Focus on the Faith: Holy Week in the Orthodox Church
The eight days that compromise Holy Week in the Orthodox Church express the spiritual summit of the Church’s liturgical life. The focus on the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Christ proceeds in a physically, psychologically and spiritually moving series of services that defy the limitations of space and time to bring the Orthodox Christian into the moment of the events commemorated. The elegant beauty of the services so move the faithful that it is not uncommon to see tears flow as people feel themselves mystically participating in the events of the last week of Jesus’ earthly ministry.
Lazarus Saturday (the day before Palm Sunday) recalls the last public miracle of Jesus in raising Lazarus from the dead. This act serves as a reassurance that the Passion Jesus Himself will face in the week ahead will not end in death and corruption. The hymnody emphasizes that Christ is fully human and Divine.
Palm Sunday is a celebration of the Lord’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem. The Vigil Service includes a blessing of palm branches, which are held by the faithful for the remainder of the Vigil and throughout the Divine Liturgy. The hymnody reflects both the raising of Lazarus and the humility of the King who enters Jerusalem on the foal of an ass.
The evenings of Sunday, Monday and Tuesday feature the Bridegroom Matins. (Essentially, all the services for the following week are pushed forward twelve hours to allow more active participation of the faithful. Thus the morning service for Monday is celebrated Sunday evening, etc.) These services focus on the End Times. There is an urgency in the tone of the services as, successively, the innocent suffering of the Patriarch Joseph in the Old Testament, the parable of the Ten Virgins, and the anointing by the sinful woman is brought to mind in anticipation of the events to follow. Of particular beauty is the “Hymn of Kassiani” on Tuesday night, in which the faithful identify themselves with the sinful woman, both repentant and grieving at the suffering Jesus will endure for our salvation.
On Holy Thursday morning the Vesperal Liturgy of the Last Supper is celebrated (moved from the evening to the morning as noted above). The Gospel Reading is a masterful combination of readings that recount the Last Supper, institution of the Holy Eucharist, and betrayal, arrest, and condemnation of Jesus. The hymnody centers on betrayal of Judas with allusions to the three Old Testament readings which each focus on the innocence of Jesus as a lamb led to the slaughter.
Thursday evening the Matins of the 12 Passion Gospels is served. The complete Passion narratives of each of the Gospels are read to dramatically tell the story of the Passion and Death of Jesus. During the service, the faithful are spiritually transported into the events being described by the carrying of the Cross. A priest exits the Sanctuary with a large cross, which he carries in procession through the Church. The Cross is placed in the center of the temple. An icon of “The Crucified One” corpus is suspended upon the cross. The sense of terror and despair becomes palpable, and it is not uncommon for people to weep at this point. The service continues with a growing sense of dread and grief as the Gospels recount the Death of Jesus.
Holy Friday is truly a day of mourning. In the morning the Royal Hours provide a meditation on the theme of Christ’s sacrifice for us on the Cross. In the afternoon, the Vespers of the Burial of our Lord Jesus Christ occurs. Prophecies, Readings and Hymns again bring the faithful into the midst of events as the story of the Crucifixion is recounted and death of Jesus is affirmed. At the point of the Gospel narrative wherein Jesus is taken down from the Cross, the priest or acolytes exist the Sanctuary and remove the Icon corpus from the cross, wrap it in a white shroud and slowly take it into the Sanctuary. Again, the silence of the moment can prove overwhelming and often tears are seen on the faces of many. As the service proceeds, the priest emerges again, this time carrying the Plaschanitsa or Epitaphios (a large stiff cloth with the icon image of Jesus being laid in the tomb). The procession ends at a Tomb in the midst of the temple — where the Plaschanitsa is laid out to be reverenced by the faithful. In the Evening, the faithful gather for the Matins of the Lamentations, or “Praises.” The Church joins with the Angelic Hosts in mourning the death of the Deathless One. The Plaschanitsa is carried in procession as everyone prostrates.
Holy Saturday begins with the Vesperal Liturgy of the First Proclamation of the Resurrection. The Resurrection is proclaimed with a strong association drawn to Passover and Baptism. Before the Gospel the priest scatters bay (laurel) leaves and/or rose petals throughout the whole church as a sign of Christ’s triumph and victory over death. Traditionally, converts to Orthodoxy are baptized either before or immediately after this service.
Holy Week in the Orthodox Church is more than attending a series of services, it is a week long experience of the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. The hymnody, readings, and overall arrangement of the services combine to powerfully witness to the central Truth of our Salvation. Those who faithfully participate in the services truly walk the way
Orthopraxis: Fasting During Holy Week
The Thursday evening meal is ideally the last meal taken until Pascha. At this meal, wine and oil are permitted. The Fast of Great and Holy Friday is the strictest fast day of the year: even those who have not kept a strict Lenten fast are strongly urged not to eat at all on this day. After St. Basil’s Liturgy on Holy Saturday, wine, bread and fruit are blessed and may be taken for sustenance. The fast is broken after the Divine Liturgy on Pascha.
Exceptions: The Church has always exempted small children, the sick, the elderly, pregnant and nursing mothers, from strict fasting. Exceptions to the fast based on medical necessity (as with diabetes) are always allowed. In any case, always discuss your fasting with your spiritual father or father confessor for individual guidance.
From the Fathers: On the Death & Resurrection of Christ
by St. Gregory the Theologian
Yesterday I was crucified with Him; 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 up with Him.
Let us offer to Him Who suffered and rose again for us … ourselves, the possession most precious to God and most proper.
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 were thrown down through the fall of sin. Let us give all, offer all, to Him who gave Himself a Ransom and Reconciliation for us. We needed an incarnate God, a God put to death, that we might live. We were put to death together with Him that we might be cleansed. We rose again with Him because we were put to death with Him. We were glorified with Him because we rose again with Him. A few drops of Blood recreate the whole of creation!
Choir Director’s Corner: Real Prayer in a Virtual World
The Corona Virus has disrupted our lives more than almost any event in most of our lifetimes (Previous generations have, of course, experienced equal or greater disruptions, but its new to most of us!). The fact that this is happening during Lent, when services, prayers and spiritual reading is intensified, makes it even more disruptive. How are we as Orthodox Christians to respond to such events?
First of all, while the world is “freaking out” or panic shopping, we can keep the Lords peace. We can take encouragement from our teachers in the faith such as Elder Zacharias of the Essex monastery, who recently wrote these words.
Secondly We can intensify our spiritual reading and prayer at home. Our prayerbook and other books contain canons, akathists and other prayers we can start adding at home to our daily prayer rule. There are also many resources on the Internet. There is also the Jesus Prayer which doesn’t require any books at all. It is also possible to do many of the cycle of services at home as “Reader Services.” Here is a page that contains everything you need to do daily vespers at home. Anyone who would like to learn how to do the Lenten 6th hour at home is welcome to contact me, and I will happily give “virtual instructions”.
Thirdly, the necessity of sheltering in place has led many churches to start livestreaming services. St. Nicholas is doing some livestreaming of services through the parish Facebook Page. When you see a service listed on the calendar, you can follow the service video here:
There are other parishes in our diocese who are also doing livestreaming, and some are doing many services. You can check these sites during the rest of Lent and during Holy Week, find a service and pray with the church.
Holy Trinity Cathedral, San Francisco
- Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/holytrinitycathedral/
- YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCRcj3JAzlyrlHP5BYcJWWnQ
Nativity of the Holy Virgin, Menlo Park
Joy of All Who Sorrow, Los Angeles
And when we feel isolated, we can call each other and pray with one another as well. Physical isolation does not create any barrier to prayer.
Upcoming events this month (see the online calendar for updates or the attached PDF for more info)