Holy Pascha in the Orthodox Christian Church

Events commemorated in Holy Week

Lazarus Saturday

The Saturday before Palm Sunday celebrates the raising of Lazarus at Bethany (John 11: 1-46). This is the first of two days of Joy and Triumph which the Church keeps as a Festival before the days of darkness and mourning which are to follow in the week of the Passion. Through the miracle of the raising of Lazarus, Jesus shows His disciples that though He too will suffer and die, He is Lord and Victor over death.

Palm Sunday

The second day of Joy which forms a bridge between Great Lent and Holy Week. On this day the Church commemorates the Triumphant entry of Christ into Jerusalem. He enters the city riding a donkey and is greeted by crowds of people waving palm branches (a symbol of victory). The crowd have gathered to meet the One who raised their brother Lazarus from the dead. They welcome Jesus with the cry of:

“Hosanna ! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord ! The King of Israel!”

On this day Christ was welcomed as the King of Israel. Today, on Palm Sunday we welcome Christ, the King of the Future Age.

Holy Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday

The over-riding theme of these days are the things of the last times. Christ, the Bridegroom of the Church (Nymphios Gk) is called to mind, Who will come again on the last day to Judge the world. With these services, the Church repeats the message of Great Lent – The End is near at hand; be watchful; repent while there is still time.

“I see Your Bridal Chamber adorned, O my Saviour, and I have no wedding garment that I may enter in, O giver of Light, make radiant the vesture of my soul and save me”.
“Behold the Bridegroom comes in the middle of the night, and Blessed is the servant whom He shall find watching; and again unworthy is he whom He will find heedless. Beware therefore, O my soul, lest you be borne down with sleep, lest you be given up to death, and lest you be shut out from the Kingdom. Therefore, rouse yourself and cry:
“Holy, Holy are You, our God, through the intercessions of the Theotokos save us”.

from the Nymphios Services of Holy Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday

Each of the three days has its own particular theme:

On Holy Monday we commemorate the Patriarch Joseph, whose innocent sufferings (Genesis ch 37, 39-40) prefigure the Passion of Christ. Also we commemorate the barren fig tree cursed by our Lord (Matt 21: 18-20) – a symbol of the judgement that will befall those who show no fruits of repentance; a symbol, more specifically of the unbelieving Jewish synangogue.

On Holy Tuesday the Liturgical texts commemorate chiefly the parable of the Ten Virgins, which forms the general theme of these three days. The services refer also to the parable of the Talents (Matt 25: 14-30), both of which are interpreted as parables of the Judgement.

On Holy Wednesday we commemorate the woman that was a sinner, who anointed Christs’s feet as He sat in the house of Simon (Matt 26: 6-13, Luke 7: 36-50, John 12: 1-8) three days before His Passion. A secondary theme is the agreement made by Judas to betray the Lord to the Jewish authorities. The repentance of the sinful harlot is contrasted with the tragic fall of the chosen disciple. The Triodion makes it clear that Judas perished, not simply because he betrayed his Master, but because, having fallen into the sin of betrayal, he then refused to believe in the possibility of forgiveness:

“In misery he lost his life, preferring a noose rather than repentance.”

The Sacrament of Holy Unction is performed on the evening of Holy Wednesday.

Holy Thursday

On this day four events are commemorated: the washing of the Disciple’s feet by Jesus Christ, the institution of the Mystery of the Holy Eucharist at the Last Supper, the agony of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, and the betrayal of Christ by Judas.

At the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Constantinople, and at the centres of the other Patriarchates and Autocephalous Churches, the Holy Chrism is blessed during the Divine Liturgy of this day, to be distributed around the world for use in the Mystery of Holy Chrismation.

The meaning of Holy Thursday is well expressed by the following Liturgical Text used many times on Holy Thursday at as part of the Prayers of preparation for Holy Communion.

“At Thy mystical Supper, Son of God,
Today receive me as a communicant:
For I will not speak of the mystery to Thine enemies;
I will not give Thee a kiss as did Judas;
But as the Thief I confess Thee:
Remember me, Lord, when Thou comest in Thy Kingdom”.

Holy and Great Friday

On this day we commemorate the Passion of Christ: the mockery, the crown of thorns, the whipping, the nails, the thirst, the vinegar and gall, the cry of desolation, and all that the Saviour endured on the Cross; and also the confession of the Good Thief on his right hand. At the same time the Passion is not separated from the Resurrection; even on this day of our Lord’s greatest self-abasement, we look forward also to the revelation of His eternal glory:

“We venerate Thy Passion, O Christ,
Show us also Thy glorious Resurrection”.

The Cross and the Resurrection are aspects of a single, undivided act of salvation.

Great and Holy Matins, by anticipation, are held on Thursday evening. There is a series of 12 Gospel readings which begin with Christ’s discourse at the Last Supper and ends with the account of His burial. In the Greek and Antiochian Tradition, just prior to the sixth Gospel reading, the Priest carries a large Cross from the Sanctuary and sets it up in the centre of the Church as a dramatic representation of the procession of the Crucified One.

During this procession the Priest chants the following in a monotone and solemn voice:

“Today is hung upon the Tree, He who suspended the Land in the midst of the waters (Thrice). A crown of thorns crowns Him, Who is the King of Angels. He is wrapped about with the purple of mockery, Who wrapped the heavens with clouds. He received buffetings, Who freed Adam in the Jordan. He was transfixed with nails, Who is the Son of the Virgin.
“We worship Your Passion, O Christ (Thrice). Show to us also Your glorious Resurrection”.

The faithful all proceed to venerate the Cross in a solemn manner.

On the morning of Holy and Great Friday the Services of the Hours are performed. Following these, the vespers for Holy and Great Friday are held. This service commemorates theApokathelosis (Taking down from the Cross) of our Lord. Following this the Priest carries the Epitaphios of Christ (an oblong piece of stiffened cloth on which is painted or embroidered the figure of the dead Christ laid out for burial) from the Sanctuary in a procession to the centre of the Church where waits a beautifully decorated representation of the Sepulchre (Tomb) of our Lord. The flower-adorned Sepulchre and Epitaphios are then venerated by the faithful in one of the most moving moments in the Church calendar.

In the evening service, matins of Holy and Great Saturday by anticipation, the faithful carry the Epitaphios and Sepulchre around the Church whilst chanting funeral dirges to the Lord in the Tomb. Yet this is not in fact a funeral procesion at all. God has died on the Cross and yet He is not dead. He Who died, the Word of God, is the Life Himself, Holy and Immortal; and our procession through the night signifies that He is now proceeding through the darkness of Hades, announcing to Adam, and all the righteous who had fallen asleep before the coming of the Lord, His coming Resurrection in which they too will share.

Holy and Great Saturday

On this day we commemorate the burial of Christ and His descent into Hades (Hell). On this day God observes a Sabbath rest in the Tomb. There is a definite note of expectation associated with this day, beginning from matins on Friday evening. We look forward to the moment when He will rise again, bringing new life and recreating the world.

The Joyous Liturgy held on the morning of Holy and Great Saturday is that of St. Basil the Great. It is the first hint by the Church of the Glorious Resurrection of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ:

” Arise O God, and Judge the earth; for You shall take all heathen to Your inheritance”.

On the evening of Holy and Great Saturday, the people gather in the Church. At midnight in the darkened Church one will witness the most moving moment in the Orthodox calendar. The Priest exits from the Sanctuary holding a lighted candle, representing Christ the Light of the world, saying:

“Come ye and receive light from the unwaning Light; and glorify Christ, Who has risen from the dead”.

Holy Pascha (Sunday of the Resurrection)

During the matins of The Resurrection which follow just after midnight on Holy and Great Saturday, the Priest leads a procession out of the Church where he reads the Gospel account of the Resurrection (John 12:1-18). Then the triumphal Paschal hymn is sung three times by the Priest, chanters and all the faithful:

“Christ has risen from the dead, by death trampling upon Death, and has bestowed life to those in the tombs”.

Everyone then re-enters the Church to sing the Praises to our Lord and Pascha (Passover) Jesus Christ, and the hymn of St John Damasus:

“It is the day of Resurrection: Let us be glorious in splendour for the Festival, and let us embrace one another. Let us speak also, O brethren, to those that hate us, and in the Resurrection, let us forgive all things, and so let us cry:
Christ has risen from the dead, by death trampling upon Death, and has bestowed Life to those in the tombs”.

Then follows the celebration of the glorious Paschal Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, which finishes with the Paschal Homily of St John Chrysostomos.

The Faithful joyously greet each other with “Christ is Risen!”, to which the reply is “Truly He is Risen!”

And so on the Holy and Great Sunday of Pascha, we celebrate the life-giving Resurrection of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.