Greek Easter hymns are among the most beloved, spiritual and esoteric hymns of the Orthodox Church Liturgies. To the Greek Orthodox Christians the Holy Week centers on the hymns and the Church.
The hymns from the Eastern Orthodox Church were most written during the height of the Byzantine Empire, originally composed in Koine Greek.
About seventy-five percent of the service is congregational singing as traditionally, Orthodox Church uses no instruments. Usually a small choir leads the people in a capella harmony, with the level of congregational response varying from parish to parish.
There are several hymns and also troparia sung during the Holy Week, (A troparion is a short verse sung as a refrain between sections of a psalm). We present you the most important ones, their meaning and their singing by Greek artists.
Holy Tuesday: “The Troparion of Kassiani” (the sinner woman of the scripts)
The most important hymn of Holy Tuesday is “The Troparion of Kassiani” which has a really interesting story behind:
Euphrosyne, mother of Emperor Theophilos and daughter of Constantine the 6th, in trying to marry her son, the year of 830 ac, organized a grand hall with a large gathering of the most beautiful girls of Empire. Emperor Theophilos came before them to choose his future wife and empress, giving a golden apple to his chosen.
The most beautiful was Kassiani, whose beauty dazzled the young Theophilos. In his attempt to determine if her intelligence was similar to her beauty, he said: “From the woman bad things are starting, implying Eve. Kassiani did not surprised and showed her wit by replying: “And by the woman the best, the noblest derive”, implying the Virgin Mary.
But this really smart response characterized by Theophilos as insolence and frivolous , so he gave the apple to also nice, but modest Theodora.
Kassiani disappointed by this failure and decided to withdraw from the world and become a monk. She built with her own money a convent, later named after her, and dedicated to the worship of Christ and in poetry.
There in the monastery her innate talent and the deep religious feeling of composing hymns, chants, Idiomela was expressed. She composed the famous Idiomelo “The Troparion of Kassiani” after her name, where later the Orthodox Church proclaimed it as the Doxastikon of Matins of Holy Wednesday.
Kassiani was inspired from the words of the Evangelists, not referred to Mary Magdalene, as many believe, but the anonymous sinful woman, the adulteress, that Christ saved from certain stoning of the Pharisees crowd because of her morale offense, with those words: “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her”. When later Jesus was at the house of Simon the Pharisee, the sinner woman came, washed the feet of Jesus and wiped them with her hair untied.
Holy Thursday: “Simeron Krematai epi ksylou”
On Maundy Thursday, the Divine Drama culminates and the hymnography of the day is related to the Passion of Christ, the crucifixion and His death. Between the 5th and the 6th Gospel chanted the antiphon “Σήμερον κρεμάται επί ξύλου…” (Today He is hanging on the Cross…) and the Crucifix procession is litanied by priests.
Good Friday: The Lamentations “Ai geneai pasai – O gliki mou aear”
The Lamentations are divided into three categories, the psalms, each one sung antiphonally by few groups of people during the liturgy. These psalms are the lament of women and men that see the dead Jesus.
The peak of the hymns of Good Friday is “O gliki mou aear”, which means Oh my sweet spring time. It is supposed to be the lament of Virgin Mary when she sees her son dead.It is the most touching and moving psalms, composed probably by Romanos Melodos – although this is not something completely confirmed.
– “Oh, my sweet spring time, my sweetest child, where has your beauty set (slept)?”
The words are carefully chosen; Virgin Mary refers to her dead son as the Spring, referring to the setting of the sun, parallelizing the death with the sunset. “Ai genee pasai” (All generations) praise by hymns his burial.
This Easter troparion – hymn is definitely the most melodic of all, and the one stirring the senses more than anything else, since the Spring of life is lost and people see life being buried. It is a combination of sorrow and devout concentration, especially since the hymns are actually sung by choirs and simple people who attend the ceremony of the Epitaph, the solemn procession of carrying the entire bier around the neighborhoods and churches.
The Hymn of Holy Saturday: Christos Anesti
The “Paschal Troparion” is the earliest known Easter hymn, likely dating to within a century of Jesus. To this day it is sung in Orthodox churches throughout the world during the Paschal vigil, held during the hours of darkness between sunset on Holy Saturday and sunrise of Easter day.
The liturgies and services during the Holy Week lead to the moment of the Resurrection; everything peaks at midnight of Holy Saturday: It’s the moment when Christ rises from the dead, becoming Life and Salvation.
The hymn of the Resurrection is obviously the prominence of this laboring period; people who gather at the Churches on Holy Saturday night expect the midnight mark to start chanting together the following verses, that belong to the Pascha Hymn, the Hymn of the Resurrection which is sung 12 times:
Χριστός ανέστη εκ νεκρών, θανάτω θάνατον πατήσας, και τοις εν τοις μνήμασι ζωήν χαρισάμενος.
In English the hymn says: Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and to those in the tombs, granting life.
This is the Greek Pascha: the feast of the universal redemption. Christos Anesti becomes a wish in the mouth of people, marking the Greek Easter. This great hymn of Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday will be chanted repeatedly in the weeks to come, for 40 days after the actual Easter day.