Pascha, Easter, the feast of the Lord's resurrection is the feast of feasts for Christians of this tradition. Lent, known as the 'Great Fast' or the 'Great Forty Days' came to include the major period of preparation and exorcism for those to be baptized (Talley 1990). The forty days finishes with Lazarus Saturday, which was a baptismal day (the liturgy includes the singing of 'As many as have been baptized into Christ'). The Great or Holy Week is seen as additional to the forty, and starts with the Entry into Jerusalem, Palm Sunday. Lent is preceded by a preparatory period of three weeks (four Sundays), with no fasting the first week, the normal Wednesday and Friday fast in the next week and no meat eaten in the third.
The weekdays of Lent proper, beginning with 'Clean Monday', the first day of the first week, are aliturgical but the Liturgy of the Presanctified is celebrated on Wednesday and Friday and certain other days. The full Liturgy of St John Chrysostom is served on Saturdays, usually for the departed, and the Liturgy of St Basil on the five Sundays. All the weekday services are characterized by frequent prostrations, especially at the prayer of St Ephrem the Syrian, 'O Lord and Master of my life'. During fasting periods it is traditional to abstain from meat, fish and dairy products.
Palm Sunday is reckoned one of the twelve Great Feasts. Palms, olive or pussy willow branches are blessed and distributed at Matins. Up to Thursday the offices are simpler than usual but have lengthy readings of scripture (Woolfenden 2002), and the Liturgy of the Presanctified is served each day. On Holy Thursday there may once have been a reconciliation of penitents. The Liturgy of St Basil is combined with Vespers and after it, a bishop, and certain abbots, may wash the feet of twelve priests. Although intended to be an evening celebration, this liturgy is now usually in the morning. In the evening the Matins of Good Friday takes place. This very lengthy service includes twelve Gospel readings, and originated in an overnight stational procession through Jerusalem (Calivas 1992). Between the readings are sung some of the most impressive examples of Byzantine poetry. One of the most famous stanzas is 'Today he who hung the earth upon the waters is hung on the tree . . . We worship thy passion O Christ, show us also thy glorious resurrection.'
On Good Friday morning at the Royal Hours, each Gospel passion is read in turn. In Greek usage Vespers follows immediately; the Russians delay it until the afternoon. The Vespers Gospel is a harmony from all four Gospels recounting the death of Christ, and the so-called winding-sheet (epitaphios or plashchenitza), a large embroidered representation of Christ lying in the tomb, is brought out and placed in the centre of the church. (A number of more recent dramatic ceremonies, such as taking the figure from the cross and wrapping it in a sheet during the Gospel at Vespers, have spread quite widely through the Orthodox world from Greece; see Calivas 1992: 68.)
Good Friday evening is the time of one of the most popular services, the Matins of Holy Saturday with the Lamentations at the tomb. These last are a series of verses interspersed through Psalm 118, and dating from about the twelfth or thirteenth century. At the end of this service there is a very moving procession with the windingsheet, round the outside of the church, after which the readings look forward to the Resurrection.
Another vesperal Liturgy of St Basil, again now normally celebrated in the morning of Holy Saturday, is in fact the ancient Easter Vigil. It was during the fifteen Old Testament readings of this service that the main group of baptisms was to be performed. Traditionally all remained in church after the service until early Sunday morning. Nowadays the special Resurrection Matins is celebrated at midnight after a procession, and the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom follows. This service is famous for the paschal joy which suffuses it, the frequent singing of the paschal troparion and the exchange of the Easter greeting; 'Christ is risen!' with the reply, 'He is risen indeed!'
Throughout the paschal period there is no kneeling and the Easter troparion is sung at all services. Easter or Bright Week is particularly festive; there is also a feast of mid-Pentecost. Pascha itself closes with Ascension Thursday after forty days, and the Pentecost season with Trinity or Pentecost Sunday. Special prayers at Vespers on that Sunday reintroduce kneeling and the next day, Monday, is the day of the Holy Spirit (Woolfenden 1996).
Throughout the year the services of Sundays (and ordinary weekdays outside the fasting and festal seasons) are grouped into a cycle according to the eight tones of the chant. The resurrection hymns of Sunday are only omitted on Great Feasts of the Lord.
The mid-winter feasts of Christmas and Theophany on 25 December and 6 January are both feasts of the Incarnation, closely connected with one another. The Christian East adopted Theophany first, but by the end of the fourth century East and West celebrated both feasts. Christmas has a preparation of six weeks' fasting, but only the last week refers to the coming feast and there is nothing like the western Advent. Royal Hours are celebrated on Christmas and Epiphany eves and there is also a vigil Liturgy of St Basil, which has now become less important than the morning liturgy of St John Chrysostom. The Byzantine tradition concentrates all the birth narratives, including the Magi, at Christmas. Theophany is very much the feast of the Baptism of Christ, being marked by the very important ceremony of the great Blessing of Water, done outside if possible, after which homes are blessed. The period between the two feasts is free of fasting, which brings them together as one period of rejoicing.
Fasting is very much part of Byzantine liturgical life. Besides the Lenten and Nativity fasts already mentioned, there is a fasting period that starts one week after Pentecost and leads to the feast of Saints Peter and Paul (29 June). A two-week fast precedes the feast of the Dormition of the Mother of God (15 August), and apart from fast-free periods, Wednesday and Fridays are normally observed as fasting days.
The liturgical year commences on 1 September. Other major feasts that have not so far been mentioned are: the Birth of the Mother of God (8 September), the Universal Exaltation of the Holy Cross (14 September), the Entry of the Mother of God into the Temple (21 November), the Meeting of the Lord (2 February), the Annunciation (25 March), and the Transfiguration (6 August). Many of these feasts have traditional ceremonies proper to that day, for example in Greece, grapes, and in Russia, apples, are blessed on the Transfiguration. It should also be remembered that the Orthodox and Greco-Catholics of the former Soviet Union, the Serbs and many Russians and Ukrainians in the diaspora still use the Julian calendar, so that, for example, Christmas falls on 7 January in the civil calendar.
Was this article helpful?