A Summary of the Services of Holy Week in the Orthodox Church

Summary of Holy Week

Lazarus Saturday and Palm Sunday:

Great Lent technically ends this evening with the Small Compline and Canon of St. Lazarus and, while keeping the Fast, we moving into a little different mode.  The Saturday Divine Liturgy of Lazarus Saturday is a very festal occasion as it commemorates our Lord’s raising of Lazarus after being four-days-dead.  Never in the history of the world was anyone raised after four days at which point the body began to decompose.  Thus Christ is shown to be the Creator as he re-creates His friend’s body along with restoration of his soul.  Lazarus Saturday is a festive day in many Orthodox countries marked by activities for children and children singing hymns door to door.

Palm Sunday has the same festal character and in fact the Palm Sunday hymn is identical to that of Lazarus Saturday: 

“O Christ God when thou didst raise Lazarus from the dead, thou didst confirm the universal resurrection.  Wherefore we, like children, carry the banner of triumph and victory and cry unto thee, O Vanquisher of Death: Hosanna in the highest!  Blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord.”

At the end of Liturgy there is a procession outside (usually around the church building).*  Children are often dressed in their best and carry candles during the procession.  Upon re-entering the church the children will gather around the iconostasis and gospel stand as the Priest reads from the Holy Gospel again the account of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem.

* Note: We will process out our front door and turn right to the traffic light, crossing Wenatchee Ave; then turn back left to the crosswalk across from the church, crossing Wenatchee Ave. again.


Sun., Mon., & Tues., Evenings: The Bridegroom Services

On the evenings of the above days, we pray the Bridegroom Orthros (Matins).*  This is one of my favorites of the year with the beautiful hymn:

“I behold Thy bridal chamber richly adorned, O my Savior.  But I have no wedding garment to worthily enter.  Make radiant the garment of my soul, O Giver of Light, and save me.”

On these days we focus on Christ’s self-identification as the “Bridegroom” which is a reference both to the marriage that He enters into with His Bride, the Church, by His voluntary sacrificial death, and to His Second Coming for which we are called to be prepared and to have our wedding (baptismal) garment unstained.

Each particular day also contains other biblical themes:

Sunday Eve: Joseph as a “type” of Christ, and the fig tree which the Lord cursed for lack of fruit. 

Monday Eve: The 5 wise and 5 foolish virgins, and the parable of the Talents.

Tuesday Eve: The harlot who anointed the Lord with myrrh, contrasted with Judas who sold the Lord for 30 pieces of silver 

* [Note: During Holy Week the services are pushed up a half a day in anticipation.  Thus, Orthros is served in the evenings and Vespers in the mornings, until finally we celebrate the Resurrection at the first possible moment, 12 midnight Sunday morning].  


Wednesday Evening: Holy Unction

In Greek and Antiochian practice the Sacrament of Holy Unction is served.  In Slavic practice another Bridegroom Matins is served.  Holy Unction is a Mystery (Sacrament) of the Church for the healing of soul and body through the anointing with blessed oil.  We find this practice referenced in the Gospel of Mark (6:13) and the Epistle of St. James (5:14).

In the West, Unction became a rite for the dying.  However, in the Orthodox Church it remains an anointing for sickness of all kinds at any time.  Since it is a Sacrament we prepare as we do for Holy Communion, abstaining from food and drink at least from around 12 noon and having had a recent Confession.  However it is not a Divine Liturgy and Holy Communion is not served.  Note: Non-Orthodox will be anointed with a non-Sacramental oil.

One of the main marks of the service is the 7 Epistle and 7 Gospel readings.  The service is prescribed to be served by 7 Priests (Presbyters) if available.

Thursday Morning and Evening

Thursday morning we serve a Vesperal Divine Liturgy commemorating the Last Supper (the Eucharist).  Therefore this is the Divine Liturgy with Holy Communion and we should prepare with the usual abstinence from food and drink that day.  It is at this service that the Priest consecrates an extra “Lamb” to be used as reserved Sacrament for use throughout the year.  

Thursday evening we serve a special Orthros with 12 Passion Gospel Readings.  After the 5th Reading the Priest processes among the people (who kneel or prostrate) with the large Cross singing slowly the following:

“Today He is suspended on a Tree who suspended the earth upon the waters (3x)

A crown of thorns was placed on the head of the King of angels.

He who wore a false purple robe, clothed the heavens with clouds.

He was smitten who, in the Jordan, delivered Adam.

The Groom of the Church was fastened with nails, and the Son of the Virgin was pierced with a spear.

Thy sufferings we adore, O Christ. (3x)

Make us to behold Thy glorious Resurrection.”

Be forewarned, this is one of the longest services of the year! (at least 3 hours).  Those with children or infirm, please feel free to come for as long as you can.


Great and Holy Friday:

The who day on this Friday should be dedicated only to contemplation of the Lord and His Passion.  It is long standing practice that those who can abstain from food and drink (or just food) the whole day and until after Holy Communion on Saturday morning.  Otherwise one may have some toast and jam with tea before or after the evening service.  Do your best, and whatever your fast keep your vigilance with prayer and sobriety.  We have to make accommodations for illness and weakness.  We are not as strong as our predecessors in the Faith, though we can grow in strength.  There are three services on this day 

Royal Hours (9am): These are the services of the Hours (1st, 3rd, 6th, & 9th) strung together as one service (About 1 1/2 hours).  There is an Old Testament, Epistle, and Gospel Reading for each Hour.

Great Vespers (1pm): This Vespers service includes the taking down of the icon of Christ from the Cross, and the placing of the Epitaphios (Burial Shroud of the Lord) in the funeral bier.  The hymns reveal that the whole creation marvels when the eternal and divine Son of God lays dead as Man in a tomb for our salvation and that “the Creator is smitten by the hand of His creatures.”  The Epistle tells us: “The word of the cross is follow to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”  The Old Testament readings show that it is the same God who said to Moses “you cannot see my face” whose human face is now seen by us dead, and we read the prophecy from Isaiah about the “man of sorrows,” i.e. Christ.


Orthros with Lamentations (6:30pm)

At this Orthros we commemorate the burial of the Lord and His descent into hades.  One of the highlights of the service is our gathering around the funeral bier of the Lord and singing the “Lamentations,” which are not sad songs for one permanently dead, but theological reflections on the mystery of Christ’s sacrificial death and resurrection.  We do however experience the pain and of the Virgin as if through her eyes as she beholds her Son and Lord in the grave.  In anticipation of the Resurrection we read the prophecy from Ezekiel about the “dry bones” (37:1-14).


Great and Holy Saturday

On Saturday morning we have a Vesperal Divine Liturgy (9am) commemorating Christ’s victory over death.  This is the baptismal Liturgy of the early Church and still the most appropriate time for baptisms.  At Vespers we read about Jonah and the whale, a foreshadowing of the three day entombment, and from Daniel regarding the three holy children.  We read from the Epistle to the Romans about being buried with Christ in baptism and being raise with Him to eternal life.  Just prior to the Gospel, the Priest, having changed into his white paschal vestments processes singing:

“Arise, O God, judge thou the earth; for thou shalt inherit among all the nations” as he throws bay leaves and rose petals among the congregation as a sign of Christ’s kingship and victory over Hades.  The service continues with the Divine Liturgy and Holy Communion.

On this day we eat dry foods (not cooked) and begin fasting for the “midnight” service (begins 10:30pm) from some time in the afternoon according to our ability.


Great and Holy Pascha Liturgy (10:30pm)

We enter the church which is completely dark but for candles.  After the preliminary prayers, we blow out all the candles and the Priest comes out with his lit candle singing:

“Come ye take light from the Light that is never overtaken by night.  Come and behold Christ risen from the dead.”

As he sings the people draw near to light their own candles.  Then all process out and back to the front doors of the church.  We read the Resurrection account from the Gospel of Mark and sing Christ is risen for the first time.  The Priest knocks on the door of the church quoting the Psalms:

“Lift up your gates, O ye princes; and be ye lifted up, ye everlasting gates, and the King of glory shall enter in.”  A dialog takes place which is completed with the Priest saying: “The Lord of hosts, He is the King of glory.”  (for those who haven’t seen it, I don’t want to give everything away).

We enter back into the church all illumined singing “Christ is risen!”  Then there is chaos, singing and shouting “Christ is Risen!” “Truly He is risen!” in different languages.  We have the Paschal Homily of St. John Chrysostom and proceed with the Divine Liturgy.