The Eastern Orthodox calendar consists of a sequence of feasts and fasts commemorating the Incarnation and its fulfillment in the Church. Pre-eminent among all the festivals is Pascha, the Feast of Feasts, which determines all the movable feasts for the liturgical calendar.
The week before Pascha in the Orthodox Church, called Great and Holy Week, is set apart in the ecclesiastical year, so that we might stop and change our pace, meditate upon and relive the last week in our Lord's life which opened the doors of paradise. The events are presented as a drama bringing us to identify ourselves with them and elevate us in an all-embracing movement upward to God. As we relive the annual drama, we receive its benefits and allow the events to transform us into renewed Christians. We fully participate in the services as if actually entering God's Kingdom with hearts filled with faith, minds open to revelation, and a will of concern for spiritual ascent. The scenes take place in Jerusalem. The participants are real. The events, though historical, occur in the present. The laity responds to what it sees and hears.
The first scene is the Saturday before Palm Sunday and is called the Saturday of Lazarus. It is the day in which Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. Jesus responds to the sisters of Lazarus, who are lamenting the death of their brother. Jesus is greatly moved.
As Jesus exhibited His divinity in His transfiguration, He exhibited that He is also fully human in His weeping. We stand at Lazarus' grave and behold this miracle of the giving of life, by the giver of life, and acknowledge him as true God, He who became man to save our souls and grant us new life. The raising of Lazarus from the dead causes us and many others to believe in him as the long-awaited Messiah.
The day after this glorious event, Palm Sunday, Christ's kingdom on Earth begins. We gather to welcome and recognize Christ's divinity proclaiming him king and master of our lives. We receive palms as tokens of this proclamation. We pray to God to help us make a meaningful ascetic effort for the entire week, for by having acknowledged His kingdom, we might truly become a part of it.
During Holy Week, the Matins Service of the forthcoming day is celebrated the evening before. On Palm Sunday evening, we perform the Matins of Monday morning and thus relive the events of Monday. The evenings of Palm Sunday, Holy Monday and Holy Tuesday share a common theme and are devoted to the Nymphios Service, or the Service of the Bridegroom. Its reference is to the Parable of the Ten Virgins (Matt. 26:1-13), which calls for preparedness at the Second Coming, for the "thief comes in the middle of the night." This theme is reflected in the following hymn which is chanted each night.
"Brethren, let us greet the Bridegroom with love, trimming our lamps so that we reflect virtue and true faith. So shall we be ready, like the prudent maidens of the Lord, to enter with Him into the wedding feast. For being God, the Bridegroom bestows on us the gift of an incorruptible crown."
The Sacrament of Holy Unction is celebrated on Holy Wednesday. "It relates to the Church's ancient practice of receiving penitents and reconciling them to the Church in the days before Pascha (Contos, The Lenten Covenant, Page 173)." The elements of this sacrament are healing and forgiveness; faith is the requirement.
The Divine Liturgy is celebrated on Holy Thursday morning. The faithful are called to be joined to the mystical body of Christ and thus receive the saving benefits of His life and live as citizens of His kingdom. The Reserved Holy Communion represents the earthly presence of Christ realized at the Last Supper.
On Holy Thursday evening, we relive the events from the upper room to the crucifixion and the burial. The centrality of these events are found with the readings of the service referred to as the Twelve Gospels. We follow Christ Jesus on the way to the cross and are crucified to our sinful ways with him, anticipating our resurrection into a new life with him. The rich expression found within hymnology of the Church is as follows:
"Today the Maker of heaven and earth said to His disciples, 'The hour is at hand, and Judas my betrayer also is at hand. Let none of you deny me when you see me on the Cross between two thieves. For though I suffer as a man, as lover of man I redeem those who believe in me. ' "
Divine liturgy is not performed on Good Friday, for it presupposes Christ's presence in the world. On this day, Christ lies dead in the tomb. The services of the hours are performed, commemorating the same events of Holy Thursday evening.
The Apokathilosis, or the Unnailing Service of our Lord, is re-enacted Friday afternoon. The body of Christ is removed from the crucifix on the soleas and wrapped in a burial shroud and placed in the sanctuary.
The Epitaphios, the embroidered cloth bearing the body of our Lord, is carried in a solemn funeral procession around the church and placed in the sepulcher known as the Kouvouklion. As we behold Jesus lying in the darkness of the tomb, we pray that our passions, sins and pride might be put to death in us, so that we might not live in the darkness that we might not live in the darkness that causes His death.
The third service for Good Friday is the service of Lamentations at the Tomb. The sepulcher of our Lord is decorated with. flowers. The atmosphere begins to become theologically more joyous, and hymns with a resurrection color are heard and finally the Great Doxology, which is sung only on joyous occasions. The Procession of the Sepulcher around the church with the Epitaphios takes place with lighted candles held by the faithful. It does not represent a funeral procession but Christ's descent into Hades, where He preached His word to its captives and resurrected them.
Holy Saturday evening gives witness of the faithful gathering in church to participate in the feast of feasts, Pascha, the Resurrection of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. The church is dark, symbolizing the darkness of the world without Christ. The priest offers the Pascha light of Christ in the world, the light of life. The designated Gospel is read, the resurrection is proclaimed at midnight, the morn of the new day. The faithful receive the unwaning light from the celebrant in proclamation of the good news "Christ is risen from the dead trampling death by death, and bestowing life on those in the grave." The Divine Liturgy is celebrated and the climax of a 60-day preparation period is fulfilled. St. Gregory the Theologian has written a beautiful poem honoring the events:
Yesterday I was crucified with Christ;
Today I am glorified with Him.
Yesterday I died with Him,
Today I am made alive with Him.
Yesterday I was buried with Him,
Today I am raised with Him.
Let us become like Christ,
Since Christ became like us.
Let us become divine for His sake,
Since for us He became man.
He assumed the worse,
That He might give us the better.
He became poor, that by His poverty
We might become rich.
He accepted the form of a servant,
That we might win back our freedom,
He came down that we might be lifted up.
He was tempted, that through Him
We might conquer.
He was dishonored, that He might glorify us.
He died, that He might save us.
He ascended, that He might draw to Himself us,
Who lie prostrate, having fallen into sin.
Let us give all, offer all, to Him who gave Himself;
A ransom and reconciliation for us.
Having faithfully followed the movements leading to the end, the Orthodox Christian feels reborn through the true joy over our Lord's Resurrection and anticipates Pentecost, the very birth of the Christian Church. The victory is won! For the next 40 days we will exclaim, "Christ is risen!" Indeed, He is risen.
-Rev. Konstantine Mendrinos
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