The week before Easter is one of increased preparation in anticipation of Easter. For Roman Catholics, it is the final week of Lent. For Byzantine Catholics, Great Lent is over and Holy Week is its own separate fast. Either way, Holy Week holds a special place in our lives as we follow Christ’s path to His passion and resurrection.
The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
– Matthew 21:9
Holy Week begins with Palm Sunday, which is also called Blossom Sunday, or Willow Sunday in the Ukrainian Byzantine Tradition. This is because Ukrainians hold pussy willow branches during the liturgy, in place of the palm branches which are found at Roman Catholic churches. There are a couple reasons for the use of pussy willows instead of palm. The most pragmatic reason being that that pussy willows grow in Ukraine. There is also a beautiful symbolic reason for the use of pussy willow branches. During the winter willow trees appear to be dead, but in the spring the plant again shows signs of life! It a natural icon of the resurrection, found in nature.
During this Sunday we remember Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem. It is a reminder to us that Jesus freely and willingly chose to suffer His passion and death. In Jewish culture, palms were used to greet important people. They symbolize joy and feasting. Even amid our fasting and repentance we have cause to celebrate. We bring our palm/willow branches home as a sacramental sign as a reminder that our own lives have been made new in Christ. Use yours to adorn a cross or icon in your home.
(Great and) Holy Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday
The next three days hold the morning service Matins of the Bridegroom in common. An interesting fact about Byzantine Matins is that it includes the Lesser Doxology (Glory to God in the Highest…), just as the Roman Catholics sing this during mass. During Holy Week, the matins liturgy expresses the themes for each of these days. The tone is still Lenten in nature, and Wednesday is the last day we say the Prayer of Saint Ephraim.
On Monday we commemorate the themes of the Patriarch Joseph and the barren fig tree. We consider Joseph’s innocent sufferings at the hands of his own brothers and of the Egyptians as a prefiguring of Christ’s Passion. The fig tree cursed by Jesus reminds us of our need to repent and bear the fruits of the Spirit in our own lives.
Passion Tuesday we contemplate the theme of judgment through the parable of the Ten Virgins and of the Talents. Are we prepared for the wedding banquet? Are we using the amazing wealth God has invested in us through the death of His only begotten Son? Or do we waste the Life that is in us?
Passion Wednesday focuses on the foils of Judas and the woman who anoints the feet of Jesus. Judas betrays Jesus, and then refuses to believe in the mercy and forgiveness offered by God. The sinful woman comes to Jesus in her sinfulness and receives his mercy. We remember that we are sinful but recognize that God’s mercy is greater. No sin is unforgivable, save the rejection of God’s mercy. The priest offers the sacrament of healing on this day (or on another day during Holy Week). Unlike in the Roman Catholic Church, all who are present are invited to receive the anointing. The theological idea behind this is that while we are on earth, we all are in need of Christ’s healing power.
Holy [Passion] Thursday
This day, rather like Palm Sunday, takes on a more celebratory nature than the other days of Lent and Holy Week. The mystery of the Last Supper and the institution of the Eucharist captivates us as we continue following Christ’s journey to the Cross. Both Roman Catholic and Byzantine Catholic priests imitate Jesus in the washing of the disciples’ feet. In the Latin rite, mass this day does not end, but continues Friday and ends with the Easter Vigil. In the Byzantine Church, Holy Thursday remains a celebrate liturgy from the other days.
We also commemorate Jesus’ agony in the garden. There are twelve gospel readings in a special evening service (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; and Matthew 27:62-66). This day is also the traditional day of the Chrism mass/liturgy in both the East and the West.
We enter into the mystery of Christ’s Passion in a unique way on Good Friday. Our believe is that the world condemned itself in condemning God to death. And we too are guilty of this cosmic crime. Yet, this very death is what redeems us.
As the Roman Catholics continue the Triduum mass, Byzantine Catholics celebrate the Great Vespers of Entombment. Instead of veneration of the Cross, we venerate the tomb. We use a plashchanytsja, or shroud, which is a full size icon of the body of Jesus Christ. The priest processes three times around the church with this shroud. At this time we commemorate the faithful women, and Joseph, who carried and accompanied Jesus to his burial site. We contemplate this great mystery, singing, “The Noble Joseph took down Your most pure Body from the Cross; anointing it with spices, he wrapped it in a pure linen shroud, and placed it in a new tomb.”
An all night vigil follows this service. The community takes turns keeping watch at the tomb, and kissing the shroud, through to the Saturday’s Divine Liturgy of St. Basil.
Holy Saturday (the Great Sabbath)
This day Byzantine Catholics enter into the mystery of Christ’s victory of death itself. We celebrate the Divine Liturgy of St. Basil with Vespers. This commemorates Christ’s descent into Hades, and the great Harrowing of Hell. The Good News is not known to those living, but Jesus goes to proclaim his salvation to the dead. Icons of this event include Jesus standing over a chasm, bringing Adam and Eve up out of hell. The sorrow of those living is paralleled by the joy of those who were in hell, making this a unique day of fasting and celebration. Blessed bread (not consecrated hosts) is given to the faithful. This bread helps sustain the community as we await the resurrection.
If you have never been to a Holy Saturday liturgy, consider looking for a Byzantine church in your community and attending one! Stay tuned for next week’s article on Easter Sunday and the Resurrection Matins Liturgy!