From THE WORD MAGAZINE, APRIL 1997, PAGE 4-14

AN EXPLANATION
OF THE HOLY WEEK SERVICES
OF THE HOLY ORTHODOX CHURCH

AS WE APPROACH THE great solemn days of Holy Week, we bring to mind how our Lord Jesus Christ was betrayed and seized, tortured and crucified, died and was buried, and arose from the dead. The services of Holy Week, beginning with Lazarus Saturday, show us in symbols, readings and chants the account of our Savior’s love and sacrifice “unto death, even the death of the cross” for our sake (Phil. 2:8).

On Palm Sunday we shall stand with branches in our hands and listen to the “Hosannas,” like the multitudes in Jerusalem, welcoming “Him Who cometh in the Name of the Lord,” and, like the children, waving palms and shouting for joy. In the Gospels of the first three days of Passion Week we shall hear Christ’s final teachings to his disciples and the people; His stern rebukes to the proud, self-righteous Pharisees and scribes; His prophecy of His resurrection and second coming. In the house of Simon the Leper, where Jesus was having a meal, we shall see the sinful woman enter to anoint His head and feet in love and repentance, and we shall contrast her to Judas, the disciple whose greed incited him to betray his Master for a paltry sum of money. Then we shall follow Jesus to the “upper chamber” where He and his disciples partook of his Mystical Supper, that is, the first celebration of the Eucharist of his Most Holy Body and Blood, and then to the Garden of Gethsemane. There our Lord and God Jesus Christ prayed in agony.

Concerning our Savior’s prayer before his Passion, Saint John Chrysostom says:

By saying, “If it be possible, let it pass from me,” He showed His humanity; but by saying, “Nevertheless not as I will, but as Thou wilt,” He showed His virtue and self-command, teaching us even when nature pulls us back to follow God. (Homily 83 on the Gospel of Matthew)

Saint Cyril of Alexandria delves further into this matter and asks: For what reason, 0 Lord,

[wast Thou grieved and distressed]? Wast Thou also terrified at death? Didst Thou, being seized with fear, draw back from suffering? And yet didst Thou not teach the holy apostles to make no account of the terrors of death, saying, Fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul (Matt. 10:28)? Moreover, if any one were to say that the grace of spiritual fortitude is Thy gift to the elect, he would not err from the truth; for all strength is from Thee, and all confidence and heartiness of mind in every more excellent encounter. Thou art by nature Life, and the cause of life. We look for Thee as a Savior and Deliverer, and the destroyer of corruption. From Thee all receive their life and being. Thou hast made every thing that breathes. The angels are for Thee, and from Thee, and by Thee, and so is the whole rational creation. Unto Thee the blessed David spake concerning us, Thou wilt send forth Thy Spirit, and they shall be created; and Thou shalt renew the face of the earth (Psalm 103:32). How, therefore, art Thou grieved, and sore distressed, and sorrowful, even unto death? For plainly Thou knewest, in that Thou art God by nature, and knowest whatsoever is about to happen, that by enduring death in the flesh Thou wouldst free from death the inhabitants of all the earth, and bring Satan unto shame — that Thou wouldst set up a trophy of victory over every evil and opposing power: that Thou wouldst be known by every one, and worshiped as the God and Creator of all. Thou knewest that Thou wouldst despoil Hades — that Thou wouldst deliver them that are therein, from bonds that had endured for many ages; that Thou wouldst turn unto Thyself all that is under heaven. These things Thou Thyself has announced to us of old by the holy prophets. We have heard Thee clearly saying, when Thou wast like unto us, Now is the judgment of this world: now shall the prince ot this world be cast out. And I,if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto Me (John 12:31—2). Amen, Amen, I say unto you, except a grain of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit (John 12:24).

For what reason, therefore, art Thou grieved and sore distressed? Yes, He saith, not unbefittingly am I found thus in anguish. For I know indeed that by consenting to suffer the passion upon the Cross, I shall deliver all beneath the heaven from every evil, and be the cause of unending blessings to the inhabitants of the whole earth. I am not unaware of the unloosing of death, anti the abolition of physical corruption, and the overthrow of the tyranny of the devil, and the remission of sin. But nonetheless, I am grieved over Israel the firstborn, that henceforth He is not even among the servants. The portion of the Lord, and the cord of My inheritance, will be the portion of foxes (Ps. 62:9), as it is written…He who had the promises is utterly stripped of My gifts: the pleasant vineyard with its rich grapes henceforth will be a desert land, a place dried up, and without water. And I will command the clouds to rain no rain upon it (Esaias 5:6). I will take away the hedge thereof, and it shall be for a spoil; and break down the waIl thereof and it shall be trodden down (Esaias 5:5). And tell Me then, what husbandman, when his vineyard is desert and waste, will feel no anguish for it? What shepherd would be so harsh and stern as, when his flock was perishing, to suffer nothing on its account? These are the causes of My grief; for these things I am sorrowful. For I am God, gentle, and that loveth to spare. Shall I at all desire the death of a sinner, but rather he should turn from his evil way and live (Ezek. 18:23). Right it is, therefore, most right, that as being good and merciful, I should not only be glad at what is joyful, but also should feel sorrow at whatsoever is grievous.

But that He pitied Jerusalem, as being well aware of what was about to happen, and that it would have to endure all misery because of its crimes against Him, you may learn even from this. For He went up from Judea to Jerusalem, and, as the Evangelist saith, He beheld the city; and wept over it, saying, If thou hadst known, even thou, at least in this thy day; the things which belong unto thy peace! but now they are hid from thine eyes (Luke 19:41-42). For as He wept over Lazarus in pity for the whole race of mankind, which had become the prey of corruption and of death; so we say that He was grieved at seeing Jerusalem all but involved in extreme miseries, and in calamities for which there was no cure.

And that we might learn what was His wish concerning Israel, He told the disciples, that He is in grief and anguish. For it would have been impossible for them to have learned what was hidden within Him, if He had not revealed by words what His feelings were.

And this, too, I think, it necessary to add to what has been said: that the passion of grief, or malady, as we may call it, of sore distress, cannot have reference to the divine and impassive nature of the Word; for that is impossible, inasmuch as It transcendeth all passion; but we say that the Incarnate Word willed also to submit himself to the measure of human nature, by being supposed to stiffer what belongeth to it. Since, therefore, He is said to have hungered, although He is Life and the cause of life, and the living Bread; and was weary also from a long journey, although He is the Lord of hosts; so also it is said that He was grieved, and seemed to be capable of anguish. For it would not have been fitting for Him Who emptied himself (Phil. 2:7), and stood in the measure of human nature, to have seemed unwilling to endure human things. The Word of God the Father, therefore, is altogether free from all passion; but wisely and for the dispensation’s sake He submitted Himself to the infirmities of mankind, in order that He might not seem to refuse that which the dispensation required; yeah, He even yielded obedience to human custom and laws only, as I said, He did not bear anything of this in his own nature. (Commentary on the Gospel of Saint Luke, Homily 146)

Together with Christ’s grieving Mother and John, the disciple He loved best, and with thc other women, we shall stand watch by His Cross. We shall follow as His body is carried to the grave in the garden, and there leave his Body to rest till the Resurrection’s glorious morning.

This is why through all Passion Week’s mournful services there runs the strain of bright hope of forgiveness, of triumph over sin and death, and of our Savior’s victory over Satan, Hades, and mortal corruption.

LAZARUS SATURDAY

On this Saturday we remember how our Lord Jesus Christ raised His friend Lazarus from the dead. He knew Lazarus was grievously ill, but He waited till he died before He answered Martha and Mary’s call for Him. Jesus knew that His own death on the Cross was near. He knew how terrified and bewildered His disciples would be, how they might doubt that He was indeed the Christ. Only after four days did He bring Lazarus back to life, so that His disciples would see that He had power over life and death and was indeed “the Resurrection and the Life.”

It was this miracle that prepared Christ’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem and gave us the certain assurance of the physical resurrection of all the dead.

The Synaxarion (i.e., the explanation of each daily feast) says the following:

Lazarus and his sisters Martha and Mary, the friends of Jesus, had given Him hospitality and served Him many times (Luke 10:38-42; John 12:2-3). They were from Bethany, a village of Judea. This village is situated in the eastern parts, by the foothills of the Mount of Olives, about two Roman miles from Jerusalem. When Lazarus —whose name is a Hellenized form of “Eleazar,” which means “God has helped” – became ill some days before the saving Passion, his sisters had this report taken to Jesus, Who was then in Galilee. Nonetheless, He tarried for yet two more days until Lazarus died; then He said to his disciples, “Let us go into Judea that I might awake My friend who sleepeth.” By this, of course, He meant the deep sleep of death. On arriving at Bethany, He consoled the sisters of Lazarus, who had been buried four days already. Jesus groaned in spirit and was troubled at the death of His beloved friend. He asked, “Where have ye laid him?” and He wept over him. When He drew nigh to the tomb, He commanded that they remove the stone, and He lifted up His eyes, and giving thanks to God the Father, He cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come forth.” And he that had been dead for four days came forth immediately, bound hand and foot with the grave clothes, and Jesus said to those standing there, “Loose him, and let him go.” This is the supernatural wonder wrought by the Savior that we celebrate on this day.

According to an ancient tradition, it is said that Lazarus was thirty years old when the Lord raised him; then he lived another thirty years on Cyprus and there reposed in the Lord. His grave is situated in the city of Kition, having the inscription: “Lazarus the four-days dead and friend of Christ.” In 890 his sacred relics

were transferred to Constantinople by Emperor Leo the Wise, at which time undoubtedly the emperor composed his stichera for Vespers, “Wishing to behold the tomb of Lazarus …”

The Dismissal Hymn (‘which is used also on Palm Sunday) and the Kontakion of Lazarus Saturday are as follows:

The Dismissal Hyrnn. First Tone

In confirming the common Resurrection, 0 Christ God, Thou didst raise up Lazarus from the dead before Thy Passion. Wherefore we also, like the children, bearing the symbols of victory, cry to Thee, the Vanquisher of death: Hosanna in the highest; blessed in He that cometh in the Name of the Lord.

The Kontakion. Second Tone

To those on the earth, * the Joy of all, Christ God, the Truth, * the Light and the Life, * the Resurrection of the world, * in His goodness hath now appeared and is become the true archetype * of the Resurrection of all, * bestowing divine forgiveness on all men.

ENTRY INTO JERUSALEM

PALM SUNDAY

This day celebrates Christ’s triumphal entry into the holy city of Jerusalem. When the people heard of His coming, great crowds rushed to the city gates to meet Him. They spread their cloaks on the road and strewed palm leaves in His path. Children waved green boughs and all sang, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is He that cometh in the Name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” At Palm Sunday Matins, after the Gospel lection about the entry into Jerusalem, the priest blesses palm leaves or other appropriate branches, which the people hold during the canon. Palm Sunday is one of the twelve great feasts of the Church.

In addition to the above, the Synaxarion of Palm Sunday gives us this information:

On Sunday, five days before the Passover of the Law, Jesus came from Bethany to Jerusalem. Sending two of his disciples to bring him a foal of an ass, He sat thereon and entered into the city. When the multitude there heard that Jesus was coming, they straightway took up the branches of palm trees in their hands, and went forth to meet him. Others spread their garments on the ground, and yet others cut branches from the trees and strewed them in the way that Jesus was to pass; and all of them together, even the children, went before and after him, crying out: “Hosanna: Blessed is He that cometh in the Name of the Lord, the King of Israel” (John 12:13). This is the radiant and glorious festival of our Lord’s entry into Jerusalem that we celebrate today.

The branches of the palm trees symbolize Christ’s victory over the devil and death. The word Hosanna, being translated, means “Save, I pray,” or “Save, now.’ The foal of an ass, and Jesus’ sitting thereon, and the fact that this animal was untamed and considered unclean according to the Law, signified the former uncleanness and wildness of the nations, and their subjection thereafter to the Holy Law of the Gospel.

Together with the Dismissal Hymn “In confirming the common Resurrection, 0 Christ God

we chant also the hymns below during this joyous service:

Another Dismissed Hymn.

Fourth Tone

As by baptism we were buried with Thee, 0 Christ our God, so by Thy Resurrection we were deemed worthy of immortal life; and praising Thee, we cry: Hosanna in the highest; blessed is He that cometh in the Name of the Lord.

The Hypakoe.

Plagal of Second Tone

Though formerly they praised with branches, afterwards the ungrateful Jews laid hold of Christ God with staves; but ever honoring Him with unchanging faith as our Benefactor, let us continually cry to him: Blessed is He that cometh to recall Adam.

Kontakion. Plagal of Second Tone

Being borne upon a throne in heaven, and upon a colt on the earth, 0 Christ God, Thou didst accept the praise of the Angels and the laudation of the children as they cried to Thee: Blessed art Thou Who comest to recall Adam.

HOLY AND GREAT MONDAY

The week of our Savior’s Passion begins with Holy and Great Monday. The first three days of Holy Week recall Christ’s last teachings with His disciples. These teachings inspire the readings and hymns. The services consist of Great Compline, Matins, Hours, and the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts with Vespers. Gospels are read at Matins and Liturgy. In addition, the whole Psalter is read in the services of the first three days of Holy Week; also, the four Gospels are read. The Psalms remind us how the coming and sufferings of Christ were awaited and foretold in the Old Testament. The Gospels tell of His life in the world; His teaching and miracles prove that He was indeed the Son of God, who of His own free will suffered for our sake though He was without guilt.

At Matins after the great litany we do not hear the usual joyous verses, “God is the Lord, and hath appeared unto us.” Instead, a compunctionate “Alleluia” is chanted. And to inspire us to watch and pray in these solemn days, this troparion is chanted:

Behold, the Bridegroom cometh in the middle of the night, and blessed is that 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 be shut out from the Kingdom. But rather rouse thyself and cry: Holy, Holy, Holy art Thou, O God, through the Theotokos, have mercy on us.

After the canon, which speaks of Christ’s coming Passion, another special hymn an Exapostilarion – is chanted. It is like a cry of our soul as if it saw from afar Christ’s radiant mansions and felt how unworthy it was to enter them:

Thy bridal chamber, 0 my Savior, do I behold all adorned, and a garment I have not that I may enter therein. Illumine the garment of my soul, 0 Light Bestower, and save me.

On Holy and Great Monday the Church tells us the parable of the barren fig tree. It is the symbol of those who think only of outward goodness which does not come from the heart. The Gospel also tells about our Lord Jesus Christ’s prophecies about the fall of Jerusalem, wars and tribulations, and the end of the world.

The Synaxarion for Holy and Great Monday has the following edifying account:

The holy Passion of our Savior begins today, presenting Joseph the all-comely as a prefiguring of Christ. He was the eleventh son of Jacob, and his first son by Rachel; because he was so beloved of his father, his own brethren came to envy him and cast him into a pit. Later they sold him for thirty pieces of silver to foreigners, who later sold him again in Egypt. Because of his virtue, his master gave him much authority in governing his house; because he was fair of countenance, his master’s wife sought to draw him into sin with her, because of his chastity, he refused her, and through her slanders was cast into prison. Finally, he was led forth again with great glory and was honored as a king. He became lord over all Egypt and a provider of wheat for all the people. Through all this, he typifies in himself the betrayal, Passion, death, and glorification of our Lord Jesus Christ (see Genesis, ch. 37-41).

To the commemoration of Jesus is added also the narration concerning the fig tree, which on this day was cursed and subsequently dried up because of its unfruitfulness. It portrayed the Jewish synagogue. which had not produced the fruit demanded of it, that is, of virtue and piety, and which was stripped of all spiritual grace by means of the curse (Matt. 21:18-20).

The Kontakion of this day is most instructive:

The Kontakion.

Plagal of Fourth Tone

Jacob lamented the loss of Joseph, but that noble one was seated in a chariot and honored as a king; for by not being enslaved then to the pleasures of the Egyptian woman, he was glorified by Him that beholdeth the hearts of men and bestoweth an incorruptible crown.

HOLY AND GREAT TUESDAY

On Holy and Great Tuesday we listen to our Savior’s replies to the wily questions of the Pharisees and scribes, who tried to trap Him; we hear His stern rebukes of their envy and deceit. The parables of the Ten Virgins and of the Talents remind us how we should always keep watch over our conscience and use in God’s service any gift or talent we have received from Him. The Gospel then tells Christ’s prophecy of His second coming and the Last Judgment. It ends with the awful warning: “Ye know that after two days is the feast of the Passover, and the Son of Man is betrayed to be crucified.”

The Synaxarion and the Kontakion of this day emphasize the gravity of God’s examination of our life and the account we will have to give of ourselves:

Today we bring to mind the parable of the ten virgins, which Jesus related as He was coming to His Passion. This parable teaches us that the accomplishment of the great work of virginity should not make us careless in other matters, especially in almsgiving, herewith the lamp of virginity is made radiant. Furthermore, it teaches us that we should not be remiss about the end of our life, but should be prepared for it at every moment, like the wise virgins, so that we may meet the Bridegroom, lest He come suddenly and the doors of the heavenly bridechamber be shut, and we also, like the foolish virgins, hear the dread sentence:

“Amen, I say unto you, I know you not” (Matt. 25:1-13).

The Kontakion. Second Tone

Being mindful of the hour of the end, 0 my soul, and fearing because of the cutting down of the fig tree, labor diligently with the talent that was given thee, 0 hapless one, and be watchful and cry:

Let us not remain outside the bridal chamber of Christ.

HOLY AND GREAT WEDNESDAY

On Great Wednesday the Church commemorates the act of contrition and love of the sinful woman who poured precious myrrh-oil on our Savior’s head, and, though she did not know it, “prepared Him for burial.” And in contrast we hear of the dark act of Judas, whose greed led him to betray his Master. All the readings and hymns of the day warn us to beware of greed and love of money, which even tempted a disciple of Christ. We too can betray Him, if we let greed and selfishness get hold of us, while every deed of humility and love at once brings us near to him.

Concerning these incidents recorded in the Holy Gospels, the Synaxarion has the following account:

Two women say the more discerning interpreters of the Gospel — anointed the Lord with myrrh; the one, a long time before His Passion; the other, a few days before. The one was a harlot and sinner; the other, chaste and virtuous. The Church commemorates this reverent act today. While mentioning herein the person of the harlot, it also mentions Judas’ betrayal; for, according to the account in Matthew, both of these deeds took place two days before the Passover, on Wednesday.

That woman, then, anointed Jesus’ head and feet with very precious myrrh, and wiped them with the tresses of her hair. The disciples, especially the avaricious Judas, were scandalized, supposedly because of the waste of the myrrh. Jesus reproved them and told them not to trouble the woman. Indignant, Judas went to the high priests, who were gathered in the court of Caiaphas and were already taking counsel against Jesus. On agreeing with them to betray his Teacher for thirty pieces of silver, Judas sought from that time opportunity to betray Him (Matt. 26:14-16). Because the betrayal took place on Wednesday, we have received the tradition from Apostolic times to fast on Wednesday throughout the year.

It is on this day also that one of the most beautiful and compunctionate hymns ever composed is chanted in the Holy Church. This hymn, composed in the early part of the ninth century by the nun Cassiane, has as its theme the anointing, of our Savior’s feet by the harlot:

The Troparion of Cassiane

O Lord, the woman who had fallen into many sins perceived Thy divinity, and taking upon herself the duty of a myrrh-bearer, with lamentation she bringeth Thee myrrh-oils before Thine entombment. Woe unto me! saith she, for night is become for me a frenzy of licentiousness, a dark and moonless love of sin. Receive the fountain of my tears, 0 Thou Who gatherest into clouds the water of the sea. Incline unto me, unto the sighings of my heart, 0 Thou Who didst bow the heavens by Thine ineffable condescension. I will kiss Thine immaculate feet and wipe them again with the tresses ot my head; those feet, at whose sound Eve hid herself for fear when she heard Thee walking in Paradise in the cool of the day. As for the multitude of my sins and the depths of Thy judgments, who can search them out, 0 Savior of souls, my Savior? Do not disdain me, Thy handmaiden, 0 Thou Who art boundless in mercy.

The Kontakion for this day continues the theme of contrition and remorse, and confronts us with our unworthiness before God:

The Kontakion. Fourth Tone

Though I have transgressed more than the harlot, 0 Good One, I have in no wise brought forth streams of tears for Thee; but in silence I supplicate Thee and fall down before Thee, kissing Thine immaculate feet with love, so that, as Master that Thou art, Thou mayest grant me the forgiveness of debts, as I cry to Thee, 0 Savior: From the mire of my deeds do Thou deliver me.

On Holy Wednesday night the Orthodox Church administers the Mystery of the Holy Unction for the bodily and spiritual health of the participants. At this Mystery, the oil is consecrated by prayer and the clergy anoint the people.

HOLY AND GREAT THURSDAY

The Gospels of Holy and Great Thursday tell how our Savior and His disciples came to Jerusalem to celebrate His last feast of the Passover, how He washed their feet. They tell the account of that Mystical Supper when our Lord ordained the Mystery of His Most Holy Body and Blood “for the remission of sins and life everlasting.” They speak of Christ’s instruction to the Apostles, and how He told them that they would all forsake Him that night; they speak of Peter’s rash promise that he would always remain faithful; of Christ’s