April 15, 2023

Journey Through Holy Week: Holy and Great Saturday

 The Entombment of Christ and His Descent Into Hades

According to the Holy Evangelist Mark, Jesus was suspended on the Cross for about six hours on Great Friday:

9:00 AM - "Now it was the third hour, and they crucified Him" (Mk. 15:25).

12:00 noon - "Now when the sixth hour had come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour" (Mk. 15:33).

3:00 PM - "And at the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, 'Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?' which is translated, 'My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?' ... And Jesus cried out with a loud voice, and breathed His last" (Mk. 15:34, 37).

For six hours that Great Friday, Christ was nailed to the wood of a tree, hanging by the nails, on the Cross, before giving up His spirit to the Father.

That evening He was taken down from the Cross, and entombed in the tomb that belonged to Joseph of Arimathea. A guard was then placed outside his tomb, for fear that His disciples would come and steal His body.

Great Friday is the only day when there is no Divine Liturgy, not even a Presanctified one.

On Holy and Great Saturday we celebrate the Entombment and the Descent into Hades of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ, through whom the human race was recalled from corruption and passed on to eternal life.

The Great Hours

On the morning of Great Friday, the Solemn Service of the Great Hours of Great Friday take place, during which the prophecies of the Old Testament are read, which prophesied the events of the Passion, Crucifixion and Entombment of Christ, as well as the relevant Apostolic and Gospel Readings of the New Testament which describe the events when they happened. The readings are interspersed with wonderful troparia.

Immediately after and together with the Hours of Great Friday, at around 11 in the morning, the Vespers of Great Saturday is also celebrated (some parishes celebrate Vespers in the early afternoon separate from the Great Hours), with the Service of the Unnailing, during which the Body of the Crucified One is taken down from the Cross that has been raised in the middle of the temple, and it is replaced with an image of the dead body of Christ that is embroidered in fabric, called an Epitaphion, which is then placed in a canopy structure representing the tomb of Christ, known as a Kouvouklion. Pious Christian women of the parishes - as myrrhbearers - previously have decorated the Kouvouklion for this moment on the night of Holy Thursday to Holy Friday.

The Unnailing

At Vespers, Prophecies, the Apostle and the Gospel are read, which describe all the events of the Crucifixion, Death and Entombment of Christ. As the Gospel is being read, during the description of Jesus being taken down from the Cross, the unnailing takes place in the middle of the temple.

After this, the priest takes the Body of Christ that was unnailed and brings it into the Sanctuary, where he replaces it with the embroidered cloth known as the Epitaphion that now represents the Body of Christ, and after a procession around the church, it is placed by the priest in the Kouvouklion for the faithful to venerate it.

During this procession, the bells of the church ring mournfully and the troparion "When they saw you dead on the wood..." is chanted. After the procession the glorious doxastikon is chanted: "You who are arrayed with light as with a garment...".

Priests take off their mourning vestments, and usually wear red, because the Crucifixion and Death of Christ is not only a cause of sorrow for the unjust sacrifice, but also of joy for the victory over death and the liberation of the righteous from Hades. The vestments of the Holy Table (Altar) and the decoration of the church in general also change.

Some scholars have attempted to calculate the hours that Christ's soul was in Hades, and find that it was as many hours as the years He lived on earth, that is 33 hours: from 3pm on Great Friday, when He gave up the spirit, until before dawn Sunday.

Throughout the day of Great Friday, the bells of the churches ring mournfully and the people reverently enter and venerate the Epitaphion.

All the days of Great Week are held with strict fasting, but especially Great Friday, where according to each person's strength as little food as possible is eaten.

Matins of Great Saturday

On the evening of Great Friday, the atmosphere is one of joyful-sorrow and solemn grandeur, for the reasons just mentioned.

The Holy Saturday canon is chanted, as we contemplate our dead Creator, physically in a dark tomb, while His soul with His divinity is liberating the captives of Hades. During this Service the popular and beloved Lamentations are also chanted, in imitation of the Mother of God who lamented the humiliating and painful death of her Son and God. These Lamentations are not the lament of despair, but of hope and in anticipation of a great victory.

The Procession of the Epitaphios

Certainly the most beloved and impressive litany of Orthodox around the world, is when the Epitaphios in the Kouvouklion, decorated with flowers, is carried around the cities and villages, while troparia and lamentations of praise are chanted.

When the Epitaphion returns to the temple, the priest has a dialogue with Hades outside its shut doors, taken from the Book of Psalms: "Lift up your heads, O you gates! And be lifted up, you everlasting doors! And the King of glory shall come in...." When the dialogue is complete, the priest knocks on the door with his Cross and it is opened by a Reader on the other side, allowing for his entry.

As the priest enters, the people follow him by passing under the Epitaphios, which is raised high by its carriers, for a blessing.

Immediately after returning to the temple, Ezekiel's prophecy about the resurrection of the dead and the Gospel reading about the sealing and guarding of Christ's Tomb by the Jews will be read.

Great Saturday Morning

Already the atmosphere in the churches is one of anticipation for the Great Feast of Pascha. Vespers is chanted with its Resurrected Canon and the fifteen festal prophecies (only three are read in the parishes), among which is the Hymn of Doxology of the Three Children.

The psalm "Arise O God" is chanted while laurels and flowers are scattered by the bishop or the priest throughout the temple.

A Resurrection Gospel is read, that is, the Gospel reading of the appearance of the Risen Christ to the Myrrhbearers and to the group of Disciples with the greeting "Rejoice".

The Divine Liturgy of Basil the Great is celebrated. Instead of a Cherubic Hymn, is chanted: "Let all mortal flesh keep silent, and let it stand with fear and trembling, and let it consider nothing earthly, for the King of kings and the Lord of lords comes to be sacrificed, and to be given to the faithful for eating...".

Throughout Holy Saturday, Christians prepare spiritually with prayer and silence for the Great Feast of the Resurrection, the New Lord's Day, the Bright Day, Pascha.

The Icon of the Descent Into Hades

By Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos and Agiou Vlasiou

(From the book The Feasts of the Lord)

The Resurrection of Christ is celebrated by the Church from the moment of His descent into Hades, where He freed the souls of the righteous of the Old Testament from the state of death and the devil. This is how our Church celebrates it. In the liturgical texts it is clearly seen that the celebration of the Resurrection begins on Great Friday, as we see in the Service of Matins of Holy Saturday, where the Epitaphios is also circumambulated. And the discourses of the Fathers for Great Friday are in fact resurrectional and victorious.

This can also be seen from the sacred iconography of the Resurrection. The Church determined that His descent into Hades should be considered as the most characteristic image of Christ's Resurrection. Of course, there are also icons of the Resurrection that describe the appearance of Christ to the Myrrhbearers and the Disciples, but the preeminent icon of the Resurrection is the crushing of death, which occurred with Christ's descent into Hades, when His soul together with the divinity went to Hades and freed the souls of the righteous of the Old Testament, who were waiting for Him as a Redeemer.

The illustration of the Resurrection with the descent of Christ into Hades is done for many serious theological reasons.

First, because no one saw Christ at the time He rose, after He came out of the sealed tomb. The earthquake that occurred and the descent of the angel that rolled away the tombstone, took place so that the women bearing myrrh could be sure that Christ had risen.

Second, because, when the soul of Christ united with the divinity went to Hades, it crushed the kingdom of death and the devil, since by His own death He defeated death. It is clearly seen in the Orthodox Tradition that with the death of Christ the state of death was completely abolished. After all, we sing in the Church: "Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death...". His triumphant victory over death took place precisely at the time when Christ's soul, united with divinity, went to Hades and abolished death.

Third, Christ, with His descent into Hades, freed Adam and Eve from death. Thus, just as through Adam came the fall of the entire human race, since he is our progenitor, so through the resurrection of Adam we taste the fruits of resurrection and salvation. Because of the unity of human nature, what happened to the forefather happened to all human nature.

For these reasons, the most characteristic image of the Resurrection of Christ is considered to be His descent into Hades, since, after all, as we will see, the essence of the celebration of the Resurrection is the death of death and the abolition of the devil: "We celebrate the death of death, the overthrow of Hades", we chant in the Resurrected Canon. The overthrow of Hades and the death of death is the deepest meaning of the Resurrection feast.

Source: Translated by John Sanidopoulos.

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