Approach to Holy Week
Holy Week in the Eastern Church institutes the sanctity of the whole calendar year of the Church. Its center of commemorations and inspiration is Easter, wherein the glorified Resurrection of Jesus Christ is celebrated. Every Sunday is dedicated in the Eastern Church to the Resurrection of the Lord. One hundred days also are dedicated to Easter, 50 before it for preparation, and another 50 after it for commemorating the glorification of the Lord. Easter is considered the "Feast of Feasts." The 50 days before Easter, known as a part of the period of Triodion1 ("three" + "odes"), are the period for strengthening faith in the Lord. The means are well-known to people of spiritual experience. They are repentance, which means to change from indifference to full devotion; prayer, which is considered the soul of faith, and through which faith emerges from theory into life; and self-control, which governs our relationships with our fellowman. These means are practical indicators of our vivid faith in God. With this preparation, we are invited to enter the sanctuary of Holy Week, not as spectators, but as participants in the commemoration and enactment of the divine Acts that changed the world. A Christian must always be well-trained and well-armed to fight against those who try to corrupt his spirit and take away his freedom. The Christian must keep his own spiritual kingdom intact and his freedom of religion and uprightness vivid in order to be a part of the Kingdom of God, where the compassion of the Lord and His Resurrection will be experienced. There is no other place where the Kingdom of God can be expanded except the heart of man; and there is no other gate whereby we can enter the Kingdom but that of "repentance." This was the proclamation of the new era of Jesus Christ, who said, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!" (Matthew 3:2).
The 50 days which follow Easter are signified by the Pentecostarion2 Gr. Pentikonta 50). They are dedicated to the spiritual enjoyment of the participants in the deep belief that Almighty God is our Companion in our everyday life and thoughts. It starts with the celebration of the Lord's Resurrection. During this period, the Church of Christ, which is His Mystical Body, was instituted and strengthened. His disciples and Apostles were the witnesses of the appearances of the Risen Lord; they were the recipients of the Holy Spirit, Who changed completely their attitude of fear, Who made the Apostles into piercing heralds and ambassadors of the New Message of salvation in the name of Christ, the Savior. This was an experience, teaching, and inspiration they handed down as the treasure of the Christian Faith. Christians are called to commemorate the same divine Events and to enact them in their hearts and minds, based on the realization that "Christ is Risen."
Daily Observances of Holy Week
"In Remembrance of a Pledge of Resurrection" - Saturday Morning of St. Lazarus
On this day, the rising from the dead of St. Lazarus, the righteous friend of Christ, is celebrated. Holy Week begins with the phrase: "Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany..." (John 12:1) His arrival coincided with the Jewish Passover. It started on the 15th of the month of Nissan in commemoration of the freeing of the Hebrew people, under the leadership of Moses, from the slavery of the Egyptians by the miraculous act of God. The Church relates preparation and redemption to the events of this week.
Six days before the Passover, a feast was given for Christ in Bethany of Judea, where Christ had stopped on His way to Jerusalem. Lazarus, His friend, and his sisters were present. A short time earlier, Christ had raised Lazarus from the dead, thereby gaining the respect and faith of the people, but also the hatred of the fanatics. The Church names this day the "Saturday of Lazarus" in remembrance of the resurrection of Lazarus and its promise of universal resurrection for all men. The Church connects this celebration, by anticipation, with the Entrance of Christ into Jerusalem: "We carry the Symbols of victory and cry Hosanna in the highest."
Palm Sunday celebrates the glorious and brilliant feast of the Entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem. Zechariah had prophesied the entrance of the Messiah into Jerusalem, saying: "Rejoice greatly...O daughter of Jerusalem; behold, the King comes unto Thee; he is just, and having salvation; lowly, and riding upon an ass, and upon a colt the foal of an ass." (Zech. 9:9) The contemporary Jews associated this prophecy with the expected Messiah. This action of Christ testifies to His nature as Savior, but with the definite declaration that His Kingdom was not of this world. The news that Christ was in Bethany provoked a general enthusiasm of acceptance, but also of indignation among the High Priests, who had decided to kill Christ. The main road leading to Jerusalem was covered with palm trees. The multitudes, with palm branches in their hands, spread their cloaks on the road as a show of respect, crying out, "Hosanna to the Son of David, blessed is He that comes in the name of the Lord.' All the actions and words of the people and of Christ had a Messianic meaning readily recognized by the Jews of that time. As usual, Christ went immediately to the Temple, where He prayed and taught. That evening He departed for Bethany.
A custom of distributing branches of palms to the people in the Church prevails to this day, commemorating the victory of Christ against the evil powers.
Great Holy Wednesday - (The Divine Liturgy of Presanctified Gifts)
The Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts is celebrated on this day for the last time during Lent. This very ancient Liturgy is a Vesper Service, with the Holy Gifts presanctified in the Liturgy on the previous Sunday. This Liturgy is offered every Wednesday and Friday during Lent so that the people may receive Holy Communion. This Liturgy is solemn and reflects the grandeur and simplicity of the early Church. During Lent, no other Liturgy is held except on Saturday, Sunday, and March 25, when the Liturgies of St. Basil (on Sundays) and St. Chrysostom are officiated.
"Anointing the sick with oil in the name of the Lord..."
Great Holy Wednesday Evening
(The Mysterion of Unction)
The sacred ceremony of the Mysterion of the Holy Unction takes place on this Wednesday evening, following an old custom. It is the evening of repentance, confession, and the remission of sins by the Lord, preparing the faithful to receive Holy Communion, usually the next day, Holy Thursday morning. Holy Unction is the Mysterion for cleansing sins and renewing the body and the spirit of the faithful. Holy Unction is one of the seven Sacraments of the Church, and it has its origin in the practice of the early Church as recorded in the Epistle of James (5:14-15). At the end of the service, the priest anoints the people with Holy Oil, the visible carrier of the Grace of God.
"Let no fear separate you from Me..."
Great Holy Thursday Morning
(The service is the Vespers and Divine Liturgy of Thursday evening which is sung in the morning by anticipation.)
Jesus drew His last breath of freedom on this Thursday night. Christ knew all the incidents which were about to take place and called to Him His Apostles in order to institute the Holy Eucharist for them and for the Church forever. At the end of March, with the full moon as a brilliant lantern in the sky and the weather mild, the people in Jerusalem enjoyed the beginning of spring. In this atmosphere, Christ presented Bread and Wine as the Elements of His Very Body and His Very Blood; they are the Precious Gifts which have been left as His perpetual Presence in the Church. The institution of the Holy Eucharist and its re-enactment through the centuries, both as a sacrifice and sacred ceremony (Mysterion), is the life-giving remembrance which, along with the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ, constitutes the basis of salvation for the Christian.
Then followed the incidents of the dramatic closing moments of Christ's life. After the washing of His Apostles' feet, He pointed out the betrayer, inaugurated the Eucharist, and pronounced the new commandment of love for one another. He spoke to them words of comfort, promising the descent of the Holy Spirit to complete man's union with Christ. His departure, Christ said, would bring to them and the world joy. Christ took His Apostles out in the mild night where He could see face-to-face His co-workers in the bright light of the full moon. In this spiritual mood and physical setting, Jesus withdrew to pray. After this agony of the "bloody sweat" came the kiss of Judas and His arrest. He thus became the source of spiritual and physical freedom for mankind.
The Divine Liturgy of St. Basil is officiated on this day.
"We worship Thy passion, O Christ..."
Great Holy Thursday Evening
(The service of the HOLY PASSION of our Lord Jesus Christ. The service is Matins of Friday morning sung by anticipation, on Thursday evening.)
Good Friday celebrates the holy, saving, and awesome Passion of Christ. To take away our sins, Christ willingly endured spitting, scourging, buffeting, scorn, mocking, and purple robe; the reed, sponge, vinegar, nails, spear, and above all, the Cross and Death. The confession from the cross of the penitent thief, crucified with Christ, is celebrated. This service is long, but its content is dramatic and deeply moving for the devout Christian. Participation in the prayers and the historical sequence of the events, as related in the Gospels and hymns, provides a vivid foundation for the great events yet to come.
Following are the references of the "Twelve Gospel" readings of this service:
1. St. John 13:31 thru Ch. 18:1
2. St. John 18:1-29
3. St. Matthew 26:57-75
4. St. John 18:28 thru Ch. 19:16
5. St. Matthew 27:3-32
6. St. Mark 15:16-32
7. St. Matthew 27:33-54
8. St. Luke 23:32-49
9. St. John 19:38-42
10. St. Mark 15:43-47
11. St. John 19:38-42
12. St. Matthew 27:62-66
These readings relate the last instructions of Christ to His disciples, the prophecy of the drama of the Cross, the dramatic prayer of Christ and His new commandment. The day should be devoted to reading the "Gospel of the Testament" of Christ which He left for all men. The Church services during Holy Week re-enact the events of this Gospel.
Good Friday Morning
According to the Hebrew custom, the "Royal Hours," four in number, are read at this time. These services consist of hymns, psalms, and readings from the Old and New Testaments, all related prophetically and ethically to the Person of Christ. In some churches, the "Hours" are read in the afternoon, before the Vesper services.
"Father, forgive them for they know not what they do..."
(The service is Vespers sung on Friday afternoon.)
The Vespers of Friday afternoon are a continuation of the Royal Hours. During this service, the removal of the Body of Christ from the Cross is commemorated with a sense of mourning for the terrible events which took place. Once more, excerpts from the Old Testament are read together with hymns, and again the entire story is related, followed by the removal from the Cross and the wrapping of the Body of Christ with a white sheet as did Joseph of Arimathea. Apostle Paul, interpreting the dreadful event, exhorts the Church: "For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God...we preach Christ crucified...the power of God and the wisdom of God." (1 Cor. 1: 18f.)
As the priest reads the Gospel, "and taking the body, Joseph wrapped it in a white cloth," he removes the Body of Christ from the Cross, wraps It in a white cloth, and takes It to the altar. The priest then chants a mourning hymn: "When Joseph of Arimathea took Thee, the life of all, down from the Tree dead, he buried Thee with myrrh and fine linen...rejoicing. Glory to Thy humiliation, O Master, who clothest Thyself with light as it were with a garment." The priest then carries the cloth on which the Body of Christ is painted or embroidered around the church before placing It inside the Sepulcher, a carved bier which symbolizes the Tomb of Christ. We are reminded that during Christ's entombment, He descends into Hades to free the dead of the ages before His Incarnation.
The Gospel readings which relate these events are: Matt. 27:1-38; Luke 23:29-43; Matt. 27:29-54; John 19:31-37; Matt. 27:55-61. Good Friday is the only day in the year on which the Divine Liturgy is not officiated.
Today, the devoted Christian ponders in his heart the deep meaning of the Seven Last Words of Christ uttered on the Cross, the first Divine Pulpit of Christianity.
"Do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves..."
Good Friday Evening - The Lamentation
(The service is Jerusalem Matins of Saturday morning sung by anticipation, on Friday evening.)
It consists of psalms, hymns, and readings dealing with the death of Christ, in contrast to His divinity, and in expectation of His Resurrection. One of the hymns relates: "He who holds all things is raised up on the Cross and all creation laments to see Him hang naked on the Tree." The thoughtful and well-written Odes, sung by the choir, compare the Compassion of God and the cruelty of man, the Might of God and the moral weakness of man. The Odes picture all Creation trembling when witnessing its Creator hung by His own creatures: "Creation was moved...with intense astonishment when it beheld Thee hung in Golgotha." The Odes remind us of the vision of Isaiah, who saw Christ, "the unwaning light of the manifestation," and cried aloud, "The dead indeed shall arise and all those on earth shall rejoice." During this service, the Body of Christ is carried in procession around the church. In some parishes, the entire flower-bedecked Sepulcher, symbolizing the Tomb, is carried in the procession.
The entire congregation joins in singing the three parts of the "Hymns of Praise" (there are approximately 300 hymns, but only a few are sung). After these hymns are sung, the priest sprinkles the Sepulcher and the whole congregation with fragrant water. There is a simultaneous praise of both the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ with their purpose of the redemption of man. We no longer lament the sufferings of the Crucified One; we now lament chiefly for our own sins because we are far from God. So these services should have a rather personal meaning of repentance and of strong faith in God.
Christians observe Good Friday with fasting, prayer, cleanliness, self-examination, confession, and good works, in humility and repentance so that the Grace of the Cross might descend upon them.
"Arise, O God, and judge Thou the earth..."
Great Holy Saturday Morning
(The service is Vespers and Divine Liturgy of Saturday evening sung by anticipation, on Saturday morning.)
Psalms are read and Resurrection hymns are sung which tell of Christ's descent into Hades. "Today Hades cried out groaning" is the hymn's description of the resurrection of Adam and the conquering of death. Thus this day's celebration is called "First Resurrection." Most of the readings of this day are from the Old Testament on the prophecies and promise of the conquering of death. On this day, the Divine Liturgy of St. Basil is officiated. Apostle Paul exhorts the faithful: "We were buried, therefore, with him by baptism unto death, so we, too, might walk in newness of life." (Romans 6:4)
After the reading of the Epistle, the priest follows the custom of tossing of laurel, saying: "Arise, O God, and judge Thou the earth: for Thou shall take all heathen to Thine inheritance." The Cherubic hymn of this day is: "Let all mortal flesh keep silence and stand with fear and trembling...", a thoughtful hymn of adoration and exaltation. The Divine Liturgy ends with the Communion Hymn: "So the Lord awaked as one out of sleep, and He is risen to save us."
The Holy Sunday of Easter
On Easter Sunday - Resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is celebrated. The Orthros of the Resurrection begins in complete darkness. Then comes the breathless moment as the people wait for the priest to start the hymn of Resurrection, which they join him in singing, repeatedly: "Christ has Risen from the dead, by death trampling upon Death, and has bestowed life upon those in the tombs." From this moment, the entire service takes on a joyous Easter atmosphere. The hymns of the Odes and Praises of Resurrection which follow are of superb meaning and expression. The people confess, "It is the Day of Resurrection, let us be glorious, let us embrace one another and speak to those that hate us; let us forgive all things and so let us cry, Christ has arisen from the dead." By this hymn, they admit that love of one's fellowman is the solid foundation of the faith in the Resurrection of Christ.
The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom is then officiated. At the end of the Liturgy, a part of the marvelous festival sermon of St. Chrysostom is read, which calls upon the people to "Take part in this fair and radiant festival. Let no one be fearful of death, for the death of the Savior has set us free...O Death, where is thy sting? O Hades, where is Thy victory? Christ is Risen and Thou art overthrown. To Him be glory and power from all ages to all ages."
The readings are Acts 1:1-8 and John 1: 1-17.