Tropar (Tone 1): By raising Lazarus from the dead before Your Passion, You confirmed the universal resurrection, O Christ God! Like the children with palms of victory, we cry out to You, O Vanquisher of Death; Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is He that comes in the name of the Lord!
Lazarus Saturday traditionally was called “announcement of Pascha,” a day of Baptism for new members of the Church community. It marks the end of Great Lent and the beginning of Strasnyj Tyzhden’, the week where we encounter Christ’s suffering and death.
Unlike regular Saturday Divine Liturgies that commemorate the dead, this is a Sunday Liturgy. Lazarus’s resurrection signals the imminent conquest of death itself and just as we are about to relive the events of the cross, our Saturday and Sunday liturgies are imbued with joy, providing a frame of Light that allows us to endure the darkness into which we proceeed.
In the Lazarus story, Jesus weeps when he arrives at the grave of his dear friend, dead for four days.
The theologian, Alexander Schmemann, beautifully emphasizes the magnitude of that simple statement in John’s gospel “ . . . and Jesus wept”. The tears shed by Jesus, the human being, are equally the tears of God. God weeps at not simply the loss of a friend, but at the “triumph of death and destruction in the world created by God.” Lazarus represents all of us: you, me. Jesus calls Lazarus back to life.
We see in this event, Christ’s challenge to Hades—darkness, sin, death. We feel the promise of Easter, the pull of Christ’s love calling us out of our darkness into Light, into Life! In Schmemann’s words, “the power of Resurrection is not a divine “power in itself,” but power of love, or rather love as power. God is Love and Love is life, Love creates Life. It is Love that weeps at the grave and it is Love that restores life.
This is the meaning of the Divine tears of Jesus. In them, love is at work again; recreating, redeeming, restoring the darkened life of man: “Lazarus, come forth!…” And this is why Lazarus Saturday is the beginning of both: the Cross, as the Supreme sacrifice of love, and the Resurrection, as the ultimate triumph of love”.
Kvitna Nedilja/Pussy Willow/Palm Sunday
Blessing of the Baskets [VIDEO]
This Sunday, literally translated as Flowering or Blossom Sunday, we reflect on Christ’s entry into Jerusalem where, riding a donkey—an animal of peace, He is welcomed as a celebrity; a Prince entering his Kingdom.
On this festive Sunday, we too hold branches of pussy willows and repeat the words of the psalm “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!”
We recall the crowds of revelers singing, dancing and worshiping the superstar. We are aware that the party, as it were, will soon be over and Christ will be delivered to his torture and death.
This Sunday, however, is far more than an observance of a past ironic event. The ‘blossoming’, just as the pussy willows we bless and take home, symbolize a transformation of what has been dead into new life and beauty. On this Sunday it’s not the past we are to remember. Rather, we are to remember our current commitment as Christians to Christ.
We remember that we are baptized into the Kingdom of God that exists in the here and now. We welcome Christ into the reality of our existence and assume the responsibility of being co-creators of God’s Kingdom in the space that we inhabit – no matter how small or large – and with the lives we encounter, no matter how many or how few.
On this Kvitna Nedilja, we renew our Baptismal welcome of Christ into our being, so that the words of the triumphal hymn resonate in our own hearts as we follow in the steps of Christ: loving life, living love.
“Blessed [are we] who come in the name of the Lord!”
Great and Holy Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday
Inspired and strengthened by the weekend services, we proceed into the week of Christ’s Passion. We need to be well fortified with hope and light, for Monday’s liturgical journey plunges us into the last judgement and the end of the world. While each day has its own theme, the first 3 days share the Matins of the Bridegroom, commonly practiced at night. Are we worthy? Are we ready?
Behold, the bridegroom comes in the middle of the night and blessed is the servant whom he shall find watching, and unworthy the servant whom he shall find heedless. Take care then, O my soul, and be not weighed down by sleep that you will not be given over unto death and be excluded from the Kingdom. But rise up and call out: Holy, Holy, Holy art Thou O God, by the Theotokos have mercy on us (Troparion of the First Three Days).
During these first three days of Strasnyj Tyzhden’, in the service of the Hours (Chasy), instead of chanting psalms, as is usual, the four Gospels are read from their beginning up until the Passion of Christ.
At the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts, some of the stichera from the previous night’s Matins (Lauds and the Aposticha) are repeated as Lord, I have cried (see Vespers). There are two Old Testament readings: Exodus 1:1-20 and Job 1:1-12. There is no Epistle reading, but there is a Gospel reading from Matthew 24:3-35.
Holy and Great Monday/Strasnyj Ponedilok
Our accountability as Christians in the world is questioned by the parable of the fig tree—the tree has not responded to its calling. It has neglected its responsibility to feed others and hence it withers.
Passion Tuesday/Strasnyj Vivtorok
Tuesday’s theme is the ten wise virgins, who were vigilant and ready for the Lord’s coming. Clearly we too are to be ready and not taken by surprise when we face our Lord.
Passion Wednesday/Strasna Sereda
Wednesday’s theme is the repentant sinner who anoints Christ’s feet. The woman is contrasted to Judas; she leaves her wrongdoing and, in humility, kisses the feet of the Lord. Judas is a follower of Christ and yet betrays Him with a kiss. Where do we stand?
In some churches, Passion Wednesday is when the Sacrament of Holy Unction or Jelejo pomazanja is celebrated. This sacrament is one of forgiveness and healing. ‘It relates to the Church’s ancient practice of receiving penitents and reconciling them to the Church in the days before Pascha (Contos, The Lenten Covenant, Page 173).’
Passion Thursday/Strasnyj Chetver
On Thursday we enter into the mystery of the Last Supper. Do we claim our place at Christ’s table, or do we walk into the night with Judas?
Traditionally, on Thursday morning we enter into the upper room, where Jesus and the apostles ate their last Passover meal together, where He, their teacher, washed their feet, and where the sacrament of the Eucharist was instituted. The Eucharist is central to our faith and community, uniting us in God’s life giving love. We participate in the Divine Liturgy of St Basil with Vespers. The long gospel of the Last Supper is read following the readings from Exodus, Job, Isaiah and the first letter of the Apostle Paul to the Corinthians (1 Cor 11).
Of thy mystical supper, O Son of God, accept me today a communicant, for I will not speak of Thy mystery to Thine enemies, neither like Judas will I give Thee a kiss, but like the thief will I confess Thee: Remember me, O Lord, in Thy Kingdom.
“On Great Thursday light and darkness, joy and sorrow are so strangely mixed. At the Upper Room and in Gethsemane the light of the kingdom and the darkness of hell come through simultaneously. The way of life and the way of death converge. We meet them both in our journey through life.
Everyone born into this life is involved inevitably in the spiritual warfare, contending not against flesh and blood, “but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness” (Eph 6.12)”. (http://lent.goarch.org/articles/lent_thursday.asp)
In the evening of Strasnyj Chetver, we attend Strasty (a unique Matins service): Christ’s agony in the Garden of Gethsemane. We hear the narrative of the Passion in twelve Gospel readings. It is traditional for the celebrants to change their vestments for each Gospel reading.
(The Gospels: John 13:31-18:1; John 18:1-29; Matthew 26:57-75; John 18:28-19:16; Matthew 27:3-32; Mark 15:16-32; Matthew 27:33-54, Luke 23:32-49; John 19:25-37; Mark 15:43-47; John 19:38-42; Matthew 27:62-66).
Stasnyj Chetver is also the time when Bishops of the Church consecrate Holy Chrism or Myro, used for the sacrament of Chrismation (confirmation). “It is a mixture of olive oil, balsam, wine and some forty aromatic substances symbolizing the fullness of sacramental grace, the sweetness of the Christian life, and the manifold and diverse gifts of the Holy Spirit. Chrismation as the second sacrament of the Church, is related intimately to baptism both theologically and liturgically.
While baptism make us sharers in Christ’s death and incorporates us into His new risen existence, Chrismation makes us partakers of the Holy Spirit. Chrismation takes us beyond the restoration of our fallen nature by introducing in us the charismatic life. The Holy Spirit comes to dwell in us; embrace our life with power and love; infuse in us the gift of action; render us strong combatants in the spiritual warfare; and purify our hearts, transforming us continuously into a temple of the living God.” (http://lent.goarch.org/articles/lent_thursday.asp)
Good Friday/Velyka Pjatnytsja
A. Schmemann points out that the world condemned itself when it condemned Christ to death, and in this way, when we accept the ways of the world and turn our back on our Christian commitment to Christ, we too are condemned. “Such is the first and dreadfully realistic meaning of Good Friday. . .”
However, in Christ’s death, condemnation is transformed into forgiveness. “His death is the ultimate revelation of His compassion and love. And because His dying is love, compassion and co-suffering, in His death the very nature of death is changed. From punishment it becomes the radiant act of love and forgiveness, the end of alienation and solitude.” Against all logic, the tomb becomes Life-giving!
In our Ukrainian Catholic tradition, Good Friday is a day of strict fast: we do not eat any animal products. Thursday’s readings ended with Christ’s death and the liturgies of Velyka Pjatnytsja focus on the anguish of the cross.
On this day we pray the “Royal Hours”: psalms and readings that connect the crucifixion of Christ with Old Testament prophecies of the suffering and death of the Messiah. Royal Hours (Tsarski Chasy) are a specific Holy Day version of a monastic Office of prayers for the first, third, sixth, and ninth hour of the day (7am, 9am, 12pm, 3pm). Regular Hours consist simply of psalms and short prayers.
Because Christ’s death was to have been at the ninth hour (3pm), our parishes often hold the Great Vesper Service at 3pm. This vesper service is extraordinary in that it includes a Gospel reading in which we hear the narrative of Christ’s death on the cross from all four Gospels. The account ends with Joseph of Arimathea removing Christ from the cross, anointing and wrapping His body in a shroud and laying Him in the tomb. Soon after hearing the account, we, with our community, carry the plashchanytsja (a full size cloth icon of the body of Christ) as we walk in procession around the Church, three times, joining the faithful women, Joseph, and those who carried Christ to his burial site. Throughout the mournful procession we sing the stychyry for Good Friday [view here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O2TfC_qv7_c
When we re-enter the church, a structure, representing the tomb, stands in the front. A cross draped with a white cloth rises behind it. The plashchanytsja is laid in the tomb, encircled with flowers and candles that remind of the Life and Light Christ’s death has brought to the world. In some parishes, the faithful re-enter the church by passing underneath the plashchanytsja held by clergy at the entranceway, thus following Christ into the tomb in order to rise with Him on Velykden’ [view here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vrh5W01CLXY#t=112].
The burial shroud remains here until the Graveside Service that precedes Resurrection Matins. In some areas, it is customary to visit many churches to pray at the plashchanytsja. Also, some communities organize to maintain a vigil, with people praying at the plaschanytsja throughout the night and day until the morning of the Resurrection feast.
The Service of Lamentation or Jerusalem Matins is sung in the evening of Great Friday. Like the women who stayed by the tomb, mourning the loss of their beloved friend and teacher, this simplified Matins service is a deeply moving and beautiful expression of loss, pain, and yearning. The haunting sombre melodies still used are Semitic in origin. Psalm 119 is interspersed with prayers of the clergy.
Significantly, in the midst of the darkness of death, the liturgical prayers simultaneously and persistently proclaim Christ’s triumph over despair. Our liturgies are not a dramatic re-enactment of historical events or ritual portrayals of Gospel narratives. We don’t pretend to mourn as if we haven’t heard of the Resurrection. We face the events of the crucifixion in light of the Resurrection in order to delve more deeply into the meaning and power of Christ in our existence and in the existence of the universe. Confronting anew the mystery of Easter, our response can only be irrepressible profound peaceful—joy.
Watch excerpts from St Elias Church in Brampton:
Great Saturday/Velyka Subota
This is the day that Christ’s body lies in the tomb, but He descends into the underworld, into Hades and releases those held captive there. The icon named “The Harrowing of Hades” depicts this day’s event: Christ pulls Adam and Eve from a chasm of bones and skulls. They are restored to Paradise.
The funereal service of Matins has been served Friday night and on Saturday we celebrate vespers with the Divine Liturgy of St Basil the Great. The Vespers includes 15 Old Testament readings. The Old Testament readings bring our focus to Christ as the fulfillment of our sacred history. We proceed from the promise of a Saviour at Vespers, to the celebration of our salvation in the Eucharistic Liturgy. During the Vespers reading of the Song of Moses (Exodus), the altar cloths and vestments are changed from the dark colours of Lent, to the bright colours of celebration. The liturgical ethos changes from sorrow to joy, but the Paschal greeting (Christ is Risen!) isn’t proclaimed until the following morning. Today we know both the past and the future events, yet we are neither wholly in one nor the other.
Great Saturday is the middle day, the day of contemplation. We spend this day with a communal opportunity to wonder at the mind-boggling notion of Christ, God, dying: Christ suffering the horror of hell, Hades, the ultimate darkness—the absence of Love. But Christ is Love and by His human death, God’s love reaches even the abyss of darkness, changing its very nature. Christ touches death with unquenchable life.
So, through Christ we have hope in Love in our most difficult times, through our own darkness and pain. Alexander Schmemann, once again, beautifully articulates the significance of this Saturday: “Christ arose from the dead, His Resurrection we will celebrate on Pascha Day. This celebration, however, commemorates a unique event of the past, and anticipates a mystery of the future. It is already His Resurrection, but not yet ours. We will have to die, to accept the dying, the separation, the destruction. Our reality in this world, in this “aeon,” is the reality of the Great Saturday; this day is the real image of our human condition.”
But on this middle day we know that the anguish of Friday is not simply replaced with the joy of Sunday. On this Saturday of the tomb, of the descent into Hades, sorrow is itself transformed into Joy.
It has become customary to bless Easter baskets on Holy Saturday, simply for practical reasons. Saturday is still a day of fast; no meat is eaten and we keep the blessed food for the following morning. The traditional time for blessing baskets would be after the Divine Liturgy of Velykden’. Baskets would be brought to church for the midnight or sunrise Liturgy and, after the services, they would be blessed outside the church.
The foods of the Easter breakfast represent the end of the Lenten fast and the celebration of our new life with Christ. The baskets are blessed with the repeated joyous singing of the Resurrection Tropar: Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and to those in the tomb, he granted Life. After the blessing, we can take our baskets home to feast with our families, in profound thanksgiving for Life, Love, and Faith.
The Lord has waked as if from sleep: He is risen and saves us! Alleluia.