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The Services of Great and Holy Week

Theodora Cuica

Column Writer: Theosis through the Arts

Set to appear in May 2022 edition 

Good morning! Good afternoon! Good evening! Welcome to the column “Theosis Through The Arts”! Christ is Risen, dear readers! I pray that you have all had a blessed Pascha. Pascha is a time to rejoice that our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, has risen from the dead and trampled down death. Life is restored to our souls as well as the earth itself with flowers blooming and animals appearing again to celebrate Christ’s resurrection with us. The happiness that we experience during Pascha does not wear off just because Pascha Sunday has passed. It is an eternal flame that we must always spread towards others, telling them that Christ is Risen! Before Pascha, we have special services during the whole of Lent, including Holy Week, and that’s what I would like to share with you today, the special services of Holy Week and what they signify. 

Before Holy Week starts, we have two special days which are Lazarus Saturday and Palm Sunday. On Lazarus Saturday, we hold a big feast to commemorate the miracle Jesus Christ performed when he brought St. Lazarus of Bethany back from the dead. Lazarus Saturday exclaims the forthcoming victory of Christ over Hades, and fearing this, Hades trembles. 

Palm Sunday is the day when we celebrate Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem riding on a donkey. The people laid out palm fronds and clothes on the ground as Jesus passed by, calling out to him “Hosanna!” and “Messiah!” We have our Divine Liturgy followed by a special procession on this day. The parishioners are given palm fronds which they often weave into palm crosses which are kept year-long or burnt on Holy Wednesday. 

Holy Week begins Sunday night with the Bridegroom Matins service for Holy Monday. The services from now on are sung “in anticipation,” meaning Matins is celebrated the evening before and Vespers is celebrated in the morning. This gives the faithful a sense that the world is upside-down and in travail because of Christ’s forthcoming passion and also hearkens back to the ancient definition that a day is from sunset to sunset. Bridegroom Matins is celebrated for Holy Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, and the services tell us about the last directions and instructions from Christ towards his disciples. These evening services are called Bridegroom Matins as they are dedicated to the parable of the ten virgins waiting for the Bridegroom who comes at midnight. This parable is important because Jesus Christ is warning us of the Second Coming. The readings from the Presanctified Liturgy that go along with these Matins come from Exodus, Job, and Matthew. 

On Holy Wednesday, the service commemorates Judas betraying Christ in exchange for 30 pieces of silver. The service also includes the divine mystery of Holy Unction which is a practice that has been adopted in the last two hundred years to remember when Mary Magdalene anointed His feet with oil and myrrh. This service is also the last time the prayer of Saint Ephraim is said for the rest of the year. 

The Holy Thursday services are very special and the Vesperal Divine Liturgy of St. Basil in the morning is dedicated to the Last Supper. It is during this Supper that Jesus gave his apostles bread and wine which we are still gifted to this day in the form of Holy Communion. In the evening, Matins for Holy Friday is celebrated and is truly special since here the Twelve Gospel readings of Christ’s passion are read.

The services of Holy Friday, in order, represent the death of Christ (Royal Hours), the removal of his body from the cross (Great Vespers), and how he was taken to the tomb (Matins of Holy Saturday with the Lamentations). The procession in this last service also represents Christ’s descent into Hell. The Royal Hours in the morning guides us through the last moments of the life of Jesus Christ as it walks through the events of each hour on that sacred day, and the Matins service in the evening is for mourning as the Lamentations at the Tomb are sung by the whole church.

The last day of Holy Week before Pascha is Holy Saturday. In the Vesperal Divine Liturgy in the morning, excerpts from the Psalms and many Old Testament readings are read and Resurrection hymns are sung. This service represents our Lord’s descent into Hell, His victory over death by death, and the harrowing of Hell. Christ manifests Himself as the New Adam as He undoes the corruption brought on by the first Adam. Hades gates are broken, and the priest joyfully scatters bay leaves and roses around the church as we sing “Arise O God!” 

Late Saturday night, the Rush service begins around midnight followed by the Paschal light being distributed and the joyful procession around the church with Matins and Orthros immediately following. Finally, we celebrate the resurrection of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ! Sunday at noon, we revel in the joy of this blessed day with the short and sweet service of Agape Vespers, where traditionally the Gospel reading is  proclaimed in as many languages as possible. 

These services are true and beautiful reminders of the Passion and Sacrifice of Jesus Christ and lead to a participation in the joy of His resurrection. Everything that our Lord has done for us has always been out of love and hope for our salvation. We must share this message and God’s love for us with the world! “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)

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