Easter, as celebrated by Western Christianity, concluded almost a month ago. Yet Holy Week for Orthodox Christianity, which has up until now been observing Great Lent with fasting, prayer, and reflection, commences Sunday. Orthodox churches use a Julian, rather than Gregorian, calendar, which is what accounts for this time difference. Pascha, the Orthodox term for Easter, is preceded by Holy Week, a time of great solemnity ultimately ending with great rejoicing. Orthodox Christians observe “The Twelve Great Feasts” but Pascha (Easter) is in a class by itself and called the “Feast of Feasts.”
Orthodox services are celebrated in worship spaces adorned with icons and they adhere closely to a liturgy, with clergy speaking or chanting, augmented by choirs or cantors, and worshippers following a written text — and sometimes reading along. I find myself moved by the visual richness of the setting and simple beauty of the texts.
Holy Week services among the various branches of Orthodoxy share similar themes, though these may be expressed differently.
For Alaska’s three branches of Orthodoxy, Lazarus Saturday (the day this column appears in print) commemorates Jesus’ raising of Lazarus from the dead, prefiguring his own resurrection, the focal point of Pascha celebrations a week later. It serves as a transitional point for Holy Week observances as Great Lent concludes with the Lazarus service on Friday evening. Orthodox Bishop David Mahaffey says of Lazarus Saturday and Palm Sunday that “between the end of the Lent and the beginning of Holy Week, we are given this ‘oasis of hope’ in between, so that we are renewed in the strength and joy of the coming Feast of Feasts.”
“While Great Lent itself concludes on Friday,” notes the Rev. Marc Dunaway of St. John Orthodox, “the season of fasting continues through the weekend and Holy Week up to Pascha. The fast even intensifies on Holy Friday and Holy Saturday.”
These days are followed by Palm Sunday, Holy Wednesday and Holy Thursday, which celebrates Jesus’ Last Supper. The service for Holy Thursday is “‘The 12 Passion Gospels,’ a matins service with the added Gospel readings and hymnography for the events of the crucifixion,” says the Rev. Vasili Hillhouse of Holy Transfiguration Greek Orthodox Church, “a type of watching in the Garden of Gethsemane with the Lord, as he awaits his arrest, trial, and Passion. The church is dark and candlelit. It is very solemn and beautiful…one of my favorite services of the year.”
Great and Holy Friday at St. John Orthodox Cathedral is observed with four services throughout the day; matins, royal hours and great vespers, continuing with an all-night vigil where the faithful keep vigil in the church reading Psalms. The service is referred to as a “Lamentations” service at Holy Transfiguration, and parishioners chant burial hymns for Christ in a beautiful nighttime candlelit setting. All present process with the tomb of Christ outside, wending their way around the church.
On Holy Saturday, vespers and the Divine Liturgy of St. Basil are observed with readings from the Psalms, and the singing of resurrection hymns. In Alaska Orthodox churches may hold this service in the morning or the afternoon. “Of all the beautiful services of Holy Week, the one I love most is Divine Liturgy on Holy Saturday,” observes St. John Orthodox member Mary Alice Cook. “The Great Entrance, in which the priests carry the bread and wine to the altar, is preceded by the singing of a hymn based on words from the prophet Habakkuk: ‘Let all the earth keep silence before him.’ After the hymn, the Entrance is made in total silence, and as I watch and think of our Lord’s great love for us, even unto death, I realize that words can never express our understanding, let alone our gratitude. All we can do is simply bow down and worship him.”
Of course, Pascha is the peak event of the entire church year. “Holy Saturday night is the service of the Resurrection,” notes Hillhouse. “The Myrrhbearers had gone to the tomb ‘while it was still dark,’ or at ‘deep dawn’ reads one translation. So we do not wait for the sunrise, as most western Christians do — we proclaim the Resurrection just as soon as we can — and when you have been preparing by fasting for 46 days, Midnight cannot come soon enough!”
Orthodox (formerly Russian Orthodox) and Greek Orthodox congregations begin their Pascha services just before midnight while St. John Orthodox (Antiochian) begins its celebration at 4 a.m. Allison Lineer, a member at St. John, describes Pascha services this way: “The Saturday a.m. service is lovely. It is the Orthodox funeral service for our Lord. But Easter morning always makes me think of the dead rising from their dark tombs as we walk around the church each one carrying a candle in the darkness outside. We congregate around the door of the church and Father Marc bangs on the door with a cross. It is the cross that opens the door of heaven to us. When the doors open we triumphantly enter singing. All the lights are on, the bells are ringing and it reminds us of the resurrection to come!”
There is much joy with the arrival of Pascha. I’ve seen it on the faces and heard it in the voices of adherents. I asked the Rev. Michael Oleksa if this was due to the Great Lent fasts. “I’m sure the preparation effects this experience. But the ‘overwhelming joy’ cannot be induced or provoked. It just unexpectedly comes, suddenly and without warning,” he says. “I have spoken about this to Orthodox congregations across the country and they all affirm this is a common experience, but we almost never talk about it, perhaps because while it is highly communal and liturgical, it is at the same time, totally personal. And when a person has it, they are often embarrassed by it. ‘Am I OK?’ A believer can linger in this moment, but the celebrant cannot. If the clergy did, the service might come to a stop! It can be embarrassing if this happens during the Gospel reading! And yet, all Orthodox seem to know this charismatic moment, very much the opposite of the typical Pentecostal sense of the presence of the Holy Spirit.”
With the arrival of Pascha, the significant fasts of Great Lent end, ritual red eggs are given and eaten, and baskets with choice foods are consumed. I invite you to seek out an Orthodox friend, or just personally experience Holy Week and Pascha as a life-giving moment.
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