Holy Week in the Orthodox Christian Church: An Overview

A week from today Orthodox Christians throughout the world (commonly recognized as Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Serbian Orthodox, Antiochian Orthodox, Eastern Orthodox, etc.) will enter into a week that is absolutely set apart from all other weeks of the Church Year; commonly referred to as “Great and Holy Week” in the Orthodox Church, or simply “Holy Week” — April 8-16.

The 40 days of Lent will end and we will “enter into the annual commemoration of Christ’s suffering, death, and Resurrection,” as the late Fr. Alexander Schmemann states. “Having fulfilled the Forty Days… we ask to see the Holy Week of Thy Passion.” With these words sung on “Lazarus Saturday” — one week before Easter — our entry into Holy Week formally begins.

From Lazarus Saturday, the Orthodox Church then traverses through each day of Holy Week with its commemoration of the events of that “Passion Week” of Jesus Christ’s life on earth. In the Orthodox Church, through the worship services of Holy Week, the worshipper — by the grace of the Holy Spirit — truly “enters into” Christ’s “Triumphal Entry” into Jerusalem (Palm Sunday), His subsequent betrayal, suffering, crucifixion, descent into Hades, and of course His glorious Resurrection.

This “entering into” of Holy Week cannot be adequately explained in words. Just like a life lived “in Christ” can never be fully articulated by a Christian, so too Holy Week worship can only be understood through experience.

There are special services every day of Holy Week which are fulfilled in all Orthodox churches; each with its own particular theme. (Note: most of the services of Holy Week are “sung” in anticipation. That is, the services are rotated ahead 12 hours. The evening service, therefore, is actually the service of the next morning, while the morning services of Holy Thursday and Holy Saturday are actually the services of the coming evening — source: www.antiochian.org.)

On Holy Thursday we turn to the last events of our Lord and His Passion (source for Thursday through Saturday service description: www.antiochian.org). Thursday morning begins with a Divine Liturgy commemorating the “Mystical Supper” — the “Last Supper” at which the Lord instituted the Holy Eucharist. Thursday evening begins the services of Great and Holy Friday. The service of the Twelve Passion Gospels commemorates the deeply profound and solemn time of our Lord’s Crucifixion. The Holy Cross with the icon of the Crucified Christ is carried around the church in procession and placed in the center of the church.

On Holy Friday morning we celebrate the “Royal Hours.” At this solemn service we read various accounts and hymns concerning the crucifixion. In the afternoon we celebrate the Vesper service of the taking down of Christ’s body from the cross; commemorating the removal of Christ’s body from the cross by Joseph of Arimathea. In the evening the beautiful “Lamentations” service is celebrated. This service begins in a solemn manner, but by its end the faithful are joyously anticipating the Resurrection of Christ (remember again, that the Holy Friday evening service is actually the first service of Holy Saturday).

Holy Saturday is a day of hopeful anticipation, a commemoration of Christ’s descent into Hades to free the faithful of the Old Covenant. The morning Liturgy commemorates Christ’s victory over death. Laurel leaves – a sign of victory in the ancient world — are strewn throughout the church during the service, while the people chant “Arise O God; Judge the earth, for You shall inherit all the Gentiles.” The Old Testament story of Jonah three days in the belly of the whale is read at this service because Jonah is seen in the Church as a Type of Christ Who was three days in the tomb.

Finally, this amazing week culminates with our commemoration of the Holy and Glorious Resurrection of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. The celebration of Easter Sunday — the “Holy Pascha” as it is referred to in the Orthodox Church — begins just before midnight Saturday evening. Precisely at midnight, with all lights in the church off, the Light of Christ’s Resurrection “breaks through” when the priest takes the vigil light from the Holy Altar Table and gives it to the faithful, while singing: “Come receive the light, that is never overtaken by night, and glorify Christ, Who is risen from the dead.”

From there the people process out of the church building, where the Gospel account of the empty tomb is read; verses from Psalm 68 are sung — “Let God arise, let his enemies be scattered; let those who hate him flee from before his face!”; and the famous Paschal hymn is joyously chanted by all: “Christ is risen from the dead, by death trampling down upon death, and to those in the tombs He has granted life.” In this way the Church announces to the entire world the glorious news of the Resurrection. The Festal Midnight Liturgy of Easter is celebrated and the faithful partake of the Eucharist in the “Light of the Resurrection.”

The spiritual striving of the Lenten season and the blessed travel through Holy Week has been accomplished, and thus the Joy of the Resurrection is inexplicably palpable for all who have participated in this grace-filled journey. In the words of Fr. Andrew Domotses, the services of Holy Week have transformed us “into eyewitnesses and direct participants in the awesome events of the Passion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.”

The worship experience of Holy Week and Pascha is so deeply profound for an Orthodox Christian, and thus it is our genuine desire to share this experience with all who might be so inclined to “Come and see!” Our services at St. John the Divine Greek Orthodox Church, 2215 Chapline St. in Wheeling’are listed as follows and can be found at www.stjohngochurch.org: Lazarus Saturday: April 8, Resurrection of Lazarus: Divine Liturgy 10 a.m.; Palm Sunday, April 9, Divine Liturgy 10 a.m.; Withered Fig Tree: Evening Matins 6:30 p.m.; Holy Monday, April 10, Parable of Ten Virgins: Evening Matins 6:30 p.m.; Holy Tuesday, April 11, The Fallen Woman & Judas: Evening Matins 6:30 p.m.; Holy Wednesday, April 12; Presanctified Liturgy 9:30 a.m.. Holy Unction Service 5:30 p.m.,Washing of the Disciples Feet: Evening Matins 8 p.m.; Holy Thursday, April 13, Last Supper: Vesperal Divine Liturgy 9:30 a.m., Passion of Jesus Christ: Evening Matins 6:30 p.m.; Holy Friday, April 14, Standing at The Foot of the Cross: Royal Hours 9 a.m., Taking Down of Christ from the Cross: Vespers 3 p.m., Lamentations at the Tomb of Christ: Evening Matins 7 p.m.; Holy Saturday, April 15, Christ’s Victory Over Hades: Vesperal Divine Liturgy 9:30 a.m., Holy Resurrection: Midnight Service 11 p.m.; Easter Sunday, April 16, “Vespers of Love” 11 a.m.