, I want to emphasize, that we shouldn’t plan. We should plan; planning is an essential part of our stewardship of God’s many blessings to us. But it is easy to confuse my plans for the future with the gift of the future itself. It is easy to confuse my desire for the coming years, next week or tomorrow, with the future itself as it comes to me from the hand of an All-Loving God.
And so for sound theological and anthropological reasons, we begin Holy Week by recalling that we do not such much move toward the future as it is that the future comes to us, to me. And when the future comes, it comes as a judgment.
The judgment of the future is not a narrowing of human life as if somehow God were some kind of Victorian moralist. No the future that comes toward me is God Himself, His Glory revealed; the judgment which is to come is His love for me, for my neighbor and the whole creation made manifest. I am judged by love revealed in all its fullness and it is in this Divine Light the narrowness, the self-satisfaction of my own heart, will be revealed.
Every year during Holy Week and Pascha I am challenged less by fasting and the many (and longer!) services and more by the smallness of my love when compared to not only to Christ’s infinite love but also the finite, but still overwhelming, love for Christ in the hearts of those whose confessions I will hear.
Is it any wonder, as the troparion for the day suggest, that when faced with this challenge I am tempted simply to sleep? To lay down the burden of joy and instead allow myself the illusory luxury that the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas calls the “natural atheism” of the soul that seeks to consume creation rather than be responsible for neighbor in his poverty and need?
And so, this year again like last year, I being Holy Week by being reminded that the future belongs to God. My plans and projects have their place—they are even after a fashion necessary—but they are not ultimate. As necessary as my plans might be, what is more necessary is that I remain ready and open to the grace that rushes toward me through the Cross and the Tomb from the Kingdom of God.