Last Sunday Orthodox Christians around the world finally celebrated Pascha and proclaimed Christ risen from the dead. As in Western Christendom, Orthodox Easter is preceded by Holy Week—the liturgical pinnacle of the Orthodox Church. In this week of preparation and commemoration, our services, already resplendent with incense and iconography, assume an even loftier air with naves lit only by candlelight and outdoor processions featuring prominently throughout the week. Though it is both the most somber and most exhausting week in the liturgical life of the Church, Holy Week remains an annual favorite for the Orthodox, in no small part because of how much its services differ from the regular Sunday Liturgy.
In reality Holy Week comprises services that are still celebrated in the Church year-round, although Orthodox parishes in America may be less likely to observe them outside of Lent. During Holy Week the temporal order of services is reversed. Thus the week begins with Matins, celebrated the rest of the year in the morning (usually, though not exclusively, before a Liturgy), every night from the evening of Palm Sunday through Holy Tuesday. This series of three short services dedicated to Christ the Bridegroom of the Church comprises Gospel readings, psalms, and litanies—but no Eucharist—and culminate on Tuesday night when the faithful sing the Hymn of Kassiani. This 9th-century hymn is written in the perspective of the woman who anoints Christ with costly oil in Matthew 26:6 and is among the most popular hymns of the week.
Holy Week continues with the service of Unction on Wednesday evening. Though frequently abridged for families with young children, the service properly performed anticipates the lengthiness of Holy Thursday evening with seven Epistle and Gospel readings, at the end of which clergy anoint the faithful with holy oil. Holy Thursday commences with a Divine Liturgy in the morning to commemorate the institution of the Holy Eucharist at Christ’s Last Supper.
When the faithful return to church on Thursday evening, they are in it for the long haul. Holy Thursday evening is perhaps notoriously known as the longest and most solemn service of the entire liturgical year. The nearly four hour-long service encompasses twelve Gospel readings recounting the final days of Christ, including his betrayal and Crucifixion; an iconographic re-enactment of the Crucifixion, wherein clergy affix an icon of the crucified Christ upon a cross in front of the altar; and the first of many “cinematic” moments in the weekend to come, when the lights of the nave are dimmed and the second half of the evening continues in candlelit darkness.
Great and Holy Friday begins with the Royal Hours, an amalgamation of the four daily hours services (most commonly heard in Orthodox monasteries) incorporating Psalms, Old Testament prophecies, Epistles, and Gospels. At a Vespers service in the late morning or early afternoon, the icon of Christ hung on the cross Thursday night is taken down and wrapped in a white. Then on Friday night the Orthodox return for Matins, similar in structure to the services of Sunday–Tuesday evening but with two unique additions: the Lamentations, a series of funereal verses sung around a florally adorned tomb, and a procession of the entire parish outside the church with the Epitaphios, a cloth icon of Christ’s disciples lamenting His body at the foot of the Cross.
The Vesperal Divine Liturgy of Holy Saturday heralds the joy of the Resurrection to come on Sunday morning. After the reading of three Old Testament Prophecies—the creation account of Genesis 1:1, the abridged Book of Jonah, and the story of the three youths from Daniel 3:1–23—the clergy emerge from the altar, having swapped their black vestments for white ones, and sprinkle the nave with laurel leaves and flowers petals. During this high point of the service we chant the triumphal “Arise O God,” a hymn surpassed in majesty only by the Paschal Troparion sung gloriously and inexhaustibly at the midnight service of the Resurrection on Saturday night.If the external beauty of Holy Week is in part a product of the Church’s retroactively joyful understanding of Christ’s suffering as viewed through the lens of the Resurrection, the physical and spiritual demands it makes on Orthodox Christians remind us of our Apostolic heritage. Holy Week invites us to partake not only in Christ’s suffering on the Cross but also in the pain and despair of His disciples, for whom the joy of the empty tomb was not a foregone conclusion as it is for Christians today. Far more than a commemorative stage play of Biblical events, Holy Week is an invitation to partake in the suffering of Christ and His disciples, so that our frailty and anguish may be likewise transfigured after three days into the assurance of everlasting life.
Tim Markatos writes from Washington, DC.