Holy Week & Pascha at Bournemouth & Trotton
Palm Sunday was celebrated at Saint George?s Mission, Trotton rather than Bournemouth this year. With the Trotton mission being a monthly (not weekly) Liturgy it is of course a treat for the congregation to experience a Festival when one falls on the third Sunday in the month . This was the third or fourth Palm Sunday we have celebrated in West Sussex over the years. (We will also, God Willing, be celebrating Pentecost in Trotton this year). Three of us set up the icons and all else involved in our arrangements for celebrating the Liturgy in this beautiful Anglican Church we have worshipped in so many years now, including on this occasion adding in some generous helpings of palm leaves arching over the Palm Sunday icon and elsewhere. Some three hours later eleven of us had received palm crosses, processed around the Church to the twelve Palm Sunday Gospels and prayers for Morning Incense, celebrated the Liturgy and generally most assuredly entered upon Holy Week. One person who normally worships in Bouremouth had driven over the day before and stayed overnight in order to be there. One couple drove their monthly two hours and more each way so as to be there. One enquirer into Orthodoxy drove an hour each way ? and wasn?t put off by three hours worship! Indeed when asked if he found it long he said not and asked us if we did! All in all it felt a good start to Holy Week.
The evening of Holy Thursday saw nine of us in the Church of Christ the Saviour, Bournemouth, for another three hours of worship: the Liturgy of the Blessing of Water and foot washing, the Divine Liturgy and the Eleventh Hour Prayer. If ever water was holy, then surely water blessed according to the Coptic Orthodox rites must be with that wealth of Bible readings, repeated blessing with prayer, blessing with the sign of the cross?
In previous years the congregation had remained seated along the two sides of the Church whilst I knelt in front of each one in turn to wash their feet, trying not to go flying all over them when I tripped over my vestments getting up and down. This was simply a case of me carrying on doing things the way my predecessor had done them. This year, in what I hope was an inspired moment, I decided to take a chair and place it centrally and each in turn came to sit thereon whilst I remained kneeling throughout in front of the chair and washed their feet in turn. The feedback I received was positive, people seeming to prefer this arrangement. Speaking as the priest I must say I preferred it, not only for the Health and Safety implications of avoiding all that clambering up and down and nearly landing on top of them but for the genuine sense it gave me of being and remaining in my right place as this congregation?s priest, that is, on my knees before them. It also occurs to me that something similar to this must happen in our Mother Church, our beloved Coptic Orthodox Church, with those fixed basins in the floor - the priest must remain in one place while the people come to that basin.
The sense of occasion, the sense of solemnity increased as we prayed our way through the Divine Liturgy, perhaps heightened by the diminishing light outside, the gradual darkening? and then the Liturgy ended with its typical Holy Thursday suddenness (so appropriate of course for the events commemorated) and we were into Eleventh Hour Prayers and before we knew it the Gospel was ending with the words ?and Judas went out and it was night.? We all in silence bowed before the Holy Gospel, foreheads to the floor, and likewise went out into the night.
Seven o?clock Good Friday morning found four of us back in Church for First Hour Prayers, with the same four praying the Third Hour at nine. At noon seven of us prayed Sixth Hour Prayers, the time when ?there was darkness over all the land?. Then Subdeacon Antony Westwood blew out the candles and so was extinguished the flame we had striven to keep alight from Pascha 2007, lighting the candles for every Sunday from that same Paschal flame, passed on from candle to candle. It had been a sign and reminder throughout the year that in reality there is one Liturgy and that all our apparently separate liturgies are united and one. The candles lit the remainder of Good Friday would be simply lit with a lighter, last year?s Paschal flame extinguished and this year?s yet to be? it illustrated the bereft quality of the situation of the apostles and disciples. One of our number left after the Sixth Hour Prayers due to pressure of things to be done elsewhere which she had put off and delayed as long as she felt possible in order to support us through the first half of Good Friday. Many thanks to her for being there through the lesser supported early Hours of Prayer.
We prayed the Ninth Hour, then the Eleventh Hour and so entered upon the climax of Good Friday. Just prior to Twelfth Hour Prayers the women members of the congregation shredded the petals from the roses that had surrounded the icon of the crucifixion throughout Good Friday and placed them in a basket. The icon was replaced on the stand with an icon of the burial. We were joined by two more (after a day?s work) in time for the start of Twelfth Hour Prayers at six o?clock and one further, after a day?s work on a building site and then an hour?s drive to Church made a heroic effort to arrive during the Prayers so as to be there in time for the Burial Service of our Lord. We processed around the Church chanting the Golgotha Hymn from the service book, then singing There is a Green Hill and When I survey the Wondrous Cross. Then Father Simon and Subdeacon Antony concluded the Burial Service for our Lord for Good Friday, placing the icon on the corner of the altar, adding the five grains of incense for the five wounds, pouring on the flower petals and spices, placing the cross, covering this over and placing two lit candles, one either side ? the two angels, one at the head and one at the feet of the Body of Jesus. The Reader Steve Challis beautifully read through Psalms 1 and 2, stopping a little into Psalm 3 with those words ?I laid me down and slept? and the altar curtain was drawn shut ? the tomb sealed. Once again we bowed in silence, foreheads to the floor, some present nearly overcome by the power of it all.
Following a break of a few minutes for some to depart the service resumed with the continued reading of the psalms, six of us praying the psalms simultaneously, monastic style. There followed the readings for Good Friday evening, so many wonderful readings illustrating the battle between our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ against Death and the Devil, readings such as Jonah in the belly of the fish for example. It was nearly ten o?clock when we finished, one had been there since noon (and that one had driven something like three hours to be there!) and three since seven o?clock that morning. Although very tiring there was a sense of shared gladness for having done it. We retired to our hotel for what we felt was a well earned rest or, whether well earned or not, was at any rate a much needed rest!
We decided to keep things (comparatively) brief Saturday morning and settled for the reading of the Book of Revelation and the prayers following. We didn?t manage the bowl of olive oil and the seven floating wicks but instead had a sliver tray on a low stand with seven candles around a cross. In front of this we stood an icon I had bought on the Isle of Patmos, an icon showing Saint John prostrate as one dead with his vision of our Lord, Alpha and Omega, ?he that liveth, and was dead?alive for evermore? holding the keys of hell and death, amidst the seven golden candlesticks, with the rainbow about Him and the seven angels each holding their Church? I stayed to read the third chapter, containing as it does my favourite verse in the Bible, ?Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.? I departed, along with James Kelly, one of our readers, he to bake the bread for Saturday night and me to prepare the sermon, leaving Subdeacon Antony Westwood to lead the reading and prayers.
Twelve hours later James and me arrived back again in Bournemouth to discover Antony sat in his car parked outside the Church singing along to a CD with the late Metropolitan Antony Bloom, practising the chant for the deacon?s litanies. Given the several comments of appreciation that night his practice was time well spent. So thank you and well done Antony. There were positive comments too for both James? reading and also for Steve?s reading. The service started in darkness and then the curtain was drawn back and there was the paschal flame held aloft by this priest and the icon of the Resurrection held by Subdeacon Antony ? with this his first ever Paschal Liturgy and my first one ever leading the worship, with no other priest nor bishop to lean on, we were, neither of us will deny, something of a nervous double act! But God does not call us to do something and then fail to support us in the doing of it and the people came forward and venerated the icon and lit their candles and with the much repeated ?Christ is risen!? and the congregational response we were soon on our seven-fold procession singing the Paschal hymn, then The Day of Resurrection and Ye Choirs of New Jerusalem. Although some anticipated Belarusian visitors never made it in the end, the congregation of seventeen still included English, Irish, Egyptian, Bulgarian and Romanian. The sermon expounded the heart of our Orthodox Christian Faith, the triumph over Death by our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ and how we appropriate that salvation unto ourselves, how we enter into that Death and Resurrection. Following Holy Communion, the Liturgy ended of course with the distribution of the Eulogia, the Blessed Bread, together with red eggs (many thanks to our hard working Romanians for our red eggs and thanks too for the further red eggs brought by others), bottles of holy water (from the water blessed on Holy Thursday), packets of flower petals and spices (from the Burial Service on Good Friday) and as if all these blessings weren?t enough? chocolate eggs too!
The last of us left the Church in its usual Holy Pascha state of happy chaos, then it was back to the hotel and exchanging texts and mobile phone calls for Pascha through the earlier hours of the day while some of the congregation were still driving home.
Following the annual treat of Sunday morning breakfast and a cooked breakfast at that (the Liturgy of course having already been celebrated and holy communion already received) five of us were at Church for the Memorial Prayers for the Departed. There was the altar curtain wide open as it will remain throughout Bright Week as we bask in the Light of the Resurrection. A little tidying of the Church after the night?s festivities seemed in order and then it was on with the prayers in the Churchyard, then round to the local cemetery to continue them, leaving a red egg at the various graves which we censed and at which we prayed; former members of the congregation, friends of the Church and other Orthodox buried there too, starting at Archdeacon James? grave and ending at that of Father Stephen Hatherley, the first Englishman ordained a Greek Orthodox priest in the nineteenth century. Then it was back to Church to return censer and have a last tidy up and off for a meal together to further celebrate Great and Holy Pascha.
To the one who attended everything on offer, even being at the reading of the Apocalypse and the Saturday prayers most of which I missed, I can but say that the blessing of being there is its own reward and I have some idea of just how richly rewarded and blessed you will feel in the enjoyment of hearing all those Bible readings which mean so much to you and praying all those prayers you so love. And to one and all of you who were with us in our worship at Trotton and in Bournemouth Holy Week and Pascha this year and who made your various contributions I thank you for your support and pray that you will be richly, even abundantly and eternally blessed by your participation in these holy events of our salvation.
God Willing we really must do it all again next year! Mind you, we?ve got this year?s Fifty Days of celebration to enjoy yet - as James Kelly put it to me just before Holy Week, if Orthodox Christians know how to fast in Lent they also know how to party at Pascha!
CHRIST IS RISEN! ALLELUIA!