This blog post is going to be incredibly different from the ones I’ve done in the past. Completely different. Some of you may know and some may not, but I am Greek Orthodox! To many the way they connect with that would be “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”, then they know kind of what I’m talking about, or are at least have a basis of my religion. I wanted to write about my Holy Week though, and give a brief overview due to the fact our Easter, Pascha, is so incredibly different than most. This is a very brief outline as I could probably write so much more about all the music and traditions during this special week. We don’t celebrate usually on the same day as everyone else! For example this year, the world’s Easter is on April 21st. Our Pascha, or Easter, is next week the 28th. So the 21st is our Palm Sunday and our start into Holy Week. We have been building up to this week with the forty days of Lent before hand filled with prayer, fasting, and preparation. In Holy Week each day starting with Lazarus Saturday, the day before Palm Sunday sets us up with beautiful services and music to prepare us for Holy Week and Christ’s Resurrection on Great and Holy Pascha (Side note- Pascha means Passover!)
Lazarus Saturday– The Saturday before Palm Sunday, we usually all gather for a service in the morning. We commemorate Christ raising Lazarus from the dead in front of all of His disciples, the mourners, and family of Lazarus. This is the Saturday we usually then deep clean the church to get it ready for the week ahead. We also prepare palm crosses for Palm Sunday. The crosses are very simple to make and it’s always fun to then have some to save, and put maybe in your car or around your house for the rest of the year.
Palm Sunday– This Sunday is the beginning of Holy Week! Gearing us up for ALL the beautiful services to come. During the morning liturgy/service the priest processes through the church with the Holy Communion, the body and blood of Christ, and at this time in some churches they throw the palms down for him to walk over. This symbolizes Christ riding into Jerusalem on a donkey before his crucifixion and Resurrection. We sing hymns with the same words that the Jews said when he was riding into Jerusalem as well, “Hosanna in the Highest, blessed is He that comes in the name of the Lord.” In my church the palm crosses made the day before are blessed and then passed out at the end of the service.
Bridegroom Services– The evenings of Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday we have the bridegroom service. My old church had a tradition Sunday night of covering the altar in candles and showing a brief glance while the rest of the church was dark. I have only seen this done at that church and I believe it was to share a glimpse of what was to come at the end of the week. The glorious and glowing resurrection. The hymns during these services all talk about the Lord’s Bridal Chamber, or tomb, and the services are called the Bridegroom Service because Christ is the Bridegroom and the church is the bride. Each day has a different lesson as well. Monday is about Jesus and the barren fig tree, and Tuesday is about the ten virgins. The hymns and prayers talk about us all seeing the bridal chamber and hoping to be like the five wise virgins who were allowed to enter the feast. The church is usually quite dark during these services and there is the feeling of great severity, as we get closer to the Passion of Christ.
Holy Unction– The message for Wednesday is the oil/myrrh. The story of the sinful woman who brought precious oil to anoint Jesus’s feet and was forgiven of her sins, and then Judas a disciple who wanted the oil instead for money and wickedness. Wednesday evening is the service of Holy Unction, which is a sacrament. At church we are anointed with holy oil as a healing for soul and body. The anointing can be done when someone is ill, and it can also be done for forgiveness of sins, but Holy Unction helps prepare us for the weekend. The hymn that is sung while the faithful are anointed is “Hear us o Lord, hear us o Master, hear us o Holy One.” A prayer that the Grace of God would come down and heal us from all afflictions in soul and body and make us worthy to participate in the Passion and Resurrection of our Lord.
Great and Holy Thursday– Great and Holy Thursday has two very prominent services, one in the morning and one in the evening. There is a liturgy in the morning that commemorates the last supper. During communion there is a beautiful hymn sung specifically for this service while the congregation is receiving the body and blood of Christ. There are also some hymns talking about Judas’s betrayal of Christ to prepare us for the evening service. In the evening we have the service of the Twelve Passion Gospels. Each Gospel tells a bit more of the story of Christ’s Passion and death on the Cross. Read from each of the four Gospels while everyone in the congregation before and after the gospel reading sings, “Glory to the Passion and Long suffering O Lord.” After the Gospel reading where Christ finally gives up His Spirit the priest brings out a wooden Cross with Christ and puts it in the middle of the church where there is already a cross standing. This signifies the Crucifixion of Christ. Often traditionally there is a candle at the base of the Cross, and at the end of the evening the faithful all light candles from that main light to take home with them for their little home altars.
Great and Holy Friday– This Friday is one of my most favorite day of services during the whole year. There is so much beautiful music and prayers during this special day, and there are three services Friday. In the morning after the first service the tomb is brought out and the women of the church then decorate it with flowers and ribbons. In the afternoon there is a service called vespers and at the beginning the priest comes out and takes the image of Christ off of the Cross, and takes it back into the altar. At the end of that service while the choir sings a song about the Noble Joseph the priest comes out with the Epitaphios and places it in the beautifully decorated tomb. The Epitaphios (Επιτάφιος) is an embroidered cloth with the icon/image of Christ being laid in the tomb with the Angels, the Apostles and His Mother all around him lamenting. The noble Joseph is Joseph of Arimathea who after Jesus died requested from Pilot that he allow him to put Jesus’s body in his own personal tomb. The faithful then come up and venerate the Epitaphios and can add more flowers around it and the tomb itself. The last service on Friday is Lamentations. The faithful gather around the tomb and sing funeral dirges and lamentations to and about Christ. The church is completely dark except for candles around the icons and the ones held by the faithful there praying. Everyone also wears dark clothes as if going to a funeral. At the end of this service there is often a procession with the tomb around the church. The epitaphios is either then taken into the altar or in the Slavic Tradition it is put back on the tomb, and then taken into the altar Saturday night. At the Lamentation service in our church around the time of the procession the priest changes from dark vestments to gold ones as the first indication of Christ’s glorious resurrection.
Great and Holy Saturday– Saturday morning there is a liturgy service that starts out with a lot of old testament readings. There are about 16 to be exact. Then after the Epistle reading the harrowing of hell happens. While the Choir sings, “arise o God judge the earth, for Thou shalt have an inheritance among all the nations,” the Church is changed from being decorated and clad in black and mourning to white. Often people will wear white or light colored shirts under black sweaters and will take off their sweaters during this time as well. This signifies Christ’s arising, His going down into hell, and saving all those waiting on Him from the beginning with Adam and Eve. After this service every one usually goes home and rests before the big celebratory and beautiful all night vigil. This service usually starts around midnight so as to welcome in the resurrection of Christ as soon as the day dawns. As well as symbolizing in the darkest part of the night the glorious Resurrection and the Heavenly and New Jerusalem. Everyone is festively dressed, the church is beautifully decorated and the tomb is taken out. At the beginning of the service too right at midnight the Holy Fire is brought out and everyone’s candles are lit so the church is glowing. At the end of this service everyone grabs a red Easter egg and tries to crack their neighbor’s egg. We all say Χριστός ἀνέστη! (Christos Anesti- Christ is Risen!) and the response is Ἀληθῶς ἀνέστη! (Alithos Anesti- Truly He is Risen!) If you crack your neighbor’s egg the tradition is that you now have to pray for them the entire year and/or vice versa. Then we break the fast of Lent and enjoy an Easter/Paschal feast before going home to our beds.
Easter Sunday– We are back at church around noonish for a small service where we briefly sing through some of the music we had sung in the vigil the night before. Then we have a big feast with lamb and celebrate all together before heading home for any other family traditions we all have for our Pascha!
This year I am tackling Tsoureki, which is a sweet Easter Bread that is often braided with red Easter eggs sitting on top. It is almost like a Brioche loaf and is perfect topped with butter or a traditional sweet cheese spread called Pascha, which is also traditionally made around Easter. So I will hopefully be sharing pictures of the results next week! Xoxo
If you want to read more about Holy Week and More about Greek Orthodoxy go to https://www.goarch.org/holyweek
Links for some of the pictures throughout