25 April 2008

Great and Holy Friday

Last evening at Matins (yes, you read rightly; during Holy Week the services of the Church shift forward, so that Matins is celebrated in the evening, and Vespers in the morning) we witnessed the crucifixion of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ. During the singing of the antiphon below, a large cross is carried to the midst of the nave. The icon of Christ crucified is fixed to the cross, and priest and people come forward to reverence the Lord.

Today the Church has three services, each of them highlighting a portion of the good news of our salvation.

At 1 pm, we do the "Royal Hours"--so named because during the Byzantine empire, the Emperor and his court would attend this service, thus acknowledging the supremacy of the heavenly King, transfixed to the tree.

At 3 pm, we do the "Unnailing Vespers," commemorating the taking down of Christ's body from the cross. During the reading of the holy Gospel, the icon of the Lord's body is taken down from the cross, wrapped in linen and placed in the sanctuary. Later, the Epitaphios, a tapestry with the depiction of the lifeless body of the Lord, is carried from the sanctuary and placed in a bier. The gospel book, cross up, is placed on the epitaphios. Fragrant blossoms are then sprinkled on the epitaphios and the priest and people venerate the gospel book.

Looking back over more than 20 years, I believe it was the Unnailing Vespers that introduced me to the Church. I was utterly stunned as I heard purest and sweetest gospel in such words as these:

Today is beheld the working of a dread and strange mystery; for he who is inapprehensible is laid hold of; and he who released Adam is chained. He who trieth the hearts and reins is tried falsely, and he who looketh into the depths is locked in prison. He before whom the heavenly powers stand trembling standeth before Pilate. The Creator is smitten by the hand of his creatures! The Judge of the living and the dead is condemned to death on a Tree; and the Destroyer of Hades is enfolded in the grave. Wherefore, O thou who didst of thy compassion bear all these things, saving all from the curse, O long-suffering Lord, glory to thee.

It took 18 years from that service till my chrismation, but I was never the same afterwards. It gave me hope, because I had already seen the rot and corruption that others now notice, and I had feared that there would be nowhere else for me to turn. From then on I knew there was a haven, unshaken and unchanging, for storm-tossed sinners like me: the ark of salvation, the Church.

Finally, at 7 pm we do the "Lamentations" service. Like Anastasia, I think this is one of the most beautiful of all the services. The centerpiece of the service is the Lamentations: sung in sweet simplicity, they capture the heart of the mystery of our salvation. Here is a brief excerpt:

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.

How, O Life, canst thou die?
In a grave how canst dwell?
For the proud domain of Death thou destroyest now,
and the dead of Hades makest thou to rise.

Now we magnify thee,
O Lord Jesus our King;
and we venerate thy Passion and Burial:
for therewith hast thou delivered us from death.

O my dear Christ Jesus,
King and Ruler of all,
Why to them that dwelt in Hades didst thou descend?
Was it not to set the race of mortals free?

Lo, the sov'reign Ruler
Of creation is dead,
And is buried in a tomb never used before,
he that all the graves hath emptied of their dead.

In a grave they laid thee,
O my Life and my Christ:
Yet the Lord of Death hast thou by thy Death destroyed,
And the world of thee doth drink rich streams of life.

These are the first six verses. There are a total of 51, divided into 3 groups of 17 each.

Taken together, and in their place with the other services of Holy Week, these services proclaim Christ crucified, died and buried. They also proclaim, most clearly and eloquently, the "What does this mean for us?" of our Lord's Passion.

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