Great Lent technically ends on Friday evening when we serve Small Compline with the Canon of St. Lazarus in preparation for Lazarus Saturday. While maintaining the Fast we move into a different mode, that of Holy Week. The Saturday Divine Liturgy is a very festal occasion as it commemorates our Lord's raising of Lazarus after his being four-days-dead. Never in the history of the world was anyone raised after four days at which point the body had 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 or 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 on Palm Sunday there is a procession outside (usually around the church building). Children are often dressed in their best and all carry candles during the procession. Upon re-entering the church the children will gather around the iconostasis and gospel stand as the Priest again reads the Orthros Gospel of the account of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem.
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 favorite services of the year with its 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-designation as the "Bridegroom," 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 (sold into slavery by his brothers, but exalted in Egypt and saving his brothers from death), and the fig tree which the Lord cursed for lack of fruit.
Monday Eve: The five wise and five 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 thirty pieces of silver.
Wednesday Evening: Holy Unction
In Greek and Antiochian liturgical practice the Sacrament of Holy Unction is served. In the Slavic practice another Bridegroom Matins is served that evening. Holy Unction is a Mystery (Sacrament) of the Church for the healing of soul and body through the anointing with specially 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 of the Church 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 blessed, but non-Sacramental oil.
One of the main marks of the service is the seven Epistle and Gospel readings with their focus on spiritual and physical healing. The service is prescribed to be served by seven Priests (Presbyters) if available.
Thursday Morning and Evening
Thursday morning we serve a Vesperal Divine Liturgy commemorating the Last Supper. Therefore, this is a Euchartistic Liturgy with Holy Communion and we should prepare with the usual abstinence from food and drink that day. This will be the last Eucharist served until Saturday. As the Lord told his disciples at the supper: “ButIsay to you, Iwill not drinkof this fruit of the vine from now on untilthat day when Idrinkit new with you in My Father’s kingdom.” At this service 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 twelve 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 hymn:
"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 whole day on this Friday should be dedicated only to contemplation of the Lord and His Passion. It is a long-standing practice that those who canmay abstain from food and drink (or just food) the whole day until after Holy Communion on Saturday morning. Otherwise, one may eat lightly as needed. (Do your best and, whatever your fast, keep your vigil with prayer and sobriety. We have to make realistic accommodations for illness and our weakness. We are not as strong as our predecessors in the Faith – especially when we are new to the Faith – though we can grow in strength over time). There are three services on this day as follows:
Royal Hours (9am): These are the services of the Hours (1st, 3rd, 6th, & 9th) strung together as one service (About 1 3/4 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 the crucified Christ from the Cross, and the placing of the Epitaphios (Burial Shroud with image of the reposed Christ) 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 folly 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 dead. We also 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 sadsongs for one permanently dead, but theological reflections on the mystery of Christ's sacrificial death and resurrection. We do however experience the pain 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).
Traditionally, beginning after the Orthros service,a vigil is kept at the funeral bier with people taking turns reading the Psalms.
Great and Holy Saturday
On Saturday morning we have a Vesperal Divine Liturgy commemorating Christ's victory over death. This is part of 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 in the fiery furnace. We read from the Epistle to the Romans about being buried with Christ in baptism and being raised 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 it is prescribed that the faithful eat dry foods (non-cooked – the only Saturday of the year oil is not allowed) 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
We enter the church which is completely dark but for the lamps before the icons. 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, who is risen from the dead."
As he sings, the people draw near to light their own candles. Then all process around the church and back to the front doors of the church. We read the Resurrection account from the Gospel of St. 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 “joyful 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.
After the Divine Liturgy, the food that has been brought is blessed and a festal meal is enjoyed together.
On the day of Pascha, we gather again for Agape Vespers where the Gospel is read in many different languages, and the Pascha celebration continues both liturgically and in gathering again for festal foods.
. 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, twelve o’clock midnight Sunday morning
. This vigil may continue without pause until just before the service on Saturday morning. This is often done in one-hour shifts.
. Each person or family brings a Pascha basket filled with foods by which they will break the Lenten Fast. There are some traditional foods that may be included that have symbolic spiritual meaning. See Fr. Michael for instructions.