THE WEEK OF OUR Savior’s Passion begins with Holy and Great Monday. The first three days of Holy Week recall Christ’s last teachings with His disciples. These teachings inspire the readings and hymns. The services consist of Great Compline, Matins, Hours, and the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts with Vespers. The Gospels are read at Matins and Liturgy. In addition, the whole Psalter is read in the services of the first three days of Holy Week, as well as the four Gospels up to the point of the Lord’s Passion. The Psalms remind us how the coming and sufferings of Christ were awaited and foretold in the Old Testament. The Gospels tell of His life in the world; His teaching and miracles prove that He was indeed the Son of God, Who of His own free will suffered for our sake though He was without guilt.
At Matins after the Great Litany we do not hear the usual joyous verses, “God is the Lord, and hath appeared unto us.” Instead, a compunctionate “Alleluia” is chanted. And to inspire us to watch and pray in these solemn days, this troparion is chanted:
Behold, the Bridegroom cometh in the middle of the night, and blessed is that servant whom He shall find watching; and again unworthy is he whom He shall find heedless. Beware, therefore, O my soul, lest thou be borne down with sleep, lest thou be given up to death, and be shut out from the Kingdom. But rather rouse thyself and cry: Holy, Holy, Holy art Thou, O God, through the Theotokos, have mercy on us.
After the canon, which speaks of Christ’s coming Passion, another special hymn — an Exapostilarion — is chanted. It is like a cry of our soul seeing from afar Christ’s radiant mansions and feeling how unworthy it was to enter them:
Thy bridal chamber, O my Savior, do I behold all adorned, and a garment I have not that I may enter therein. Illumine the garment of my soul, O Light Bestower, and save me.
On Holy and Great Monday the Church tells us the parable of the barren fig tree. It is the symbol of those who think only of outward goodness which does not come from the heart. The Gospel also tells about our Lord Jesus Christ’s prophecies about the fall of Jerusalem, wars and tribulations, and the end of the world.
The Synaxarion for Holy and Great Monday has the following edifying account:
The holy Passion of our Savior begins today, presenting Joseph the all-comely as a prefiguring of Christ. He was the eleventh son of Jacob, and his first son by Rachel; because he was so beloved of his father, his own brethren came to envy him and cast him into a pit. Later they sold him for thirty pieces of silver to foreigners, who later sold him again in Egypt. Because of his virtue, his master gave him much authority in governing his house; because he was fair of countenance, his master’s wife sought to draw him into sin with her, because of his chastity, he refused her, and through her slanders was cast into prison. Finally, he was led forth again with great glory and was honored as a king. He became lord over all Egypt and a provider of wheat for all the people. Through all this, he typifies in himself the betrayal, Passion, death, and glorification of our Lord Jesus Christ (see Genesis, ch. 37-41).
To the commemoration of Joseph is added also the narration concerning the fig tree, which on this day was cursed and subsequently dried up because of its unfruitfulness. It portrayed the Jewish synagogue, which had not produced the fruit demanded of it, that is, of virtue and piety, and which was stripped of all spiritual grace by means of the curse (Matt. 21: 18-20). The Kontakion of this day is most instructive:
The Kontakion (Eighth Tone)
Jacob lamented the loss of Joseph, but that noble one was seated in a chariot and honored as a king; for by not being enslaved then to the pleasures of the Egyptian woman, he was glorified by Him that beholdeth the hearts of men and bestoweth an incorruptible crown.
Holy and Great Tuesday
ON HOLY AND GREAT TUESDAY we listen to our Savior’s replies to the wily questions of the Pharisees and scribes, who tried to trap Him; we hear His stern rebukes of their envy and deceit. The parables of the Ten Virgins and of the Talents remind us how we should always keep watch over our conscience and use in God’s service any gift or talent we have received from Him. The Gospel then tells Christ’s prophecy of His second coming and the Last Judgment. It ends with the awful warning: “Ye know that after two days is the feast of the Passover, and the Son of Man is betrayed to be crucified.”
The Synaxarion, and the Kontakion of this day emphasize the gravity of God’s examination of our life and the account we will have to give of ourselves:
Today we bring to mind the parable of the ten virgins, which Jesus related as He was coming to His Passion. This parable teaches us that the accomplishment of the great work of virginity should not make us careless in other matters, especially in almsgiving, wherewith the lamp of virginity is made radiant. Furthermore, it teaches us that we should not be remiss about the end of our life, but should be prepared for it at every moment, like the wise virgins, so that we may meet the Bridegroom, lest He come suddenly and the doors of the heavenly bridechamber be shut, and we also, like the foolish virgins, hear the dread sentence: “Amen, I say unto you, I know you not” (Matt. 25:1-13).
The Kontakion (Second Tone)
Being mindful of the hour of the end, O my soul, and fearing because of the cutting down of the fig tree, labor diligently with the talent that was given thee, O hapless one, and be watchful and cry: Let us not remain outside the bridal chamber of Christ.
Holy and Great Wednesday
ON GREAT WEDNESDAY the Church commemorates the act of contrition and love of the sinful woman who poured precious myrrh-oil on our Savior’s head, and, though she did not know it, “prepared Him for burial.” And in contrast we hear of the dark act of Judas, whose greed led him to betray his Master. All the readings and hymns of the day warn us to beware of greed and love of money, which even tempted a disciple of Christ. We too can betray Him, if we let greed and selfishness get hold of us, while every deed of humility and love at once brings us near to Him.
Concerning these incidents recorded in the Holy Gospels, the Synaxarion has the following account:
Two women — say the more discerning interpreters of the Gospel — anointed the Lord with myrrh; the one, a long time before His Passion; the other, a few days before. The one was a harlot and sinner; the other, chaste and virtuous. The Church commemorates this reverent act today. While mentioning herein the person of the harlot, it also mentions Judas’ betrayal; for, according to the account in Matthew, both of these deeds took place two days before the Passover, on Wednesday.
That woman, then, anointed Jesus’ head and feet with very precious myrrh, and wiped them with the tresses of her hair. The disciples, especially the avaricious Judas, were scandalized, supposedly because of the waste of the myrrh. Jesus reproved them and told them not to trouble the woman. Indignant, Judas went to the high priests, who were gathered in the court of Caiaphas and were already taking counsel against Jesus. On agreeing with them to betray his Teacher for thirty pieces of silver, Judas sought from that time opportunity to betray Him (Matt. 26:14-16). Because the betrayal took place on Wednesday, we have received the tradition from Apostolic times to fast on Wednesday throughout the year.
It is on this day also that one of the most beautiful and compunctionate hymns ever composed is chanted in the Holy Church. This hymn, composed in the early part of the ninth century by the nun Cassiane, has as its theme the anointing of our Savior’s feet by the harlot:
The Troparion of Cassiane
O Lord, the woman who had fallen into many sins perceived Thy divinity, and taking upon herself the duty of a myrrh-bearer, with lamentation she bringeth Thee myrrh-oils before Thine entombment. Woe unto me! saith she, for night is become for me a frenzy of licentiousness, a dark and moonless love of sin. Receive the fountain of my tears, O Thou Who gatherest into clouds the water of the sea. Incline unto me, unto the sighings of my heart, O Thou Who didst bow the Heavens by Thine ineffable condescension. I will kiss Thine immaculate feet and wipe them again with the tresses of my head; those feet, at whose sound Eve hid herself for fear when she heard Thee walking in Paradise in the cool of the day. As for the multitude of my sins and the depths of Thy judgments, who can search them out, O Savior of souls, my Savior? Do not disdain me, Thy handmaiden, O Thou Who art boundless in mercy.
The Kontakion for this day continues the theme of contrition and remorse, and confronts us with our unworthiness before God:
The Kontakion (Fourth Tone)
Though I have transgressed more than the harlot, O Good One, I have in no wise brought forth streams of tears for Thee; but in silence I supplicate Thee and fall down before Thee, kissing Thine immaculate feet with love, so that, as Master that Thou art, Thou mayest grant me the forgiveness of debts, as I cry to Thee, O Savior: From the mire of my deeds do Thou deliver me.
On Holy Wednesday night the Orthodox Church administers the Mystery of the Holy Unction for the bodily and spiritual health of the participants. At this Mystery, the oil is consecrated by prayer and the clergy anoint the people. When this is done, the priest recites the prayers for the remission of sins, while the clergy hold the open Gospel over the heads of the people.
The Psalter is not used after Holy Wednesday until Thomas Sunday.
Holy and Great Thursday
THE GOSPELS OF HOLY and Great Thursday tell how our Savior and His disciples came to Jerusalem to celebrate His last feast of the Passover, how He washed their feet. They tell the account of that Mystical Supper when our Lord ordained the Mystery of His Most Holy Body and Blood “for the remission of sins and life everlasting.” They speak of Christ’s instruction to the Apostles, and how He told them that they would all forsake Him that night; they speak of Peter’s rash promise that he would always remain faithful; of Christ’s vigil in the garden; of how He was seized and led away to the high priest’s court; of the scene in the courtyard; of Peter’s three-fold denial and his grief; of the high priest’s mocking questions; and of how our Savior Christ God, wearing the crown of thorns, beaten and insulted by the soldiers, was led before Pilate.
The readings and hymns of Matins dwell on Judas’ betrayal, on “the dark night” which settled in his soul. We pray that we may keep ourselves from greed and deceit, and be made pure by partaking of the holy Mysteries of Christ’s Body and Blood. The Dismissal Hymn after the “Alleluia” at Matins speaks of this:
The Dismissal Hymn (Eighth Tone)
When the glorious disciples were enlightened at the washing of the feet, then Judas the ungodly one was stricken and darkened with the love of silver. And unto the lawless judges did he deliver Thee, the righteous Judge. O thou lover of money, behold thou him that for the sake thereof did hang himself, flee from that insatiable soul that dared such things against the Master. O Thou Who art good unto all, Lord, glory be to Thee.
The Synaxarion and the Kontakion also reiterate the themes of Christ God’s betrayal at the hands of “an incorrigible disciple:”
On the evening of this day, which was the eve of the feast of unleavened bread (that is, the Passover), Jesus supped with His twelve disciples in the city. He blessed the bread and the wine, and gave us the Mystery of the Divine Eucharist. He washed the feet of the disciples as an example of humility. He said openly that one of them was about to betray Him, and He pointed out the betrayer by revealing that it was he “that dippeth his hand with Me in the dish.” And after Judas had straightway gone forth, Jesus gave the disciples His final and sublime instructions, which are contained in the first Gospel reading of the Holy Passion. After this the God-man went forth to the Mount of Olives, and there He began to be sorrowful and in anguish. He went off alone, and bending the knees He prayed fervently. From His great anguish, His sweat became as it were great drops of blood falling to the ground. As soon as He had completed that anguished prayer, lo Judas came with a multitude of soldiers and a great crowd, on greeting the Teacher guilefully with a kiss, he betrayed Him.
Jesus was then apprehended and taken prisoner to the high priests Annas and Caiaphas. The disciples dispersed, but Peter, who was more fervent than the others, followed Him even into the court of the high priest, but in the end denied that he was His disciple.
Then our divine Teacher was brought before the lawless Sanhedrin and was interrogated concerning His disciples and His teaching. The high priest adjured Him before God that He tell them whether He was truly the Christ. And having spoken the truth, He was judged guilty of death, supposedly as one who had blasphemed. Then they spat in His face, beat Him, smote Him with the palms of their hands, and mocked Him in every way, throughout the whole night until the morning.
The Kontakion (Second Tone)
Taking the bread into his hands, the betrayer stretcheth them forth secretly and receiveth the price of Him That with His own hands, fashioned man. And Judas, the servant and deceiver, remained incorrigible.
On this day the Liturgy of Saint Basil the Great is celebrated together with Vespers. Before the Great Entrance, instead of the Cherubic Hymn, the special hymn of Great Thursday is chanted:
Of Thy Mystical Supper, O Son of God, receive me today as a communicant; for I will not speak of the Mystery to Thine enemies; nor will I give Thee a kiss as did Judas; but like the thief do I confess Thee: Remember me, O Lord, when Thou comest in Thy Kingdom.
This hymn is also chanted before and during Communion.
The whole narration of our Lord’s Passion is given at the Matins of Great Friday, sung on Thursday evening. It is commonly called “the Service of the Twelve Gospels.” A tall Crucifix usually stands in the middle of the church with many candles lighted round it. After the Six Psalms and the Great Litany, the choir chants, “Alleluia” and the Troparion of Holy and Great Thursday. The priest and deacon come out of the Sanctuary carrying the Book of Gospels. It is placed on a podium and the priest begins the reading. The whole story of the Passion is read from the four evangelists and is divided into twelve parts. It begins with the “Gospel of the Testament” and the prayer at the Mystical Supper, from Saint John’s Gospel, and continues through the four Gospels to the burial of Christ by Joseph of Arimathea. After each reading the choir chants, “Glory to Thy forbearance, O Lord, glory to Thee.” Between the readings special antiphons and hymns are chanted. They speak of Judas’ betrayal; of the cruelty of the Jews; of our Savior’s infinite patience and meekness; of the awe of all creation when the Lord of all was nailed to the Cross between two thieves. The canon has only three odes. All recount the Passion and foretell the glory of the Resurrection. Matins ends shortly after the twelfth Gospel.
Holy and Great Friday
GREAT FRIDAY is the most solemn day of Holy Week. In awe and trembling, we stand before the Cross on which our Savior died and we see the image of Him dead, lying in our midst, on the Epitaphios (the Winding Sheet).
During the Service of Matins, which by anticipation is chanted on Thursday evening, we will hear some of the most compunctionate hymns of the ecclesiastical year. The following are but a few examples:
Thou didst ransom us from the curse of the Law by Thy precious Blood. Nailed to the Cross and pierced with the lance, Thou didst pour forth immortality for men. O our Savior, glory be to Thee.
Today there is hung upon the Tree, He that suspended the earth upon the waters. A crown of thorns is placed upon Him Who is the King of the Angels. With false purple is He wrapped about, He that wrappeth the Heavens with clouds. Buffetings did He receive, Who freed Adam in the Jordan. With nails was He affixed, He that is the Bridegroom of the Church. With a lance was He pierced, He that is the Son of the Virgin. We worship Thy Passion, O Christ. Show also unto us Thy glorious Resurrection.
Two evils hath Israel, my first-born son, committed: He forsook Me, the Source of the water of life, and he dug for himself a broken well; he crucified Me upon the Tree, and asked for Barabbas and released him. Heaven was astonished at this, and the sun hid its rays; but thou, O Israel, wast not ashamed, but didst deliver Me up to death. Forgive them, O holy Father, for they know not what they have done.
Every member of Thy holy Flesh endured dishonor for us; Thy head, the thorns; Thy face, the spittings; Thy cheeks, the smitings; Thy mouth, the taste of vinegar mingled with gall; Thine ears’ the impious blasphemies; Thy back the lash; Thy hand, the reed; the whole length of Thy body, the stretching upon the Cross; Thy joints, the nails; and Thy side, the spear. O Thou Who didst endure the Passion for us, and from the passions didst set us free, and didst condescend to us in Thy love for men and raise us up, O Almighty Savior, have mercy on us.
The Synaxarion and the Kontakion of this day sum up the history and the significance of the sacred events that came to pass for our eternal salvation:
When Friday dawned, Jesus was sent bound from Caiaphas to Pontius Pilate, who was then Governor of Judea. Pilate interrogated Him in many ways, and once and again acknowledged that He was innocent, but, to please the Jews, he later passed the sentence of death against Him. After scourging the Lord of all as though He were a runaway slave, he surrendered Him to be crucified.
Thus Jesus was handed over to the soldiers, was stripped of His garments, was clothed in a purple robe, was crowned with a wreath of thorns, had a reed placed in His hand as though it were a scepter, was bowed before in mockery, was spat upon, and was buffeted in the face and on the head. Then they again clothed Him in His own garments, and bearing the cross, He came to Golgotha, a place of condemnation, and there, about the third hour, He was crucified between two thieves. He was blasphemed by those who were passing by, was mocked by the high priests, and by the soldiers was given vinegar to drink mixed with gall. About the ninth hour, He cried out with a loud voice, saying, “It is finished.” And the Lamb of God “which taketh away the sin of the world” (John 1:29) expired on the day when the moon was full, and at the hour when, according to the Law, there was slain the Passover lamb, which was established as a type of Him in the time of Moses.
Even lifeless creation mourned the death of the Master, and it trembled and was altered out of fear. Yet, even though the Maker of creation was already dead, they pierced Him in His immaculate side, and forthwith came there out Blood and Water. Finally, at about the setting of the sun, Joseph of Arimathea came with Nicodemus (both of them had been secret disciples of Jesus), and they took down the all-holy Body of the Teacher from the Cross and anointed it with aromatic spices, and wrapped it in a clean linen cloth. When they had buried Him in a new tomb, they rolled a great stone over its entrance.
Such are the dread and saving sufferings of Jesus Christ commemorated today, and in remembrance of them, we have received the Apostolic commandment that a fast be observed on every Friday.
Kontakion (Fourth Tone)
Come, let us all praise Him Who was crucified for us; for Mary beheld Him on the Tree, and said: Though Thou dost endure the Cross, yet Thou art my Son and my God.
On this day, a day of mourning and strict fasting, the service of the “Royal Hours” is celebrated. At each Hour, beside the psalms, prophecies from the Old Testament, an Epistle and a Gospel are read about Holy and Great Friday.
The solemn Vespers of Great Friday is chanted in the afternoon at the time of our Lord Jesus’ death. Again all the readings remind us of the suffering Christ and His glory. After the Entrance, lections are read in which the Prophet Isaiah speaks of “the Lamb led to the slaughter,” and an Epistle of Saint Paul on the power and wisdom of the Cross; again a Gospel is read describing our Lord’s trial before Pilate, His Crucifixion and burial. Near the end of this reading, the Body of our Savior is taken down from the Cross and placed in the Sanctuary, just as the noble Joseph took our Lord’s body from the Cross and placed it in the grave.
After the usual petitions, “Let us all say…,” “Vouchsafe…,” “Let us complete…,” etc., the choir slowly chants the Aposticha, during which a procession exits from the Sanctuary, with the priest and deacon bearing the Shroud, their heads uncovered, proceeded by candles and censer. All kneel with head bowed low before the image of our dead Savior. A bier stands in the middle of the church, with candles lit round it. On it the Epitaphios is laid reverently and censed all round by the priest. The people come up to make a prostration before it and kiss it, while the Aposticha are completed and the following hymn is chanted:
O Thou Who puttest on light like a garment, when Joseph with Nicodemus, took Thee down from the Tree and beheld Thee dead, naked, and unburied, he struck up a compassionate dirge, and with mourning he said: Woe is me, O sweetest Jesus! When but a short while ago the sun beheld Thee hanging upon the Cross, it shrouded itself in darkness, and the earth quaked with fear, and the veil of the Temple was rent asunder. But, behold, now I see Thee willingly submitting to death for my sake. How shall I bury Thee, O my God? Or how shall I wrap Thee with winding sheets? With what hands shall I touch Thine undefiled Body? Or what dirges shall I sing at Thy departure, O Compassionate One? I magnify Thy Passion; I praise Thy Burial and Resurrection, and I cry out: O Lord, glory be to Thee.
Then, after the Lord’s Prayer, the dismissal hymns are chanted: “The noble Joseph…” and “Unto the myrrh-bearing women…” (see below), followed by the prayers of dismissal.
On this day there is no Liturgy or Communion.
Holy and Great Saturday
Holy and Great Saturday is a reverent vigil at the tomb of the Son of God, slain for our sins. By anticipation, the Saturday Matins is held on Friday evening. The Synaxarion for this day, which is called the “First Resurrection,” narrates the following:
On Saturday, the high priests and Pharisees gathered together before Pilate and asked him to have Jesus’ tomb sealed until the third day; because, as those enemies of God said, “We suspect that His disciples will come and steal His buried body by night, and then proclaim to the people that His resurrection is true, as that deceiver Himself foretold while He was yet alive; and then the last deception shall be worse than the first ” After they had said these things to Pilate and received his permission, they went and sealed the tomb, and assigned a watch for security, that is, guards from among the soldiers who were appointed to guard the city (Matt. 27:62-66). While commemorating the entombment of the holy Body of our Lord today, we also celebrate His dread descent with His soul, whereby He destroyed the gates and bars of Hades, and made His light to shine where only darkness had reigned; death was put to death, Hades was stripped of all its captives, our first parents and all the righteous who died from the beginning of time ran to Him Whom they had awaited, and the holy angelic orders glorified God for the restoration of our fallen race.
After the Six Psalms and the Great Litany, the Royal Doors are opened; the priest and deacon come out with candles and censer. The choir chants “God is the Lord and hath appeared unto us,” and then the following dismissal hymns:
- The noble Joseph, taking Thine immaculate Body down from the Tree, and having wrapped It in pure linen and spices, laid It for burial in a new tomb.
- When Thou didst descend unto death, O Life Immortal, then didst Thou slay Hades with the lightning of Thy Divinity. And when Thou didst also raise the dead out of the nethermost depths, all the powers in the Heavens cried out: O Life-Giver, Christ our God, glory be to Thee.
- Unto the myrrh-bearing women did the Angel cry out as he stood by the grave: Myrrh-oils are meet for the dead, but Christ hath proved to be a stranger to corruption.
In the meantime, the priest and deacon cense the Epitaphios, then stand in front of it. The priest and the choir then chant the “Lamentations” with the verses of the 118th Psalm: “Blessed are the blameless in the way, who walk in the law of the Lord.” Each verse of the Psalm is followed by a verse of the Lamentations. It is like a long poem depicting the Angels in Heaven and all creatures on earth overwhelmed by the death of their Creator, and their gratitude at being freed from death’s power by Christ. The following are examples of these most compunctionate hymns:
In a grave they laid Thee, O my Life and my Christ; and the armies of the angels were sore amazed, as they sang the praise of Thy submissive love.
Lo, how fair His beauty! Never man was so fair! Yet how doth He seem a dead man bereft of form, though all nature’s beauty had Him as its source.
Right it is indeed, Life-bestowing Lord, to magnify Thee; for upon the Cross were Thy most pure hands outspread, and the strength of our dread foe hast Thou destroyed.
Every generation chanteth hymns of praise at Thy burial, O Christ God.
Lo, myrrh-bearing women to Thy tomb, O Savior, are come, their myrrh to offer.
Grant that we who serve Thee may see the Resurrection of Thy Son, O blest Virgin.
After the Lamentations, the Resurrection Evlogitaria are chanted. Then, following the customary litanies, the choir chants the canon, where the note of joy and triumph is heard more and more clearly. At the end of the Doxology of Matins, the priest raises the Epitaphios, which is then taken by four pall-bearers, the deacon waking in front, the people following, all carrying candles. The procession walks out of, and around, the church, with the bells tolling and the choir chanting, “Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us.” This represents the burial of Christ. Then, when the procession re-enters the church, the priest and deacon carry the Epitaphios into the sanctuary and lay it on the Holy Table. It will lie there until Ascension Eve, as a symbol that Christ appeared among His disciples for forty days after His Resurrection. Then, the Prokeimenon is chanted, and the glorious prophecy of Ezekiel is read about the dry bones of Israel, out of which arose “an exceeding great host” quickened to life by the breath of God. Then follows Saint Paul’s Epistle about Christ our Passover, and the Gospel about the sealing of Jesus’ tomb. Matins then ends as usual. In many places, especially in the monasteries and convents, a very moving homily on the burial of Christ is read after the completion of the service. This homily was written by Saint Epiphanios of Cyprus, a Jewish convert to Christianity.
The Liturgy of Holy and Great Saturday is that of Saint Basil the Great. It begins with Vespers. After the entrance, the evening hymn “O Joyous Light” is chanted as usual. Then fifteen Old Testament readings are recited. They tell of the most striking events and prophecies of the salvation of mankind by the death of the Son of God. The account of creation in Genesis is the first reading. The sixth reading is the story of Israel’s crossing of the Red Sea and Moses’ song of victory over Pharaoh, with its refrain: “For gloriously is He glorified”. The last reading is about the Three Children in the fiery furnace of Babylon, and their song of praise with its repeated refrain: “O praise ye the Lord and supremely exalt Him unto the ages.” In the ancient church the catechumens were baptized during the time of these readings. The Epistle which follows speaks of how, through the death of Christ, we too shall rise to a new life. After the Epistle, the choir chants, like a call to the sleeping Christ: “Arise, O Lord, judge the earth, for Thou shalt have an inheritance among all the nations….” While this is being chanted the priest scatters bay leaves and flower petals throughout the entire church, symbolizing the fragrance of life coming forth from the grave.
In ancient times it was the custom to scatter flowers in the path of a victorious ruler when he returned in triumph to his city, even as our Savior will return triumphant from Hades. The deacon carries out the Book of the Gospels, and reads the first message of the resurrection from Saint Matthew. Because the Vespers portion of the service belongs to the next day (Pascha) the burial hymns of Saturday are mingled with those of the resurrection, so that this service is already full of the coming Paschal joy.
After the Gospel the Liturgy proceeds as usual. Instead of the Cherubic Hymn, a special Great Entrance Hymn is chanted:
Let all mortal flesh keep silence and stand with fear and trembling, and take no thought for any earthly thing, for the King of kings and Lord of lords cometh to be slain and given as food for the faithful. Before Him go the choirs of the angels with all sovereignty and power: the many-eyed Cherubim and six-winged Seraphim, covering their faces and crying out the hymn: Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.
Later in the Liturgy of Holy and Great Saturday, the beautiful and compunctionate Communion Hymn, based on Psalm 77, is chanted: “The Lord awoke as one that sleepeth, and is risen, saving us. Alleluia.”
After the Liturgy the faithful take their one meal of the day, and that strict fast food, to strengthen them to keep watch the rest of the day and evening. In church the Acts of the Apostles are read aloud. This is the only Saturday of the year on which a strict fast is kept. In the monasteries and convents, the refectory meal is taken in complete silence, out of reverence for the burial of Christ.
The Kontakion of Matins sums up the significance of this solemn day:
He that shut up the abyss is seen to be dead, and like a mortal, the Immortal One is wrapped in linen and myrrh, and placed in a grave. And women came to anoint Him weeping bitterly and crying out: This is the most blessed Sabbath whereon Christ, having slept, shall arise on the third day.
ALL THE DOORS of the Sanctuary are closed. The church is in darkness. All lamps, candles, and chandeliers are extinguished. Towards midnight there is a short nocturnes service, when the canon of Holy and Great Saturday is chanted. Close to the church doors stand the bearers of icons, crosses and banners, the Book of Gospels, the icon of the Resurrection — all waiting for the procession. The church is thronged with people, all of whom stand silently, holding candles. All stand in solemn, joyful anticipation.
The Royal Doors open. The priest comes forth from the sanctuary holding a lit candle which — like the “Holy Fire” that is supernaturally ignited in the Tomb of our Savior in the Church of the Holy Resurrection in Jerusalem — symbolizes the Savior’s resurrection. The priest, and then all the faithful chant the triumphant hymn: Come, receive ye the light from the unwaning Light, and glorify Christ, Who is risen from the dead.
The entire church becomes ablaze with light as all light their candles from the flame brought out of the sanctuary, and the priest in radiant vestments comes out chanting:
Angels in the Heavens, O Christ our Savior, praise Thy Resurrection with hymns; deem us also who are on earth worthy to glorify Thee with a pure heart.
The procession of the clergy and the faithful finally comes out of the Church where, in a place prepared, the Gospel of the Resurrection is read (from Mark 16:1-8). Then the priest raises the cross and a censer, and makes the sign of the cross with both, while proclaiming in a loud voice: “Glory to the Holy, Consubstantial, Life-creating and Indivisible Trinity, always, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages.” The choir replies, “Amen.” Then the priest begins chanting the Paschal Troparion:
Christ is risen from the dead, by death hath He trampled down death, and on those in the graves hath He bestowed life.
The priest intones the first, second and third verses of the 68th [LXX 67] Psalm: “Let God arise, and let His enemies be scattered,” “As smoke vanisheth, so let them vanish,” “So let sinners perish at the presence of God,” “This is the day which the Lord hath made…”
All the while, the church bells are ringing joyously, and the priest and faithful greet one another with the Paschal greeting, “Christ is risen!” “Truly He is Risen!” Then the petitions of the Great Litany are said, followed by the choirs chanting the Paschal Canon, during which the procession re-enters the church. The whole of the Paschal Matins is one song of praise and glory to our risen Lord, a song of joy to “the day of resurrection….Pascha, the Lord’s Pascha, for Christ God hath brought us from death unto life, and from earth unto Heaven, as we sing the triumphal hymn.”
During each ode of the Canon, the priest comes out of the sanctuary and censes the entire church and cries out the Paschal greeting to all: “Christ is risen!” This brings to mind Christ’s many appearances to the women and to the Apostles.
The Liturgy is particularly majestic and joyful, for the iconostas doors remain open for the whole of Bright Week, thus symbolizing that by His death and resurrection, Christ opened the doors of His Kingdom to all believers. From this day until the day of Pentecost there is no kneeling in church, in order to bear witness to the Resurrection. The Paschal Gospel is not about the Resurrection, but is from the first chapter of the Gospel of Saint John, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” This sublime Gospel, heard for the first time by the newly baptized Christians in ancient times, proclaimed that Jesus Christ eternally was God and revealed Himself to the world as God by rising from the dead.
At the end of the Divine Liturgy, the priest gives to each parishioner a red-colored egg: the symbol of life hidden in the tomb and quickened by the Blood of Christ.
In the afternoon of Pascha, a special Vespers service, called Agape (meaning “love” in Greek), is chanted. The Gospel is read in many languages as a sign that Christ’s teaching is to spread to the ends of the earth, in fulfillment of the prophecy from the Book of Psalms, chanted the evening before:
Arise, O God, judge the earth; for Thou shalt have an inheritance among all the nations.
The joyous hymns of Pascha are chanted for forty days until the feast of Holy Ascension.
The Synaxarion, Hypakoi, and the Kontakion of Pascha, read in Paschal Matins every day in Renewal (Bright) Week describe for us the significance of this, the greatest of Christian feast days:
Mary Magdalene, and the other women who were present at the burial of our Savior on the evening of Friday, returned from Golgotha to the city and prepared fragrant spices and myrrh, so that they might anoint the body of Jesus. On the morrow, because of the law which forbids work on the day of the Sabbath, they rested for the whole day. But at early dawn on the Sunday that followed, almost thirty-six hours since the death of the Life-giving Redeemer, they came to the sepulchre with the spices to anoint the body of Jesus. While they were considering the difficulty of rolling away the stone from the door of the sepulchre, there was a fearfu1 earthquake; and an Angel, whose countenance shone like lightning and whose garment was white as snow, rolled away the stone and sat upon it. The guards that were there became as dead from fear and took to flight. The women, however, went into the sepulchre, but did not find the body of Jesus. Instead, they saw two other Angels in the form of youths clothed in white, who told them that the Savior was risen, and they sent forth the women, who ran to proclaim to the disciples these gladsome tidings. Then Peter and John arrived, having learned from Mary Magdalene what had come to pass, and when they entered the tomb, they found only the winding sheets. Therefore, they returned again to the city with joy, as heralds now of the supernatural Resurrection of Christ, Who in truth was seen alive by the disciples on this day on five occasions.
Therefore, as we celebrate today this joyous Resurrection, we greet and embrace one another in Christ, thereby demonstrating our Savior’s victory over death and corruption, and the destruction of our ancient enmity with God, and His reconciliation toward us, and our inheritance of life everlasting. The feast itself is called Pascha, which is derived from the Hebrew word Pesakh, which means “Passover”; because Jesus, Who suffered and arose, has made us to pass over from the curse of Adam and slavery to the devil and death unto our primal freedom and blessedness. In addition, this day of this particular week, which is the first of all the rest, is dedicated to the honor of the Lord; in honor and remembrance of the Resurrection, the Apostles transferred to this day the rest from labor that was formerly assigned to the Sabbath of the ancient Law.
Hypakoi (Fourth Tone)
When they who were with Mary came, anticipating the dawn, and found the stone rolled away from the sepulchre, they heard from the Angel: Why seek ye among the dead, as though He were mortal man, Him Who abideth in everlasting light? Behold the grave-clothes. Go quickly and proclaim to the world that the Lord is risen, and hath put death to death. For He is the Son of God, Who saveth the race of man.
Kontakion (Fourth Tone)
Though Thou didst descend into the grave, O Immortal One, yet didst Thou destroy the power of Hades, and didst arise as victor, O Christ God, calling to the myrrh-bearing women “Rejoice,” and giving peace unto Thine Apostles, O Thou Who dost grant resurrection to the fallen.