by Nicholas Denysenko
Millions of Orthodox and Greco-Catholic Christians throughout the world are currently participating in the liturgical journey of Holy Week in preparation for Pascha this Sunday, April 20, along with Western Christians. Orthodox Holy Week presents a potentially full liturgical schedule. Already, many parishes are celebrating liturgical services, with the popular “Bridegroom Matins” offices typically sung in the evenings, and the Liturgy of Presanctified Gifts celebrated on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday of Holy Week. A liturgical office growing in popularity—especially among Greek and Antiochian Orthodox—is the anointing of the sick on the evening of Holy Wednesday, with all parishioners invited to participate and receive anointing. This office represents Christ’s forgiveness given one final time before commencing the Triduum.
The entrance into Christ’s Pascha begins in earnest on Thursday, with the Vesperal Liturgy of St. Basil commemorating the Lord’s Supper with his disciples, followed by the first service of Good Friday, Matins with the reading of the Twelve Passion Gospels. Good Friday continues with the Royal Hours, Vespers and the un-nailing of Jesus from the cross, and ceremonial process of laying him in the tomb. In most parishes, the Lamentations of Holy Saturday are sung on Friday night. Saturday morning brings the ancient Paschal Vigil with its fifteen Old Testament readings, and finally, at midnight, a short office of Nocturne is sung at the tomb, and Paschal Matins begins with the reading of the resurrection from Mark’s Gospel, followed by the Eucharistic Liturgy. For celebrants, servers, singers, and laity, participation results in weary feet and backs, clothes that smell like incense, and hands littered with wax drippings from candles.
What does one experience at these Holy Week liturgies? An incredible amount of Scripture, especially on Good Friday. The proclamation of the Word is intentionally repetitive since people pick and choose the services they attend around work and school schedules. Numerous hymns are sung by the choir, reflecting on the historical events, with particular attention to secondary figures, such as Joseph of Arimethea, Nicodemus, and the women at the tomb. There are also processions. At Good Friday Vespers, there is a solemn procession of laying the shroud (better known to Easterners as an epitaphios or plaschanitsa) on the tomb. The shroud has an icon of Christ and is covered by the Gospel book and a cross. Everyone makes three prostrations before the shroud and venerates it at the end of the service. A second procession occurs outside the Church at Holy Saturday Matins, which is usually celebrated on Friday night. This is a vigil at Christ’s tomb where the Church sings the Lamentations of Mary, hymns reflecting on Christ’s Sabbath rest and confrontation with Hades, culminated by the procession and popular “dry bones” reading (Ezekiel 37:1-14). At midnight on Pascha Sunday, everyone processes around the Church singing Paschal hymns. Matins begins with the singing of the Paschal hymn: “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.” The contrast between darkness and light is evident in the illuminated Church, a contrast first revealed on Holy Saturday when all of the black adornments and vestments are exchanged for white during the singing of Psalm 81, “Arise o God and judge the earth.” This responsorial psalm replaces Alleluia—the only time this happens in the Byzantine liturgical year—and prepares the assembly to hear the resurrection announcement from St. Matthew’s Gospel.
The last highlight is hardly important from a liturgical perspective, but dear to the devotional life of many Orthodox: the blessing of the Paschal basket. These baskets contain the foods from which people have (presumably) fasted during Lent, meats, cheeses, sweet breads, and even bottles of wine, beer, and vodka. Many parishes have to set aside extra time on Holy Saturday to bless baskets because it is so important to visitors. There is something innately sacramental and theological about the meticulous preparation, decoration, and partaking from these baskets, which speaks to the sharing of Paschal joy over special foods.
If you are near a Byzantine rite Catholic or Orthodox Church and have some free time, come in to see how we celebrate Christ’s Pascha and share our joy.
Fr. Deacon Nicholas Denysenko, an Orthodox Christian, is Director of the Huffington Ecumenical Institute and Assistant Professor of Theological Studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. He blogs at “Red River Orthodox: Eastern Christianities Engaging ‘the West’.“