Great Lent and Holy Week
by Maureen Massiwer Gurghigian
Orthodox Christians are just beginning Great Lent — a 40-day journey toward Pascha (Easter). The Orthodox will celebrate Easter on April 18 this year and will spend the next six weeks preparing for this great Feast of the Resurrection through increased spiritual activity —prayer, fasting, alms giving and special Lenten services.
The difference between West and East in calculation of the Easter date has occurred only since 1582 A.D. Prior to that time, both Western and Eastern Christians celebrated Easter according to the decisions of the First Ecumenical Council of Nicea (325 A.D.), a practice still continued by the Orthodox Church. The Council of Nicea was convened to correct a practice which had begun in the Roman Empire in the early Christian era of celebrating Easter on different days of the week, which did not conform to the Christian interpretation of the time of Christ’s Resurrection “on the first day of the week.” The Council of Nicea declared that the date of the Christian Pascha (Easter) should be determined as follows:
1. The Feast of the Resurrection must be celebrated on the Sunday following the first full moon of the vernal equinox. If the full moon occurs on a Sunday, Easter is the following Sunday.
2. The Resurrection must always be celebrated after the Jewish Passover, to insure the proper historical sequence of events as recorded in Holy Scripture.
The season of Great Lent is the time of preparation for the feast of the Resurrection of Christ. In the Orthodox Church, Great Lent is not a season of morbidity and gloominess. Rather it is a time of joyfulness and purification. The Orthodox believe that it is our repentance God desires, not our remorse.
In the Orthodox Church the feast of Easter is officially called Pascha, the word which means the Passover. It is the new Passover of the new and everlasting covenant foretold by the prophets of old. It is the eternal Passover from death to life and from earth to heaven.
Each Wednesday and Friday evening during Great Lent, in most Orthodox Churches, the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts is celebrated. Also on each Friday evening, most Orthodox Churches pray the Little Compline with the Akathist Hymn to Mary the Mother of God.
Each of the Sundays of Great Lent has its own special theme. The first Sunday is called the Feast of the Triumph of Orthodoxy. It is a historical feast commemorating the return of the Icons to the Churches in the year 843 A.D., after the heresy of iconoclasm was overcome.
The second Sunday of Great Lent is the commemoration of St. Gregory Palamas. It was St. Gregory who died in 1359, who bore living witness that men can become divine through the Grace of God in the Holy Spirit; and that even in this life, by prayer and fasting, human beings can become participants of the uncreated Light of God’s Divine Glory.
The Third Sunday of Lent is that of the Veneration of the Cross, a day marked by its beauty and pageantry. The Cross stands in the midst of the Church at the midpoint of the Lenten season to remind us of Christ’s redemption and to keep before us the goal of our efforts . But even more importantly to be revered and venerated as that reality by which man must live to be saved. “He who does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me,” (Matthew 10:38). In the Cross of Christ Crucified, lies both “the power of God and the Wisdom of God” for those being saved, (I Corinthians 1:2 4).
The Fourth Sunday of Lent is dedicated to St. John Climacus (St. John of the Ladder), the author of the work: The Ladder of Divine Ascent. St. John was an abbot at St. Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai in the sixth century His work encourages the faithful to persevere in their efforts; for, according to the Lord, only “he who endures to the end will be saved;” (Matthew 24:13).
The Fifth Sunday of Lent recalls the memory of St. Mary of Egypt, the repentant harlot. Mary tells us, first of all, that no amount of sin can keep a person from God if the sinner truly repents. In addition, St. Mary tells us that it is never too late, either in life or in lent, to repent. Christ will gladly receive all who come to Him, even at the eleventh hour of their lives. But their coming must be in serious and sincere repentance.
The week following the Sunday of St. Mary of Egypt is called Palm Week. At Tuesday services of this week, the Church recalls that Jesus’ friend Lazarus has died and that the Lord is going to raise him from the dead. On Friday evening, the eve of the celebration of the Resurrection of Lazarus the “Great and saving forty days” of Great Lent are formally brought to an end. Lazarus Saturday is a paschal celebration. It is the only time during the entire Church year that the resurrectional service of Sunday is celebrated on another day. At the Liturgy of Lazarus Saturday, the Church glorifies Christ as “the Resurrection and the Life” who, by raising Lazarus, has confirmed the universal resurrection of mankind, even before His own suffering and death.
The Sixth Sunday after the beginning of Great Lent begins Holy Week. Palm Sunday is the commemoration of Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Because of the resurrection of Lazarus from the dead, Christ was hailed by the masses as the long-awaited Messiah. Thus, in fulfillment of the prophesies of the Old Testament, He entered Jerusalem, “the City of the King”, riding on the colt of an ass, (Zechariah 9:9; John 12:12). The crowds greeted him with branches in their hands and shouted praises: “Hosanna, Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna to David’s son!” This glorification drove the priests and the scribes to destroy Him and put Him to death.
Palm Sunday is one of the major feasts of the Church. It immediately follows those services of Lazarus Saturday The Church building continues to be vested in resurrectional splendor, filled with hymns which continually repeat the “Hosanna” offered to Christ as the Messiah who comes in the name of God the Father for the salvation of the world.
In the Orthodox Church, the last week of Christ’s life is officially called Passion Week. Each day is designated as “great and holy”. There are special services each day which are fulfilled in all churches. The services for Great and Holy Monday are celebrated on Palm Sunday evening; the Orthodox Church begins her day at sunset. Similarly, the remaining services of the week are sung “in anticipation on the eve of the day.
Each day of Holy Week has its own particular theme. The theme of Monday is that of the sterile fig tree which yields no fruit and is condemned. Tuesday the accent is on the vigilance of the wise virgins who, unlike their foolish sisters, were ready when the Lord came to them. Wednesday the focus is on the fallen woman who repents. Great emphasis is made in the liturgical services to compare the woman, a sinful harlot who has sinned — to Judas — a chosen apostle who is lost. The one gives her wealth to Christ and kisses His feet; the other betrays Christ for money with a kiss.
On Wednesday evening in Holy Week, the Matins (morning) service for Great and Holy Thursday is sung, commemorating the Last Supper and Christ’s washing of the disciples’ feet, Prior to that, the Sacrament of Holy Unction (Healing Oil) is ministered to the faithful in recognition of the “evening of repentance and confession.”
On Good Friday is celebrated the holy, saving, and awful Passion of Jesus Christ. Also celebrated is the confession and salvation of the penitent thief who was crucified with Christ. Participation in the prayers and historical development of events, as related in the Twelve Gospel passages read that night, provide the faithful with a vivid foundation for the great events yet to come. The procession with the Crucifix takes place around the Church after the fifth Gospel.
The Royal Hours are read Friday morning, followed by the Un-nailing Services in the afternoon to commemorate the Burial of Jesus. On Friday evening, the Lamentation service, consisting of Psalms, Hymns and readings, celebrates the entombment of the Divine Body of Christ; and also His descent into Hades, by which our race was recalled from corruption, and permitted to pass over into everlasting life.
On Easter Sunday (Saturday midnight) the life-giving Resurrection of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ is celebrated. The people leave the Church in procession, and come to stand in front of the closed doors of the Church. At this point the Resurrection is announced with the gospel reading about the empty tomb (Mark 16, 1-8) which refers to the Angel’s statement: "He is risen; He is not here."
The people, breathless with anticipation, wait for the priest to begin the hymn of the Resurrection ‘‘Christ is Risen from the dead; trampling down Death by His death; and bestowing life upon those in the tombs.” From this moment the entire service takes on a joyous atmosphere. At the end of the Liturgy the festive sermon of St. John Chrysostom is read, calling upon the people to: ‘‘Take part in this fair and radiant festival. Let no one be fearful of death,” he continues, “for the death of the Savior has set us free.”
In most parishes, the glorious and joyful Resurrection Liturgy is followed by a breakfast celebration and fellowship: a breaking of the Fast.
On Sunday afternoon, the Vespers of Love are celebrated. All sing the hymn ‘‘Christ is Risen From the Dead.’’ The people greet one another joyously, saying "Christ is Risen," a Paschal (Easter) salutation, to which the response is “Truly He is Risen.” The Gospel according to John, proclaiming the Good News of the Resurrection. is read in many languages. The week following Pascha is known as “Bright Week’’ during which all the doors in the Church remain open to signify the empty tomb and the whole week is one of rejoicing, feasting and Christian joy.
Maureen M. Gurghigian is a member of St. Mary Church of Pawtucket, Rhode Island.
Publication of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America