Great and Holy Friday

Great and Holy Friday is the fifth and most solemn day of Great and Holy Week - the final week before the feast of Pascha. On this day, we commemorate the crucifixion, death, and burial of our Lord, God, and Savior, Jesus Christ. Because the events of this day gained salvation for us, and re-opened to us the gates of heaven, this day is sometimes called Good Friday.

The Passion of the LordThe Crucifixion

By the word Passion, we refer to all the sufferings and humiliations our Lord underwent on this day.

In our times, "passion" generally has a positive sense: it refers to some strong emotional drive or energy. But in the early Church, and even today among Christian theologians and spiritual writers, this word is much more complicated.

To the Church Fathers, the "passions" were precisely what one suffered - and not physically only. A desire is passionate precisely to the extent that it drives us, and renders us unable to control our lives. It is in this sense that we as Christians are urged to master our passions, rather than letting them master us. In doing so, by God's gift we regain the inner freedom of the children of God which was forfeited by the sin of our first parents.

Another word we hear on this day is long-suffering, which might perhaps be translated as "enduring patience" or "steadfast endurance." Our Lord, to an unimaginable degree, not only suffered for our faults, but did so without complaint, in obedience to the will of his Father, and out of love for us.

On this day, before each Gospel reading, we sing

Glory to your Passion, O Lord!

and after each, we sing:

Glory to your long-suffering, O Lord!

At Matins

The Good Friday services begin with Matins, also called the Service of the Twelve Gospels, or Strasti (Slavonic for "sufferings"). This service is a descendent of the ancient night-time vigils of the Church, and follows our Lord from the end of his Passover supper with his disciples, through his arrest, trial, crucifixion, death, and burial.

This story is retold through twelve Gospel readings, taken from all four canonical Gospels, assembled into an account from which almost no detail is omitted.

The service of Matins begins with the usual six psalms - more poignant at this service precisely because they are psalms of penitence, suffering and hope - and the Litany of Peace. The next part of the service is unusual for Matins: it consists of six Gospel readings of the Passion, separated by antiphons and sessional or "sitting" hymns (in Slavonic, sedalny). These antiphons are not like those of the Divine Liturgy; each is a short series of hymns which provide a pause for reflection between the readings. In the early church, they would also have included psalms, and concluded with a short litany and a prayer.

Each of the first five Gospels is followed by three antiphons (of three or four verses) and a sessional hymn, for a total of fifteen antiphons and five sessional hymns. The beginning of the fifteenth antiphon forms a sort of climax to this part of the service:

Today, the Lord who raised the dry land from the waters, is raised upon the cross.
A crown of thorns is placed upon the head of the King of Angels.
He clothed the sky with clouds; now, today, he is clothed in a purple robe.
In the Jordan he freed Adam; now, today, he is slapped in the face.
The Bridegroom of the Church is fastened with nails;
the Son of the Virgin is pierced with a spear.
We worship your Passion, O Christ.
We worship your Passion, O Christ.
We worship your Passion, O Christ.
Let us now behold your glorious Resurrection.

After the sixth Gospel, the Beatitudes are sung, marking the end of the night-time vigil and the beginning of the more familiar morning service of Matins. The remaining six Gospel readings are inserted into this Matins structure as follows (the ordinary parts of daily Matins are in boldface, and the inserted Gospel readings are in italics):

Prokeimenon of Great and Holy Friday
Seventh Gospel
Psalm 50
Eighth Gospel
Ninth Gospel
Psalms of Praise
Tenth Gospel
Small Doxology
Litany of Supplication
Eleventh Gospel
Twelfth Gospel

This is one of the longest services of the liturgical year - but even abbreviated as it often is (with just one antiphon verse being sung after each Gospel reading), it remains an incredibly powerful experience.

The Royal Hours

The Service of the Twelve Gospels is a night-time vigil, which in early times would have concluded with Matins at dawn. This day is one of the strictest fast days of the Church year, and the one day on which no Divine Liturgy or service of Holy Communion is celebrated. On such a solemn day, the daytime services are correspondingly solemn, and consist of the Royal Hours (the Greek term is Great Hours) for Great and Holy Friday.

These hours of prayer, like the corresponding services on the vigils of Nativity and Theophany, are fast-day services consisting of psalms, prayers, hymns, and readings from the Old Testament, the apostolic writings, and the holy Gospel. The Gospel readings recount the Passion of our Lord from each of the four canonical Gospels, in order: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The services may be celebrated at the original times associated with each hour, or they may be grouped together at some point during the day.

The first hour (7 AM)

At the first hour, three Psalms traditionally associated with our Lord's passion (Psalms 5, 2, and 21) are chanted. The Epistle is from Saint Paul's Letter to the Galatians (Galatians 6:14-18), and begins with the verse: "May I never boast of anything but the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ!"

The Gospel reading (Matthew 27:1-56) recounts the story of our Lord's passion from his handing over to Pilate, at daybreak, to his death on the cross. Near the beginning, we hear of Judas' remorse, and his throwing of the betrayal-money into the temple. The Old Testament reading (Zechariah 11:13), which we hear earlier in the same hour, foretells this scene: "So I took the thirty pieces of silver, and threw them into the treasury in the house of the Lord."

The third hour (9 AM)

At the third hour, we listen to two psalms of a man who has undergone betrayal (Psalms 34 and 108), and King David's song of repentence, Psalm 50. The Old Testament reading (Isaiah 50:4-11), which we also heard at the evening Vespers on Thursday, is a portion of the prophet Isaiah's account of the suffering servant of the Lord - prophecies which would be fulfilled in our Lord's passion.

The Epistle (Romans 5:6-11) echoes the prophecy of Isaiah: "while we were still sinners, Christ died for us." The Gospel reading (Mark 15:16-42) tells the story of the passion from the crowning with thorns, to our Lord's death and the centurion's conversion.

The sixth hour (noon)

At the sixth hour, three psalms of trust in times of persecution (Psalms 53, 139, and 90) are chanted. The Old Testatement reading (Isaiah 52:13 - 54:1) continues the prophet's account of the suffering servant of the Lord; we will hear this reading again at the Vespers service in the evening.

The Epistle (Hebrews 2:11-18) stresses that it was not angels, but the children of men whom Christ came to save. The Gospel reading (Luke 23:32-49) provides the account of our Lord's crucifixion, "at around midday", and his death.

The ninth hour (3 PM)

At the ninth hour, the three psalms (Psalms 68, 69, and 85) form a plea for assistance and a song of trust in the middle of great suffering. The Old Testament reading (from chapters 11 and 12 of the prophecies of Jeremiah) speaks of the sufferig of the servant of the Lord, of the punishment of the people and their final restoration.

The Epistle (Hebrews 10:19-31) continues the theme of Christ as the great high priest, while the Gospel (John 19:23-37) recounts the story of our Lord's crucifixion from the parcelling out of his clothes, to the piercing of his side.

At Vespers - the Descent from the Cross

At the evening service of Vespers, the first part of the service (the hymns of Lamp-lighting) recalls to our minds the events of this day:

All creation is transformed with fear
when it beheld you hanging on the Cross, O Christ.
The sun was darkened and the foundations of the earth trembled.
All creation suffered with the One who created all things.
O Lord, who willingly suffered for us, glory to you.

These hymns are followed by three readings from the Old Testament:

In Exodus 33:11-33, God says to Moses: "When my glory passes I will set you in the hollow of the rock, and will cover you with my hand until I have passed by." Here, the Church applies this verse to the entombment of the Lord.

Job 42:12-17 tells of how Job, due to his obedience and refusal to sin, was blessed by God even more than he had been before.

The reading from the prophet Isaiah (52:13 - 54:1), which was also read at the Royal Hours, foretells the salvific role of the suffering servant of the Lord: "We had all gone astray like lost sheep.... but the Lord laid upon him the guilt of us all."

These Old Testament readings are following by an epistle and Gospel. The Epistle (1 Corinthians 1:18 - 2:2) begins wiith Saint Paul's words: "The message of the cross is complete absurdity to those who are headed for ruin; but to us who are experiencing salvation, it is the power of God." The Gospel reading (made up of verses drawn from Matthew, Luke, and John) retells once more the story of the crucifixion, from the handing over of our Lord to Pilate, to his death, the taking down of his body from the cross, and his burial.

According to Jewish custom, it was necessary for the interment to take place before sunset - making Friday (by Jewish reckoning) the first of the three days our Lord would spend in the tomb. Thus, the second part of the service of Vespers focuses on the hours immediately after our Lord's death on the cross. An embroidered cloth with the image of our Lord's lifeless body, called the burial shroud or plaschanitsa, forms a focus for the services which recall our Lord's burial, and his Sabbath rest in the tomb.

Throughout the day, the plaschanitsa has rested on the holy table in the sanctuary. It is incensed from all four times as the aposticha hymns of Vespers are sung:

Together with Nicodemus,
Joseph took you down from the wood,
you who are wrapped in light as in a robe,
and beholding you, dead, naked, and unburied,
he began to mourn you with deep sympathy, saying:
Woe is me, sweetest Jesus!
Just a little while ago, the sun saw you hanging on the cross
and veiled itself in somber hues.
The earth rocked with fear, and the curtain of the Temple was torn in two.
Now that I see how you willingly underwent death for me,
how can I bury you, my God?
How will I wrap you in a shroud?
How will I touch your spotless body with my hands?
What dirges shall I sing at your departure, O compassionate One?
I extol your passion and I praise your burial together with your resurrection,
crying out: O Lord, glory to you!

At the end of the service of Vespers, the burial shroud is carried around the church in procession on the back of the priest to a symbolic table or niche representing the tomb of Christ. During the procession, the following troparion is sung, slowly and solemnly, by the people:

The noble Joseph took down your most pure body from the cross.
He wrapped it in a clean shroud,
and with fragrant spices laid it in a new tomb.

In a few days, we will sing this troparion, adding the words, "But you, O Lord, arose on the third day...." But today, we end the troparion here - at the Lord's tomb. When the shroud has been placed in the symbolic tomb, the priest incenses it once more, and we sing words we will later use to commemorate the holy women who came later to anoint our Lord's body:

The angel standing at the tomb cried out to the myrrh-bearing women:
Myrrh is fitting for the dead,
but Christ has shown himself not subject to to corruption.

But these events are still in the future, from our vantage point on Great and Holy Friday. As the service of Vespers draw to a close, the faithful come forward to the tomb to venerate the cloth which represents the body of our crucified Lord and Savior, while the following hymn is sung:

Come, let us bless the ever-memorable Joseph,
who went to Pilate by night to beg for the Life of all:
Give me this stranger, who has no place to lay his head.
Give me this stranger, who was handed over to death by his wicked disciple.
Give me this stranger, whose Mother wept, seeing him on the cross,
mourning and crying out in motherly lament: Woe is me, my child!
Woe is me, my light, my beloved whom I bore in my womb!
What was foretold by Simeon in the temple comes to pass today:
A sword has pierced my heart;
but change my tears into the joy of your resurrection.
We bow to your passion, O Christ.
We bow to your passion, O Christ.
We bow to your passion, O Christ,
and to your holy resurrection.

The Lord will descend to Hades, in search of those who were lost, while his body rests in the tomb; on Great and Holy Saturday, we will commemorate these events. But this night, it is traditional for the faithful to keep private vigil before the tomb of the Lord, in church, or in the home - in repentence, in thanksgiving, and in prayer for our salvation and that of the whole world.

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