Holy Week in the monastery, as experienced by our many pilgrims, is a very special time of year. All of the many special services of Great Lent lead up to the commemoration of the Passion of the Lord. Liturgically, on Great and Holy Wednesday, there are changes in the typicon which express the unity of these days, leading up to the feast of our Lord’s Resurrection, Holy Pascha. Whereas the Psalter is read twice a week during Great Lent, and there are many Prayers of St. Ephraim, no more are these observed, neither is the Presanctified Liturgy celebrated, the last one being served on Great Wednesday.
As is customary, His Grace Bishop Luke served the last Presanctified Liturgy on Wednesday, along with the clergy of the monastery. This is actually Vespers for Great Thursday. For the last time, at the end of the liturgy, Vladyka intoned the Prayer of St. Ephraim. From this time on, no more are full prostrations done in church, until the feast of Pentecost, except before the Tomb of the Lord.
On Holy Thursday, Vladyka served the Vespers Liturgy of St. Basil, along with the monastery clergy. Commemorating the institution of the Eucharist, all of the community prepared and partook of the Holy Mysteries. At the end of the Liturgy, Vladyka performed the very moving Washing of the Feet, in this case, the washing of the feet of twelve clergymen, thus expressing that the Master is the servant of all.
On Thursday evening, Vladyka led the clergy in the Friday Matins service of the Twelve Passion Gospels. During this service are sung some of the most moving hymns of the Russian Orthodox Church, including “Today is hung on the Wood” and “The Repentant Thief.” For each Gospel reading, the largest bell of the monastery is rung according to the number of the reading.
On Holy Friday the Royal Hours are served, at the end of which clergy take the shrouds that are stored in the lower church on the Tomb of the Lord and placed on the two altar tables in readiness for the next service, “The Bringing Out of the Shroud,” Vespers of Holy Friday. At the end of this service, Vladyka Luke gave a most moving sermon about how Christ out of love for mankind, experienced death for our redemption. Since in Him there is no limit to time and space, his death was for all people for all time, before and after His actual crucifixion. Vladyka stated that in a mystical sense, by our sins, we continue to crucify Christ. So, observing his Body lying in the Tomb, it behooves us to repent and try to sin no more.
In the monastery, we have one light meal after this service, followed by Compline and the Rule for Communion. At 2AM, we have Matins for Holy Saturday, the favorite service of many of us, the beginning of which we chant praises, followed by the Canon of Holy Saturday. Towards the end of this service, we have a procession around the church with the Shroud of Christ, while we chant “Holy God, Holy Mighty One, Holy Immortal One, have mercy on us.” This is followed by the chanting of the reading from Ezekiel about the vision of the bones, a foreshadowing of the General Resurrection at the end of days. This is followed by the Prokeimenon, “Arise O Lord My God,” and the Gospel reading which already alludes to the Resurrection of the Lord.”
This service ends already in the early hours of Holy Saturday. After a short rest, we return to church for the Vespers Liturgy of Holy Saturday, the Saturday of Saturdays, during which Our Lord lays in the tomb, conquering hell, while never leaving Heaven. He is destroying hell and conquering the devil as hell could not keep captive the divinity of Christ.
“Let All Creation Keep Silent” is chanted instead of the usual Hymn of the Cherubims, as we contemplate the wonderful mystery of what we are liturgically commemorating. At the end of the service, to commemorate the early Christians leading this day in prayer and fasting, bread and wine is blessed and distributed to the faithful. Now all that remains is to ready ourselves for the evening service of Pascha, Christ’s Passover from death to life.