On Great Friday the Church remembers the ineffable mystery of Christ’s death. Death tormenting, indiscriminate, universal – casts its cruel shadow over all creation. It is the silent companion of life. It is present in everything, ready to stifle and impose limits upon all things.
The fear of death causes anguish and despair. It shackles us to the appearances of life and makes rebellion and sin erupt in us (Heb 2.14-15).
The Scriptures assure us that “God did not make death, and He does not delight in the death of the living, for He created all things that they might exist … But through the devil’s envy death entered the world” (Wisdom 1.13-14; 2.24).
The same divinely inspired author also writes, “God created man for incorruption and made him in the image of His own eternity- . But ungodly men by their words and deeds summoned death” (Wisdom 2.23; 1.16).
Death is an abomination, the final indignity, the ultimate enemy. It is not of God but of men. Death is the natural fruit of the old Adam who alienated himself from the source of life and made death a universal destiny, whose very fear perpetuates the agony of sin.
“It was through one man that sin entered the world and through sin death, and thus death pervaded the whole human race” (Rom 5.12).
The day of Christ’s death is the day of sin. The sin which polluted God’s creation from the breaking dawn of time reached its frightful climax on the hill of Golgotha. There sin and evil, destruction and death came into their own. Ungodly men had Him nailed to the cross, in order to destroy Him.
However, His death condemned irrevocably the fallen world by revealing its true and abnormal nature.
In Christ, who is the New Adam, there is no sin. And, therefore, there is no death. He accepted death because He assumed the whole tragedy of our life. He chose to pour His life into death, in order to destroy it; and in order to break the hold of evil.
His death is the final and ultimate revelation of His perfect obedience and love. He suffered for us the excruciating pain of absolute solitude and alienation – “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken Me!” (Mk 15.34). Then, He accepted the ultimate horror of death with the agonizing cry, “It is finished” (Jn 19.30).
His cry was at one and the same time an indication that He was in control of His death and that His work of redemption was accomplished, finished, fulfilled. How strange! While our death is radical unfulfillment, His is total fulfillment.
Jesus did not come to meet death with an array of philosophical theories, empty prouncements or vague hopes. He met death in person, face to face. He broke the iron grip of this ancient enemy by the awesome business of dying and living again.
He chased away its oppressive darkness and cruel shadows by penetrating the bottomless abysses of hell. He cracked the fortress of death and led its captives to the limitless expanses of true life.
Millenia ago Job, a just and noble man who suffered untold misery, asked this question: “If a man dies, shall he live again?” (Job 14.14). Ages passed before this fundamental question received an authentic answer. Many offered theories, but no one spoke with authority.
The answer came from the One who stood by the still bodies of two young people – Jairus’ daughter and the widow’s only son -and raised them from the dead (Lk 8.41 and 7.11). The answer came from the One who approached the tomb of His friend Lazaros who had been dead for four days and called him from death to life (Jn 11).
The answer came from Jesus, who was Himself on route to His own ugly death on the Cross and who rose on the third day.
The day of Christ’s death has become our true birthday. “Within the mystery of Christ dead and resurrected, death acquires positive value. Even if physical, biological death still appears to reign, it is no longer the final stage in a long destructive process.
It has become the indispensable doorway, as well as the sure sign of our ultimate Pascha, our passage from death to life, rather than from life to death.
From the beginning the Church observed an annual commemoration of the decisive and crucial three days of sacred history, i.e., Great Friday, Great Saturday and Pascha. Great Friday and Saturday have been observed as days of deep sorrow and strict fast from Christian antiquity.
Great Friday and Saturday direct our attention to the trial, crucifixion, death and burial of Christ. We are placed within the awesome mystery of the extreme humility of our suffering God. Therefore, these days are at once days of deep gloom as well as watchful expectation.
The Author of life is at work transforming death into life: “Come, let us see our Life lying in the tomb, that he may give life to those that in their tombs lie dead” (Sticheron of Great Saturday Orthros).
Liturgically, the profound and awesome event of the death and burial of God in the flesh is marked by a particular kind of silence, i.e. by the absence of a eucharistic celebration. Great Friday and Great Saturday are the only two days of the year when no eucharistic assembly is held. However, before the twelfth century it was the custom to celebrate the Liturgy of the Pre-Sanctified Gifts on Great Friday.
The focus of Great Friday is on the passion, death and burial of our Lord Jesus Christ. The commentary (ipomnima) in the Triodion records it thusly: “On the Great and Holy Friday we commemorate the holy, saving and awesome sufferings of our Lord and God and Saviour Jesus Christ: the spitting, the striking, the scourging, the cursing, the mockery; the crown of thorns, the purple cloak, the rod, the sponge, the vinegar and gall, the nails, the spear; and above all the cross and the death, which He voluntarily endured for us.
Also we commemorate the saving confession of the grateful thief who was crucified with Him.” Because of this emphasis on the passion of the Lord, the service of the Orthros of Great Friday is often referred to in the liturgical books as the Service of the Holy Sufferings or Passion – `H ‘Akolouthia ton ‘Agion Pathon. The hymns of this particular service are especially inspiring, rich and powerful.
The divine services of Great Friday with the richness of their ample Scripture lessons, superb hymnography and vivid liturgical actions bring the passion of Christ and its cosmic significance into sharp focus. The following hymns from the Orthros, Hours and Vespers help us to see how the Church understands and celebrates the awesome mystery of Christ’s passion and death.
Today He who hung the earth upon the waters is hung upon the Cross. He who is King of the angels is arrayed in a crown of thorns. He who wraps the heavens in clouds is wrapped in the purple of mockery. He who in Jordan set Adam free receives blows upon His face.
The Bridegroom of the Church is transfixed with nails. The Son of the Virgin is pierced with a spear. We venerate Thy Passion, O Christ. Show us also Thy glorious Resurrection.
When the transgressors nailed Thee, O Lord of glory, to the Cross, Thou hast cried aloud to them: ‘How have I grieved you? Or wherein have I angered you? Before me, who delivered you from tribulation? And how do ye now repay me? Ye have given me evil for good:
in return for the pillar of fire, ye have nailed me to the Cross; in return for the cloud, ye have dug a grave for me. Instead of manna, ye have given me gall; instead of water, ye have given me vinegar to drink. Henceforth I shall call the Gentiles, and they shall glorify me with the Father and the Holy Spirit.
A dread and marvelous mystery we see come to pass this day. He whom none may touch is seized; He who looses Adam from the curse is bound. He who tries the hearts and inner thoughts of man is unjustly brought to trial.
He who closed the abyss is shut in prison. He before whom the powers of heaven stand with trembling, stands before Pilate; the Creator is struck by the hand of His creature.
He who comes to judge the living and the dead is condemned to the Cross; the Destroyer of hell is enclosed in a tomb. O Thou who dost endure all these things in Thy tender love, who hast saved all men from the curse, O long-suffering Lord, glory to Thee.
(Sticheron of Vespers)
In the flesh Thou wast of Thine own will enclosed within the tomb, yet in Thy divine nature Thou dost remain Uncircumscribed and limitless. Thou hast shut up the treasury of hell,O Christ, and emptied all his palaces. Thou hast honored this Sabbath with Thy divine blessing, with Thy glory and Thy radiance.
(Apostichon of Vespers)
In modern liturgical practice the Church celebrates three divine services on Great Friday: the Orthros, the Great Hours and the Great Vespers.
The Orthros of Great Friday
For the reasons we have already mentioned above, the Orthros of Great Friday is celebrated in anticipation on the evening of Great Thursday.
This service is the longest of all the divine services currently in use by the Church. Structurally, it is a modified fast day orthros with several distinctive and unique features which give it its own special identity and character.
The first outstanding and unique feature of this service is that it contains a series of twelve Passion readings. Because of this, the Orthros is known in popular piety as the Service of the Twelve Gospels (‘Akolouthia ton Thodeka Evagelion) The twelve pericopes are read at various intervals throughout the lengthy service.
The first pericope, from the Gospel of John (13.21-18.1), relates the account of the Lord’s discourse with the disciples at the Mystical Supper. The next ten pericopes deal with accounts of the Lord’s sufferings as they are told in the Gospels. The last pericope gives an account of the Lord’s burial and the sealing of the Tomb. The response after each lection is a variation of the usual one:
“Thoxa ti makarothimia sou, Kiriek, thoxa soi-Glory to Your longsuffering, Lord, Glory to You.” The focus of our praise is the forbearance of our God. This distinct liturgical formula signifies the deep reverence with which we approach the awesomeness of the divine condescension.
Another striking feature of this service is the solemn procession with the large Cross of the sanctuary, known in the liturgical language as the Estavromenos – The Crucified One. After the fifth Gospel, at the fifteenth antiphon, the priest brings the Cross out of the sanctuary in a solemn procession and places it in the middle of the Church.
This rite is relatively new. It originated in the Church of Antioch and was introduced into the Church of Constantinople in the year 1864 during the patriarchal reign of Sophronios. From there it found its way to all Greek-speaking churches.
The practice was authenticated and formalized by its inclusion in the Typicon of 1888. The rite is rooted in an ancient liturgical practice of the Church of Jerusalem. We are told by documents of the late fourth century that it was the custom in Jerusalem to display the relic of the true Cross at the Church of the Anastasis on Great Friday.
The procession of the Cross has become the focal point of the service. Hence in popular language the service is often referred to as the Service of the Crucified One – ‘H ‘Akolouthia tou ‘Estavromenou. More will be said about the procession below.
Another characteristic of this Orthros Service is the inclusion of a group of fifteen antiphons, i.e. a set of hymns that were once used as responses to a corresponding number of Psalms. The Psalms have long since been suppressed. Only the troparia of the antiphons have remained in use.
The most celebrated hymn of the Orthros service is the hymn. of the fifteenth antiphon, “Simeron krepatai epi xilou…-Today He who hung the earth upon the waters is hung upon the Tree (Cross)…”
Still another feature of this service is the inclusion of the Beatitudes (Makarismoi). They are chanted after the sixth Gospel. Hymns are interpolated between the verses of the Beatitudes.
The Great Hours (Ai megalai Orai)
In addition to the Vespers and the Orthros, the daily cycle of worship contains the Apodeipnon (Compline), the Midnight Service (Mesoniktikon) and the Service of the Hours. These latter services have their roots in the devotional practices of the early Christians, and especially in the communal worship of the monastic communities.
Each of the four Hours bears a numerical name, derived from one of the major daylight hours or intervals of the day as they were known in antiquity: the First – Proti – (corresponding to our sunrise); the Third – Triti – (our midmorning or 9 a.m.); the Sixth – “Ekti – (our noonday); and the Ninth -‘Enati(our midafternoon or 3 p.m.).
Each Hour has a particular theme, and sometimes even a subtheme, based upon some aspects of the Christ-event and salvation history. The general themes of the Hours are: the coming of Christ, the true light (First); the descent of the Holy Spirit (Third); the passion and crucifixion of Christ (Sixth); the death and burial of Christ (Ninth).
The central prayer of each Hour is the Lord’s Prayer. In addition, each Hour has a set of three Psalms, hymns, a common prayer (‘O en panti kairo), and a distinctive prayer for the Hour. Slight variations occur in the Service of the Hours on feast days as well as on fast days. For example, in the place of the regular troparia, the apolytikia of the feast are read; or in the case of the Great Fast, penitial prayers are added at the end.
A radical change in the Service of the Hours, however, occurs on Great Friday. The content is altered and expanded with a set of troparia and Scripture Readings (Prophecy, Epistle, and Gospel) for each Hour. In addition, two of the three Psalms in each of the Hours are replaced with Psalms that reflect themes of Great Friday.
While the stable-fixed Psalm of the service reflects the theme of the particular Hour, the variable Psalms reflect the theme of the day. In their expanded version these Hours are called The Great Hours. They are also known as the Royal Hours.
The services of the regular Hours are found in the Horologion. The Service of the Great Hours of Great Friday, however, is found in the Triodion.
Originally each Hour was read at the appropriate time of the day. In a second stage of development, the first Hour was attached to the Orthros, the Third and Sixth were read together in the late morning, and the Ninth preceded the Vespers. In a later development, the four Hours of Great Friday were grouped together and read in succession on the morning of Great Friday as a single office.
The Great Vespers
On the afternoon of Great Friday, we conduct the service of the Great Vespers with great solemnity. This Vesper service concludes the remembrance of the events of the Lord’s passion, and leads us towards watchful expectation as we contemplate the mystery of the Lord’s descent into Hades, the theme of Great Saturday.
In popular language the Vesper Service of Great Friday is often called the Apokathelosis, a name derived from the liturgical reenactment of the deposition of Christ from the Cross. The service is characterized by two dramatic liturgical actions: The Deposition or Apokathelosis Apokathilosis -literally the Un-nailing); and the Procession of the Epitaphios (‘Epitafios, i.e. the icon depicting the burial of Christ encased within a large embroidered cloth).
The rite of the Apokathelosis originated in the Church of Antioch. During the course of the nineteenth century it came to Constantinople and from there it passed gradually into the Church of Greece. At Constantinople it received the form we know and practice today.
Prior to the introduction of the solemn procession of the Estavromenos at the Orthros and the rite of the Apokathelosis at the Vespers, the churches practiced two simpler rituals. First, at the fifteenth antiphon of the Orthros, an icon of the crucifixion was brought in procession to the proskynetarion which stood in the middle of the solea. Second, at the Vesper service the Epitaphios was carried in solemn procession to the kouvouklion.
In the Church of Antioch these two rituals developed along different lines. First, instead of an icon a large cross was carried in the procession at the Orthros. Fastened to the cross was a movable figure of the crucified Christ. Second, at the Vesper service the Epitaphios was carried in procession at the appointed time and was placed in the kouvouklion. Then, the figure of the crucified Christ was removed from the cross and placed in the kouvouklion. The figure was covered with a cloth and flowers. Last, the Gospel was placed in the kouvouklion.
These rites received a new form as they passed into the Greek Church. The rite of the Apokathelosis was lifted up and especially accentuated by attaching it to the reading of the Gospel at the Vesper service. As the priest intoned the passages of the lesson that narrate the event of the Deposition, the deacon re-enacted the Un-nailing. The figure of the Crucified Christ was removed from the Cross and wrapped in a new linen cloth. The figure was received by the priest, brought into the sanctuary and laid upon the Holy Table. After this the priest concluded the Gospel lesson. This dramatic representation of the Deposition has -become the prevailing practice in the Greek Church.
The procession with the Epitaphios is the second significant liturgical act of this service. It appears that the rite developed around the fifteenth century.”‘ In some descriptions of the ritual, the procession takes place at the aposticha, while in others it takes place at the apolytikia. According to the order in the Patriarchal Text, the procession of the Epitaphios takes place at the aposticha.
Most descriptions of the procession presuppose a presence of several clerics. Let us look at one such description. The Epitaphios is censed by the senior priest. It is then lifted up by four other priests who carry it above the head of the senior priest. He holds the Gospel Book (Evaggelion).
The deacon(s) precede(s) holding the censer. However, it is obvious that such an elaborate ritual cannot be performed by only one priest, as is the case in most of our parishes today. For this reason, the ritual has been simplified in the current liturgical practice. Where two clergymen are present, both carry the Epitaphios.
The senior priest precedes holding the Gospel in one hand and the Epitaphios over his head in the other. The second priest or deacon holds the other end of the Epitaphios over his head. If there is only one priest, he carries one end of the Epitaphios upon his head and holds the Gospel in the other hand.
Two acolytes walk in back of him holding the other end of the Epitaphios. It is proper also for the Epitaphios to be held by four acolytes above the head of the priest. However, this is a rare occurrence in current usage. In some local traditions the Epitaphios is lifted up on poles, in order to facilitate the procedure.
The Epitaphios is held high, above the head as a sign of deep reverence.
The Gospel – It is important at this point to say something about the way the Gospel (Evaggelion) is held at the processions of the Epitaphios on Great Friday. In the liturgical tradition of our Church, the Gospel is considered to be the chief icon of Christ.
Therefore, as the rituals of the passion began to develop, the Gospel Book was given special attention by the way it was held and adorned. Long before the Epitaphios was introduced into the liturgy of Great Friday, it was the Gospel, wrapped in the aer, that was carried in the processions.
The aer symbolized the burial cloth. To further depict the death of Christ, the Gospel was held flat upon the right shoulder of the celebrant, instead of the usual upright position.
The Icon – On Great Friday besides the Cross and the Epitaphios we display the icon known as the “Axra Tapeinosis – The Extreme Humility.” This icon depicts the crucified dead body of Christ upright in the Tomb with the Cross in the background. It combines the two awesome events of Great Friday, the crucifixion and burial of Christ.
Fasting – Great Friday is a day of strict fast, a day of xerophagia.
Liturgical Preparations – In advance of the service, the priest has made certain that: the Epitaphios is prepared; the Kouvouklion is decorated; there are ample flowers for distribution to the faithful; and a new white linen cloth is purchased to be used at the Apokathelosis. He also prepares a tray of rose petals and the ran-(sprinkler) containing rose-water or another fragrant water, that will be used after the procession of the Epitaphios.
The Estavromenos – The Cross, placed in the middle of the solea at the Orthros, remains there throughout the services of Great Friday. However, in order to make room for the Kouvouklion it should be moved closer to the sanctuary steps before the service of the Vespers.
At the conclusion of the service of the Orthros of Great Saturday, the Cross is returned to its usual place in the sanctuary. By custom, the crown of flowers remains on the Cross until the Apodosis of Pascha. The candles, however, are removed.
The Kouvouklion is decorated before the Vesper service. After the reading of the Gospel and prior to the procession of the Epitaphios, it is moved to the middle of the solea in front of the Cross. The Cross and Kouvouklion are placed in front of the Holy Doors in the middle of the solea.
The distribution offlowers – In current practice the flowers are usually distributed at the conclusion of the Orthros of Great Saturday. However, in some parishes it has become the custom to distribute flowers at the conclusion of the Vespers of Great Friday as well, especially to children who may not be in attendance at the later service.
According to the current liturgical practice, the Orthros of Great Friday is celebrated on the evening of Great Thursday. Because this service is complex and filled with musical variations, special care should be taken to execute the hymns well.
The vestments – The priest wears a black or deep purple epitrachilion and phelonion. The holy Table is dressed with a black or purple cloth.
The Cross – It is customary to place a crown of flowers of adequate, moderate proportions upon the large Cross of the sanctuary. Also, three candles are placed on the bars of the Cross, one on the verticle bar and two on either end of the horizontal bar. These preparations are made in advance of the service.
The priest censes with the katzion during the intonation of the Royal Psalms at the beginning of the service.
The Order of the Service – The service is conducted in accordance with the order and the rubrics of the Patriarchal Text. Between the sets of hymns the priest intones the prescribed lections, litanies and prayers.
The Gospel lessons – According to current practice the priest reads the Gospels from the Holy Gate. By custom, the 12th Gospel is read from the amvon (pulpit).
The Procession – By custom, the Holy Gate is closed after the 5th Gospel. The priest prepares for the procession of the Cross. The Cross is brought to the Holy Table and is censed. When the time comes for the “Simeron krematai epi xilou . . . – Today He Who hung the earth. . . ” (15th Antiphon) – the priest lifts up the Cross. He carries it as if he would carry an icon in procession, and intones simply and clearly the troparion “Simeron krematai.” The acolytes and chanters go before him.
The procession proceeds through the north door of the sanctuary (by the Prothesis) and up the north aisle, around and down the south aisle of the Church to the solea, where a stand has been placed to receive the Cross. The priest reverently places the Cross in the stand.
The chanters then sing the troparion “Simeron krematai.” By custom, the priest and the congregation kneel until the troparion is completed. The priest then venerates the Estavromenos and returns to the sanctuary to resume the readings at the appointed times.,
It should be noted th at the Estavromenos remains in place on the solea throughout all of the services on Great Friday.
The Apolysis has its own particular prologue. ‘”O embtismous kai mastigas May He Who endured spitting and scourging . . .
Veneration of the Cross – The congregation venerates the Estavromenos in accordance with local custom. Care should be taken to protect the solemnity of the service. In most places the congregation reverences the Estavromenos at the conclusion of the service.
The Great Hours
The Great Hours are chanted and read as one service on Great Friday morning,” in accordance with the order found in the Patriarchal Text.
The priest wears the epitrachelion and phelonion, as in the preceding Orthros service.
The four Gospel lessons, one for each of the Hours, are read from the Holy Doors.
The priest censes the sanctuary, the church and the people in the usual manner with the katzion, while the troparia are being chanted at the Third Hour. He may choose to repeat the censing at the Sixth and Ninth Hours.
At the Ninth Hour the hymn “Simeron krematai” is intoned by the reader or chanter. By custom the reader stands before the Cross when intoning the hymn. When he has completed the hymn, it is chanted by the choirs.
The Apolysis is the same as at the preceding Orthros.
The Order – The Vespers of Great Friday are patterned after the festal Great Vesper service. This will be the first time during the course of Great Week that we use the order of a festive service in the Daily Office.
This is significant in as much as it signals the beginning of the transformation of lipi (sorrow) into xara (joy)
The service is conducted in the usual manner and order. The litanies and prayers said by the priest are found in the ‘Ieratikon under the rubric of the Great Vespers. The hymns are chanted in the order that appears in the Patriarchal Text.
The Entrance – The Entrance (Eisodos) is made with the Gospel, which is held in the usual upright position.
The Lessons – The Prokeimena and Scripture Lessons follow. The Readings consist of three Old Testament pericopes, an Epistle lesson, and a long Gospel pericope.
The Apokathelosis – The Apokathelosis takes place during the concluding verses of the Gospel lesson, or at the conclusion of the lesson. The priest comes before the Cross; censes the Estavromenos; removes the figure from the Cross; wraps it in the linen cloth; and brings it into the sanctuary and places it upon the Holy Table.
The Litanies and Prayers – The Fervent Litany, the “Evening Prayer,” the Petitions, Peace, and Prayer for the bowing of the head, follow.
The Epitaphios – At the aposticha, we conduct the procession of the Epitaphios. The Epitaphios is placed on the Holy Table before the enarxis of the Vespers or after the reading of the Gospel. Before lifting it for the procession the priest censes the Epitaphios.
The procession forms and proceeds through the north door of the sanctuary. As in other solemn processions, the Epitaphios is carried up the north aisle, around the Church and down the south aisle. It is brought to the Kouvouklioni which has been placed in the middle of the solea, and deposited in it.
The priest then moves around the Kouvouklion censing the Epitaphios from each of the four sides. By custom, he also sprinkles the Epitaphios with rose-water and scatters rose-petals and flowers on it.
The priest then places the Gospel Evagelion upon the Epitaphios. After the Apolysis the priest and the faithful venerate the Epitaphios.
The Apolysis – After the “doxa kai nin” of the aposticha, we intone the hymn of St. Symeon as usual. The Trisagion prayers, the apolytikia, and the apolysis follow.
Source: Archdiocese of America