The Services of Holy Week

Completing the Journey
to the Empty Tomb

(from the St. George Cathedral Messenger,
adapted and edited by Fr Paul O-Callaghan


Sunday, Monday, Tuesday Evenings

The Bridgegroom Services

The first thing to recognize about Holy Week is that the services are all moved up; for example, the Sunday night Bridegroom Service is the Orthros of Great and Holy Monday, and the Vesperal Liturgies are celebrated in the morning.

After His entry into Jerusalem, Christ spoke to the disciples about signs that would precede the last Day (Mt. 24-25).  Themes focused on the Day of Judgment show up in the troparion of the Bridegroom "Behold the Bridegroom cometh," and the exaposteilarion "I see thy bridal chamber..."  The parables of the Ten Virgins and of the Talents pervade these three days.  On Monday we also remember the innocent suffering of the Patriarch Joseph as a type of Christ's.  The barren fig tree which Jesus cursed serves as a reminder of coming judgment.  Wednesday contrasts the agreement made by Judas with the Jewish authorities to repentance with tears of the sinful woman.  The Triodion texts make it clear that Judas' fall was not so much because of his betrayal as his despair of forgiveness.


Wednesday Evening

Holy Unction

Since we understand healing and forgiveness in a holistic manner, without a soul versus body dualism, the sacrament of Holy Unction is served in many parishes on Holy Wednesday evening.  This practice provides an example of a continuing liturgical evolution, since this service is not prescribed in the Triodion or typicon.  In most parishes, this sacrament replaces the Orthros of Holy Thursday.


Thursday Morning

Vespers Divine Liturgy

On this day we commemorate four historical events:

  1. Jesus washing His disciples' feet;
  2. institution of the Eucharist;
  3. the agony in Gethsemane;
  4. betrayal by Judas.

A full Vesperal Liturgy of St. Basil the Great is served.  The hymn "Of thy mystical supper..." replaces the Cherubic Hymn, combining the themes of Holy Communion and Judas' treachery.  At this Liturgy the Holy Chrism is also consecrated in patriarchal cathedrals, and an additional Lamb is consecrated to provide for communion of the sick for the year.  A foot-washing rite often follows the Divine Liturgy.  Here the bishop or senior priest renders a dramatic re-enactment of Christ's washing the feet of his disciples.


Thursday Evening

The Passion Gospels

The Orthros of Great and Holy Friday is a solemn service, with many extra hymns and twelve Gospel lessons.  The service clearly hearkens back to the Jerusalem practice of passion services celebrated at the locations where the events described in the Gospel lessons took place.  After the fifth gospel lesson and during the last of the fifteen antiphons of the service, we find a recent development in the rite: the procession of the Cross.  Having originated in Antioch, this practice was adopted in Constantinople in 1824 and has spread throughout the Orthodox Churches of the Mediterranean world.

The sufferings of Christ form the theme of the Holy Friday service:  the mockery, crown of thorns, scourging, nails, thirst, vinegar and gall, the crying out, plus the confession of the good thief.  It is vital to note, however, that passion is never separated from Resurrection, even in the darkest moments:  "We venerate thy Passion, O Christ; show us also thy glorious Resurrection."


Friday Morning

The Royal Hours

The Hours take on a special, fuller form on this day, called Royal Hours.  First, Third, Sixth and Ninth Hours are combined, and each includes a prophecy, an epistle, and a Gospel Lesson.


Friday Afternoon

Great Vespers

We find more late, "dramatic" developments -- not mentioned in the Triodion -- in the Vespers of Great and Holy Friday.  In the Greek/Mediterranean usage, at the conclusion of the Gospel lesson, the corpus of Christ on the Cross is taken down.  In those churches which practice this custom, the vespers service itself has come to be known as "Un-nailing Vespers," or "Taking down from the cross."  Another, slightly older -- yet still recent-- development of the fifteenth or sixteenth century is a procession with the epitaphios during the aposticha, where it is carried around the church and deposited on a decorated bier in the center of the church.  The Gospel book -- representing Christ himself -- is then place in the bier and venerated by the faithful.


Friday Evening

The Lamentations Service

On Friday evening, we serve the Orthros of Holy Saturday, which begins like any other daily Orthros.  The most outstanding feature of the service is the lamentations, which are chanted by the clergy and faithful surrounding the bier.  These are done in three stases in praise of the entombed Christ, with little litanies in between.  Next follow the resurrection troparia known as the evlogetaria -- again, anticipating the resurrection.  Since the 15th/16th century a procession has taken place around the outside of the church with the epitaphios at the end of the Great Doxology.  The faithful pass under it as they re-enter the church.  The service concludes with the troparia of Holy Saturday, a reading from the prophecy of Ezekiel, epistle and gospel lessons, and then the final litanies and the dismissal.


Holy Saturday Morning

Vesperal Divine Liturgy

The Liturgy is the vigil service of Pascha, originally served in the evening. It commemorates the discovery of the Empty Tomb by the Myrrhbearing Women.  This Liturgy contains many unique features.  Originally, the baptisms of catechumens took place during the reading of fifteen Old Testament selections.  In the late 19th century, the number of readings was reduced to three, but the selections from the book of Jonah and the prophecy of Daniel are extensive.  Unique to this service are the special antiphons "Praise the Lord" and "Arise, O God."  Bay leaves are scattered throughout the church during the singing of the latter as a sign of Christ's triumph. The hymn "Let all mortal flesh keep silence" replaces the Cherubic Hymn.  At this service, we arrive at the Empty Tomb.  There is only one thing yet to do -- celebrate the Resurrection of Christ!