HOLY WEEK and PASCHA form the highlight of the Christian year.
Monday and Tuesday in Holy Week focus on Christ the Bridegroom, who is to be married to the Church as his spouse: he serves his wife out of love, even with his own life; we are obedient to him, and love him too (Eph 5:20-33). The texts of these days repeatedly recall the Parable of the Wise Virgins, as we attend his marriage ready and watchful, the lamps of our souls trimmed and ready.
Wednesday is associated with the service of Euchelion, the service of healing oils which on this day is given to everyone. It is also the day on which we remember the betrayal of Jesus by his friend and disciple, Judas Iscariot.
Thursday commemorates the institution of the Eucharist, the fulfilment of the sacrifices of the Old Testament, in which Jesus gives us his supreme “life-giving blessing”. On this day, we also celebrate the relatively rare Liturgy of St Basil. In the evening, we read the service of the Twelve Gospels.
Holy and Great Friday remembers the crucifixion of Jesus. We read the Royal Hours, and in the evening an icon of Christ crucified is laid reverently in a portable wooden bier, decorated with flowers, called an Epitaphios, accompanied by solemn processions and a lamentation interspersed with lines from Psalm 118 (119).
THE Noble Joseph takes you down from the Tree, my Saviour, and in the tomb he lays you.
Direct my steps according to your word, and do not let iniquity lord it over me.
Myrrh-bearing Woman came then, providently bringing to you, O Christ, the sweet myrrh.
Deliver me from the slander of men, and I shall keep your commandments.
The focus of the day is on the paradox of the crucifixion of the Son of God: how can Life die?
TODAY he hangeth upon a tree, he that hath hung the earth amid the waters.
A crown of thorns is set upon him, who is the King of the Angels.
A lying purple is cast about him, who doth clothe the heavens in cloud.
We hear many times, too, of the lament of Mary his mother, who must watch this tragedy unfold before her eyes.
On Saturday, the Liturgy of St Basil is served again, and the prayers of this day are centred on Christ’s descent into Hades (the waiting place of the dead) and the opening of the gates of Paradise. That evening, the Paschal Vigil begins. The church is shrouded in darkness, as the lamentations are renewed. But at midnight, the priest cries,
“Come ye and receive light from the unwaning life, and, glorify Christ, who arose from the dead.”
The Paschal flame is given to the congregation for their candles, and they process out of the church, beginning the repeated acclamation, “Christ has risen from the dead, by death trampling upon Death, and has bestowed life upon those in the tombs!”
Re-entering the now brilliantly lit church, they complete the Paschal Vespers and celebrate the Divine Liturgy. The Pascha has come, and the congregation greet one another joyously, “Christ is risen” and responding with, “Truly He is risen.”
A Paschal Homily
St John Chrysostom’s famous Paschal Homily sums up this wonderful feast.
IF anyone is devout and a lover of God, let him enjoy this beautiful and radiant festival.
If anyone is a wise servant, let him, rejoicing, enter into the joy of his Lord.
If anyone has wearied himself in fasting, let him now receive his recompense.
If anyone has labored from the first hour, let him today receive his just reward. If anyone has come at the third hour, with thanksgiving let him keep the feast. If anyone has arrived at the sixth hour, let him have no misgivings; for he shall suffer no loss. If anyone has delayed until the ninth hour, let him draw near without hesitation. If anyone has arrived even at the eleventh hour, let him not fear on account of his delay.
For the Master is gracious and receives the last, even as the first; he gives rest to him that comes at the eleventh hour, just as to him who has labored from the first. He has mercy upon the last and cares for the first; to the one he gives, and to the other he is gracious. He both honors the work and praises the intention.
Enter all of you, therefore, into the joy of our Lord, and, whether first or last, receive your reward. O rich and poor, one with another, dance for joy! O you ascetics and you negligent, celebrate the day! You that have fasted and you that have disregarded the fast, rejoice today! The table is rich-laden; feast royally, all of you! The calf is fatted; let no one go forth hungry!
Let all partake of the feast of faith. Let all receive the riches of goodness.
Let no one lament his poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed.
Let no one mourn his transgressions, for pardon has dawned from the grave.
Let no one fear death, for the Saviour’s death has set us free.
He that was taken by death has annihilated it! He descended into hades and took hades captive! He embittered it when it tasted his flesh! And anticipating this Isaiah exclaimed, “Hades was embittered when it encountered thee in the lower regions.” It was embittered, for it was abolished! It was embittered, for it was mocked! It was embittered, for it was purged! It was embittered, for it was despoiled! It was embittered, for it was bound in chains!
It took a body and, face to face, met God! It took earth and encountered heaven! It took what it saw but crumbled before what it had not seen!
“O death, where is thy sting? O hades, where is thy victory?”
Christ is risen, and you are overthrown!
Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen!
Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice!
Christ is risen, and life reigns!
Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in a tomb!
For Christ, being raised from the dead, has become the First-fruits of them that slept.
To him be glory and might unto ages of ages. Amen.
St Anthony’s Monastery in Florence, Arizona USA was brought to life by Elder Ephraim, formerly Abbot of the Philotheou Monastery on Mount Athos. In the videos below, you can see Easter celebrated at the Monastery, which now has more than forty members. The Monastery has a website with a music project, including some transcriptions of chants (in English) into Western notation.
Easter at St Anthony’s Monastery, Arizona (Part 1)
Easter at St Anthony’s Monastery, Arizona (Part 2)
Easter at St Anthony’s Monastery, Arizona (Part 3)
Easter at St Anthony’s Monastery, Arizona (Part 4)
Easter at St Anthony’s Monastery, Arizona (Part 5)
Easter at St Anthony’s Monastery, Arizona (Part 6)