Each day during Holy Week has a special meaning, and understanding what each day represents can help making attending all those church services a lot more meaningful! It is really worthwhile to go to the church and watch the services being able to feel the unique spiritual atmosphere Greek Orthodox Church offers.
Here is an overview of the meaning behind each of the days of Holy Week and the types of church services you’ll be able to attend in any place across Greece:
Lazarus Saturday is celebrated in remembrance of the day Lazarus, a friend of Jesus, was brought back from the dead. As you may recall, Lazarus was dead for four days before Jesus brought him back. On Lazarus Saturday, churches usually have a Matins Service, which is what the “morning church service” is referred to as, followed by the Divine Liturgy, which is the standard service that we follow on Sundays. There could also be Evening Vespers.
Palm Sunday is also referred to as the Services of Our Lord’s Entry into Jerusalem. This is when Jesus arrived in Jerusalem and the people declared him as their King. This event was so important that is covered in each of the Four Gospels. Jesus after his Triumphant Entry, He predicted His death. Palm Sunday takes place on a Sunday, which means that the regularly Divine Liturgy is celebrated at the regular time for your church. However, the service does include a few extra elements, which emulate His Entry into Jerusalem. Churches also have an evening services referred to as the Bridegroom Services.
Holy Monday is considered the third day of Holy Week. On this day, we commemorate Joseph the Patriarch, the son of Jacob (from the Old Testament). This is also the day that the church remembers the moment that Jesus cursed the fig tree on his way into Jerusalem during His triumphant entry. There is typically an Orthos Service on Holy Monday.
Most churches do have a Matins service on Holy Tuesday, which is designed to prepare us for the events of Holy Wednesday. Special hymns are sung on Holy Tuesday and many churches enlist their choir for help singing these hymns. One of the special hymns is called “Hymn of Cassiane” and it has a beautiful, haunting melody. This service usually takes place in the evening.
There are usually two church services that take place on Holy Wednesday, one in the morning and one in the evening. In the morning, the Liturgy of the Pre-sanctified Gifts is usually celebrated. This is one of the only opportunities people have during Holy Week to receive Holy Communion. There is usually another service in the evening where people may receive Holy Unction. The services of Holy Wednesday are focused on repentance and confession, and the oil is said to be very healing. This day commemorates the day that Christ’s feet were anointed with myrrh.
In Holy Thursday begins the final events that lead to the Lord’s Passion. On this day, the Mystical Supper, also called the Last Supper, is celebrated. There are typically two services that take place during Holy Thursday – one in the morning and one in the evening. During the evening service the Twelve Gospels are sung describing the path of Jesus to Calvary. Last Supper, tears and human weakness in the gardens of Gethsemane, the betrayal by Judas, the arrest, trial, torture, the Crucifix.
On Good Friday, Orthodox Christians commemorate the trial of Jesus by Pontius Pilatus, His martyrical way to Golgotha, the moment Jesus died on the cross. The Deposition of Christ takes place at the noon, while during the afternoon service Jesus is taken off the cross and laid in the tomb (Epitafios). During evening service, we mourn his death, read Bible passages, and sing hymns. In the evening, the priest and those who serve in the altar make a procession around the church. Many churches actually take the Epitafios outside of the church and make a procession around the church neighborhood. In many parishes, flower girls throw rose petals on Jesus’s body. This procession represents Jesus entering Hades.
During Holy Saturday, we essentially mourn Christ’s death. There are several church services throughout the day, but the most important one takes place in the evening. For several hours before midnight, we sing hymns and spend time in church, anticipating His resurrection. A few minutes before midnight, the church gets quiet and goes dark. Finally, the church erupts in candlelight and the traditional hymn, Christos Anesti, or Christ is Risen, is sung.
This is the day we celebrate Christ’s Resurrection. The Holy Saturday evening service overlaps with Easter Sunday. There is also a regular Divine Liturgy service on the morning called the Love service. However, this differs depending on the church. Most families spend the day together, celebrating into the late hours of the day. For most Greek people, this is the biggest holiday of the year and the celebrations are usually quite festive!