Holy Week: An Explanation

Bridegroom (Nymphios) Icon

Beloved brothers and sisters in Christ Our Only True God and Our Only True Savior,
Christ is in our midst! He was and is and ever shall be. Ο Χριστός έν τώ μέσω ημών. Και ήν και έστι και έσται.


O Lord and Master of my life, do not give me the spirit of sloth, lust of power and idle talk (prostration).

But give rather a spirit of chastity, humility, patience and love to Your servant (prostration).

Yes, Lord and King, grant me to see my own transgressions and not to judge my brother, for Blessed are You unto ages of ages.

Amen. (prostration).


"Be attentive to your heart and watch your enemies, for they are cunning in their malice. In your heart be persuaded of this: it is impossible for a man to achieve good through evil means. That is why our Savior told us to be watchful, saying: 'Straight is the gate, and narrow is the way that leads to life, and few there are that find it'" (St. Matthew 7:14) [Saint Isaiah the Solitary]


Great Lent and Holy Week are two separate Fasts, and two separate celebrations. Great Lent ends on Friday of the Fifth Week (the day before Lazarus Saturday). Holy Week begins immediately thereafter. Let's explore the meaning of each of the solemn days of Passion Week.

Lazarus Saturday: Lazarus Saturday is the day which begins Holy Week. It commemorates the raising of our Lord's friend Lazarus, who had been in the tomb four days. This act confirmed the universal resurrection from the dead that all of us will experience at our Lord's Second Coming. This miracle led many to the Faith, but it also led to the chief priest's and the Pharisees' decision to kill Jesus (St. John 11:47-57).

Palm Sunday (The Entrance of our Lord into Jerusalem): Our Lord enters Jerusalem and is proclaimed king -- but in an earthly sense, as many Jews of His time were seeking a political Messiah. Our Lord is King, of course, but of a different type --the Eternal King prophesied by Zechariah the Prophet. We use palms on this day to show that we too accept Jesus as the True King and Messiah of the Jews, Who we are willing to follow-even to the Cross.

Holy and Great Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday: The first thing that must be said about these holy services, and most of the other holy services of Holy and Great Week, is that they are 'sung' in anticipation. Each service is rotated ahead twelve hours. The evening holy service, therefore, is actually the holy service of the next morning, while the morning services Holy Thursday and Holy Saturday are actually the holy services of the coming evening.

Understanding that, let's turn to the Holy Services of Holy and Great Monday (celebrated Palm Sunday, Monday and Tuesday evening). The holy services of these days are known as the Bridegroom or Nymphios Orthros services.  At the first holy service of Palm Sunday evening, the priest carries the holy icon of Christ the Bridegroom (Nypmphios), and we sing the "Hymn of the Bridegroom." We behold Christ as the Bridegroom of the Church, bearing the marks of His suffering, yet preparing a marriage Feast for us in God's Kingdom.

Each of these Bridegroom Orthros (Matins) holy services has a particular theme. On Holy and Great Monday, the Blessed Joseph, the son of Jacob the Patriarch, is commemorated. Joseph is often seen as a type of Christ, Joseph was betrayed by his brothers, thrown into a pit, and sold into slavery by them. In the same way, our Lord was rejected, betrayed by His own, and sold into the slavery of death. The holy Gospel reading for the day is about the barren fig, which Christ cursed and withered because it bore no fruit. The fig tree is a Parable of those who have heard God's Word, but who fail to bear fruit of obedience and repentance. Originally the withering of the fig tree was a testimony against those Jews who rejected God's Word and His Messiah. However, it is also a warning to all people, in all times, of the importance of not only hearing God's Word, but putting it into action.

The Parable of the Ten Virgins is read on Holy and Great Thursday. It tells the story of the five virgins who filled their lamps in preparation for receiving the Bridegroom, while the other five allowed their lamps to go out, and hence were shut out of the marriage feast. This Parable is a warning that we must always be prepared to receive our Lord when He comes again. The theme of the day is reinforced by the expostelarion hymn we chant: "I see Thy Bridal Chamber adorned, O my Savior, but have no wedding garment that I may enter. O Giver of Light, enlighten the vesture of my soul, and save me." The theme of Holy and Great Wednesday is repentance and forgiveness. We remember the sinful woman who anointed our Lord in anticipation of His death. Her repentance and love for Christ is the theme of the inspiring and wonderful "Hymn of Kassiane" (a hymn written by the nun Kassiane who was inspired by the sinful woman of the Gospel lesson) which is chanted on this night, reminding us one more time, before "it is too late," that we may be forgiven if we truly repent of our sins.

Holy Oil (Efchaileon) or Holy Unction: The Mysterion or Sacrament of Holy Unction is celebrated on Holy and Great Wednesday evening. Actually this holy service can be celebrated any time during the year, especially when one is ill. However, because of our need for forgiveness and spiritual healing, we offer this holy service during Holy and Great Week for the remission of our sins. We should prepare for this holy Mysterion in a prayerful way, as we do for Holy Communion.

Great and Holy Thursday: On Holy and Great Thursday we turn to the last events of our Lord and His Holy Passion. Holy Thursday morning begins with a Vesperal Divine Liturgy commemorating the Mystical Supper. As previously mentioned, this actually Holy and Great Thursday evening's service celebrated in the morning in anticipation. Everyone who is able should make an effort to receive Holy Communion at this divine service as it was at the Mystical Supper that Our Lord Jesus Christ instituted the Mysterion of the Holy Eucharist. At this Divine Liturgy a second Host is consecrated and kept in the Holy Tabernacle (Artophorion) on the Holy Altar. It is from this Holy Eucharist that is offered to the ill and shut-ins throughout the ecclesiastical year.

Holy and Great Thursday Evening actually begins the holy services of Great and Holy Friday. The Holy Service of the Twelve Passion Gospels commemorating the solemn time of Our Lord's Crucifixion. After the reading of the Fifth Gospel, the Holy Cross with the Holy Body of Christ on it, is carried around the Church in solemn procession while the priest chants: "Today He Who hung the earth upon the waters is hung upon the Cross (three times). He Who is King of the Angels is arrayed in a crown of thorns. He Who wraps the heaven in clouds is wrapped in the purple of mockery. He Who in Jordan set Adam free receives blows upon the 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 (three times). Show us also Thy glorious Resurrection."

Great and Holy Friday: This is a day of strict fast. As little as possible should be eaten on this day. It is the only day in the entire year that no Divine Liturgy is celebrated. In the morning we celebrate the Royal Hours. These Solemn Royal Hours are observed as we read the various accounts and hymns concerning the Crucifixion. In the Afternoon we celebrate the Vesper Service of the taking down of Christ's Holy Body from the Cross (Apokathelosis). During the Gospel reading, Our Lord's body is taken off the cross and wrapped in a new, white linen sheet (shroud). This act commemorates the removal of Christ's body from the Cross by Joseph of Arimathea (St. John 19:38-42). Later in the holy service, the Epitaphios (a tapestry with an embroidered holy icon of Christ dead) is carried in solemn procession and place in the recently decorated with flowers tomb (kouvouklion).In the evening (The Epitaphios Threnos), the Lamentations (Engomia) Orthros (Matins) of Holy an dGreat Saturday: After the Doxology the Procession with the "Epitaphios" takes place, around the outside of the church. The Chanter or/and Choir chants "Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal have mercy on us. At the conclusion of the procession the Kouvouklion with the Epitaphios is brought back into the church. At the conclusion of the holy Service of the Lamentations the people one by one venerate the Epitaphios and the flowers on the tomb are distributed to all the faithful.  Then the priest brings into the Sanctuary the Epitaphios and goes around the Holy Altar Table three times and places it upon it. This holy service begins in a solemn manner, but by the end of the service we are already anticipating the Resurrection of our Lord. Remember again, that the Holy and Great Friday evening Orthros is actually the first service of Holy and Great Saturday, the day in which we commemorate our Lord's body resting in the tomb while His all pure soul descends into Hades to free the faithful of the Old Covenant (Testament).

Great and Holy Saturday: This day is a day of hope and waiting. In the morning we celebrate a Vesperal Divine Liturgy which commemorates Christ's victory over death. Bright vestments are worn as we anticipate Christ's Holy Resurrection. Laurel leaves are strewn throughout the church during the holy service, while the priest chants: "Arise O God, and judge Thou the earth: For Thou shall take all heathen to Thine inheritance." In the ancient world laurel leaves were a sign of victory. The Old Testament story of Jonah was three days in the belly of the great fish, and was then safely deposited back onto land, so Our Lord was three days in the tomb before His Glorious Resurrection. The Vesperal Divine Liturgy of Holy and Great Saturday concludes the holy services of Holy and Great Week, and bring us to the eve of Great and Holy Pascha.

Pascha Evening: Orthros of Resurrection: After the Church is darkened, the priest, standing before the Holy Altar, lights a candle from the eternal vigil light on the Altar Table; and exiting from the Royal Doors chants aloud: "Come ye and receive light from the unwaning Light; and glorify Christ, Who has risen from the dead." Soon after everyone in the church has received the light, the priest reads the Gospel Lesson (Usually outside the church, on a special platform, wherever possible). Following the Gospel Lesson the priest says, "Glory to the Holy and Consubstantial and Life-Giving and Undivided Trinity, always, now and ever, and to the Ages of Ages." Then the priest chants, raising the Paschal candle high: "Christ has risen from the dead, by death trampling upon death, and has bestowed life to those in the tombs." Then the Katavasiai and Ainoi are chanted followed by the Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom. At the end of the Divine Liturgy the most inspiring Paschal Sermon of Saint John Chrysostom is read. Orthodox Christians take the light of the Resurrection home and light their own vigil light as a special blessing for the entire family. It is the tradition in Orthodox Christian countries to bring the light of the Resurrection to our departed loved ones at the cemetery and light the vigil light at their graves and chant the Resurrection hymn.

Paschal Agape Great Vespers- (Vespers of Love) is served on the evening of Pascha (usually at 3:00 P.M. in the afternoon). It follows the order of Great Vespers. After the prokeimenon the Gospel account of the empty tomb and the first appearance of the Risen Lord to His holy disciples (St. John 20:19-25) is read. It is customary to read this pericope in many different languages, demonstrating the universal nature of the Good News of Christ's victory over sin and death.

In some traditions, red eggs are again distributed to the faithful at the end of the service as a paschal blessing. Orthodox Christians who attend this holy service may also hold lit Paschal candles from the Resurrection service from the night before. It is also a tradition to bring small children who were not able to attend the evening service. After this service, Orthodox Christians will continue the celebration of the Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ for 40 days until the Holy Ascension Day.

Let us not be distracted by the so called "Easter bunny" and "Easter egg hunts" that have absolutely nothing to do with the celebration of the Resurrection of Christ and Pascha. Tell your Christian children the true story of the Resurrection of Our Savior by reading it from the Holy Bible. Teach them to greet one another with Christ is Risen! and respond by saying, Truly He is Risen!

Χριστός Ανέστη! Αληθώς Ανέστη!

Christ is Risen!  Truly He is Risen!

Glory to His Third-Day Resurrection

Faithful reply:

We bow down to His Third-Day Resurrection

All together chant:

Christ has risen from the dead, by death trampling upon Death, and has bestowed Life to those in the tombs.

Χριστός Ανέστη εκ νεκρών, θανάτω θάνατον πατήσας, και τοίς εν τοίς μνήμασι, ζωήν χαρισάμενος.

In Our Risen Lord Jesus Christ,

+Father George