Holy Week began yesterday for Christians around the world with the celebration of Palm Sunday. In the New York area, Greek Orthodox Christians attended church services and received a palm cross to commemorate Jesus Christ’s entry into Jerusalem when the people strew palm fronds at the feet of the Messiah in welcome. Holy Week is the culmination of Great Lent, the period of fasting and prayer leading up to Easter. Church services are held every day this week in preparation for the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Bible passages read this week tell the story of Jesus and his Apostles from the entry into Jerusalem through the Last Supper, the betrayal of Jesus by Judas Iscariot, Jesus’s arrest, His sufferings, the Crucifixion, Entombment, and finally, Resurrection.
Holy Monday and Holy Tuesday feature readings from the Gospel according to Matthew. On Holy Wednesday, the sacrament of Holy Unction is given by the priest to the faithful and the readings are from John and Matthew. Holy Thursday commemorates the Last Supper. Traditionally, it is also the day for dyeing Easter eggs red symbolizing the blood of Jesus, and baking koulourakia, Greek Easter cookies. The evening church services on Holy Thursday include the reading of the Twelve Gospels, detailing the events after the Last Supper, the Holy Passion of Christ, and the Crucifixion.
Holy Friday, the most solemn day of the year is a strict fast, meaning that besides the usual abstaining from meat and dairy products practiced throughout Lent, oil may not be consumed either. Morning church services are called the Great Royal Hours. In the afternoon, the icon of Jesus is removed from the cross, in the Un-nailing, and is entombed in the flower-decked Epitaphio, the symbolic tomb of Jesus. The Lamentation service follows in the early evening and then, the Epitaphio is carried out of the church for the procession through the streets. Hymns are chanted and Bible passages read as the parishioners follow, carrying lit candles in the solemn procession. The Epitaphio is carried back to the church and the parishioners walk beneath it before the structure is carried inside the church.
On Holy Saturday, the faithful gather for the morning liturgy, and then, in the late evening for the Resurrection. At midnight, lit candles in hand, everyone proclaims the Resurrection of Jesus with the singing of the hymn, Christos Anesti, and the words Christ is Risen, Truly He is Risen, and the Holy Liturgy of the Resurrection begins. After the church service, the priest hands out red Easter eggs.
Everyone returns home with the lit candle to bless their homes with the Light of the Resurrection. The traditional soup, mayiritsa is then eaten, or for those who have yet to acquire a taste for lamb intestine soup, chicken soup may be substituted. Red Easter eggs are cracked and eaten along with tiropites, cheese pies, or flaounes, the Cypriot specialty made with halloumi, a cheese flavored with mint.
This year’s Holy Week coincides with the Jewish Passover, as it should, since the Last Supper was a Passover meal. So, Happy Passover to those celebrating!
It is easy to be distracted by chocolate bunnies and pastel-colored candies, but the real meaning of Easter is church and family and tradition. Take the time to read the Gospels yourself, or follow along as the priest reads them out in church. It is extraordinary how events over two thousand years old can still be so moving today. Wishing everyone a great Holy Week and Kali Anastasi as we say in Greek.
For more detailed information, check out the website of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America or attend any Greek Orthodox church in your area. Handy printed programs of Holy Week services are available at most churches.