The Great and Holy Week

The Great and Holy Week

The period of Great Lent concludes its forty day period on a Friday. The week-end reprieve to commemorate the raising of Lazarus (who had been dead four days) and Palm Sunday (known to Orthodox as the Entrance into Jerusalem) gives way to the intense days known as the Great and Holy Week. 

Compared to the monastic observance of this Week (with their rigorous fasting regimen), we ‘in the world’ are spiritual lightweights. Nonetheless, the seventeen services available to us (of which we do twelve) is taxing on those of us who normally only worship once or twice a week and three to four times a week during Great Lent. Couple all this with the fact that the evening services are actually Orthros services (the longest ones) and we begin to understand how the week can be taxing for most us who incorporate this slate of services into our busy work and family schedules (something the monastics do not have to deal with). 

The positioning of the services are meant to prepare and predispose us to that penitential disposition by which we share in the passion of Christ and are made worthy (by God, not ourselves) to celebrate his holy Resurrection: “… it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs of Christ, provided we suffer with him that we may also be glorified with him.” (Rom. 8:16-17) 

These days of preparation (which merely continue from what we have been doing for forty days already), albeit more intensely, begin with a service dedicated to being prepared: the Bridegroom service. We are reminded that the Bridegroom comes in the midst of the night. The main hymn includes, “… blessed is he whom He shall find watching, and unworthy is he whom He shall find heedless. Beware therefore, O my soul, lest you be borne down with sleep, lest you be given up to death, and be shut out from the Kingdom …” (there are no guarantees)

 The three evening Bridegroom services (Sunday, Monday, Tuesday) showcase different biblical characters. Sunday night remembers the noble Joseph who was not seduced by the machinations of Pharaoh’s wife, inspiring us to emulate his example. Monday night remembers the ten virgins, five wise who kept their lamps lit (i.e. they kept the faith) and were received into the Kingdom by the Bridegroom when he came unexpectedly in the midst of the night, and five unwise whose ‘lamps’ burned out (i.e they kept not the faith) and were shut out of the Kingdom. Tuesday night remembers the harlot steeped in sins who wisely came in fear to the Master to be forgiven versus the harlot who also feared but foolishly abided in her harlotry (perhaps she thought she was saved and could continue sinning: “Go and sin no more” - Jn. 8:11).

Wednesday night is the Holy Unction service (administered only to Orthodox Christians). It is a long atonement-like service whose theme revolves around asking God to heal us physically and spiritually and to forgive us for whatever we have done. As with the theme of Tuesday night, it presupposes a turning from the sins we are asking God to overlook that we may truly be healed of our spiritual and bodily sicknesses. It also presupposes that those approaching have been reconciled with one another (Mt. 5:23) and, in sincere repentance, confessed to God in the hearing of a priest those sins that prohibit our reception of Holy Communion.

All the services thus far prepare us for the Divine Liturgy on Holy Thursday morning, wherein the Church commemorates the institution of the Eucharist, commonly known to Orthodox not as the Last Supper (the Passover meal which also took place) but the Mystical Supper. Saint Paul refers to it as the “Lord’s supper” (1 Cor. 11:20). This model of preparation for Holy Communion is something the faithful do on a weekly basis before approaching the Chalice on any given Sunday morning. For if we are prepared to meet Christ in the consecrated Gifts, then we stand a better chance of meeting Him at his fearful second coming (like the five wise virgins).

Holy Thursday evening commemorates the passion and crucifixion of Christ. This is the longest service of the week with a plethora of hymns interspersed with twelve gospel readings that comprise all the New Testament contains on this theme (that’s why succeeding gospels may repeat in part what was heard in a preceding gospel). 

Keeping vigil, the Royal Hours (1st, 3rd, 6th, and 9th) are read on Friday morning consecutively and include Old and New Testament readings with applicable hymns (several heard the night before). 

In the afternoon we commemorate the taking down of Christ from the Cross (literally the unnailing) and his burial in the tomb. 

The evening service is a kind of funeral known as the Lamentations but with anticipation of Christ’s victory over death, as seen in the changing of the darker vestments to brighter colors and the adorning of the sepulcher with bright colored flowers.

Saturday morning’s Liturgy further anticipates the resurrection of Christ (the gospel reading is resurrectional even though the Resurrection service will not take place until midnight). It commemorates Christ’s descent into Hades (Eph. 4:9; 1 Pet. 3:18-20), preceded by the Forerunner John the Baptist (according to tradition). The strewing of bay leaves before the gospel reading symbolizes Christ’s victory over death as beckoning God in song to arise and judge the earth, and take all nations into His inheritance.   

The resurrection service is celebrated at midnight. With darkened space, the priest comes forth from the altar (as from the tomb of Christ) with his candle lit and gives the light to others as it spreads throughout the congregation, after which we exit to the outside (weather permitting) to continue the service. This short period outside is a vestige of the days when church began when all the gathered faithful entered the church together from outside its doors (as this was the custom in the church dedicated to Christ as the Holy Wisdom (of God) - Aghia Sophia in Constantinople). 

Our going outside is also a reminder that everyone must go out in order to come back in (through Christ). No one is born a Christian. We must all be saved and remain in Christ if we hope to finally be saved at the Day of the Lord (2 Cor. 5:10; Heb. 3:14). There are no guarantees, especially for Christians. Speaking to the Pharisees and Sadducees (and to all of us by extension), the Baptist says: “… do not presume to say to yourselves that we have Abraham as our father, for I tell you that God is able from these stones to raise children to Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Mat. 3:9-10)

In gratitude of heart for all that God has done for us in and through Jesus the Christ, let us celebrate this great festival with joy and humility of heart, especially gathering together later in the day for the last and short vespers service known as the Agape, after which we partake as a church family that feast known as the Pascha picnic. 

As one of the great hymns of the resurrection service exhorts: “Let us forgive all things on account of the resurrection and so let us cry, Christ is risen from the dead, by death trampling down upon death, and to those in the tombs, he has granted life!”