An Overview of Holy Week for the Curious

And so the whirlwind begins. Last night and this morning we gathered for Vespers and Divine Liturgy to commemorate Lazarus' being raised from the dead after four days of rotting in the grave.

As he is, so are we all. Rotting and dead, that is. The same thing struck me when I was reading the Gospel this morning. I'm about midway through the Gospel of Matthew, and Jesus is going around having compassion on the sick and the suffering, healing them, and forgiving their sins. I realized that that is me. The sick and the suffering. Spiritually more than physically, but that Jesus came to heal and restore that which was broken and sick.

And the resurrection is the logical extension of that reality. Father Justin spoke of the horror of this great feast. The horror of this beloved friend of Christ being dead. The horror of God weeping at the tomb of a mortal man. The horror and shock of Jesus saying "I am the resurrection and the Life", a short time after having said "before Abraham was, I AM."

It's creepy, almost, and the cosmos trembles. And the surface is scratched in Hades as it has to give up Lazarus when Jesus calls to him "Come forth!"

And so today we get a glimpse of the Resurrection to come. And tomorrow we walk to Jerusalem with Christ shouting and waving palm branches: "Hosanna in the highest!" and all is glorious. And we catch our breath. And in every Orthodox Church the passion gets re-lived in real-time as we continue through this week.

It is as if time is stood on end, and nothing matters but being there. And in the evening, when we normally have Vespers, we are doing Matins services, and in the morning Vespers. Because the Author of Life is voluntarily going to his death. The world is upside down.

Monday and Tuesday: In the mornings, we pray the Hours, and read the Gospel of Matthew together as a community. And we gather for Bridegroom Matins in the evening .

Wednesday will recall Judas' betrayal with a kiss, and the tearful repentant kisses of the woman who anoints Christ's feet. And Jesus washing His disciples' feet. Matins in the evening with anointing afterwards.

Thursday, in the middle of the day is Vesperal Liturgy of the Mystical Supper, and then it REALLY gets going on Thursday night, with the reading of all the Gospel accounts of Christ's Passion. This is a very long service, but just amazing. To stand and hear the story told again. To enter into it. Even to suffer with it. Fatigue sets in at this point, and it is only the beginning.

The cross gets brought out into the middle of the Nave, and the icon called the Corpus gets nailed to the cross. Unlike anything else, these services have a way of pulling me in, back in time. Being there. And we should be tired. It seems right. We prostrate oursevels, we cry. We kiss Christ's feet.

Friday morning, during Royal Hours the passion is re-lived again. Jesus is on the cross. At 3 pm he is brought down during the Entombment Vespers. The icon of His body is gently laid in state. We make prostrations, and kiss Him.

Friday Evening are Holy Saturday Matins with Praises, and we start liturgically anticipating the resurrection already. A new tone of joy enters into our deep sadness. Hope.

By Saturday morning, we are fully into the liturgical day of Holy Saturday, and we celebrate Vesperal Liturgy...fully anticipating the resurrection and glorying in the harrowing of hell, in the longest Liturgy of the Church year. Often Catecumens are baptized and/or chrismated on this day. As it ends (well after noon) the book of Acts is read continuously until Paschal Nocturnes start at 11:30 pm.

Most families go home, take naps, make preparations, and return to Church late in the evening. At midnight we have a procession and Paschal Matins start. After an hour and a half we move seamelssly into Divine Liturgy, so that at around 3 am we are done and ready to break the fast: Meat, eggs, cheese, and much joy. Usually we are pulling out to head home around 5 am for some sleep.

I can't really describe the fullness of what happens during Orthodox Holy Week. Each service takes at least an hour and a half, and many of them are 2-3 hours long. It's exhausting. It almost kills us, but it is glorious!

Here's a link for a better explanation of all of this.


H and S said…
This isn't very virtuous of me, but I feel jealous of you Orthodox! Maybe next Pascha...
Anonymous said…
this will be my first Holy Week in the Church, and I almost cried reading your beautiful description. I am looking forward to the struggle. Thank you.
H and S said…
Further to the last comment... I'm trying to decide which service to attend on Great Friday: Royal Hours at 8am, or Vespers (bringing out the Winding Sheet of Christ) at 2:30pm, or Matins with burial procession at 6pm? I can only get to one. What do you think? BTW, it will all be in Slavonic, which I don't understand.
Jennifer F. said…
I'm so glad to have discovered your blog! I'm a convert to Catholicism and find it fascinating and uplifting to see the practices of our Orthodox brothers and sisters. Thank you for sharing this eloquent description of Holy Week.
Alana said…
All I know is that the first time I was ever at the service when the shroud was taken around, it was like I was THERE and seeing Christ's body pass in front of me. Total "time machine" experience, which is what these Holy Week worship services are designed to do.

So that remains one of my favorites. But the Royal Hours, when you get to venerate Christ on the Cross is also moving and beautiful. If you go with the right heart, you can't go wrong, even if it's all in Slavonic.

See if you can down-load and english translation of whatever service you choose to attend. Or there might be booklets available at the Church.

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