09 March 2012

Holy Week 2012

On Saturday, April 7, Orthodox Christians will begin observing the most solemn of Days leading up to the celebration of Pascha on April 15: Lazarus Saturday, Palm Sunday and Holy Week. These nine days are specifically set aside – consecrated – by the Church to commemorate the final and decisive events in the Lord’s earthly life. Traditionally, during this time, Christians make an effort to “lay aside all earthly cares,” in order to devote themselves to contemplating the central Mysteries of our Faith: the Cross, the Tomb and the Resurrection of Christ. So significant is this period that some have stressed that during Holy Week “time seems to stand still or earthly life ceases for the faithful, as they go up with the Lord to Jerusalem” (Fr. Thomas Hopko). May we all look upon the days ahead as sacred, dedicated to our Lord.

Lazarus Saturday & Palm Sunday (April 7 & 8):
These two days form a double feast, anticipating the joy of Pascha. At the grave of His friend Lazarus, Christ encounters “the last enemy,” death (1 Cor. 15:26). By raising Lazarus, Christ foreshadows His own decisive victory over death, and the universal resurrection granted to all mankind.

Palm Sunday commemorates Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, “riding on the colt of an ass,” in fulfillment of a prophecy from Zechariah (9:9). On this occasion our Lord allows the people to greet Him as a Ruler, the only time during His earthly ministry when this occurs. Christ is indeed the King of Israel, but He comes to reveal and open to mankind His Heavenly Kingdom. We hold branches of palms and pussy willows of our own on Palm Sunday, greeting Christ as the Lord and Master of our lives.

Great & Holy Monday, Tuesday & Wednesday (April 9-11):
Having just experienced a foretaste of Pascha we now enter the darkness of Holy Week. The first three days stress the End Times, the Judgment, and the continual need for vigilance. They point to the fact that when the world condemned its Maker, it condemned itself, “Now is the judgment of this world” (John 12:31). They remind us that the world’s rejection of Christ reflects our own rejection of Him, inasmuch as we sin and accept the worldview of those who shouted, “Away with Him, crucify Him!” Central to the services for these days are the Gospel readings, and the hymns which comment on these lessons. Among the chief hymns are the Exapostilarion, “Thy Bridal Chamber, I see adorned….,” and the following troparion sung during Matins as the Church is being censed:
“Behold! The Bridegroom comes at midnight, and blessed is the servant whom He shall find watching: and again, unworthy is the servant whom He shall find heedless. Beware, therefore, O my soul, do not be weighed down with sleep, lest you be given up to death, and lest you be shut out of the Kingdom. But rouse yourself, crying: “Holy! Holy! Holy! art Thou, O our God. Through the Theotokos, have mercy on us!” (Troparion)
Great & Holy Thursday (April 12):
During the Matins Service or the Service of the 12 Passion Gospels on Holy Thursday night we “accompany Christ, step by step, from the time of His last discourse with His disciples to His being laid in a new tomb by Joseph of Arimethea and Nicodemus. Each of the 12 Gospel sections read during the evening service involves us in a new scene: the arrest of Jesus; His trial; the threefold denial of St. Peter; the scourging and the mockings by the soldiers; the carrying of the Cross; the Crucifixion; the opposing fates of the two thieves; the loving tenderness of the moment when Jesus commits His Mother to the care of His faithful disciple, John; and the Lord’s final yielding up of the spirit and burial” (Fr. Paul Lazor). The liturgical hymnography for that night comments on the Gospel readings and gives the response of the Church to these events in the life of Christ. During this service the faithful hold lit candles during the Gospel lessons while kneeling, and in large parishes Church bells are rung before each reading: once for the first reading, twice for the second, and so on.

Great & Holy Friday (April 13):
On the one hand, this is the most solemn of days, the day of Christ’s Passion, His Death and Burial. On this day the Church invites us, as we kneel before the tomb of Christ, to realize the awful reality and power of sin and evil in “this world,” and in our own lives as well. It is this power that led ultimately to “the sin of all sins, the crime of all crimes” the total rejection and murder of God Himself (Fr. Alexander Schmemann).

On the other hand, the Church affirms that this day of evil is also the day of redemption. “The death of Christ is revealed to us as a saving death, an offering of love” (Fr. Alexander Schmemann). Holy Friday is the beginning of the Lord’s Pascha, for the One Who is raised, is the One Who is crucified for us and for our salvation. “By death Christ tramples down death…” Thus the tomb of Christ, placed in the center of the Church, is lavishly adorned with flowers, for from the tomb comes life.

 The afternoon service is often referred to as “Burial Vespers.” During its celebration the final events in the life of Christ are brought to mind through the scripture readings and the hymnography. At the conclusion of Vespers the faithful kneel and the choir sings, in a very slow manner, the troparia for the day which speak of Joseph of Arimethea and Nicodemus burying the Body of Jesus; and the angel’s announcement to the Myrrhbearing Women that, “Myrrh is fitting for the dead, but Christ has shown Himself a stranger to corruption.” As these words are heard the clergy and servers make a procession around the tomb with the “winding sheet” on which is an icon of the crucified Lord. This winding sheet is placed on top of the tomb and venerated by the faithful.

On Friday night a Matins service is celebrated during which the people sing hymns and lamentations in front of Christ’s tomb. We hear about how, “hell trembles while Life lies in the tomb, giving life to those who lie dead in the tombs.” We also begin to hear announcements and foreshadowings of the Resurrection in both the scripture readings and hymns. In fact, the Alleluia verses chanted after the Epistle reading are the same Resurrectional verses from Psalm 68 chanted by the clergy on Pascha night: “Let God arise, let His enemies be scattered, let those who hate Him flee from before His face..” (etc.)

Great & Holy Saturday (April 14):
On the morning of this day,  we will celebrate the Vesperal Liturgy of St. Basil. This service “inaugurates the Paschal celebration… On ‘Lord I Call Upon Thee’ certain Sunday Resurrection hymns are sung, followed by special verses for Holy Saturday which stress the Death of Christ as the descent into Hades, the region of death, for its destruction.


A pivotal point of the service occurs after the Entrance, when fifteen Old Testament lessons are read, all centered on the promise of the Resurrection, all glorifying the ultimate Victory of God…The epistle lesson is that which is read at Baptisms (Romans 6:3-11), referring to Christ’s Death and Resurrection as the source of the death in us of the “old man,” and the resurrection of the new man, whose life is in the Risen Lord (Here we must remember that Pascha has always been the most traditional time for Baptisms of catechumens). During the verses immediately after the epistle reading the dark Lenten vestments and altar coverings are put aside and the clergy vest in their brightest robes. An announcement of the Resurrection is then read from the last chapter of St. Matthew's Gospel. The Liturgy of St. Basil continues in this white and joyful light, revealing the Tomb of Christ as the Life-giving Tomb, introducing us into the ultimate reality of Christ’s Resurrection, communicating His life to us…” (Fr. Schmemann).

Pascha (April 15):
The Main Resurrection service will begin on Saturday night. This particular service is actually comprised of three services, celebrated together, one after another: Nocturnes, Matins and the Divine Liturgy. The entire service ends around 2:30 am on Sunday morning and is followed by the Agape Meal, at which we enjoy fellowship and partake of many non-lenten foods.

Special features of the Midnight Service include: Nocturnes (11:30 pm to 12:00 midnight) celebrated in total darkness with only one light for the choir, followed by a triple procession around the outside of the Church, a Resurrection Gospel reading and the first announcement of, “Christ is Risen!” The Paschal Matins then begins during which the Church is brightly lit and the faithful sing of Christ’s Resurrection in a very joyous manner. Near the end of Matins the Paschal Catechetical Sermon of St. John Chrysostom is read. During the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom the Gospel from the Prologue of St. John’s Gospel is chanted in several languages, symbolic of the universal character of the Christian Faith. Immediately after the service food for the Agape Meal is blessed, as well as Easter baskets full of non-fasting foods.

On Sunday afternoon, April 15, we return to the Church to celebrate Resurrection Vespers during which we hear a Gospel reading and more hymns of Christ’s Resurrection. A continuation of the Agape Meal will be enjoyed after Vespers.

Bright Week (April 16-21):
The week immediately after Pascha is an extended celebration of the Lord’s Resurrection. Although we enjoy a 40 day Paschal season, the services of Bright Week are uniquely joyous, reflecting the specific tone and spirit of Pascha night. Divine Liturgies and Vespers celebrated during this time are very similar to those of April 15. There is, as well, no fasting during Bright Week. We look forward to celebrating Pascha with all of our Church members and friends. Once again, we encourage everyone to set aside the days ahead as sacred, dedicated to our Lord.

Christ is Risen! Indeed He is Risen!


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