In an earlier age, ascetic monks would have spent their days of Lent fasting and praying alone in the desert beyond the Jordan. And on this day of Palm Sunday, they would return to their monastery with their bodies worn from fasting, but their spirits renewed from inner prayer. This was a day of rejoicing, for their hearts were overflowing with the exhilaration that comes from so many days of conversing with the Lord Jesus, “the joy of all, the truth, the light, the life, and the resurrection of the world” (Kontakion for Lazarus Saturday). And at Vespers, they would sing the hymn that has been sung in our Churches for over a thousand years, “Today the grace of the Holy Spirit has gathered us together, and we all take up Thy Cross and say: Blessed is He that comes in the Name of the Lord; Hosanna in the highest.” They would sing the hymn, they would feel the grace, and they would be ready to follow their Lord with the waving of Palms, with the breaking of bread, with lamenting by the Cross, by waiting by the tomb, and then by calling out to all the word, “Christ is Risen, trampling down death by death and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.”
Many of us understandably mourn our inability to gather together as a Church for the celebration of Palm Sunday. Many of us are understandably distressed about our inability to receive or celebrate the holy mysteries. Instead of singing, “The Grace of the Holy Spirit has gathered us together” in our homes, we may feel like chanting, “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” (Psalm 137:4). And yet, the grace of the Holy Spirit is even now teaching us something precious during this most strange of Holy Weeks. We are being taught to look to the examples of Saints, ascetics, and confessors who not only underwent much greater deprivations, but also managed emerge from such periods with even greater sanctity. For many, the distance between our lives and those of these saints, were it not for the imposed quarantine, is too vast to be instructive. But the reason it is so vast is not the difference in outer conditions, but the difference in our inner worlds. If we strive to better develop our inner spiritual lives, we will joyfully realize that we can be in deep communion with Christ at any moment. If we more thoroughly cultivate our ascetic lives, we will learn to effortlessly say, “Thy will be done,” and continue to worship our Lord in whatever conditions He has provided for us. During this time of quarantine, our Lord is giving us the opportunity to become more ascetic Christians with a deeper inner life. And in so doing, He is offering us the keys that open up the mysteries of Holy Week and the glory of Pascha in a way no commentary or text could even touch.
Asceticism and an inner spiritual life. That is the only answer for celebrating Holy Week this year. This may be a disorienting paradigm shift, if our spiritual life has been limited exclusively to gathering together on Sunday and celebrating the Eucharist or receiving Holy Communion. But a paradigm shift is not necessarily bad; it in fact provides us with a new approach to a new problem that opens up a new world making that problem now solvable. Of course, gathering together on Sunday and the reception of Holy Communion are incomparable consolations for the faithful. Nothing can possibly compare to delighting in the feast of the Kingdom, to living in the light of the Eighth Day, to becoming one Body with our brothers and sisters and to partaking of the one Body that is the very fountain of immortality. And yet this upper room in the life of the Christian is situated at the top of a spiritual ladder formed by a life of active virtue and inner prayer. There are no short-cuts to holiness; it is a struggle like moving forward during this time of quarantine.
As Orthodox Christians, we confess that our salvation is a synergy between the grace of God and the willingness of God’s children to accept that grace and live according to it. This present crisis has helped us to realize that we have been placing almost all the emphasis on God reaching down to us by giving us His Body and Blood, and very little emphasis on our reaching up to Him in constant prayer. The church fathers, however, have always maintained that the extent to which we are transformed by the purifying, illumining, and deifying grace of the Holy Spirit in the Divine Liturgy is in part dependent upon our own struggle to commune with Christ and to follow His commandments at all times. What distinguishes those who have become Saints and those who have not has never been the reception of Holy Communion. The distinguishing characteristic of the Saint is being someone who loves Christ wholeheartedly, prays to Christ continuously, fulfills His commandments consistently.
If we desire to approach Christ, if we desire to commune of Christ, if we have our sanctification as our goal in life, nothing is hindering us. We can still welcome our Lord into the Jerusalem of our hearts, even if we can no longer do so in our Churches. We can still greet Him with the palms of prayer and lay at his feast the clothing of virtuous acts, even if we cannot wave our palms in our parishes. We can still allow the Holy Spirit to gather us together, to gather our entire selves into the temple of our heart where we cry out “Hosanna in the highest, blessed is He that comes in the Lord.” And if we do this, we will be preparing ourselves for the reception of Holy Communion, the way the Saints have always prepared themselves for this greatest of all mysteries, in a way that demonstrates that we indeed love the Lord our God with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our mind, and with all our strength. And our Lord, “meek, and sitting upon an ass, and a colt the foal of an ass” will give us everything we could ever desire, even the complete sanctification of our souls.