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TALK ON THE SERVICES OF

HOLY AND GREAT WEEK

From Lazarus Saturday

25th FEBRUARY 2010

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Because we normally stop our weekly talks for Great Lent we never get the chance to speak on the services of Holy Week, so, as this is our last talk until after Easter I thought it would be a good idea to jump a little ahead and look at the meaning and messages found in the services of these Great and holy days. But I also want to prepare you for the correct frame of mind you should have as you attend these services and it fact every service. You should at all times keep in mind that they are more than just commemorative services where we remember the events of the Lord’s Passion. The Church doesn’t live in the past, but in the present and although we re-act the events that took place historically, we do these as though we are actually present with Christ as he suffers the passion and the Crucifixion. We have spoken before of how the Church stands at a point of intersection where the past, present and future of our earthly existence are merged with the unchanging and motionless time of the Kingdom of heaven where all the events are forever taking place. Thus the events we hear and see are not at all commemorative, but actually taking place before our eyes. We therefore become witnesses of the Lord’s Passion, Crucifixion and death just as the disciples and the people were witnesses 2000 years ago.
Great Lent ends with the Friday before Lazarus Saturday and to celebrate the end of the forty days of fasting and spiritual struggle, the Church commemorates on the Saturday and Sunday two major feasts in the life of Christ – the raising of Lazarus and the Lord’s entry into Jerusalem known as Palm Sunday. Both feasts are connected to Pascha and proclaim Christ as the promised Messiah and at the same time emphasize His divine authority. On the Saturday we hear the Gospel reading of the miracle of Lazarus’ resurrection after being dead for four days. I’m sure you all know the story so we will just look at the major points that help us to understand the message of the feast. Lazarus became ill and his sisters sent word to Jesus saying “Lord, behold, he whom thou lovest is sick”. In response Jesus said: “This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God might be glorified thereby”. What Christ is saying is that the miracle that is to follow will be so great, so incredible, that there will be no doubt in anyone’s mind that only someone with the power of God could perform it. On hearing that Lazarus was ill Jesus didn’t immediately go to Bethany to heal him, but instead remained in the place where He was staying for two more days. Only after Lazarus had died did he tell his disciples that they were returning to Judea.

By the time he reached Bethany Lazarus was already dead for four days and his corpse had already begun to decompose and stink. Bethany was near to Jerusalem and many of the Jews had come to comfort Lazarus’ sisters Martha and Mary. They would also be witnesses to an unconceivable miracle. Martha had heard that Jesus was approaching and went to meet him and said “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died, but I know that even now whatever you will ask of God he will grant it to you”. Martha’s statement had faith but it needed correcting. If she recognized Jesus as God she would have said that “whatever you say will be done, but instead her statement makes Christ as a prophet or saint who intercedes to God to grant him his requests. Jesus thus needed to test Martha’s faith and said to her “Your brother will rise again” without saying if he meant now or in the future Resurrection of the Dead. Martha took it to mean at the Resurrection on the Last Day. Jesus then said to her plainly “I am the Resurrection, and the Life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live” in other words I am life itself, I am God and have the power to give life to whomsoever I will. Do you believe this? Then Martha answered with a true confession of faith, “Yea, Lord: I believe that thou art the Christ, the Son of God, which should come into the world.” Martha then runs to tell her sister that Jesus had come and Mary, falling to his feet said: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” On seeing her weeping and those who were with her Jesus was moved in spirit and then when taken to the tomb we are told that he wept. He then orders the stone to be removed from the front of the tomb and calls Lazarus back from the dead. As with other feasts the liturgical hymns reveal the dogmatic meaning and true purpose of the miracle. The hymns reveal the two natures of Christ the God-man. His full manhood is revealed by the human feelings of sentiment and weeping for his friend and also by his ignorance of where Lazarus was buried and then his divinity is revealed by the divine power in raising Lazarus after he had been dead for four days. A hymn for the feast says: “Foreknowing all things as God, Thou hast foretold to the apostles the death of Lazarus; yet at Bethany, when in the presence of the people, thou hast as man asked where Thy friend was buried, being ignorant of this. But he whom thou raised after four days dead, manifested Thy power as God. O almighty Lord, glory to Thee”. (Lauds)
Prophets have also raised the dead and Jesus had previously raised Jairus’ daughter and the widow’s son but never before had the world seen someone brought back to life after four days and when the body had already began to decompose. This was a clear manifestation of his divine power and a clear statement to the Pharisees and chief priests that they were plotting to kill the Messiah. But instead of humbly accepting the truth which was before their eyes, the miracle caused them to erupt with even more hatred and determination to finally destroy the one person who could judge them for their hypocritical rendering of the Law.
The miracle of Lazarus’ resurrection exactly eight days before the Lord’s own resurrection is also a message of comfort. It was to reassure his disciples that he is Lord and Victor over death and that they should understand that even though he will suffer the coming Passion and Crucifixion, he is the source of life and has the power to raise his own dead body from the grave. The resurrection of Lazarus is therefore a kind of prophecy, not in words but in the form of an action. It foreshadows Christ’s own Resurrection and anticipates the resurrection of all the righteous on the Last Day. This is the message found in the Apolytikion hymn for the feast which is the hymn also for Palm Sunday.
Assuring us, before Thy Passion, of the General Resurrection, from the dead, Thou hast raised Lazarus, O Christ our God. Therefore, like the children, we also carry tokens of victory and cry aloud to Thee, the Victor of death: Hosanna in the highest, blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord.”

The next day “Palm Sunday” we celebrate the triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. Christ had been to Jerusalem before, but now he enters the city officially proclaiming that he is the Messiah. Many people were at this time in Jerusalem as the feast of the Passover was approaching and they had come to make preparations for the feast. They had heard of the miracle done to Lazarus and many came to believe that he was the descendant of King David, the expected Messiah; the Christ who would deliver them from the yoke of the Romans. One would expect a King to enter the holy city in glory on horseback with an army of soldiers by his side, but that is human glory which is based on pride and arrogance. Christ enters not proudly on a king’s horse, but with humility on a young donkey. He doesn’t come as the national saviour whom the people expected, but as the saviour of souls. But this very humble entry is what proclaimed him as the Messiah. Those who knew the scriptures would have instantly recalled the Prophecy by the Prophet Zachariah which said: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout, O daughter of Jerusalem: behold, thy King cometh unto thee: he is just, and having salvation; lowly, and riding upon an ass, and upon a colt the foal of an ass.” (Zach. 9:9)

Those who believed or were curious to see Lazarus run to meet him and laid their clothes on the ground as he passed by while others cut branches from the trees and threw them before him or waved them as a sign of victory. The Palm branches were used as a visual sign of victory in the Old Testament. We have in the first Book of the Maccabees the triumphal entry into Jerusalem by Simon who was accompanied with thanksgiving with palm branches, harps, cymbals, violins, hymns and songs because a great enemy was destroyed out of Israel. (1Macc. 13:51) Also in Leviticus we read how the Palm branch was used during the Feast of Tabernacles as a visual tool proclaiming the sovereignty of God as the true king of the Israelites. Thus the palms of Palm Sunday have a double meaning: they proclaim Christ as the Victor over death and his sovereignty as God and true King of Israel. This recognition is echoed by the people’s voices who cried out “Hosanna to the son of David, blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord, hosanna in the highest.” (Matt. 21:9) Hosanna literally means “therefore save” but it was also used as a cheer or salutation. Thus Hosanna to the son of David means: “Hail to the descendant of King David” and Hosanna in the highest means: “Save us o God in the highest”.
But as Jerusalem joyfully received its God and King they were unaware of the purpose of this entry. Christ did not come as a political or military leader to liberate them from the Romans as they supposed, but for the soul purpose of accomplishing the mission for which the Father had sent him. He came to liberate them from the darkness of sin and the bondage of death and this could only be accomplished by his own death on the Cross whereby, with his Resurrection that was to follow, he would once and for all destroy the power of death. His entry into Jerusalem was his journey to his Passion and Death which he voluntarily took upon himself in order to re-open the gates of Paradise to all mankind which had been closed since the fall of Adam the first-man.
On this day we are also called to join the thousands who celebrated the Lord’s triumphant entry and it is customary to bring Palm branches with us to Church, but as we don’t have many Palm trees in Cyprus, we bring branches of Olive tree. At the end of the Service there is a procession around the Church which is symbolic of Christ’s journey into Jerusalem and then the Priest will read the Gospel for the day. At the point where it says: “And a very great multitude spread their garments in the way; others cut down branches from the trees, and strawed them in the way.” The people throw their branches towards the Priest who represents Christ and in that way they identify themselves with the multitude of the Gospel. Another custom which we have only in Cyprus is that apart from the olive branches, people also bring bags full of olive leaves, which after being blessed, are kept in Church for 40 days as another form of blessing, and then the people take them to their homes and use the leaves as incense. This is a custom the younger generation have left behind, but our grandmothers would begin their morning prayer by first offering incense to God and asking him to bless the day.
On the evening of Palm Sunday we begin Holy Week with the first service of “Christ the Bridegroom”. The service is actually the morning service for Holy Monday morning, but during Holy Week all the services are sung in anticipation of the actual event. I’ll explain what I mean. The morning or matins services as sung on the evening before and the evening or vespers services are sung on the morning before. This is done for two practical reasons. The first because the most beautiful services of the Crucifixion and the Burial are actually morning services, but because people have to work in the mornings, they would not be able to attend the services, so we reverse the order of the services so that the people can be present. The other is that we celebrate the Sunday morning service of the Resurrection at midnight so all the preceding services are brought forward half a day.
Thus the service for Holy Monday morning is sung on the evening of Palm Sunday. This together with the following two evenings comprise the services known as the Bridegroom (Nyphios). The Icon for the Bridegroom doesn’t show Christ dressed up as a Bridegroom, but as the Man of the Passion, reminding us that shortly Christ will suffer the humility of the Passion. The Icon brings to mind the Gospel passage which says: “And they stripped him, and put on him a scarlet robe. And when they had platted a crown of thorns, they put it upon his head, and a reed in his right hand: and they bowed the knee before him, and mocked him, saying, Hail, King of the Jews!” In the Gospels Christ calls himself the Bridegroom, as in the passage where he tells the disciples of St. John the Baptist that the children of the bridechamber cannot mourn as long as the Bridegroom is with them, but the days will come when the Bridegroom shall be taken from them, and then they will fast. But the title Bridegroom is actually taken from the Gospel reading of Holy Tuesday, which recounts the Parable of the Ten Virgins, which took their lamps, and went forth to meet the Bridegroom. The Parable is related to the Second Coming of Christ and the need for us to prepare ourselves for this day by being spiritually vigilant, watching and waiting for the Lord, who will come again to judge the living and the dead.

The Resurrection service is not only a celebration of the Lord’s Resurrection from the dead, it is also the Celebration of the Second coming of Christ. We have seen this interpretation in the Liturgy where our participation in the Holy Eucharist is our participation in the wedding banquet that the faithful will partake of after the Second Coming and the General Resurrection of the dead. But Easter night is even more special because even though we don’t know when this will be, there is a tradition from the times of the Apostles that the Second coming of Christ will be one year on the night of the Resurrection. The image of the Church preparing to meet the Bridegroom is therefore very appropriate for the days before the Lord begins his passion. There is a clear message that the Lord is coming and we must at all times be vigilantly watching for the moment so that we do not find ourselves locked out of the bridal chamber. The main hymn for these three days is based on the Parable of the Ten Virgins:

“Behold the Bridegroom comes in the middle of the night; and blessed is the servant whom he shall find watching, but unworthy is he whom he shall find in slothfulness. Beware, then, O my soul, and be not overcome by sleep, lest thou be given over to death and shut out from the Kingdom. But return to soberness and cry aloud: Holy, holy, holy art thou, O God: through the Theotokos have mercy upon us”.
A
nother hymn sung on these three days is also based on the Bridegroom theme taken from another Parable:
I see Thy bridal chamber all adorned, O my Saviour, but I have no wedding garment so that I may enter in. Make bright the vesture of my soul, O Giver of light, and save me.”
As said, the title of the services is taken from the Parable of the Ten Virgins, but the actual services contain a great many themes based chiefly on the last days of Jesus’ earthly life. They are rooted in incidents preceding the Passion with a collection of Parables and other things Christ said concerning his divinity, the Kingdom of God, the Second Coming and his reprimand to the religious leaders for their hypocrisy. But although they contain many themes, each day is dedicated to two basic themes. Thus Holy Monday is dedicated to the Righteous Joseph the All-Good as the Church refers to him (Ιωσήφ του Παγκάλου), the beloved son of Jacob found in the Book of Genesis in the Old Testament and to Jesus’ cursing of the Fig Tree.
Joseph’s story is remembered because there are many similarities between him and Jesus and the Church sees him as a prototype, a prefigurement or image of Christ. Let see what they have in common. Both were the beloved sons of their fathers. They were both hated by their brethren: Joseph by his blood brothers and Jesus by his brethren the Jews. Both were betrayed by their brethren: Joseph was sold into slavery for 20 pieces of silver and Jesus was betrayed by Judas for thirty pieces of silver. Both were accused falsely and accepted their sentence with humility without opening their mouths to defend themselves. Joseph received glory for his patience, he suffered and withstood everything that came his way, trusting in God and not losing hope and his suffering was rewarded and he was raised to such a position that people now bowed down to him. His time in prison is symbolic of Christ’s death and his newfound glory symbolic of Christ’s Resurrection. Joseph forgave his brethren for the evil they did against him: Christ on the Cross said “forgive them for they know not what they do.” In both cases the evil done against them was to manifest God’s providence, his promise and redemption. Joseph was raised to Governor of Egypt and saved Israel from the famine and death: Christ was Resurrected and saved mankind from eternal death.
As mentioned, the cursing of the fig tree is also commemorated on Holy Monday. In the Gospel account this event is mentioned on the morning after Christ’s entry into Jerusalem which accounts for how it found its way into the service of Great Monday. The fig tree is symbolic of Israel who as the chosen people failed to bring forth fruits of repentance and especially the Jewish religious leaders who, like the fig tree, full of leaves, appeared from a distance to be fruitful, but on closer inspection were barren of any faith. The cursing of the fig tree is like a warning to everyone that hypocritical faith and being a Christian only in name is something despised by God and will not be rewarded with Paradise, but rather will receive the reward of the fig tree. True Christian faith means to live and walk in Christ and such Christians are recognized by the fruits that the Spirit bears in them: the spiritual fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control (Galatians 5:22-25). A hymn for the day says:

O brethren, let us fear the punishment of the fig tree, withered because it was unfruitful; and let us bring worthy fruits of repentance unto Christ, who grants us his great mercy”. (Aposticha of Matins)
On Holy Tuesday the Church commemorates the Parable of the Ten Virgins and the Parable of the Talents. Both parables refer to the Parousia – the Second Coming of Christ and give warning on how we should be spiritual prepared for this day through vigilance, and that we are subject to give account of ourselves on the day of judgement. The Parable of the Ten Virgins makes it clear that no one knows when this day will be and that we should prepare ourselves now and not leave it for tomorrow or some undefined time in the future. When the time finally comes it will wait for no man and some, like the good Virgins, will be ready to enter into the bridal chamber with Christ while others will find the doors closed and will be outside knocking and shouting to Christ to let them in. The exclusion from the marriage feast, in other words the kingdom, is of our own choice and making.

The talents are the spiritual graces that God gives to each of us at our Baptism. Unto one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one; in other words each man receives grace according to his ability and strength. The amount we receive is not important because whether we received one two or five talents if we put them to good use our reward will be the same. The more grace we are given the more accountable we will be in the day of judgement on how we put it to good use. Thus in the parable the good servant who received five talents used them to make five more talents and the servant with two made two more. But the wicked and slothful servant buried his talent, in other words he lived his life, not necessarily doing evil, but was too lazy to help others and unconcerned with his own spiritual welfare to live with even the least of spiritual alertness. His reward for not even trying will be that he will be cast out of Paradise, into outer darkness: where there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth. A hymn for day says:
Behold my soul, the Master entrusts thee with a talent. Receive his gift with fear; make it gain interest for him; distribute to the needy, and make the Lord thy friend. So shall thou stand on the right hand when He comes in glory, and thou shalt hear His blessed words: Enter, servant, into the joy of the Lord”.

On Holy Wednesday we commemorate the sinful woman who anointed the Lord with precious ointment shortly before the passion (Matthew 26:6-13). The Gospel reading during the Liturgy is the account of this event and on how from this moment Judas Iscariot secretly convened with the Jews to betray the Lord for thirty pieces of silver. The hymns make a contrast of these two people:
The harlot drew near thee, O thou who lovest mankind, and poured out on thy feet the oil of myrrh with her tears; and at thy command she was delivered from the foul smell of her evil deeds. But the ungrateful disciple, though he breathed thy grace, rejected it and defiled himself in filth, selling thee from love of money. Glory be to thy compassion, O Christ”

The harlot is used as an image of repentance and we are prompted to identify ourselves with her:
I have transgressed more than the harlot, O loving Lord, yet never have I offered thee my flowing tears. But in silence I fall down before thee and with love I kiss thy most pure feet, beseeching thee as Master to grant me remission of sins; and I cry to thee, O Saviour: Deliver me from the filth of my works.”

But we can also identify ourselves with Judas for have we not betrayed the Saviour many times in our hearts and crucified Him anew?
For many the highlight of Wednesday’s Matins service sung on the Tuesday evening is the hymn known as the Troparion tis Cassianis. Cassiani was the name of the Nun who composed the hymn and not the name of the sinful woman who is the subject of the Hymn. It is a very long hymn and usually takes as least twenty minutes to be sung.
On Great and Holy Thursday four events are commemorated: the washing of the disciples’ feet, the institution of the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist at the Last Supper, Jesus’ prayer and agony in the garden of Gethsemane, and the betrayal of Christ by Judas. We don’t have time to look at all these events in detail so we will just give them a quick glance over.
The Mystical supper is the commemoration of the first Divine Liturgy that was performed by Christ himself in the upper room. He took the bread and wine and identified them as his body and blood and then after giving thanks he gave the bread to his disciples saying “Take, eat; this is my Body” and then the cup saying “Drink ye all of it; For this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins.” He then told them to do this in remembrance of me. The Church in compliance with Christ’s bidding to “Do this in remembrance of me” celebrates this Mystery of Mysteries and will continue to celebrate it until the end of time. The sacrament of the Eucharist is the very centre of the Church’s life. It is her most profound prayer and principal activity. It is at one and the same time both the source and the summit of her life. The Eucharist is the sacrament that completes all the other sacraments and sums up the entire economy of salvation. Our new life in Christ is constantly renewed and increased by the Eucharist. The Eucharist imparts life and the life it gives is the life of God.
At the Mystical Supper Christ showed his humility by washing the feet of the disciples. By this he manifested his prefect love and revealed to them that they must follow the same path of humility if they are to follow in his footsteps. If they conduct themselves with pride that they are superior to others because they were his disciples then they would have no part with him. If he as Master and Lord could humble himself to wash their feet then they also must humble themselves and wash one another’s feet. The servant is not greater than his Lord. A hymn from the service says:
He who made the lakes and springs and seas, wishing to teach us the surpassing value of humility, girded himself with a towel and washed the feet of the disciples, humbling himself in the abundance of his great compassion and raising us from the depths of wickedness, for he alone loves mankind”.

There is a special service for the Washing of the Feet which has fallen into disuse but is still performed in certain places. In Jerusalem for example it is conducted with special solemnity on Holy Thursday every year.
The Prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane which followed the Mystical Supper is a prayer of agony which reveals the human nature of Christ: “O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt”. So terrible was the thought of being nailed to the cross that we are told that “his sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground.” We have spoken before of the two natures of Christ and the two wills and actions. Christ acts in conformity to both natures, and by both natures. Each nature acts according to its own properties: and here we see his human nature freely manifesting itself in fear of the approaching passion. The prayer of Gethsemane was an expression of horror in the face of death, a reaction proper to all human nature, especially to an incorrupt nature which should not submit to death, and for whom death could only be a voluntary rending contrary to nature. When His human will refused to accept death, and His divine will made way for this manifestation of His humility, the Lord in conformity with His human nature, submitted to struggle and fear, and prayed to be spared from death. But since His divine will desired that His human will should accept death, the humanity of Christ voluntarily accepted the Passion.
Judas in his foolishness prefers thirty pieces of silver to the Master’s love. By his passion of love for money he is blinded of the true Light and betrays Christ with a kiss, the sign of friendship and love. Under the guise of friendship he conceals deceit. His action is expressed as ingratitude as in the following hymn:
What reason led thee, Judas, to betray the Saviour? Did he expel thee from the company of the disciples? Did he deprive thee of the gift of healing? When thou wast at supper with the others, did he drive thee from the table? When he washed the other’s feet, did he pass thee by? How many are the blessings that thou hast forgotten! Thou art condemned for thine ingratitude, but his measureless longsuffering and great mercy are proclaimed to all”.
On the morning of Holy Thursday two Lambs are consecrated during the Divine Liturgy. The second Lamb is dried and used as the Reserved Sacrament so that the priest can have the Holy Sacrament ready at hand at whatever time of the day or night to give communion to the sick and especially to those who are in danger of dying and are about to leave this world without the provision for eternal life. The Reserved Sacrament from the previous year is consumed by the priest after the Liturgy on either Great Thursday or Great Saturday in the usual manner.
On the evening of Holy Thursday we have the special and very long Matins service for Holy Friday. During this service we commemorate: The Holy, Saving and Awful Passion of our Lord and God and Saviour Jesus Christ, the spitting, the scourging, the buffetings, the scorn, the mocking, the purple robe, the reed, the sponge, the vinegar, the nails, the spear and above all the Cross and Death which he accepted willingly for our sake; but also the saving confession on the cross of the Good Thief, crucified with him.
The service is known as the service of the 12 Gospels which are read at intervals, the first being extremely long. The readings begin with the last instructions of Christ to his disciples then the complete account of the betrayal, his arrest and trials before the High Priest and Pilate, his sufferings and Crucifixion, his Death on the Cross, the taking down of his Body and burial and finishing with the order for the tomb to be sealed and guarded by the Roman soldiers. The most solemn moment of the service comes a little after the reading of the fifth Gospel and before the sixth Gospel. The lights are dimmed so that the Church is in darkness and the Priest with his helpers come out of the sanctuary in procession around the nave of the church with the crucifix, the figures of Christ, the Mother of God and the beloved disciple John. As they go round the priest chants the following hymn:
Today is hung upon the cross, he who hung the earth upon the waters. He who is King of the angels is arrayed in a crown of thorns. He who wraps the heaven in clouds is wrapped in the purple of mockery. He who in Jordan set Adam free receives blows upon his face. The Bridegroom of the church is transfixed with nails. The Son of the Virgin is pierced with a spear. We venerate thy Passion, O Christ. Show us also thy glorious Resurrection.”

As the procession ends, the Crucifix is placed on a stand in the middle of the Church and the figure of Christ is secured to it with nails. Flower wreaths are then placed upon the top of the cross and then slowing one by one we prostrate ourselves before the Cross and venerate the Crucified Lord.
The day of Christ’s death is a day of deep mourning yet at the same time there is a ray of joy for mankind. Already we see in the hymns that we sing of the hope of the Resurrection and this is the fulfilment of Christ’s mission on earth. His death on the Cross was the manifestation of his perfect obedience to the Divine Will and the expression of his total love for us. In all that he suffered he did so for us, so that we might be with him in Paradise. This was his mission and on the Cross his agonizing cry “It is finished” indicates that his work of redemption was accomplished, finished and fulfilled. Christ’s death is the day of our rebirth, the day when the gates of Paradise were re-opened. His death became for us the passage from death to life.
On the morning of Great Friday we have the services of the Royal Hours and the Vespers Service for Great Saturday. The Royal Hours are four short services primarily made up of readings of Psalms, prayers, hymns, and passages from the Old Testament, Epistles, and Gospels. In the Gospels we hear again of all the events leading to the Passion and Crucifixion. The Vespers service continues immediately after the Hours. During this service Christ is taken down from the Cross. His body is then wrapped with a white sheet as did Joseph of Arimathaea and is placed in the tomb. The taking down from the Cross is done during the reading of the Gospel Lesson. When the Priest comes to the passage “And when Joseph had taken the body, he wrapped it in a clean linen cloth” the body is taken down and wrapped in the white sheet, and as he continues with the next line “And laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn out in the rock” the Priest lays the dead body of Christ upon the Holy Altar which is symbolic of the tomb where Christ was laid.

But even though the burial has taken place, the people cannot enter the Sanctuary and venerate the body of Christ on the Holy Altar so another Icon needs to be placed in the centre of the Church for public veneration. This is brought out a little later with another procession around the nave of the Church. The Icon is known as the “Epitaphios” or “The Entombment” and during the singing of the Aposticha the Priest exists the Sanctuary carrying the cloth Icon of the Epitaphion above his head and the Gospel Book in his hands and solemnly proceeds around the nave until he reaches the Canopy in the centre of the Church representing Christ’s tomb which is decorated with flowers representative of the myrrh and spices that were used in the burial preparation. He then lays the Epitaphion in the Canopy and the Gospel Book and after censing the tomb he sprinkles it with rose water.
In the Evening of Great Friday we sing the Mattins service for Great Saturday which is known as the Epitaphios. On Great and Holy Saturday the Church commemorates the Lord’s Burial and his descent into Hades. Saturday, in other words the Sabbath, was in the Old Testament Law a day of rest and Christ observes the Sabbath resting in the tomb. But his rest does not mean inactivity. He descents into Hades, to the place of the dead and defeats death from within. By his own death he defeats man’s ultimate enemy and frees us from the bonds of death. St. John Chrysostom in his Easter Sermon says: “Let no one fear death, for the Saviour’s death has set us free. He who was held by death, eradicated death. He plundered Hades when He descended into Hades. He embittered it, when it tasted of His flesh, and this being foretold by Isaiah when he cried: Hades said it was embittered, when it encountered Thee below. Embittered, for it was abolished. Embittered, for it was ridiculed. Embittered, for it was put to death. Embittered, for it was dethroned. Embittered, for it was made captive. It received a body and by chance came face to face with God. It received earth and encountered heaven. It received that which it could see, and was overthrown by Him whom he could not see.”
There are two main events during the Epitaphios service. The first is the singing of the Lamentations which are about 300 short hymns in total. I would say that this is the highlight of the service. The hymns stir up a mixture of feelings, moving us from sadness when we are reminded how man put to death his God and Creator, then to tears when we think of the pain in the Blessed Virgins heart on first seeing her Son and God suffering the humility of the Cross and now seeing him dead in the tomb, and then to hope and joy when we are reminded that in three days he will rise again. In most churches the Lamentations are sung by a choir and the 300 short hymns are drastically reduced to just a fraction. In the village where I serve Holy Week we do things a little different, which I feel helps people move into the atmosphere of the event. Everyone is given a candle and the text for the Lamentations. We then switch off all the lights and light our candles and standing around the Epitaphios everyone is encouraged to sing the lamentations together. As we are a smaller group than the large city parishes, we have no reason to rush and so sing all the verses. Towards the end of the lamentations there is a verse which says: “Ἔρραναν τὸν τάφον, αἱ Μυροφόροι μύρα, λίαν πρωῒ ἐλθοῦσαι” - early in the morning the myrrh-bearers came to Thee and sprinkled myrrh upon Thy tomb” As this is sung the Priest, going around the Epitaphion, sprinkles it with rosewater and girls acting as the Myrrhbearers throw flower petals on it. The hymn is repeated three or as many times as needed until the Priest sprinkles the whole church and the people with the rose water. After the singing of the Lamentations, everyone comes and venerates Christ in the tomb and receive from the Priest a flower from the tomb as a blessing.
The second event is the funeral procession which varies to whether one is in a town or a village church. In general, the Icon of the entombment or the whole canopy is lifted above the priest’s head and is carried in procession into the streets, and as they walk the streets the people walk under the canopy, the choir all the while singing hymns from the service. In towns the funeral cortege is often lead by a brass band and members of the armed forces and meet up with the funeral procession from other parishes.
In theory Holy Week ends with the Epitaphios service because the Service on Saturday morning is the Vespers service for the Resurrection. The service is Paschal in character but we do not sing that Christ is risen until the actual Paschal service after midnight. The structure of the service begins as any other Saturday vespers with hymns from Tone 1 of the Resurrection Cycle and then hymns describing the groanings of Hades at having received Christ. “Today hell groans and cries aloud: “ My power has been destroyed. I accepted a mortal man as one of the dead; yet I cannot keep him prisoner, and with him I shall lose all those over whom I ruled. I held in my power the dead from all the ages; but see, he is raising them all. Glory to thy Cross, O Lord, and to thy Resurrection.”

After the entrance and the singing of “O Gladsome Light” fifteen readings from the Old Testament are appointed but in practice we only read three. In our talk on Baptism a month ago we saw how in the ancient church the catechumen were Baptized during the time of these readings. The first reading is the account of the creation from Genesis, the second the whole book of Jonah whose was swallowed up by a whale and remained it its belly for three day which is a prefiguration of the Lord’s three days in the tomb. The last reading is from the Book of Daniel recounting the story of the Three Children in the fiery furnace of Babylon. Towards the end of the reading the Three Children’s song of praise is taken up by the choir and between each line is repeated the refrain “Τὸν Κύριον ὑμνεῖτε, καὶ ὑπερυψοῦτε εἰς πάντας τοὺς αἰῶνας.” “Praise the Lord and exalt him above all for ever”. The people usually join in singing the refrain.
Then follows the Apostle reading and immediately after the Priest as if calling to the sleeping Christ chants in a loud voice “Arise, O God, judge thou the earth: for thou shalt have as inheritance in all the nations”. As this is sung the Priest exits the Sanctuary throwing Bay leaves, the symbol of victory, throughout the Church. At this moment, in Cyprus there is a very noisy custom of banging the lift up seats up and down supposedly symbolic of the earthquake that occurred at the Resurrection. It is a rather crude and unrefined and disruptive custom which has become so deep rooted that the Priest has no control of the situation so just lets it be done with. This symbolism with the earthquake of the Resurrection has caused people to believe that the Resurrection has already taken place and people often wrongly refer to it as the first resurrection.
If we had time it would have been great to talk on the actual feast of the Resurrection, but as there is so much to say it really needs a talk on just this. Maybe this will be our subject for our first talk after Easter.
With this I would like to with you all good strength for the remainder of the journey of Great Lent, a spiritual understanding of Holy and Great week and a rebirth filled with spiritual joy and enlightenment at the feast of the Resurrection.