The all-respectful Holy and Great Friday dawns full of compunction. Liturgy is not celebrated on this day. In olden days the Presanctified Liturgy was performed, but the Church later deemed it better that on this so mournful day no Liturgy will be celebrated. Therefore in the morning we have the Service of the Great and Royal so-called Hours, with Old Testament readings, psalms and prophecies which refer to the Messiah and the Passion, suitable hymns and Apostolic and Gospel readings.
Vespers follows. It has been customary for at least the last two centuries for the Apokathelosis to take place when the the appropriate part of the Gospel is read. The icon of the crucified Lord is disconnected and taken down from the Cross, wrapped in a white sheet, and kept in the Holy Sanctuary of the Church. It is a novelty which, for either good or bad, has become a custom, although it is not on the Holy Mountain or in the Great Church of Constantinople.
As the verses of the Aposticha “Down from the Cross Joseph of Arimathea took You dead, Who are the Life of all” are chanted, a procession exits the Sanctuary with the Book of Gospels (that is an icon “in paper and ink” of the Word of God), with a large stiffened piece of cloth. This cloth is today called the Epitaphios and has an icon of the Dead but still Author-of-Life Lord painted or embroidered on it. It is placed on the holy Kouvoukleon in the centre of the church, which is decorated with flowers of worship and myrrh of gratitude of the faithful, for its proper veneration. We should say that in earlier times the so-called Epitaphios was none other than the well-known “Aer” with which the priest carries the Holy Gifts from the Prothesis to the Altar during the Great Entrance in the Liturgy. Already the Book of Gospels is in danger of losing priority of honour before the Aer-Epitaphios, although the Gospel Book is always and distinctly visible in our Church as the presence of the Church’s Bridegroom and Teacher.
Worthy of note is the excellent hymn “You who have put on light as a garment…” which is chanted as a Doxasticon of the Aposticha and poetically draws with unattainable lyricism the worshipful lamentation of the noble Joseph.
In the evening, the Service of the Graveside Lamentation that is the Matins of Great Saturday is chanted.
The superb Canon “He who in ancient times hid the pursuing tyrant beneath the waves of the sea…”, a poem written by Sts Kassiani and Kosmas the Poet, shows us wonderfully the Theology of the Lord’s Passion, while the memorandum of the Sinaxaristes reminds us: “On the Holy and Great Saturday we cerebrate the Burial of the Divine Body, and the descent of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ to Hades, through which He restored our kind, from corruption and transplanted it to eternal life”.
After the Canon “Engomia” (Praises of the Epitaphios Lamentation), three lots of brief verses full of lyricism are chanted by the together with the chanters. Of these chants, which are especially love by the people and chanters, I here select from the second stasis (lot): “Wounded in our Side, O Word, through the life-giving drops of Your Blood as the pelican You have restored Your dead children to life”. Legend has it that when a poisonous snake bites pelican chicks of the, their father, as soon as he notices that they are slowly dying, rips his body with his beak and feeds them with his own blood that acts as an antidote. In this way, he sacrifices himself for the survival of his chicks. It is a beautiful image of the Theanthropos (God-man) who willingly sacrifices Himself on the Cross and sheds His All-Holy Blood and feeds us; us who were bitten by the “ancient snake” and poisoned with the poison of sin and are in danger of eternal death. Therefore with His ineffable sacrifice and life-giving Blood, we are saved and pass into eternal life. I make a parenthesis here to say that on my last visit to Cyprus, last October, when I climbed as a pilgrim to the Royal Monastery of Panagia Kykkou, I was pleasantly surprised to see this image of the pelican in a magnificent contemporary mosaic on the balcony of the Monastery.
It is note-worthy to underline the Doxasticon of the Praises, “Moses the Great mystically prefigured this present day, saying: ‘And God blessed the seventh day’. this is the most-blessed Sabbath, it is the day of rest. and on it the Only-begotten Son of God rested from all His works, and through the dispensation of death, in the flesh He rested; and returning once again to what He was, through His Resurrection He has granted us eternal life, for He alone is good and loves mankind…” There is a nice theological combination of the old Sabbath of the Creation with today’s Saturday of the Burial of the Most-holy Body of Christ. The first sounded the end of the Creation, whereas the seconded sounded the end of the Re-creation and Re-birth. The protagonist at both is the same One. The One both before all-Time and for the people also the New One. The Son and Logos of God, the only Good and Merciful Lord.
The procession with the Epitaphios occurs after the Doxology. The Sepulchre is carried around the boundaries of the Parish for the sanctification of the whole of nature, living and lifeless, by the Creator Who “sleeps as if He was dead”. The Engomia are chanted again or that most beautiful hymn full of lyricism, the ‘asmatic idiomelon’. The asmatic idiomelon has almost been forgotten, but we here in Adelaide chant it and at least wherever the Bishop is officiating and at the return of the holy procession back to the church. The asmatic idiomelon is: “The sun having hidden its own rays, and the curtain of the Temple being torn because of the Saviour’s death, Joseph beholding all this, comes to Pilate and beseeches him; give me this Stranger, Who as a child was estranged as a stranger from the world… “.
In Greece the procession of Epitaphios has a special atmosphere. The chanters’ melodies as well as the people’s, the lit candles of the faithful which flicker at the blowing of the breeze, the aromas of spring, the incense, the lit candles in the windows of the houses, the rosewater and rose petals which pious women throw onto the Sepulchre as it passes by, the mournful tone of the bells, all these help in emotionally charging the people who follow the Funeral procession of the Life, expecting mystically the joy of the Resurrection.
Great (Holy) Saturday is a day of silence. The Life sleeps!… Therefore, “Let all mortal flesh keep silent and stand with fear and trembling, and ponder nothing worldly within itself.. ” (as the superb Cherubic Hymn of the day prescribes). It is, at the same time, a day of very strict fasting. It is the only Saturday of the year on which there is obligatory fasting (the fasting of oil as well).
In the morning, the Vespers of Easter is celebrated with the Divine Liturgy of Saint Basil the Great. We, at this time, have the first taste of the Resurrection as we hear “Lord I have cried..”; the most sweet resurrectional hymns of the First tone, which have been granted to us by the God-inspired muse of Saint John the Damascene.
The beginning of the first chapter of Genesis is read, which describes the Creation up until the third day. Following this the first four chapters of Jonah are read. The Prophet Jonah is a “sign” or model of Christ and His three-day death. The Lord Himself said that “you ask for a sign but it will not be given to you, except the sign of Jonah the Prophet”. You may remember that Jonah lived three days in the belly of the whale, and “from the belly of Hades”, as the holy Book says prophetically, he prayed fervently to the Lord, and on the third day he was returned alive and unhurt. Our Lord stayed three days in the depths of Hades and arose on the third day…
This is followed a reading from the Book of Daniel on the golden statue of Nebuchadnezzar and the refusal of the Three pious Youths to worship the royal idol, their casting, into the fearsome furnace, their excellent prayer, and their redemption by the Angel of the Lord. This appearance, according the tyrant Nebuchadnezzar’s own confession, was “as a vision of the Son of God”, because it really was Him who personally came to save His pious children!… Lastly the excellent, sublime, most sweet Hymn of the Three Youths is chanted solemnly, “‘0 all you works of the Lord, bless the Lord; Praise the Lord and exalt Him above all for ever. . “, which has moved billions of souls since the time it was chanted in the Babylonian furnace right up to the present days!…
In the past, mass baptisms of Catechumens were conducted on Great Saturday. Therefore until today, instead of the hymn “Holy God…”, the hymn “As many as have been baptised in Christ, have put on Christ. Alleluia” is chanted, and the Apostolic reading of Baptism is read (Rom. 6: 3-11).
After the Apostolic reading, with dignity and formality in the Grave tone (7th), we chant: “Arise, O God, and judge the earth; for You shall have an inheritance in all the nations”. The bells sound joyfully, festively… The Priest, with bright and white vestments, comes out of the Sanctuary chanting and scattering bay leaves (which always symbolise victory and glory). The victory of Life is preached against death… The Church starts to celebrate the triumph of Her Bridegroom…
In the lonian islands at this time, people vehemently throw ceramic (fire-tempered) objects out of their windows. The objects are broken to pieces, “to kommati”, symbolising the destruction that takes place in the gloomy kingdom of Hades with the descent of the Author of Life…
At this point allow me to read to you a very nice text of a current scholar, which is related to the descent of the Lord to the kingdom of death:
“What quaking, what fragmentation down in Hades! The brilliance of the Divinity gushed through at this hour, on this day, and everything moved from their place, the monuments, the tombs, the dead. They took the way towards the upper regions, towards light, towards life. There is no duration to night, to darkness. There is no continuation to death. The truly Eternal One trampled on the false powers, He crushed them, He disbanded them… The mortified and dishearten world took courage, took breath. Breathless Lazarus shouted from Tartarus: Make haste, Lord, until Sunday do not leave anything non-resurrectional, nothing with a sign of corruption. Everything has prepared for You the new forehead for You to kiss with a paschal kiss. Everything waits for You with haggard faces, purified, to be sealed, to give them a name in the new creation. To say that from now on everything is Yours and they do not only hold soil in their hands, but they hold heaven as well, scenting immortality and seeing eternity…” (from People of Grace by Metropolitan Evangelos of Perge).
On Great Saturday, according to an ancient tradition of the Holy Fathers, the faithful privately read the Acts of the Apostles until the bells call us to the Service of the Resurrection, the feast of feasts, and the festival of our festivals…
Here ends the Great Week. The New and Resurrectional Week starts, the ‘Diakenissimos'(Renewal) – as it is officially called – the bright and happy week of Easter. We won’t go any further. We will only say that the whole of the psycho-somatic elevation of the Passion Week has as its goal our meeting with the Risen Lord. To our Passover (Pascha) from the slavery of sin and death of passions, to the life of the evangelic state, to the Risen Christ’s life, the life which will be the preface and foretaste of the great, the eternal, the true life in the endless joy, the never waning light and endless festival of the Kingdom of the glorified Bridegroom and of the mankind-loving Father and the Spirit of Truth!…
Happy Easter, beloved. “for indeed Christ our Pascha was sacrificed for us” (1Cor 5:7
BY METROPOLITAN JOSEPH OF PROIKONESSOS