There are old Eastern folk traditions that anyone who dies during Easter week is immediately ushered to paradise. The formal Orthodox funeral liturgy is in fact dramatically altered for those who die on Easter and before Thomas Sunday. “[L]ittle of the chanting which is ordinarily part of the office is retained. This is out of respect for the greatness and dignity of the resplendent feast of the Resurrection, which is a feast of joy and not lamentation. As we shall all rise in Christ, in the hope of the resurrection and eternal life, through this same resurrection of Christ the dead pass from the afflictions of this world to joy and happiness, and the church proclaims this in the hymns of the resurrection.”[n1]
But it is not yet Easter Sunday. The glory of the Resurrection is not even conceived in the hearts of Jesus’ followers. Today, Maundy Thursday, Jesus washes the feet of his friends and asks some of his closest to wait up with him. And they sleep while he despairs.
For millennia, today is the day that Christians observed the blessing of oil. In retrospect they celebrate what his friends could not know. Oil to consecrate priests and kings, and to heal all affliction:
O God…we entreat you to hear our prayers: that these fragrant tears of dry bark (which trickling down from a fruitful branch supply us with a rich ointment for the anointing of the priesthood) may be made acceptable to you for your sacraments, and sanctify them by giving your blessing…and whosoever shall be outwardly anointed therewith, may be so inwardly anointed that being freed from all contamination of bodily matter, he may rejoice in being made a partaker of the Kingdom of heaven.[n2]
I love Holy week, and the risen Lord. I love his oil and that unto which I have been anointed. But today, I fear. I am so tired.
- Pierre Kovalevsky, “Funeral Rites in the Easter Season and Prayers for the Dead from Easter to Ascension” in Temple of the Holy Spirit: Sickness and Death of the Christian Liturgy, Matthew J. O’Connell, trans. (New York: Pueblo Publishing Company, 1983), 100. As an interesting aside, Orthodox funerals are celebrated in white vestments, not black. Ibid., 95.
- Martin Dudley, “Rites for the Blessing of Oils and Anointing: The Western Tradition” inThe Oil of Gladness: Anointing in the Christian Tradition, Marin Dudley and Geoffre Rowell, eds. (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1993), 176-210.