Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Recapping Holy Week: Great and Holy Friday

Today was the first day since Thursday 29 March that I have not attended at least one church service. I was so exhausted that I slept until 2 PM!

I'm pretty sure I have attended every Orthodox Holy Week service except the Palm Sunday Liturgy at least once before, but this was the first time I have done it all. I found the Lenten fast much easier than I expected, but remaining on my feet through most of 36 hours of liturgy in the past 11 days was a much more rigorous discipline. Trevor has already blogged on the relief that prostrations bring to an aching back, so I'll say no more on the subject.

I took Friday off work and spent the whole day at church. We began at 9 AM with the Royal Hours, which concatenates the offices of the First, Third, Sixth, and Ninth Hours. Each office consists of a few psalms, a hymn sung by the chanters, and three readings – Old Testament, Epistle, and Gospel. Compared to the Royal Hours of Christmas and Epiphany, the Gospel readings were longer and seemed more central. The Gospel reading at each office was a large part of the Passion story from a different Gospel, proceeding in canonical order through Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

Shortly after the Royal Hours we began the decoration of the bier. It is customary to place an embroidered icon of Christ's preparation for burial, called the epitaphios, inside an elaborately flowered tomb or bier. About ten of us helped to place flowers and greenery into blocks of oasis, fastened to the top of the bier until it looked something like this:

Given that my patron saint is Joseph of Arimathea, I thought it was especially appropriate that I should participate in the decoration of the bier.

The next service, at 3 PM, was Vespers of the Removal from the Cross, also known as the Unnailing Service, since the nails holding the icon of Christ to the cross are removed. Two of my fellow bier-decorators were selected to remove the nails and place the near-life-size icon of Christ in a shroud before it was placed on the altar. Then the epitaphios was brought out and placed in the bier, where we venerated it, each in turn, by doing a double prostration, kissing it, and doing a third prostration.

The final service of the day, at 7 PM, was my favorite Byzantine service, the Lamentation service. We sang three long, beautiful hymns of lamentation for our Lord's death, also recounting the actions of Joseph, Nicodemus, and the myrrh-bearing women. Then we inserted poles into the bier and carried it in procession around the church as we sang the Trisagion. I served as one of the eight pall-bearers, who took turns carrying the heavy bier. When we returned to the church, we held up the bier above the door between the narthex and the church. After everyone had passed under it, we replaced it in its original position at the front of the church. At the conclusion of the service, after we venerated the epitaphios again, Fr. Gregory handed out flowers taken from the bier.

This service was followed by an all-night vigil, sponsored by the youth of the parish. The vigil began with the reading of Matthew. I stayed to listen to the gospel until I heard the verse, "My yoke is easy and my burden is light," at which point I decided it was time to loosen my yoke. So I venerated the epitaphios again, took another flower for my icon corner, and went home to get a few hours of sleep.

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