By Father Konstantinos & Presvytera Evangelia
“Angels in the heavens extol Thy Resurrection, O Christ our Savior. Count us worthy who are here on earth to glorify Thee with a pure heart.”
(Orthros of Pascha).
Holy Week and Pascha! This time of the year is a unique opportunity for us, during which we have daily services from the Saturday of Lazarus through the day of Pascha, in preparation for and in celebration of what is truly the most important holiday of the year for Orthodox Christians worldwide. Without the Resurrection of Christ, we are nothing. As Saint Paul the Apostle tells us, “And if Christ is not risen, then our preaching is empty and your faith is also empty” (1 Corinthians 15:14).
We begin with a two-day interlude of celebration and resurrection between Lent
As if to prove Christ is a different kind of King, when we enter Holy Week, time flips on its head and the services are celebrated both in anticipation as well as abnormally, because the Creator of time, our Lord and Savior, is dying for us. Time in a sense comes to a complete halt, poetically mimicking our Savior’s actions. Therefore, beginning Palm Sunday evening, we do the morning Orthros for Holy Monday, called the Bridegroom Service. On Holy Monday evening, we do the morning Orthros of Holy Tuesday, and so on and so forth throughout the entire week, culminating in our Lord’s Resurrection celebrated at midnight of Holy and Great Pascha
Thus, as mentioned above, we begin Holy Week proper on Palm Sunday evening, not with a Vespers service as one might assume, but with the first Orthros Service of the Bridegroom. With the Services of the Bridegroom, the Church seeks to have us reflect on preparing our soul for when the time comes when we will meet the Lord. We receive the name “Bridegroom” from Christ’s parable of the Ten Virgins in the Gospel of Matthew (Matthew 25:1-13). This is the name also given to the icon of Christ that is brought in procession on Palm Sunday evening and that is left out for veneration of the faithful in the coming days. In the parable of the Ten Virgins, the Kingdom of Heaven is compared to a wedding celebration, a truly joyous celebration, with Christ as the Bridegroom, the Groom, who gives Himself in self-sacrificial love for the Church, His Bride. We have these Bridegroom Services with this common theme of the Bridegroom on Palm Sunday evening, Holy Monday evening, Holy Tuesday evening, and Holy Wednesday evening.
Additionally, on Palm Sunday evening, we remember the Patriarch Jacob from the Old Testament, who is seen as a type of Christ, and the cursing of the fig tree by Jesus. Do we bear fruit or are we like the fig tree?
On Holy Monday evening, we remember Christ’s parable of the ten virgins and the parable of the talents. Are we ready for the Lord? What if today is our last day on earth? What have we done with the blessings and gifts He has given us in our lives?
On Holy Tuesday evening, we contrast the love and repentance of the sinful woman who anointed Christ’s feet, with the treachery, greed, and betrayal of Judas, as seen in the Doxastikon authored by Saint Cassiani the nun. Have we repented? Even great sinners like the harlot woman can repent. What about us?
On Holy Wednesday, about midway through the week, it has become common custom to receive the Sacrament of Holy Unction.
A note on Holy Unction: This service is actually a sacrament of the Orthodox Church. As such, it is reserved only for Orthodox Christians. Similarly to Holy Communion, Holy Unction provides strength and healing for us, both spiritually and physically, as well as the forgiveness of sins. This is why it has become common custom and preparation as we approach the celebration of Pascha and the reception of Holy Communion in the days to come.
On Holy Wednesday evening, we pray the final Bridegroom Service, the Orthros for Holy Thursday morning, when we celebrate Christ’s institution of the Holy Eucharist at the Mystical Supper as well as the washing of the feet of the Apostles.
Additionally, for those who are able, on Holy Monday, Tuesday, & Wednesday mornings, the unique service of the Pre-Sanctified Liturgy that has been offered during Lent is also offered on these days at certain parishes, wherein we hear beautiful Gospel readings and some of the beautiful hymns from the evening before.
On Holy Thursday morning, we will do one of the few Vesperal Liturgies of the year, the Vesperal Divine Liturgy of Saint Basil the Great, in celebration of the institution of the Holy Eucharist, our precious Holy Communion, the Body and Blood of our Lord and Savior.
On Holy Thursday evening, we have the Orthros of Holy Friday. This is the most unique Orthros service of the entire year during which not one Gospel but twelve Gospel passages are read. These Gospel passages are related to the Crucifixion of Christ, as seen through the eyes of all the Evangelists. About midway through the service the church goes silent and dark as Christ is being crucified. The crucified Christ in the altar is then placed in the center of the Church after a procession. The Orthros on this evening is the longest church service of the year. We all mourn our Creator through each and every mode of chant of the Byzantine musical tradition (there are a total of eight) and through the Gospel passages during this service.
On Holy Friday morning, we have the Great and Royal Hours, filled with Old and New Testament readings and a repetition of some of the hymns from the Crucifixion. This is a wonderful service for young families to participate in, especially if you have children who can read, or young children who could not participate or stay awake Holy Thursday evening.
On Holy Friday afternoon, we have a Vespers service with the removal of Christ from the Cross, where the Priest, like Saints Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, removes Christ and lays Him in the sepulcher, the altar. We additionally have a procession with the Epitaphios, which is the embroidered icon of the burial of Christ, brought in procession around the Church to the Kouvouklion, the decorated structure that represents the tomb of Christ.
On Holy Friday evening, we pray the Orthros of Holy Saturday where we commemorate the burial of Christ and His descent into Hades and we chant the Egkomia “Praises” to our Lord, going in procession with the Kouvouklion & Epitaphios a
On Holy Saturday morning, we have the last Vesperal Liturgy of Saint Basil, wherein we chant the hymn “Arise, o God” during the Liturgy and have the spraying of bay leaves by the priest as symbols of victory over death, sin, and the devil. This service is called the First Resurrection because, much like the icon of the Resurrection, Christ is actually in Hades bringing the righteous of the Old Testament to Himself, saving their souls from the clutches of death.
With Pascha itself, there are simply no words to describe the beauty of the Feast of feasts. Simply come and see. On Holy Saturday night, come for the Resurrection “Anastasi” Service, stay for Liturgy, prepare to receive Communion, and get the blessed egg. As Father’s spiritual father has told him in the past, the mageireitsa and food can wait, Christ is risen! Your stomachs will survive.
On Pascha afternoon, we are all invited to join the Agape Vespers, as we read the Gospel in different languages to show the universality of the good news of the Resurrection.
May your hearts be encouraged to participate as much as possible in all the liturgical services offered.
We wish you a blessed Holy Week and Pascha! Kali Anastasi!