The Road to the Resurrection
A Walk Through Holy Week
In the Greek Orthodox Church
Just as the disciples accompanied Jesus on His journey to Jerusalem during Holy Week, the Church invites us also to walk with Him during the last days of His earthly ministry. Let us go with Him in order to witness His life-giving Passion, to cast our eyes upon the terrible Crucifixion, and celebrate His rising from the dead on the third day.
Holy Week in the Greek Orthodox Church is an important spiritual journey. It bridges together the Great Fast of forty days with Pascha. God’s ineffable love for mankind is made tremendously visible through His endurance of humiliation and brutal treatment. We will learn that God’s desire to save us is so great that He will stop at nothing and encounter anything, even death, for our sake.
These words are written to provide a background and description of the various events of Holy Week. They can never replace the mystical experience that the Church provides through its Divine Services, for when the faithful come together the Body of Christ is manifested. The words in this summary are meant to help enrich your understanding of the Great and Holy Week. May God give you strength as we enter this time of personal holiness and renewal.
Holy Week’s Message
During Holy Week, we hear stories from Scripture that teach us about Jesus, who He is, and how we can grow closer to Him.
From the beginning, Jesus and His Gospel were met by a two-fold response: some believed and became His disciples; others rejected Him and came to hate Him, and to despise and scorn His Gospel.
Great Week brings before us two realities. On the one hand we are made aware of the dreadful blight of human sin, issuing from the rebellion against God that resides in us and around us; on the other hand, we experience anew the omnipotent, transforming power of God’s love and holiness.
The grace, beauty, and solemnity of Great Week help us to enter and penetrate the depths of this mystery. Each day there is a particular theme, focus, and story. Each story is linked to the other; and all together they create a central event. Everything converges on the person of Jesus Christ, who was betrayed, crucified, and buried; and who rose on the third day.
The brilliance of each day helps us see more clearly the depths of our sins, both personal and collective. This in turn reminds us of God’s immeasurable love, mercy and power. The truths exhibited each night confront us, again and again, with the most crucial challenge: “have I changed?, do I rely on God’s power?, do I have respect for God and myself?, do I have the courage to confront personal evil?, do I grasp the great power that has been given?, and do I understand that this divine power is only made perfect and utilized in infirmity and weakness? These are the many questions posed to us this coming week. Their answers lie in God who strengthens and illuminates us.
Saturday of the Raising of Lazarus
April 8, Saturday of Lazarus: Orthros, 8:45 AM, Divine Liturgy 9:30 A.M.
Gospel of John 11:1-45 (click for reading)
Apolytikion of the Raising of Lazarus and Palm Sunday
The story of Lazarus is a familiar one. Mary (not the Panayia) and Martha send word to Jesus to come to Bethany to heal their brother. Interestingly enough, Jesus delays his journey to Bethany and Lazarus dies. By the time Jesus finally arrives, Lazarus has been dead for four days. When Jesus asks for the stone to be removed from the tomb, people object fearing the odor of death. Nevertheless they comply and Lazarus emerges from the tomb wrapped in burial clothes. Christ’s dramatic resurrection of Lazarus prefigures His own Resurrection with one significant difference: though temporarily defeated, death will eventually come again to Lazarus and take his life once more.
The miracles performed by Jesus were vast and wondrous. He healed so many of their infirmities and allowed them to return to life in a better condition than before. The human side of us cannot help but to question, why Jesus would delay his visit to Bethany to heal His friend Lazarus. After all, He did so many things for so many others, many whom were complete strangers. Couldn’t He find it in His heart to do the same for His dear friend? Didn’t He have one more miracle to spare? Scripture emphasizes the closeness of their relationship in saying; “Lord, behold, he whom You love is sick.” And “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.”
One may think that Jesus delayed His journey to Bethany because of the tension between Him and the Jewish religious authorities that had reached a certain crescendo; in fact, it had become an open conflict. Accordingly, the hostility felt toward Jesus drove these leaders to have Him killed. Verse 8 in the Gospel of John (John 11:8) has the disciples reminding Jesus of the their hatred and attempted violence against Him. The disciples feared for Jesus’ personal security and thus asked Him to reconsider this particular journey. Perhaps, they thought, in time this conflict would diminish. Yet the hatred felt towards Jesus would not diminish but rather intensify. Day after day it grew swelling to the point where reprehensible acts of violence awaited Jesus.
Jesus, in the way of a beloved teacher, changes the narrative. He tells us plainly that the purpose of His delay is so that all may witness the glory of God and in turn to provide an act for His glorification. (vs. 4 & 40). In some way, the disciple must have thought, this journey has great significance for Christ.
An important point of Holy Week: Jesus has foreknowledge of the impending and dreadful week to come. One major theme for each day of Great Week is that power is found in the display of weakness; and glory in humility. Many times it is difficult for us to understand divine contrasts using human sensibility. Yet the Church uses contrasting forms throughout Great Week to show us that the ways of the Lord are not the ways of this world; and where God is concerned, natural law is overturned. Thus, through Christ we comprehend how it is possible for power to be found in weakness; and glory in meekness! These contrasts will be repeated over and over again throughout Great Week.
In her moment of uncertainty when Martha asks Jesus why He was not there to keep her brother alive, we are to understand that His delay was not out of fear, or forgetfulness, or lack of mercy but so that His delay may become the purpose of her belief and thus see the glory of God. (John 11:40)
Already we can see the contrasts beginning on the Saturday of Lazarus starting with the disciples’ analysis of the situation and their reasoning to abandon the trip to Bethany. This is contrasted with Jesus’ sense of duty and purpose to bring about the glorification of God. Martha’s questioning of Jesus (she’s disappointed and hurt because He did not heal her brother’s illness resulting in his death) contrasted by Jesus’ reassuring love and call to faith. Human sensibility (odor from the tomb) contrasted with Christ’s command (to open the tomb). We see human frailty and corruption (illness and death) contrasted with God’s power (life and Resurrection).
When Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, He gives Mary and Martha what their hearts desired more than anything else at that moment – another chance at life, a new life for their brother. For Lazarus, Jesus undoes the highest pain that we all must face: death.
The miracle of the Raising of Lazarus is place here at the beginning of Great Week to symbolize and prefigure Christ’s own Resurrection from the dead. We begin the week with life and will end it with life – Christ’s Resurrection. If Jesus can raise Himself and His friend Lazarus, He can do the same for us. And we believe that He will. The Raising of Lazarus helps begin our journey through Holy Week. It reminds us of our hope for the completion of our journey. Jesus Christ brings the miracle to one man, and then He lives through it Himself, making the Resurrection and eternal life possible for every one of us. Think how powerful is His statement to Martha, I Am the Resurrection and the Life. v. 25 This event demonstrates that Christ is no ordinary prophet but God Incarnate. And this same person, the Son of God will demonstrate His power once again to triumph over Death by His own death on the day of Pascha.
This extreme miracle was a shock that no one could have ever expected. While they were still celebrating, the news of the miracle spread to the people in the nearby city Jerusalem. This event, like no other before, fuels momentum to both the people believing in Christ as the Messiah and to those whose power is threatened by Him. To the one, their faith is being restored as freedom becomes visible through this mighty prophet of God. To the opposers of God, their hatred grows toward Jesus and thus decide it is time to rid themselves of Him.
We are to remember in the days to come that God’s power is ultimate and will prevail! So that when we see Him betrayed, arrested, beaten, mocked, spit upon, sentenced, crucified, pierced, dying, motionless, and buried… we are to see God’s power being made perfect through the demonstration of weakness. To the lowest degree, even to death and to Hades did Christ descend in order to display His perfection as God. This is the ultimate divine contrast of Holy Week.
To Contemplate: What is our response to this miracle of the raising of Lazarus and Christ’s statement: “He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live.” and “Whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die.” “DO YOU BELIEVE THIS?”
Let our response equal Martha’s: “Yes, Lord, I believe that You are the Christ, the Son of God, who is to come into the world!”
Christ’s Glorious Entry into Jerusalem Known as
April 9, Palm Sunday: Orthros, 8:30 A.M., Divine Liturgy 9:30 A.M.
Gospel of John 12:1-18 (click for reading)
The fame of Jesus spread rapidly throughout the land due to His various abilities but especially having performed the miracles of miracle – raising Lazarus. Our Lord was known as a dynamic preacher calling for the return of His people to their God. He asked them to surrender their hearts to the merciful One. His divine words were always followed by powerful actions. From the outset of His public ministry, Jesus also proclaimed the kingdom of God and announced that the powers of the Age to come were already active in the present age. (Luke 7:18-22) After the raising of Lazarus, there was little doubt in the minds of the people that He was the promised Messiah. Jesus must be the promised king who will restore the nation of Israel to its former glory as it was during the reign of King David and King Solomon. Accordingly, in the minds of many, Jesus’ earthly power is growing. In Jerusalem, He is hailed as both a political and religious leader. This dual threat now provokes the rage of both the Jewish religious leaders as well as Roman rule and now they must search for a way to exploit this recognition so that Jesus can be condemned publicly. (John 11:45-54)
A number of contrasts heighten the story-line, namely dealing with the understanding of the Messiah. (How is the freedom that the Messiah delivers understood, freedom from the Romans or from the Devil? How is authority used, to subjugate or in service to others? How is power used, to loosen sins or to bind heavy loads on people. What type of kingdom will Jesus establish, an earthly or heavenly?)
Those anticipating their new king had already gathered together in Jerusalem for the Passover, a great and significant feast day marking God’s first deliverance from the Egyptians. They excitedly waited to see if a certain prophecy surrounding the Messiah would be revealed. The Messiah, according to the Prophet Zechariah, would come sitting on a donkey’s colt. If Jesus came in such a way then He would be revealed as the Deliverer. (Zecharias 9:9-10)
Imagine the exuberance of these people seeing Christ enter into Jerusalem. Now, some may have thought a king should enter riding on a proud stallion not some tiny donkey* but nevertheless the prophecy is fulfilled and God has revealed Christ as the Messiah. It is He who will deliver us from the Romans. The crowds cheered as He passed by, the children threw down palms and branches of trees to welcome Him. It was a parade of epic proportions. *another contrast
This is the first time in His earthly ministry that the Lord permits and accepts praise and glory. He is the Messiah, He is a King and He will indeed conquer the warring enemy and set His people free but not in their expected way but with a different nuance.
The entry of Christ into Jerusalem ushers in His kingdom. At this moment the Kingdom of God is inaugurated upon the earth. All that He created in the fashioning of the world is returned to Him. This marks the “roll out” of His kingdom overtaking and eventually destroying the oppressive dominion of Hades with His glorious Resurrection. By establishing His kingdom upon the earth, symbolically we see the closing of the Old Testament (exile/estranged from God) and the beginning of the New Testament (communion/fellowship with God).
Another contrast: Jesus accomplishes this feat without revolution, without the shedding of blood; nor through chaos or mischief. He does all this through humility and peace.
The entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem came at the end of the entire process of preparation revealed in the Bible: it was the end of all that God did for men. And thus this short hour of Christ’s earthly triumph acquires an eternal meaning. It introduces the reality of the Kingdom into our time; it makes this Kingdom the meaning of life and our ultimate goal. The Kingdom was revealed in this world – from that hour – and transforms human history. At the most solemn moment in our liturgical celebration, when we receive from the priest a palm branch, we renew our oath to our King and confess His Kingdom as the ultimate meaning and content of our life. We confess that everything in our life and in the world belongs to Christ, nothing can be taken away from its sole real Owner, for there is no area of life in which He is not to rule, to save and to redeem.
When we enter the church on Palm Sunday, we enter Jerusalem with Christ. And because we enter with Him, we also will “suffer” with Him, and this service begins His suffering and betrayal. To suffer with Jesus does not mean that we should feel pain. Instead of pain, we suffer through a restriction of time and food. In other words, we are to sacrifice our time to spend more of it in church. We are to intensify the fast to enter this ineffable mystery of the Passion of Christ.
To Contemplate: Our Orthodox faith means preparing ourselves to meet Christ, to joyously allow Him entrance into our hearts, the inner kingdom, so that He might be established there. We are to be strong and courageous in wanting this to happen. Too many times, however, we become like those who joyously celebrated Jesus’ arrive to Jerusalem but then leave Him feeling disappointed. Our preconceived notions hinder a proper understanding of Jesus’ role in our lives. We expect and oftentimes demand things from the Lord. When these things dictate our reason and when rigid views and selfish ways do not validated our personal belief system then we reject Christ as did the people who fled from Him when He entered His Passion. We are called to open the gates of our locked hearts to allow the King of Glory to enter.
The Bridegroom Cometh
The term Bridegroom is a significant name describing Christ. The name comes from the central figure in the well-known parable of the ten virgins. (Matthew 25:1-13) The name suggests an intimacy of love.
If a story speaks of a bridegroom then one must gather there must also be a bride. In Ecclesiastical language, the bride is the Church. In other words, the bride is all people comprising the Church and belonging to Christ. The Christian is one who is united to Christ and who shares an intimate relationship with Him.
A MARRIAGE IS TAKING PLACE
Any wedding day has a plethora of activity surrounding it. If you have ever seen a bride preparing for her wedding day, you may notice that she is very busy. Her upcoming wedding probably seems to be the only thing on her mind and the only thing she is talking about. Almost everything she does revolves around her wedding and the groom. In similar fashion, Great Week should be like a wedding, the only thing we should be focused on. We are to keep our minds on Christ the Bridegroom as much as we can.
The first part of Holy Week consists of a series of services called the Bridegrooms Services. Each service is a reminder of an extremely important event that unites us to Christ. These services prepare us for our spiritual wedding day, the day in which we are intimately united to Christ. Jesus Christ, the Bridegroom, will come to us repeatedly during Holy Week in order to prove His love.
The imagery of the Bridegroom is used by the Church to show the depths of God’s unfathomable love. God’s love endures any and all tribulation in order to maintain His intimate union with His Bride. The Bridegroom under no circumstance will forsake His Bride. The last days of this week will demonstration His fidelity.
THE LAST DAYS OF CHRIST
The Bridegroom Services also mark for us the last days of Christ’s earthly ministry.
“These days were especially dark and gloomy. The relentless hostility and opposition to Jesus by the religious authorities had reached unparalleled proportions. Yet, in the midst of this painful conflict Jesus revealed aspects of His divine authority by passing judgement on the evil plots and the false religiosity of His enemies. The unremitting belligerency of Jesus’ adversaries was completely unmasked in the days preceding the crucifixion. The leaders of all the religious parties and factions collaborated and conspired to entrap, humiliate and kill Him. As the snares of His enemies tightened, Jesus openly foretold His death and subsequent glorification. His words were a clear declaration that His death was voluntary and lay within the framework of the divine plan for the salvation of the world. Thus with this in mind, the Church commemorates the Passion not as ugly episodes caused by vile and contemptible men, but as the voluntary sacrifice of the Son of God.” – Fr. A Calivas
ICON OF THE BRIDEGROOM
The tone of Great Week is clearly one of somberness and sorrowfulness. Purple or even black vestments are worn by the priest. However, we gather in the Church not to mourn a dead hero, but to remember and commemorate an event of cosmic significance: the Son of God experiencing in His humanity every form of suffering at the hands of feeble, misdirected and evil men. We mourn our sinfulness as we stand in contrite silence before the awesome, impenetrable mystery of Christ, the God-man (Theo-anthropos), who carries His human-divine blend to the extreme limits accepting the death of the Cross.
The icon of the Bridegroom, therefore, depicts the limits to which God suffers. He is not depicted as a joyous Bridegroom but rather as a condemned man awaiting the final and ultimate penalty of death. He is the suffering man who has been betrayed into the hands of sinful men; He has been accused and has been mocked and beaten and appears to us in utter humility. His hands are bound, he wears the crown of thorns, the mockery of a purple robe is about Him and He is given a reed instead of a scepter.
The icon of the Bridegroom is taken in procession around the church on Sunday night. It shows us where we must journey before beholding Christ’s ineffable and glorious Resurrection.
Hear the words of the Prophet Isaiah depicting the Bridegroom:
“He had no form or glory, and we saw Him; and He had no form or beauty. But in comparison to all men, His form was lacking in honor. He was a man in suffering and knew how to bear sickness. His face was turned away, and He was dishonored and not esteemed. He bears our sins and suffers for us, yet we considered Him to be in pain, suffering, and ill-treatment. But He was wounded because of our lawlessness, and became sick because of our sins. The chastisement of our peace was upon Him, and by His bruise we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray. Man has gone astray in his way, and the Lord delivered Him over for our sins. Although He was ill-treated, He opened not His mouth. He was led as a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb is silent before His shearers, so He opens not His mouth. In His humiliation His judgment was taken away, and who will declare His generation? For His life is taken from the earth, and because of the lawlessness of My people He was led to death. I will appoint evil men for His burial and rich men for His death, because He committed no lawlessness, nor was deceit found in His mouth.” (Isaiah 53:2b-9)
April 9, Palm Sunday Evening: Bridegroom, Orthros, 7:00 P.M.
Gospel of Matthew 21:18-43 (click for reading)
On the evening of Palm Sunday, we focus on two stories that connect us to the past (Old Testament) and the future. We remember Joseph the Patriarch. We see Joseph as a prototype of Jesus Christ, showing the same steadfast love that Jesus Christ offers in His last earthly days.
Who was Joseph? Genesis 50:19-21
Joseph had tremendous faith in God’s love. So much so that he reassured and comforted his brothers who betrayed and sold him into slavery. Having suffered evil from the hands of his brothers, Joseph forgave them in the same way that Jesus Christ forgave those who crucified Him.
On the same night, we also hear of Christ cursing the fig tree because it produced no fruit. This story is not just about a tree. When the fig tree stands before Christ and gives Him nothing, it symbolizes any person or group of people who does not receive Christ and His teachings. The tree fails to give fruit. Often we as people fail to bear fruit: we don’t live as we should. Each of us needs to care for his soul as if it is a garden, so that faith can live, breath, and produce fruit.
April 10, Monday Evening: Bridegroom, Orthros, 7:00 P.M.
Gospel of Matthew 22:15-48 & 23:1-39 (click for reading)
I See Thy Bridal Chamber
On Monday evening of Great Week, we hear about the ten virgins waiting for the coming of the Bridegroom. This parable warns us to be ready for an important moment, and to have what we need prepared beforehand while we wait. The Gospel passage of the ten virgins is heard during the Vespers (Presanctified Liturgy) on Tuesday morning
WOE TO YOU
At night, we hear one of the most powerful stories in the New Testament. Certain Jewish leaders, who were enemies of Jesus and had enough of Him, confront Him and try to trap Him with His words. The plot to kill Jesus has begun to unfold. Notice the insincere tone greeting Jesus, “Teacher, we know that You are true, and teach the way of God in truth.”
Jesus skilfully answers their questions and makes them look foolish, which only enrages them more. Afterwards, Jesus chastises them calling them hypocrites because they tell people to observe traditions without following them themselves. These events set the stage for the Jewish leaders’ plot to have Jesus arrested.
This indeed is Christ’s sharpest criticism for those religious leaders who were supposed to help people in their relationship with God. Instead, they assumed this ministerial role for personal gain. Jesus’s words are severe accusations and direct. We are warned not to be false and insincere. We must never hear these words, Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, ye hypocrites!
These religious hypocrites kept people from knowing God by teaching human traditions and rejecting the Messiah. With zeal they sought newcomers to the faith but actually wanted to consolidate their power with more people. The Lord described them as blind guides creating a false system of religion by being meticulous in outward expressions of faith, like tithing, but missed the bigger picture altogether. They could not understand that charity must create justice, mercy, and faith. They were very careful to display their outward appearance as righteous and pious before men but Jesus pointed out, on the inside they are full of extortion, greed, and gluttony. Jesus tells them to be more mindful of that which is within, namely the soul and heart than outside forms. He compares them to white-washed tombs that appear clean and even beautiful on the outside but within are corrupt and full of dead men’s bones. The religious leaders acted as though they had high regard for the dead prophets of old, and claimed that they would never have persecuted and murdered them, but they were exactly like them. They too have murderous instincts just like their forefathers. In the end, Jesus is exposing their false religiosity which leads to their most evil intent…to kill Jesus.
To Contemplate: These are some of the most biting words that Jesus ever spoke. He condemns the religious leaders not for committing any particular sin but rather neglecting the weightier matters of life; justice, mercy, and faith. In your life, how do you correct the “sins of omission”? Are there things you should be doing that you are not? Why does Jesus seem to indicate that the neglect or overlooking of the law is the greater sin? What is the motivation behind your actions? Do you see tradition, charitable acts, and religious practice as opportunities to impart God to the others? In the end, we must be careful about behaving like the enemies of Jesus, saying one thing and doing another.
April 11, Tuesday Evening: Bridegroom, Orthros, 7:00 P.M.
Gospel of Matthew 24:36-51; 25:1-46; & John 12:17-50 (click for reading)
On Tuesday night the Church asks us to focus on two figures: the sinful woman who anointed the head of Jesus shortly before the Passion and Judas, the disciple who betrayed the Lord. These two figures contrast one another greatly. Both of their acts are forever remembered; The woman: “In pouring this ointment on My body she has done it to prepare Me for burial. Truly, I say to you, wherever this Gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.” Judas: “Then one of the twelve, who was called Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said, ‘What will you give me if I deliver Him to you?’ And they paid him thirty pieces of silver. And from that moment he sought an opportunity to betray him.”
These two are greatly contrasted: With the one, we hear a confession of faith; with the other a rejection. She was set free from sin; he became a slave to it. The woman inherited the kingdom; while Judas fell into perdition. She loosed her sins with the wiping of her hair upon the precious feet of Jesus; he retained sin by tightening the knot upon his neck. How terrible was his avarice! How great her repentance!!
The hymns of Holy Week also skillfully contrasts these two figures:
“The harlot came to You, O Merciful Lord, pouring out on Your feet myrrh, mixed with tears, and was redeemed of her vices at Your command; but Your ungrateful disciple, though he breathed Your grace, rejected it, and becoming mixed in the filthy mire, he sells You in his greed. O Christ, glory to Your compassion!” – Hymn from Great Tuesday evening
Judas sets the Passion of Christ into motion with his betrayal. However, it would be incorrect and even profane to suggest that Judas was God’s instrument helping to usher in the Resurrection. He is by no means a saint and any suggestion that his actions were motivated by divine love is to make God an instrument of evil. Judas’ heart was darkened by the passion of avarice, so much so, that he gladly traded the Master’s love for a few pieces of silver. As Holy Scripture points out, he was a thief and cared for only himself. Judas Iscariot, said, “‘Why was this fragrant oil not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?’ This he said, not that he cared for the poor, but because he was a thief, and had the money box; and he used to take what was put in it.”‘ (John 12:4-6)
In our life, God provides for us examples of goodness. Many times these acts happen right before our eyes. This He does to help clear the mind and purify the heart. To those who see these acts of goodness and are inwardly converted, they have gained grace and to their fortune have a shining example to imitate. But to those who overlook acts of goodness and instead behave selfishly, to them there awaits condemnation. Tuesday night of Holy Week asks us to turn away from our wickedness and embrace that which is good. Like the harlot, we are to offer tears of repentance and cling unto Christ, for there is no salvation apart from Him. The love of money, material possessions, self-interest, and political intrigue are the ways of this world, and they shall doom us as they did Judas.
An image of perfect repentance was given to Judas by the woman who anointed Jesus. Regrettably, he could not see any good in this offering, nor was he willing to imitate the goodness that happened right before him. O misery of Judas…
“He saw the harlot kissing the feet, and with guile he meditated the kiss of betrayal. She unloosed her tresses, and he bound himself with fury, bringing instead of myrrh, his foul wickedness; for envy knows not to appreciate even its own advantage. O wretchedness of Judas! From this, O God, deliver our souls.” – Hymn from Great Tuesday evening
The Impending Passion
From the Gospel reading of Orthros, we know that Jesus is certain that the impending Passion is getting closer. “Now is My soul troubled. And what shall I say? Father save me from this hour? No, for this purpose I have come to this hour.” Jesus predicting His death encourages all to follow His teaching. His words are validated with the voice of God the Father.
At this moment, the Passion arrives and because of this, the final process of salvation is enacted. The dominion of Death comes to an end… “Now is the judgment of this world, now shall the ruler of this world be cast out; and I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself.”
Hymn of Kassiani
On Tuesday evening and Wednesday morning the Hymn of Kassiani is chanted. This hymn is based on the Gospel reading of the woman, Mary, who anointed Jesus with costly ointment. This hymn is chanted only once a year and is considered a musical high-point of Holy Week.
The Hymn of Kassiani
The Great Synaxarion tells the story as related by Saint Theodora that Abbess Kassiani spent the afternoon in the garden of a monastery composing this hymn. As she finished writing that verse which says, “I shall kiss Thine immaculate feet, and wipe them again with the tresses of my head,” she was informed that Emperor Theophilos had arrived at the convent. She did not wish to see him, and in her haste to conceal herself, left behind the scroll and pen. Theophilos, having entered the garden, found her half-completed poem, and added the phrase, “those feet at whose sound Eve hid herself for fear when she heard Thee walking in Paradise in the afternoon.” After he departed, Kassiani came out from hiding. When she took up her composition, she beheld the phrase written in his handwriting. She retained it and went on to complete the poem.
To Contemplate: What are the things of true value that we offer the Lord? As Mary poured out a pound of costly perfume on the head of Jesus, she offered Him something of tremendous value. Some say, this ointment was to be used for her wedding day or sold in preparation for her wedding. In doing this act, she prepares Christ for burial and is joined to Him with the community of believers.
The Sacrament of Holy Unction
The Service of Healing
April 12, Wednesday: Holy Unction, 3:00 P.M. & 7:00 PM
The Sacrament of Healing (Euchelaion, in Greek) meaning the “prayer of oil” is traditionally celebrated on Holy Wednesday of Great Week. This Sacrament is offered by the Church as a healing service, to heal those ailments that are both physical and spiritual. We read in Mark 6:13 that the Apostles were given the duty to anoint the sick with oil and to heal them. Even before the establishment of the Church the Apostles were using oil to heal those with ailments. Through the vehicle of oil (a visible sign), the Apostles transmitted the power of Jesus (God’s grace) to those afflicted. Not only was oil used to heal the body but also to forgive sins.
James 5:13-15 “Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing psalms. Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders (literally the Presbyters or priests) of the Church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.”
From this passage we understand that this Sacrament has four important aspects: a) anointing is an action of the Church, not of private individuals. b) the anointing of a sick person’s body with oil is a physical act, a familiar therapeutic tradition of that time and age. c) the anointing is however, not a simple medical procedure; it is associated with prayer, as is the case with every other sacramental action in the Church. d) it is related to the forgiveness of sins, indicating not only the connection between sickness and our broken and sinful condition, but also the spiritual dimensions of this act of healing.
The Orthodox Church teaches that God created the human as a unity of body and soul. As such, there can be no sharp distinction from bodily and spiritual ills. Hence the main purpose of the Sacrament is to heal both types of ailments.
We know that many people who are afflicted with an illness for a long period of time may begin to suffer spiritually. Those who are not feeling well may say, “my spirits are down.” Likewise, those who have spiritual ailments may feel physical responses, as: stress causing depression or ulcers etc.
When one is sick, the Church is there offering this Sacrament to alleviate their illness. Even if the sick person does not recover there is a spiritual cleansing. God does not always promise physical healing but with faith He promises something greater – the restoration of the human, soul and body. This is why healing is requested in the framework of repentance and salvation. Healing is the Divine pardon and liberation from the cycle of sin.
The Mystical Supper
April 13, Thursday: Divine Liturgy, 9:00 A.M.
Thursday evening takes us through Christ’s last earthly hours. The mood of the Church is somber and reflective and takes on a more urgent tone. In the evening, we rejoice together with the disciples in the upper room and in the morning are shocked to see Him betrayed in the Garden of Gethsemane. It is here in the upper room that Christ shares salvation with us, uniting us to Him and to each other in one sacramental moment. We are invited to join Him where He sups with His disciples and offers them the first Eucharist. This is the institution of the central sacrament of the Christian faith. For us, it is the ultimate in giving thanks (efcharistia) to God.
What is remarkable is that Christ directs His disciples immediately before His death to partake of Holy Communion in His memory. Christ radically gives new meaning to the food and drink of a sacred meal. He identifies Himself with the bread and wine: “Take, eat; this is my Body. Drink of it all of you, for this is my Blood of the New Covenant.” This is how we come into union with God and thus share in His death and Resurrection. We have learned to equate food with life because it sustains our earthly existence. In the Eucharist, the distinctively unique human food – bread and wine – becomes the gift of life.
Customarily the faithful make every attempt to partake of Holy Communion on this day since the Eucharist is at the center of the Church’s life. It is her most profound prayer and principle activity. In it we see the Church’s source and pinnacle of her life since through it all other sacraments and pursuits are made complete.
While this meal that Jesus shares with His disciples is not, strictly speaking, the Passover meal, but it uses the Passover meal to create and fulfill its meaning through Christ. Passover is on a Saturday so the Passover meal would be held on Friday night not Thursday night. This meal is the completion of the Jewish Passover meal making the Eucharist the remedy to death. “Now before the Feast of Passover, when Jesus knew that His hour had come that He should depart from this world to the Father…” (John 13:1)
It is during the Mystical Supper that Christ mentions His betrayal. He indicates who the person is through a conversation and by indicating a certain action.
April 13, Thursday: 12 Gospels, 7:00 PM
We enter into Christ’s darkest hours, when in His final day, He is betrayed and gives Himself up to be Crucified. This is the darkest hour the world has seen. We spend a lot of time in church listening to the twelve Gospels which depict Christ’s Crucifixion and Burial.
We journey with Jesus early on Friday morning to the Garden of Gethsemane a mere few hours after the new Passover meal. Judas has departed from the company of his brothers, forsaking the Lord.
The Lord’s Passion has begun. In the garden He prays for completion of His mission. His prayer shows us that He is completely human in His distress, yet He remains completely obedient to His Father. He knows that He is going to die which brings Him intense pain. He asks for this suffering to pass but knows that through the suffering that is to come all of humanity will experience the ultimate love of God. He knows that all shall be saved by His Crucifixion and Resurrection.
The late evening takes its affect as all the disciples begin to sleep and leave Christ alone. Only He keeps vigil. Angels come to minister to Him. Then in the early dawn does Judas appear with a detachment of soldiers to arrest Jesus. There is a small skirmish but Jesus reminds His disciples that “those who live by the sword shall die by the sword.” Jesus is taken to trail. He is tried as a criminal. In fact He faces two trails a religious and civil trial.
In the religious court, He is tried as a blasphemer, claiming to be the Son of God. In the civil court he is accused as proclaiming Himself a king, so therefore a usurper.
In the middle of this service, just after the Fifth Gospel reading the Estavromenos (Crucified Christ) is carried in procession around the church and placed in the middle of the solea.
ICON OF THE CRUCIFIXION
The Crucifixion of our Lord, God, and Saviour, Jesus Christ.
The icon of the Crucifixion clearly explains the story. The center of the story is the Crucified Christ. On one side, we see Mary, the Theotokos, with the Myrrhbearing women. On the other, is St. John the Theologian with a soldier, St. Longinus. The icon show Christ at the end of the Crucifixion as he had died. You can usually tell this because His head is dropped to one side. Grief on the faces of the other figures is distinguishable. They are greatly upset.
On the side of Christ we see a wound. He has already been pierced with the spear. And coming out of the wound we see red and white, the blood and water.
What is interesting about the icon is that it is somewhat cleaned up. People would have known that a crucifixion is a horrific death. It is degrading, humility, prolonged…probably the worse form of execution. The icon does not reflect this reality. Even though we see evidence of its brutality by Christ’s wounds on the hands, feet and side, He is not in agony and His body is not depicted as being beaten up and brutalized. Instead, we see Him rather peaceful almost a regal image. What does this mean? We are meant to reflect on a Crucified Christ; a Crucified Saviour as the King. We also take away from this icon that although He was Crucified and humiliated Christ is still in control of His destiny, for this was a voluntary crucifixion. Even in the moment of His weakness, He controls the universe. He is God crucified in human flesh, He therefore is truly the King of Glory.
To Contemplate: During His life a few accepted Jesus Christ as the Messiah and others rejected Him. His life, the Word of God confronts each of us with the same choice. Will we stand at the Cross weeping for the tragic cruelty and injustice we witness or are we party to the cruelty and injustice ourselves. The tragic reality expressed in our hymns makes one thing clear: though we were not there at the time, we share in the guilt of Christ’s cruel treatment: the scourging, the spitting, the mocking and yes, the Crucifixion. The irony is that we shared in the cruelty yet we are the beneficiaries of His great love and mercy. God pours Himself out in an ecstasy of love. He chases each one of us. He knocks on the door of our hearts looking for crumbs of our love in return.
The Apokathelosis (Un-nailing)
When we come to church on the afternoon of Holy Friday, we are attending the burial of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Every image and object we see, every step we take, is part of our solemn mourning for the death of Christ. The Service of the Apokathelosis or Unnailing Service is named because the Body of Christ is taken down from the Cross and wrapped in a white sheet.
On this day, the Church remembers the ineffable mystery of Christ’s death. Christ is real. His death is real. To see His lifeless body hanging on the Cross and to reach out to un-nail Him is real. Jesus did not come to meet death with an array of philosophical theories, empty pronouncements or vague hopes. He met death in person, face to face. He broke the iron grip of this ancient enemy by the awesome business of dying and living again.
The un-nailing is depicted during the reading of the Gospel story. When the person, Joseph of Arimathea is mentioned in the reading, the priest will come before the Cross to remove Christ’s body. The priest will wrap the Body in a clean white sheet and place Christ in new tomb. The Body is placed on the Altar Table which is always the symbol of His tomb.
Later in the service, the epitaphios (the embroidered cloth which has an icon depicting Christ after being removed from the Cross) is carried in procession around the church and is placed in the sepulchre or kouvouklion. This is Christ’s funeral procession. The faithful participate in the funeral procession and burial of Jesus by kneeling and attaching themselves the procession.
During the procession the following hymn is chanted:
“When Joseph of Arimathea took You, the Life of all, now dead, down from the Cross, he buried You in fine linen, after anointing You with myrrh. He yearned with desire, in heart and lips, to embrace Your pure Body; but, humbly contained by awe, rejoicing, he cried out to You: ‘Glory to Your condescension, O Merciful God!'”
One of the most poignant words in this hymn is the condescension of Him who died on the Cross. Condescension means that the All-powerful Lord and Creator decided to do something He didn’t have to do – to become man and die like a man, out of love. Joseph held a dead man in his arms, but we never forget that this man was God Himself.
After the service the faithful approach the kouvouklion to venerate the epitaphios – Christ in the tomb. Young children may crawl under the kouvouklion. Both are symbolic of our entering the grave with Christ.
The Apokathelosis Service reminds us that even though each of us must pass through the portal of death and be buried in our own grave, when we enter that grave together with Christ then it shall become another portal leading us to eternal life.
The kouvouklion is decorated with flowers as a symbol that life flows from the tomb of Christ.
The Service of the Apokathelosis begins at 3:00 PM because this was the hour of Christ’s death. All three synoptic Gospels tell us that at the ninth hour Jesus died. “Now from the sixth hour until the ninth hour there was darkness over all the land. And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” that is, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice, and yielded up His spirit.” (Matthew 27:45) Translated, the ninth hour is 3:00 PM or mid-afternoon.
Who are figures depicted as being present in the icon of the Apokathelosis? Jesus’ mother, the Theotokos is kissing her son. The myrrh-bearing women are gathered around Him. Three men are also depicted: Joseph of Arimethea, a secret disciple of Christ, near the Theotokos; Nicodemus, removing the nails; and St. John touching Jesus’ hand.
THE GREAT AND HOLY PASCHA
COME RECIEVE THE LIGHT, FROM THE UNWANING (NEVER SETTING) LIGHT;
AND GLORIFY CHRIST WHO HAS RISEN FROM THE DEAD
In the late eve of Saturday night, the faithful come to church to proclaim the Resurrection of Christ. Pascha is the Feast of all Feasts, and the Day of all days. The service begins with a vigil service. The chanters sing the canon from the night before. As the canon is completed, one of the most moving liturgical moments follows. Richly symbolic the church is entirely darkened.
When the church is darkened, we become participants in an ancient ritual that has been repeated countless times. Each of us is a participant in the coming act of faith. We are to envision ourselves in Hades. In the darkness that surrounds us, we lie in our own tomb devoid of assistance. Darkness is a symbol of the Fall; our separation from God, who is the Giver of Light. In this blackness of obscurity there is only despair, hopelessness and death. Ironically, we stand together in a filled church which is also symbolic…with so around us, we are helpless to comfort one another in the abyss of Hades. Each suffers the same loss. We begin to ask the question of David the King when he wrote in Psalm 121 “From where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, Who made heaven and earth!”
No liturgical setting makes this point more emphatic than standing together in a darkened church. No person, other than Christ, can bring help or rescue us from the darkness of Hades. His Light shines in the darkness and the Creator of the heavens and the earth shall recreate us through His glorious Resurrection.
From the altar comes a single light which is symbolic of Christ overcoming and defeating the realm of darkness. As one person after another receives the light, the darkness is suddenly dispelled… it is overcome by the faithful bearing the Light of Christ. In a short while, the Church is bathed in the warm glow of light and we greet one another in the New Day having been brought out of Hades by the Crucified and Risen Lord.
By accepting the “never-sleeping” light, we proclaim Christ as Lord. The receiving of the Light is a personal moment of accepting the Resurrection. Our liturgical action does not stop here, we must now further advance the proclamation of the Resurrection by collectively confessing that: CHRIST IS RISEN! We the strongest of voices we begin singing the Paschal Hymn.
THE PASCHAL HYMN
Christ is risen! Truly, He is risen!
Christ’s Resurrection is the most transformative event in human history. Nothing can compare or come close. The Service of Resurrection proclaims that His transformative power is alive, not only, within the Church, but also in the world, in the cosmos and most especially within each of us.
The service continues with Orthros. The hymns are solely Resurrectional is nature. They powerfully display the extraordinary event of Christ’s victory over death. The ultimate power in the world belongs to God. Our extreme jubilation and rejoicing now needs the seal of approval. It is the Holy Eucharist that seals and validates everything that has been accomplished throughout Holy Week. It is through the Body and Blood of Christ that we are united to Him. It is the pathway through which He enters into our body and soul.
A Look Inside Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church,
Westfield, New Jersey,
Agape means “love”…. this is a continuation of God’s outpouring of mercy. It is used to remind us that His love will always continue.
The Agape Vespers service shows us Christ visiting His disciples ton confirm the Resurrection. At this time, Jesus bestows on them His peace and we are to receive His peace also. We have witnessed a mighty act – the most glorious act known to mankind – and now we are to take courage and receive His peace knowing that our Lord has conquered every fear and misfortune.
Traditionally at this service, the Gospel is read in various languages to indicate that the message of salvation is for all and is universal. We are all saved through Christ’s Resurrection.
Let move from day to day being glad in God and being reassured of His presence and love for each of us.