A JOURNEY THROUGH HOLY WEEK
MONDAY – TUESDAY – WEDNESDAY – THURSDAY – FRIDAY – SATURDAY – SUNDAY
BY FATHER NICHOLAS MAGOULIAS
THE WORD MAGAZINE
THE ECCLESIASTICAL DAY is Calculated from sundown of the previous to sundown of the day itself. Thus, Holy Week in the Orthodox Church begins on Palm Sunday after sunset which is actually Monday in the Church Week.
The Services which are celebrated on Palm Sunday, Monday and Tuesday evenings are the Orthros or Matins of Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday respectively. These are called the Service of the Nymphios, Christ the Bridegroom. The priest carries an Ikon of our Lord, the Bridegroom of the Church, in procession around the interior of the Nave, preceded by Acolytes having lighted tapers. The following hymn is chanted: “Behold the Bridegroom cometh in the midst of the night, and blessed is the servant whom He shall find watching: And again unworthy is he whom He shall find heedless. Beware, therefore, 0 my soul lest thou be borne down with sleep, lest thou be given up to death, and lest thou be shut out from the kingdom. Wherefore, rouse thyself and cry; Holy, Holy art thou, 0 God…”
On Tuesday night of Holy Week, the Service of Nymphios, Christ the Bridegroom, concludes with one of the most moving and dramatic hymns of liturgical poetry. The Orthodox Church boasts of one distinguished poetess, the remarkable nun, Kasia … Her life has a fairy-tale like quality.
In the year A.D. 380, Euphrosyne, the Dowager mother of the Emperor Theophilos brought together in the capital the loveliest virgins from all the provinces of the empire, from whom her son, Theophilos, was to choose his empress. Euphrosyne gave her son a golden apple (the symbol of love) which he was to present to the lady of his choice. Theophilos made his choice instantly. It was an easy one. The one maiden alone who stood out in the group as the most beautiful of all was the maiden called Kasia! Fascinated by her beauty, Theophilos xvished to now test her acuity. Approaching her cautiously, he remarked (somewhat caustically): “Woman is the source of all evil.” (He meant Eve.) Without flinching the resourceful virgin replied immediately. “And woman is also the source of all (that is) good.” (She meant the Virgin Many.) Strong by her cleverness and quick wit, Theophilos turned away from the beautiful maiden and handed the golden apple to another in the group, Theodora. Undismayed by the loss of an Empress crown, Kasia founded a convent in which she dedicated her life to the Emperor of Heaven.
On Wednesday of Holy Week, we read the Service of the Nymphios for Tuesday night: “It has been said by the Holy Fathers that commemoration should be made for the anointing of the Lord with myrrh by the woman who was a sinner… for this occurred shortly before the passion of the Saviour. On this theme, the nun Kasia composed the famous and moving hymn which bears her name:
“The woman who had fallen into many sins recognizes Thy Godhead, 0 Lord. She takes upon herself the duty of myrrh-bearer, and makes ready the myrrh of mourning, against thy entombment. Woe to me! saith she, for my night is an ecstasy of excess, gloomy and moonless and full of sinful desire. Receive the source of my tears. 0 Thou who dost gather into clouds the water of the sea; In thine ineffable condescension, deign to bend down thyself to me and to the lamentations of my heart, 0 Thou who didst spread feet, and wipe them again with the tresses of the hair of my head, Thy feet at whose sound Eve hid herself for fear when she heard Thee walking in Paradise in the cool of the day. Who, 0 my Saviour and Saver of souls, can trace out the multitude of my sins, and the abysses ot my misdeeds? Disregard not me, Thy slave, 0 Thou whose mercy is unbounded.”
The commemoration on Wednesday in Holy Week of the anointing of the Body of Christ with costly myrrh by the repentant woman in anticipation of His death and burial has inspired the Orthodox Church to offer the sacrament of holy Unction on this day to all the faithful.
In the fifth chapter of the letter of Saint James, we read: “Is one of you ill? He should send for the elders of the congregation to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer offered in faith will save the sick man; the Lord will raise him from his bed; and any sins he may have committed will be forgiven.” These words of Saint James provide the Scriptural basis for the sacrament of Holy Unction. Unction may be administered at any time of illness. But once a year, on Holy Wednesday, the Church summons the communicants of the faith to receive the sacrament. The priest, making the sign of the cross with the blessed oil, anoints the face and hands of the faithful while reciting: “the healing of body and soul.”
On Thursday morning of Holy Week the Orthodox Church commemorates the institution by our Lord of the Blessed Sacrament of Holy Communion, the Last Supper, the Holy Eucharist. A special significance of the Divine Liturgy of Thursday morning is that the “Lamb” is prepared which will constitute the eternal presence of our Lord Jesus Christ on the altar. Two fragments are removed from the liturgical bread bearing the seal IC, XC, NI KA, Jesus Christ Conquers: these are called amnos or lamb, and typify Christ, the lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world. During the prayer of the Liturgy called Epiklesis both portions are changed into the one Body of Christ. The one is used for the communion service of the day; the second is immersed into the sacred blood of the chalice and later dehydrated to preserve it through the following year Prepared reverently in this fashion the Lamb on the altar is taken and mixed, together with wine, and communicated to the seriously ill in hospitals and at home who are unable physically to come to the Church to partake of the Sacred Mysteries.
The service which takes place on Thursday evening actually commemorates the events of Friday in Holy Week. We read: “On Good Friday is celebrated the Holy, saving, and awful Passion of our Lord and God and Saviour Jesus Christ. For us He willingly endured the spitting, the scourgings, the buffetings, the scorn, the mocking, and the purple robe: the reeds, the sponge, the vinegar, the nails, the spear, and above all the Cross of death.
To the Jews the idea that the Son of God should die on a Cross of shame, reserved for murderers and traitors, was scandalous; to the Greeks it was foolishness which has become the most potent symbol of Christianity. Saint John Chrysostom compared the tree of the Cross with the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the Garden of Eden, of whose forbidden fruit Adam and Eve savored in disobedience to God’s commandment. “At the tree the devil subdued Adam; at the Cross Christ overcame the Devil. The first Tree delivered all men to Hell; the Cross recalled them to Paradise. The first Tree hid the nakedness of the captive of Sin; the Cross lifted on high for all to see the naked conqueror. The first Tree persecuted unto death all those who went forth.”
During the Service of the Holy Passion the priest reads twelve passages from the four Gospels describing the sequence of events leading from the Lord’s arrest to His crucifixion and burial. After the 5th reading, the priest in procession carries the large Crucifix, which stands behind the altar of every Orthodox Church around the interior of the Nave while chanting:
“Today is hung upon the Tree. He who did hang the land in the midst of the waters. A crown of thorns crowns Him Who is the King of the angels. He is wrapped around with the purple of mockery who wrapped the heavens with clouds. He received buffetings Who freed Adam in Jordan. He is transfixed with nails Who is the Bridegroom of the Church. He was pierced with a spear Who is the Son of the Virgin. We worship Thy Passion. 0 Christ. Show also unto us Thy glorious Resurrection.”
On Good Friday after noon, the touching service of the Burial of our Lord takes place. This rite is especially loved by children because of its dramatic solemnity. A specially constructed sepulchre of four pillars surmounted by a dome on which stands a cross is stationed in the center of the Nave. The symbolic tomb of our Saviour is completely covered by beautifully arranged floral decorations. During the afternoon service the Body of the Crucified Christ is taken down from the Cross. And a beautifully embroidered cloth bearing the representation of the Sacred Corpse of our Lord is placed in the center of the flower-adorned sepulchre. To commemorate the Burial the following words are recited:
“When Joseph of Arimathea took Thee, the Life of all, down from the Tree dead, he buried Thee with myrrh and fine linen; and He yearned with desire, in his heart and on His lips, that Thy pure Body might be enshrouded; wherefore, hiding he cried to Thee, rejoicing; Glory to Thy humiliation, 0 Merciful Master.” In a moving apostrophe to Christ in the tomb, the hymn is chanted:
“Joseph with Nicodemus takes Thee down from the tree, who clothest Thyself with light as it were with a garment; and when he saw Thee dead, naked and unentombed, he mourned with compassionate wailing and said: Alas! Beloved Jesus, so short a time ago the sun beholding Thee upon the Cross covered himself with g1oom, the earth trembled for fear, and the veil of the temple was rent in twain and now, lo! I see Thee before me, willingly going down to death. How can I bury Thee, my God, or how can I enwrap Thee in fine lincn? How with my hands dare I touch Thy sacred Body or with what chants can I celebrate Thy going hence, 0 Lord of mercies? I magnify Thy sufferings and I praise Thy Tomb and Thy Resurrection, crying: Lord, Glory to Thee.”
On Good Friday night the Saturday Service of the Lamentations takes place commemorating both “the entombment of the Divine Body of our Lord Jesus Christ, our God and Saviour; and also His descent into corruption, and permitted to pass over to evcrlasting life.”
The funeral hymns which are chanted at the flower-adorned sepulchre are poignant but never despairing since by His Death Christ is at this moment destroying the dominion of Death. We hear the following moving words of the hymns: “Thou, 0 Christ the Life, was laid in the Tomb, and armies of angels were amazed, and they glorified Thy humiliation. 0 Life, how canst Thou die? How canst Thou dwell in the Tomb? Thou dost break down the kingdom of Death, and hast raised up those who were dead in Hades. It is meet to magnify Thee, the Giver of Life, Thou who didst extend Thine hands upon the Cross, and shatter the power of the enemy. 0 Light of my eyes my Beloved Child, how are Thou now hidden in the grave?”
Following this the priest reverently takes the cloth bearing the image of the Sacred Corpse of our Lord and leads a procession, when possible round the outside of the Church building, followed by the entire congregation, otherwise within the Nave reenacting in this fashion the funeral procession leading to the Tomb of Joseph of Arimathea.
At the conclusion of the Service the priest hands out a flower from the sepulchre to the faithful as a blessing of the solemn significance of the rite.
We have now arrived at the climax for which we have been prepared throughout Lent and Holy Week: The Anastasis, the Easter Service proclaiming to the world the “good news,” the joy of the Risen Christ! Through His Death we have become immortal!
Near midnight leading from Holy Saturday to Easter Sunday the interior of the Church is completely blacked-out. The congregation, standing in darkness, solemnly awaits the appearance of the priest who suddenly comes forth from the center of the Ikonostasion holding a lighted candle, chanting:
“Come ye and receive the Light from the Unwaning Light, and glorify Christ, who arose from the dead.”
From the priest’s candle, the burning light, symbolizing the Resurrection, is transmitted to the candles of the faithful, moving like a wave of light over the whole church.
A procession of the Ikon of the Resurrection now takes place around the Nave xvhile the priest and congregation chant:
“The angels in heaven praise Thy Resurrection, 0 Christ, Our Saviour; make us on earth worthy with pure hearts to glorify Thee.”
Following the reading of the Easter Gospel, the priest, choir and congregation sing out in tones ever more and more triumphant to the point of ecstacy and overflowing mystic joy, the Easter hymn par excellence: “Christ is arisen from the dead, by death trampling upon death, and has bestowed life upon those in the tombs.”
Father Nicholas J. Magonlias is pastor of the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of St. Paul in Hempstead, New York.