We’re celebrating Holy Week at home, and making an effort to bring it alive for our children and ourselves, recreating some of the experiences we usually have in church. Naturally the most important thing is to slow down, and to try to create some peace and prayerfulness in our homes, so don’t try to do all of this! Focus on the gospel readings, and on your family’s favorite parts of Holy Week and Pascha, and on being truly present with one another and with God.
Fr. William Bennett and Fr. Jonathan Bannon have put together a beautiful guide for families, including references to gospel readings for each day, ideas to get your home and family ready, and even appropriate icons to print for use in your home during Holy Week and Pascha. This is a profoundly helpful resource from the Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Church.
Create a Holy Week Time Capsule! As we live through this historic pandemic, we’re all encouraged to journal and document our experiences as these will become firsthand sources for the future. Why not chronicle Holy Week and Pascha at home, and keep some of your mementos in a box with your reflections?
Fr. Patrick O’Rourke from Holy Transfiguration Orthodox Church in Ogden, Utah created a beautiful Holy Week Passport that your family might enjoy! Print this Passport on legal sized paper (two-sided, flip on short end) to create a sequential booklet. (If you don’t have legal paper handy, you will have to get creative and print it on separate pages, and then bind them together.)
Start now to prepare “learning boxes” for the services of Holy Week. Each box contains items that will help younger children learn about the services and the events they celebrate. You may not have access to all of these items, but think creatively about what you can access. (Perhaps you can’t find an oil lamp, but you probably have oil… do you have a jar and a wick? Is there a way to do an origami version of some of these items? Do you have any clay or play dough?)
Do the opposite! For older children, don’t prepare learning boxes, but instead give the kids a challenge: they have 30 minutes to gather or make objects that are relevant to the day’s theme and commemorations. When time is up, gather together and have each child explain why they chose the items they found.
Does your parish usually do a Lazarus skit? Here’s an option: what if you asked each of the the kids to send you a short video clip, and then you compiled them? Whether your group is a parish youth group or all of the cousins, you can put this together and then on Lazarus Saturday, you could send around a YouTube link so that they can all see it. You might organize them to tell the Lazarus story (John 11:1-45), perhaps offering each child a verse or two to say on camera, or you might try our script, which tells the story in the form of a newscast! When you have the kids’ video clips, you can compile them into one video using your video editing software (like iMovie or Windows Movie Maker) and then upload to YouTube. (You don’t have to make it public. Make it “unlisted” and then send the link to your parish only, so that other people cannot search for it.)
Print this booklet of things to watch for in each service of Holy Week.
Consider decorating a tree or a part of your home with the miracles of Christ!
If you have extra time, you might watch this heartwarming animated story of a young Russian girl during Soviet times, who learns about Pascha by mysteriously meeting St. Seraphim of Sarov.
These little cookies which look like Lazarus all bundled in his graveclothes (does that sound awful? it really looks cute!) are a wonderful Greek tradition for Lazarus Saturday. You could make them as traditional sweet bread rolls, or you could make them out of clay or play dough!
In my home parish here in Austin, we usually have a big children’s day on Lazarus Saturday — liturgy followed by a lenten pancake breakfast with palm folding, and then the teens perform a skit about Lazarus. The skit follows the story, as Christ comes to Bethany and raises his friend from the dead, and then the townspeople (all of our kids) take palms in hand and process to the church, to Jerusalem, calling out “Hosanna in the Highest” to act out the Palm Sunday. We may well do a skit or puppet show here in the house — perhaps now is a good time to think about ordering puppet supplies, like felt and popsicle sticks. (Note: we would wrap “Lazarus” in toilet paper for graveclothes… such an extravagance is hardly imaginable this year!)
Palms or Pussywillows
We’re going to need palms or pussywillows, or something like them. What grows in your neighborhood?
If you can find something like long, thin palm leaves (perhaps even a wide, tall blade of grass?), you could fold Palm Crosses! If you are pretty dextrous and ready for a challenge, consider making some of the fancier Coptic designs.
On Holy Monday, we look at the fig tree Jesus cursed. Clearly, this is a good day for ripe figs (or treats made with figs, or whatever figgish thing is available on our strangely empty grocery store shelves…) and any other fruits, as we think about “fruitfulness” and the fruits of the spirit.
The story of the ten virgins waiting with oil lamps is a beautiful focus point of the Bridegroom Services that open Holy Week. Each person must supply their own oil (signifying loving deeds and merciful actions — I can’t give you my oil, because I cannot give you my experiences, my history of behaving in a Christian way) so why not make oil lamps? These can burn throughout Holy Week and Pascha, and become the source or the repository for the “Holy Light” with which we light our candles on Pascha! You can use any sort of jar or container, but you’ll need either candle wick and wire, or wick floats — so you may need to order or purchase ahead of time. It’s possible that you already know someone who uses oil lamps and has a stash of wicks, who can drop some on your porch before Holy Week.
Make a prayer list for the Holy Unction service.
The sacrament of Holy Unction cannot be performed at home, but anyone can anoint another person with holy oil and say a prayer for their good health. After your services on Holy Wednesday, consider anointing your family before your icon corner. You’ll need holy oil — or you could make your own sweet smelling oil by adding a scent to olive oil.
On this day, we commemorate the institution of the Holy Eucharist. Perhaps we could bake prosphora with our families to mark it, and to enjoy the familiar taste of church (without the sacrament, of course). In addition to flour, salt, yeast and water, you will want a prosphora seal (if that’s possible. It’s ok if it’s not.)
Very often, on Holy Thursday a priest will wash his altar boys’ feet in remembrance of how Christ washed the feet of His apostles. What if the parents washed their children’s feet? What if the children washed each other’s feet? All you’ll need is a basin or bucket, soap, and towels, as well as a kitchen chair on which the person can sit.
Service of the Twelve Gospels
From this service through the Descent from the Cross, display a cross prominently in your icon corner or where you are doing services together. You might use a cross you have on hand, or you might consider building a larger one yourself. Think of the large cross at church on which an icon of Christ can be hung — what if you mounted or positioned an icon of Extreme Humility or of Christ Crucified on that cross? (You could print one from online or find one in an old calendar, perhaps.) You could place this icon on your cross when (in the gospel readings) Christ is hung on the cross, and then remove it when He descends, placing it in His tomb — just like we do in church.
As you pray this service yourself or alongside a live-stream (or simply read the twelve gospel readings together), consider doing something to mark each reading, whether that’s lighting a candle or laying a flower at the foot of the cross, or both.
Note that many Orthodox people will finish preparations for Holy Friday, Holy Saturday and Pascha during the day on Holy Thursday, so that they are not working while Christ is on the cross or in the tomb.
On Holy Friday, we decorate a tomb with flowers and then place the icon of Christ inside it, marking the time He spent in the tomb. Fr. Vasileios Tsourlis suggested that we might cut large windows in the sides of a cardboard box (leaving the corners as pillars to hold its shape), creating a cardboard tomb! We could decorate it with flowers that we have collected outside, or with flowers that we’ve made from tissue paper or construction paper. Then we can use the tomb throughout the weekend, just as we do in church.
Descent from the Cross
If you have Christ’s icon on a cross, you’ll want to take Him down during this service, and wrap Him in white linens, as Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus did. A white sheet or pillowcase would work well for this. Place (the icon of) Christ in His decorated tomb. (If your cross has Jesus on it, you could take down the whole cross, wrap it and place it in the tomb.)
You’ll want candles for everyone on Holy Friday evening, if possible. If you still have some of the wax catchers you’ve used in the past, you could reuse them, but if not, consider making some by cutting an X in the base of a disposable cup or small paper circle and pushing a candle through.
On Holy Friday evening, we process with Christ in His tomb (rather like pallbearers at a funeral), heading outside with our candles. Consider carrying the tomb and singing the hymns around your home, whether outdoors or indoors.
The Proto-Anastasis, or First Resurrection
To celebrate the harrowing of Hades, why not throw bay leaves around your house as you sing Arise O God! If you cannot get bay leaves, any leaves will do, as the leaves are intended to signify life, as Christ tramples down death by death.
Dye your eggs! If you have saved up your onion skins, you can make the traditional red eggs, but if you have no onion skins, using an artificial red dye is fine too.
Decorate Pascha candles for tonight!
Prepare your family’s traditional Pascha foods, teaching your children the family recipes you hope they’ll carry forward into their own homes.
The midnight services
Be ready with candles for everyone. If you still have some of the wax catchers you’ve used in the past, you could reuse them, but if not, consider making some by cutting an X in the base of a disposable cup or small paper circle and pushing a candle through.
When you light the candles, let one person light theirs first and then pass the light to one another, as we do in church.
Head outside with your candles and announce that Christ is risen! Make large crosses the air with your candles and call it out many times, as you would do at church.
Teach your children the Paschal Sermon of St. John Chrysostom if they don’t know it already, so that they are ready to call out their responses when you read it aloud.
Feast with all of your family’s favorite foods for breaking the fast, and crack your red eggs!
Read the Gospel reading in various languages if you can — or find a video of someone else doing that on YouTube!
Learn to say Christ is Risen! in all of the languages — or just your favorites.
Sing Christ is Risen! in various languages.
As the Paschal season dawns, you will likely want to say some extra prayers and sing Christ is Risen again and again! Consider a walk in a cemetery (if that’s possible in your location) and sing Christ is Risen! to those in the tombs… on whom He is bestowing life! It’s an incredibly powerful experience.
For the following forty days, be sure to sing “Christ is risen!” at mealtimes and prayer times, and all the time, so that you can truly feel the resurrection in your home throughout the Paschal Season.