What is so Holy About Holy Week?

Holy Week

As we near the end of Holy Week culminating in Easter Vigil and then awakening to Resurrection Sunday, I thought it might be helpful to think about why the Church calls this week Holy. What about a day or week makes it holy instead of just a regular day? Christians might assume that such declarations are just contrived by the Church and not really worth spending too much mental energy on; after all, we are busy people with more important things to do, right?

Our culture’s default assumption that there is a division between the sacred and secular often seeps into the mindset of the Church to the point that we begin to hold the same default assumption. In Christian thought, there is no day or time that is not under the authority and power of God. In other words, there is no such thing as the “secular world.”

The Bible and the Church do, however, speak about making people, places, or things, sacred or profane. In Acts 19:11-12, it was reported that God worked through St. Paul, even through hankerchiefs he blessed: “God did extraordinary miracles through Paul, so that when the handkerchiefs or aprons that had touched his skin were brought to the sick, their diseases left them, and the evil spirits came out of them” (NRSV). This is why priests today bless items, such as rosaries, and they make “holy water” through blessing. Only the power of God can make something or someone holy.

The Greek word for holy is άγιος (haggios), and refers to being “sacred” or a “saint.” In the Scriptures, only Mary the mother of Jesus is called holy, which would make logical sense if she was the Theotokos or God bearer. Holiness is a different state of being that is defined by the mighty working power of God.

In the ancient Greek and Roman liturgical books, Holy Week was called the “Great Week” because great deeds were done by God during this week. We know that the name “Holy Week” was used in the 4th century by St. Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, and St. Epiphanius of Constantia. Originally, only Good Friday and Holy Saturday were observed as holy days, as well as the requirement of absolute fasting.

So, Holy Week is holy because of the mighty work God accomplished through Jesus Christ, the reconciliation of the world to Himself. By consecrating special days during the liturgical calendar as holy, the Church is inviting all of us to participate in the life-giving power of God’s grace, not just as spectators but as adopted daughters and sons of God. I would like to leave you with one question to ponder as we observe Good Friday, if the Holy Spirit can so empower a hankerchief to share in the miraculous power of God, how much more are we empowered and healed by observing Holy Week?   

A New Monasticism?

monk praying

The restoration of the church will surely come only from a new type of monasticism which has nothing in common with the old but a complete lack of compromise in a life lived in accordance with the Sermon on the Mount in the discipleship of Christ.  I think it is time to gather people together to do this. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Testament to Freedom (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1997), p.424)

20th century Christian martyr and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer presents a seemingly “radical” challenge to the contemporary Church to live out a new kind of monasticism. This great challenge calls for Christians to live counter-culturally to the secularization of the culture. Why is this call necessary in our time and is it really radical? Bonhoeffer would later expand on this call in his famous book The Cost of Discipleship:

The expansion of Christianity and the increasing secularization of the church caused the awareness of costly grace to be gradually lost…. But the Roman church did keep a remnant of that original awareness.  It was decisive that monasticism did not separate from the church and that the church had the good sense to tolerate monasticism. Here, on the boundary of the church, was the place where the awareness that grace is costly and that grace includes discipleship was preserved…. Monastic life thus became a living protest against the secularization of Christianity, against the cheapening of grace. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003) p.46-47)

The cheapening of grace was killing the Church according to Bonhoeffer, and I think that the same message continues to apply to us today. We have forgotten our Lord’s own admonition in Mark 10, where Jesus tells the rich man to sell all that he has and give it to the poor. Peter turns to Jesus as says:

Look, we have left everything and followed you.” Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first (Mark 10:28-31, NRSV). 

If we are to follow Christ and become His disciples, then surely Christians must follow the early model presented in the book of Acts. After Pentecost, the Scriptures state that Christians lived in community with a common purse. They engaged in daily discipleship by following “the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42, NRSV). 

Intentional community and living according to a “rule of life” were the marks of early Christian discipleship, to following the way of Jesus. Monastic communities throughout the centuries embodied this kind of Christian discipleship that saw grace as very costly, and they lived their lives as a protest to the cheap grace that the world offers. How many of us Christians today are discipled by the values and principles of the secular world?

Monasticism offers a road map for Christian discipleship by offering a “rule of life.” To many modern ears the idea of a rule of life may sound harsh and overly authoritarian, but this is far from the truth. Simply put, a rule of life is how one organizes their life. People organize their lives around work, sports, family, extracurricular activities, etc. Whatever the configuration, that is their rule of life—it is the value and time structure they place around daily and weekly activities. A monastic rule of life organizes life around the rhythm of faith. A crucial part of becoming mature disciples of Jesus is to make faith the central axis around which our lives is organized. The Companions of The Way live out a rule of life that consists of traditional practices expected of all Christians. By forming a common rule of life around discipleship, Companions have both accountability and support on the journey (The Rule of the Companions of the Way).

There are many different configurations of the New Monasticism movement, as it is not centralized in any one tradition or group. Here are the “Twelve Marks” of new monasticism according to www.newmonasticism.org.

  1. Relocation to the “abandoned places of Empire” [at the margins of society]
  2. Sharing economic resources with fellow community members and the needy among us
  3. Hospitality to the stranger
  4. Lament for racial divisions within the church and our communities combined with the active pursuit of a just reconciliation
  5. Humble submission to Christ’s body, the Church
  6. Intentional formation in the way of Christ and the rule of the community along the lines of the old novitiate
  7. Nurturing common life among members of an intentional community
  8. Support for celibate singles alongside monogamous married couples and their children
  9. Geographical proximity to community members who share a common rule of life
  10. Care for the plot of God’s earth given to us along with support of our local economies
  11. Peacemaking in the midst of violence and conflict resolution within communities along the lines of Matthew 18
  12. Commitment to a disciplined contemplative life

The mission and vision of the Companions of the Way fits nicely with most all of these “marks,” and we see our community as continuing the ancient and ever relevant monastic way of life. Monks and nuns are not professional Christians paid by the church to do our work for us. They are followers of Jesus Christ consecrating their lives to pursuing His kingdom. The Companions of the Way are tapping into this spiritual stream and living it out from within our own modern context. We take vows and live according to a rule of life, but we are husbands and wives, sons and daughters, employees and business owners. Our lives of discipleship are consecrated for the mission of the Kingdom of God.

We are living out a new kind of monasticism, but it is one which is not cut off from Holy Tradition. Being a part the Church means that we do not get to decide for ourselves what it means to follow Jesus. The Holy Scriptures and the practices and teachings of the Church provide the road map in following Jesus Christ amidst the kingdoms of this world. Our prayer is that you will join us in following our Lord, to become companions of the way.