On Monday evening, a small group of Orthodox Christians gathered at St. George Serbian Orthodox Church to celebrate Bridegroom Matins of Holy Tuesday. As Fr. Aleksa explained, out of anticipation for our Lord’s Passion and Resurrection, all services during Holy Work are done well in advance of their ‘normal’ time during the rest of the year. So the service that would normally be held on Tuesday morn, during this Great and Holy Week, was held on Monday.
That anticipation is meant to place the faithful into a mode of constant preparation, just as the troparion of the Bridegroom Matins reminds them, “Behold the Bridegroom comes and midnight – and blessed is the servant who he shall find watching, and again unworthy is the servant whom he shall find heedless. Beware, therefore, O my soul, do not be weighed down with sleep, Lest you be given up to death and lest you be shut out of the Kingdom. But rouse yourself crying: Holy, Holy, Holy, are You O our God! Through the Theotokos have mercy on us!”
That message was repeated to the faithful on Tuesday evening as the faithful once again gathered for Bridgeroom Matins of Holy Wednesday. This service, however, Fr. Aleksa directed the faithful to the hymnographical juxtoposition of two figures: the woman, repentant, who washed the feet of Christ with her tears; and Judas, the betrayer, who in his despair failed to repent and failed to trust in God’s mercy and forgiveness.
The following evening, Wednesday, many faithful came to church for the mystery of Holy Unction – anointing with oil unto the healing of soul and body. Seven Epistles were read by seven different readers, and Fr. Aleksa alternated reading the Gospels with Dn. Mark. Upon conclusion of the service, Dn. Mark, who recently wrote a paper on this sacrament, offered a reflection on the healing and medicine. Spoken from his own personal perspective, he made clear the distinction between receiving medical care and the true healing, soul and body, that comes through Christ.
On Holy Thursday, the faithful arrived to a church in darkness with only candles lighting the nave and dim lights in the altar. At the center of the church stood a podium upon which Fr. Aleksa and Dn. Mark read the twelve passion gospels. Following the fifth reading, chanter George Rafilitis beautifully sung the 15th antiphon as Fr. Aleksa placed the large cross upon his shoulder and carried it to the center of church, placing Christ upon it.
As Fr. Aleksa remarked upon the service’s conclusion, this part of the service – nailing Christ to the Cross – is a powerful reminder of how our sin contributes to the painful crucifxion of our Lord. Holy Thursday is a powerful moment for us to humble ourselves before he who was humbled upon the wood of the Cross, and to look within for where our thoughts and actions have led us to betray Christ and to shout out with the masses, “Crucify him!”
When the Matins of Holy Thursday, and the reading of the twelve Gospel passages, concluded, a number of faithful and hardworking individuals stayed late to decorate the tomb of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to clean the church in preparation for Great and Holy Friday.
The following day, in a room aglow with the scent of flowers, the faithful served the Vespers of Entombment. As has become tradition in the St. George parish, during the reading of the Gospel man woman, and one man, removed Christ from the Cross placed in the center of the church and wrapped him in a fine linen. That body was then presented to Fr. Aleksa who carried it into the altar space. A few moments later that body, in the form of the burial shroud, was dramatically carried from the altar space to the tomb prepared in the center of the church. As the choir sang the beautiful, Bulgarian rendition of “The Noble Joseph”, all those present came forward to venerate the Holy Tomb of our Lord Jesus Christ.
After a short break, the faithful gathered together of the Matins of Holy Saturday – the Lamentations. Fr. Aleksa stood in front of the tomb and sang the hymns in relative darkness while the chanters and readers participated in the mourning of our Lord. That sadness, however, was broken up with the singing of the bright and resurrectional Troparia – the church, once in darkness, became bright as the chanters sang briskly while Fr. Aleksa and Dn. Mark censed the entire church.
Near the end of the service, at the conclusion of the Great Doxology, and with help from a few tall altar servers, Fr. Aleksa placed the Gospel upon his head and, standing on the burial shroud. led the congregation in solemn procession around the church. By God’s grace, the rain that had been falling only moments before ceased as the people began their candle-lit movement around the church building.
On the morning of Holy Saturday, and for the last official service of Holy Week, the faithful gathered for the Liturgy of St. Basil the Great, complete with 15 old testament readings. During the singing of “Arise O God and Judge the Earth” the clergy changed from purple vestments into bright white. Those gathered felt the joy of the empty tomb, placing their faith in Christ’s descent into hell and the release of those held captive. With joy, all left that day awaiting for the tomb to be opened and Christ’s glorious resurrection to be proclaimed to the world!
The journey through Holy Week was long and full of beautiful services – but all those who dedicated this holy time to growing closer to Christ left fulfilled, and moved, by the powerful worship experience of their Orthodox Christian faith.