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Beautiful Description of Holy Week & Pascha

Explanation of Holy Week and Pascha
posted by Ekaterina
Euphrosynos Cafe Forum: Liturgics and Mysteries
Mon 25 April 2005 8:58 pm

Great Monday, Great Tuesday, Great Wednesday and Great Thursday

General Characteristics
The first three days of Great Week recall Christ’s last conversations with His disciples and people. These talks inspire the readings and hymns. On the first three days the services consist of Great Compline, Matins, the Hours, and the Liturgy of the Presanctified with Vespers. Long Gospels are read at the Matins of each day (which take place on the evenings before) and the Liturgy. Also the whole (up to the Passion) of the four Gospels is read during the Hours in the first three days of Passion Week, and all the Psalms: the Psalms remind us how the coming and sufferings of Christ were awaited and foretold in the Old Testament. The Gospels tell of His life in the world; His teaching and miracles prove that He was indeed the Son of God the Saviour, Who of His own free will, and guiltless, suffered for our sakes. At Matins after the Great Litany we do not hear the usual glad verses, ‘God the Lord has appeared unto us’. Instead, a mournful ‘Alleluia’ is sung.

And to urge us to watch and pray in these solemn days, this Troparion is sung: ‘Behold at midnight the bridegroom cometh, and blessed is the servant whom He shall find watching. But unworthy is he whom He shall find slothful. Beware, therefore, O my soul, be not overcome with sleep, lest thou be given over unto death and shut outside the kingdom. But arise and cry: ‘Holy, holy, holy art Thou, O God, through the Birthgiver of God, have mercy upon us’.

After the Canon, which speaks of Christ’s coming Passion, another special hymn is sung. It is like a cry of our soul as if it saw from afar Christ’s radiant mansions and felt how unworthy it was to enter them. It is: ‘Lo, I behold Thy radiant dwelling place, O my Saviour, and have no raiment that may enter in. Lighten Thou the raiment of my soul, O Giver of Light, and save me’.

Great Monday, Great Tuesday and Great Wednesday
On Great Monday the Church tells us the story of the barren fig tree. It is the symbol of those who think only of outward goodness, which does not come from the heart. The Gospel also tells of Christ’s prophecies about the fall of Jerusalem, wars and tribulations and the end of our world.

On Great Tuesday we listen to Christ’s replies to the wily questions of the scribes and Pharisees, who tried to trap Him; to His stern rebukes of their cruelty and deceit. The parables of the ten virgins and of the talents remind us how we should always keep watch on our conscience and use in God’s service any gift or talent we have received from Him. The Gospel then tells of Christ’s prophecy of His Second Coming and Last Judgment. It ends with the awful warning: ‘Ye know that after two days is the feast of the Passover, and the Son of Man is betrayed to be crucified’.

On Great Wednesday the Church remembers the act of love of the sinful woman who poured precious ointment on Christ’s head, and, though she did not know it, ‘prepared Him for burial’. And, in contrast, we hear of the dark act of Judas, whose greed led him to betray his Master. All the readings and hymns of the day warn us to beware of greed and love of money, which could tempt even a disciple of Christ. We too can betray Him, if we let greed and selfishness get hold of us, while every deed of humility and love at once brings us near to Him.

Great Thursday
The Gospels of Great Thursday tell how Christ and His disciples came to Jerusalem to celebrate His last feast of the Passover; how He washed their feet. They tell the story of that Last Supper when Our Lord ordained the sacrament of His Most Holy Body and Blood ‘for the remission of sins’ of us all; His last talk with the Apostles, and how He told them they would all fail and forsake Him that night; Peter’s rash promise that he would always remain faithful; Christ’s vigil in the garden; how He was seized and led away to the high-priest’s court; the scene in the courtyard; Peter’s denial and grief; the high-priest’s mocking, cruel questions; and how Jesus, wearing the crown of thorns, beaten and insulted by the soldiers, was led before Pilate.

The readings and hymns of the Matins of Great Thursday (on Wednesday evening) dwell much on Judas’ betrayal, on ‘the dark night’, which settled in his soul. We pray that we may keep ourselves from greed and deceit, and be made pure by taking part in the holy Mysteries of Christ’s Body and Blood. The Troparion after the ‘Alleluia’ at Matins speaks of this.

On Thursday morning the Liturgy of St. Basil is joined with Vespers. Before the Great Entrance, instead of the Cherubic Hymn, there is a special hymn of Great Thursday: ‘Make me this day a sharer of Thy mystic Supper, O Son of God. For I will not reveal Thy mysteries to Thine enemies, nor will I give Thee a kiss like Judas, but like the thief I say to Thee, ‘Remember me, O Lord, in Thy kingdom’. This is also sung before and during communion.

After the Liturgy, on Thursday afternoon, the ceremony of ‘the washing of the feet’ is kept in cathedrals. The Gospels are carried to the middle of the cathedral. Then the bishop in full vestments comes out of the sanctuary and takes his seat on a raised platform, the ‘cathedra’. He is followed by twelve priests who sit six at each side of him. They represent the twelve Apostles. Two deacons bring out a basin, a jug of water and a towel. After some prayers, the main deacon reads the Gospel story of how Christ at the Last Supper rose, took off His upper garment, tied a towel round His waist and washed the disciples’ feet. While this is read the bishop rises, takes off his vestments, keeping only belt and stole, ties the towel round his waist, takes up the basin and washes the feet of each priest. He goes down one row and up the other till he comes to the senior priest, who represents the Apostle Peter. Here the deacon stops reading. The priest rises and repeats Peter’s words: ‘Lord, dost Thou wash my feet?’ The bishop answers in Christ’s words and they repeat the scene till the bishop washes ‘Peter’s’ feet. Then the bishop puts on his vestments and himself reads Christ’s words why He, their Lord and Master, had done this humble service to His disciples: ‘For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you’. This ceremony is a very ancient custom and is acted to remind us more clearly of the lesson given us by Christ: that no service is too low for those who would truly follow in His steps.

Great Friday (‘Good Friday’, meaning in Old English, Holy Friday) and Great Saturday

Great Friday
Great Friday is the most solemn day of Passion Week and of the whole Christian year. In awe and trembling we stand before the Cross, on which our Saviour died for us and see the image of Him dead, lying in our midst.

The whole story of Our Lord’s Passion is given at Great Friday Matins, which takes place on Thursday evening, and is called ‘The Vigil of the Holy and Saving Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ’ or more usually, ‘The Service of the Twelve Gospels’, because twelve Gospel extracts are read. The tall Crucifix, usually standing behind the memorial service table, now stands in the middle of the church with many candles lighted round it and a lectern draped in violet in front. After the Six Psalms and the Great Litany, the choir sing ‘Alleluia’ and the Troparion of Great Thursday. The priest and deacon come out of the Sanctuary carrying the Gospels. They are laid on the lectern and the priest begins the reading. Everybody stands with lighted candles as a symbol that Christ, even when persecuted and humiliated, is always the Light of the world.

The whole story of the Passion is read from the four Evangelists and is divided into twelve parts. It begins with Christ’s farewell talk and prayer at the Last Supper, in St John’s Gospel, and goes right through the four Gospels to the burial of Christ by Joseph of Arimathea. Before and after each reading the choir sings, ‘Glory to Thy long suffering, O Lord’. Between the readings special verses are sung. They speak of Judas’s betrayal; of the cruelty of the Jews; of Christ’s infinite patience and gentleness; of the awe of all creation when the Lord of all was nailed to the Cross between two thieves. The Canon has only three odes. All tell of the Passion and foretell the glory of the Resurrection. Matins ends after the Twelfth Gospel. This is a long service and lasts two to three hours. After each Gospel the great bell tolls, giving the number, in strokes, of the Gospel read, so that those who cannot go to church can follow the service.

There is no Liturgy on Great Friday morning: we venerate the sacrifice offered this day by Christ. It is a day of mourning and strict fasting. Instead of the Liturgy there is the service of the ‘Royal Hours’ - the First, Third, Sixth and Ninth. At each, besides the psalms and the prophecies from the Old Testament, an Epistle and Gospel are read about Great Friday.

The solemn vespers of Great Friday is celebrated in the afternoon at the time of Christ’s death. Again all the readings remind us of the suffering of Christ and His glory. After the entrance, there are Old Testament readings in which the Prophet Isaiah speaks of ‘the Lamb led to the slaughter’, an epistle of the Apostle Paul on the power and wisdom of the Cross; again a Gospel on Our Lord’s trial before Pilate, His Crucifixion and burial. After the Litany of Supplication the choir sings a solemn hymn, ‘O Thou that art clothed in light as in a raiment...’.

All the people light candles. The holy doors are opened. On the holy table lies the Shroud or Winding Sheet - an image of the dead human body of Christ. The priest raises it on his head, the deacon walks in front with candle and censer, and they come slowly down the steps from the altar, while the choir softly sing the hymn, ‘The Noble Joseph, taking Thy most pure Body down from the tree, wrapped it in fine linen, and with spices covered, laid it in a new tomb’. All kneel with head bowed low before the image of our Saviour. A bier stands in the middle of the church, with candles lit round it. On it the Winding Sheet is laid reverently and censed all round by the priest. More burial hymns are sung while the people come up to kiss it. Then the priest gives the blessing, and the last hymn is sung: ‘Thou hast redeemed us from the curse of the law by Thy precious blood. Having been nailed on the Cross and pierced with the spear, Thou hast shed immortality on men, O our Saviour, glory to Thee’.

Vespers and Matins of Great Saturday
Great Saturday is a reverent vigil at the tomb of the Son of God, slain for our sins. The Saturday Matins service is held on Friday evening. It is commonly called the Burial of Christ, because almost all of it is a solemn lamentation sung and read over the bier on which the Winding Sheet is lying.

After the Six Psalms and the Great Litany, the people light their candles. The holy doors are opened; the priest and deacon come out with candles and censer. The choir sing ‘God the Lord has appeared unto us’, and the Troparia, ‘The noble Joseph’, and ‘When Thou didst condescend unto death, O Life Immortal, then didst Thou slay hell with the radiance of Thy Divinity; and when Thou didst raise the dead from the lowermost pit, all the heavenly powers cried: O Christ, Giver of Life, our God, glory to Thee’. Meantime, the priest and deacon cense the Winding Sheet, then stand in front of it. The choir intone the ‘burial anthem’ with the first verse of Psalm 118: ‘Blessed are they who are undefiled in the way, who walk in the law of the Lord’. Each verse of the Psalm is followed by a verse of the ‘lament’, read by the priest and deacon with hymns in between.

It is like a long poem picturing the angels in heaven and all creatures on earth overwhelmed by the death of their Creator, and their thankfulness at being freed from death’s doom by Christ. ‘Thou, O Christ, that art the Life, art laid in a grave. And angel hosts awestricken glorify Thy condescension...Of Thy free will, O Saviour, Thou didst go under the earth to save dead mortals and bring them back to Thy Father’s glory...Thy burial, O my Christ, all nations hymn...Make Thy servants worthy, O Virgin, to see the resurrection of Thy Son’. After this hymn, the Sunday eve resurrection hymns are sung. There follow the usual litanies. Then the Canon, where the note of joy sounds more and more clearly.

At the end of the Great Doxology the priest raises above his head the Winding Sheet, supported by four pall-bearers, the deacon walks in front, the people follow, all carrying candles. The solemn procession walks out of, and, anti-clockwise round the church, with the bells tolling and the choir singing, ‘Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us’. This represents the burial of Christ. After the Winding Sheet has been laid back on the bier, the Prokimenon is sung, and to a special melody the glorious prophecy of Ezekiel is read about the dry bones of Israel, out of which arose ‘an exceeding great army’ quickened to life by the breath of God. Then follows the Epistle of the Apostle Paul about Christ our Passover and the Gospel about thesealing of Christ’s tomb. Matins ends as usual.

The Liturgy Of Great Saturday
The Liturgy of Great Saturday is that of St. Basil the Great, and is the longest in the year. It begins on the Saturday morning with Vespers. After the ‘entrance’, the evening hymn ‘Gladsome Light is sung as usual. Then fifteen long Old Testament readings are made. They tell of the most striking symbolic events and prophecies of the salvation of mankind by the death of the Son of God. The first is the story of Israel’s crossing the Red Sea and Moses’ song of victory over Pharaoh, with its refrain, ‘for He hath triumphed gloriously’. The last reading is about the three youths in the fiery furnace of Babylon, and their song of praise with its repeated refrain: ‘Sing unto the Lord and exalt Him unto the ages of ages’.

The Epistle which follows speaks of how through the death of Christ we too shall rise to new life. After the Epistle, three singers stand before the bier and sing verses, like a call to the sleeping Christ: ‘Arise, O Lord, and judge the earth, for Thou inheritest amongst all nations...’. While this is being sung, the violet covers are taken off the holy table, the priests change their violet vestments for white ones. The deacon carries out the Gospels and reads the first message of the resurrection from St. Matthew. Because the Vespers part of the service belongs to the next day (Sunday) the burial hymns of Saturday are mingled with the resurrection ones, so that this service already is full of the coming Easter joy.

After the Gospel the Liturgy continues as usual. Instead of the Cherubic Hymn, a special one is sung: ‘Let all human flesh be silent, and in awe and trembling stand, and think of nothing earthly to itself, for behold the King of kings, the Lord of Lords, goeth forth to be slain and giveth Himself as food for the faithful. Him do precede the angelic hosts, with all their Principalities and Powers, the many-eyed Cherubim and six-winged Seraphim, covering their faces and singing the song, Alleluia’. After the Liturgy there follows the blessing of bread, wine and dates. Originally, Orthodox used to spend the rest of the day and evening in church, watching and waiting, so food was given to strengthen them. Now the bread is blessed to remind us of this. They also spent their Vigil reading aloud the Acts of the Apostles. This custom is still kept up; the Acts lie open in front of the bier, and anyone may come in and read aloud. Towards midnight there is a short midnight service, when the canon of Great Saturday is sung. Then the priest and deacon carry the Winding Sheet into the sanctuary and lay it on the holy table. It will he there until Ascension Eve, as a symbol that Christ still appeared among His disciples for forty days after His Resurrection.

And so we wait for midnight and the beginning of a new period in the story of the Church. From this point on the book called the ‘Lenten Triodion’ is closed and now we open the book called the ‘Pentecostarion’, called the ‘Blossom Triodion’.

(Pascha) to All Saints Sunday
a) Pascha Night
All the doors of the sanctuary are closed. The church is in darkness. All lamps, candles and candelabra are ready to be lit. Below the altar steps stand the bearers of the icons, crosses and banners, the Gospels, the icon of the Resurrection, for the procession. The church is thronged with people, all in their best clothes, and each holding a candle. All stand in solemn, joyful waiting for the stroke of midnight.

The holy doors open and the priests in shining vestments come out, singing, ‘Thy resurrection, O Christ our Saviour, the angels sing in heaven; grant us on earth to glorify Thee with a pure heart’. The procession, followed by the people, passes out the church and moves anti-clockwise around the church still singing, stopping before the closed west door. We represent the faithful women who went to seek Christ in His tomb in the early dawn. The priest carries a cross and a triple candlestick with flowers. He raises the cross and proclaims in a loud voice: ‘Glory to the Holy, Consubstantial, Life-Giving and Indivisible Trinity, always, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages’. The choir replies, ‘Amen’. The priest sings the Pascha hymn, ‘Christ is risen from the dead’, and then intones Psalm 67: ‘Let God arise and let His enemies be scattered’. And the choir replies, triumphant: ‘Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death and on those in the tombs bestowing life’. The priest repeats the first, second and third verses of Psalm 67, and to each one the choir replies: ‘Christ is risen from the dead...’.

The doors of the church are flung open, for the tomb is no longer sealed. The procession enters the church and all the lights go on. The priest raises the cross to right and left and greets the people: ‘Christ is risen’. And all reply: ‘He is risen indeed’. The whole of Pascha Matins is one song of praise and glory to our Risen Lord. A song of joy to ‘the day of resurrection, the Passover of joy, the Passover of God, for Christ our Lord hath brought us from death to life, from earth to heaven singing the song of victory’. After each ode the priest comes out of the sanctuary (all the doors are wide open), censes all round the church and gives the Pascha greeting: ‘Christ is risen’. This reminds us of Christ’s appearances to the women and to the Apostles. At the end of Matins, after the cross has been kissed, the people greet and kiss each other three times, saying, ‘Christ is risen’.

The Paschal, Hours consist only of Paschal hymns. The Liturgy is particularly solemn and joyful, because all the sanctuary doors remain open all the time, so we can see the consecration of the holy gifts. The mystery is revealed. The doors are not closed the whole of Bright Week as a symbol that, by His death and Resurrection, Christ has opened the doors of His Kingdom to all believers. Nobody kneels during Bright Week and after until Pentecost, because there is no need for penitence: all sins are forgiven. At the Liturgy many Paschal anthems and hymns are sung. The Gospel of the Pascha Liturgy is not about the Resurrection, but is the first chapter of St John, ‘In the beginning was the Word...and the Word was God’.

This is to show that Christ eternally was God and has revealed Himself to the world as God by rising from the dead. The Gospel is read in several languages as a token that Christ’s teaching has spread to the ends of the earth.

b) Pascha Vespers and Bright Week
On Pascha Sunday afternoon there is special Vespers with resurrection hymns, which are sung quickly. The Gospel of St John is read, how ‘the same day in the evening ...when the doors were shut’, Christ appeared in the midst of His disciples. The whole of Bright Week is kept as one glorious holiday. The services are the same as on Sunday, with processions round the church after the Liturgy. It is the custom to ring the church bells during the day. People give each other red-colored eggs: the symbol of life hidden in the tomb and quickened by the Blood of Christ. On Bright Monday and Tuesday especially small children are brought to communion.

A special large loaf called the Artos, or Thomas Bread, is blessed at Pascha and distributed at the end of the week. It is the symbol of Jesus Christ, ‘the Bread of Eternal Life’. It also reminds us of the custom the Apostles had to set aside a loaf at their supper in memory of the Risen Lord. The Pascha hymns are sung for forty days until the Ascension.