Great and Holy Week
Great and Holy Week is our final preparation for the feast of Pascha. In English, it is sometimes called simply Holy Week, and it consists of the six days before Pascha, or Easter Sunday - Monday through Saturday.
During the forty days of the Great Fast, we strive to bring ourselves into closer union with God through repentence, and the spiritual practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. The last day of this fast, a Friday, brings us to within nine days of Pascha, the feast of the Resurrection of the Lord.
The next two days, Lazarus Saturday and Palm Sunday, form a transition from this period of fasting, with its focus on our relationship with God, to Great Week itself, which takes us into the depths of the Paschal Mystery. Follow the links in this article for details of each day's themes and services.
The Paschal Mystery
From the time of the Fall of our first parents, God never ceased to love and care for the human beings whom he had created. He took a people, the Jews, to make his own, giving them a moral and ceremonial Law and bringing them finally to firm belief in one personal God who had created the world and cared deeply about them. But this still did not resolve the essential problem of human existence: that our sinful fallen nature inevitably kept us from communion with God, and led to misery and death.
To remedy this, God's only-begotten Son, the second person of the Holy Trinity, assumed human nature and came to dwell among us. In his own person, he not only fulfilled in its entirety the Law that God had given, but went even further: though he was God, he accepted humiliation, suffering and death from his own creatures, in order to show his love for us, and to re-open the gates of heaven that had been closed by our disobedience. In the process, all the symbolic "types" or foreshadowings of his plan of salvation became reality, and the Lord's Passion and Resurrection became for us the most important event in human history. Through them, and through their working out in our lives, he has set us free from all the things which have kept us from a life forever with God.
At the first Passover, God commanded the Israelites, using the blood of a lamb, to identify themselves as God's people, in order to be saved from the destroying angel. Again, the people of Israel were saved from the armies of Egypt when they "passed over" across the Red Sea, with water like a wall on either side.
The Passover of the Lord - his suffering, his death, his descent into Hades to free the just who awaited salvation, and his glorious Resurrection on the third day- is the fulfillment of all that went before. Baptism is our own first participation in this Passover. In our lives, we live out in a human way, by grace, the example that our Lord set for us of sacrificial obedience and love.
During Great and Holy Week, we see all these come into focus as we prepare the celebrate the Passover of Christ, which brings us eternal life. All these things are included in the Paschal (Passover) Mystery.
The Image of the Bridegroom
In the words of the prophets of the Old Testament, God is portrayed as a bridegroom - one in love with his wayward beloved, and willing to do great things to bring her back to himself. In the New Testament, our Lord described the life of heaven as a wedding feast, and foretold great joy among those who were invited to the feast and made themselves ready. In the last book of the Bible, we hear of the "wedding feast of the Lamb" - not the Passover lamb of Egypt, or the succession of sacrificial animals of the Old Covenant, but the eternal Lamb, the Son of God.
The icon of Great and Holy Week is the "icon of the Bridegroom". Christ is described as a man going with joy to his wedding. Yet in this icon he is shown bound, awating his death, in complete knowledge of what will have to take place. If we have not yet arrived at repentence, this image, rightly understood, may achieve all that our own reflections have failed to do.
We will hear much of this image of the Bridegroom in the course of Grear and Holy Week.
On the day following the end of the 40-day fast, we recall our Lord's raising of Lazarus from the dead. See Lazarus Saturday.
On this day, the final Sunday before Pascha, we commemorate our Lord's enty into Jerusalem before the feast of Passover. Recognized by the crowd as King and Messiah, we would go on to teach in the holy city - and then be taken, tried, and put to death. Yet, we remember the true words spoken by the children on that day: "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna ("grant salvation") in the highest!"
See Palm Sunday.
The days of Great and Holy Week
The Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of Great and Holy week recount the various events leading up the our Lord's passion and death:
On Great and Holy Monday, we hear our Lord Jesus preaching in the temple.
On Great and Holy Tuesday, we hear how the scribes and Pharisees tried to trap him into a statement that would incriminate him.
On Great and Holy Wednesday, we hear the story of the woman who anointed his feet with precious perfume and dried them with her hair - in preparation, as our Lord said, for his burial. We also hear of Judas' agreement to betray our Lord to those who sought his life.
The scene is now set for what is to come - the central events of the Paschal mystery.
On Great and Holy Thursday, we recall our Lord's last meal with his disciples - a Passover meal, but also one which inaugurates the mystery of the Eucharist. We recall his agony in the garden, and his arrest.
On Great and Holy Friday, we recall his crucifixion, death and burial, for the life of the world.
On Great and Holy Saturday, we remember the time our Lord spent in the tomb - keeping the Sabbath, the day of rest, bodily. But on this day, too, he descended into Hades, to free those imprisoned there, and gained the final victory over Death. In the morning, on Pascha, we will see him, risen from the dead.
- Father Basil Shereghy. The Liturgical Year of the Byzantine-Slavonic Rite.
(Pittsburgh, PA: Byzantine Seminary Press, 1968.)
- A Monk of the Eastern Church (Father Lev Gilet). The Year of Grace of the Lord.
(Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2001.)