Sacred Steps: Exploring the Holy Week in the Greek Orthodox Church

Holy Week

A quick guide on the Greek Orthodox Holy Week, by the team at Greeklist

1. Orthodox Holy Week: The path to Easter

For Greek Orthodox Christians, Holy Week (or “Megali Evdomada” in Greek) is more than a calendar notation; it’s a vibrant tapestry woven with faith, tradition, and the profound mysteries of Christ’s final days.  It’s a chance to walk alongside Jesus, to witness his suffering, and ultimately, to erupt in the joyous celebration of His resurrection.

Join us as we embark on a journey through this extraordinary week, where faith and spirituality are at the highest point of the year.

Orthodox Easter

2. When is the Orthodox Holy Week?

Holy Week doesn’t fall on a fixed date every year.  This is because it’s based on the date of Easter, which itself is determined by the lunar cycle.  The First Council of Nicea in 325 AD established a formula to calculate Easter as the first Sunday after the full moon following the spring equinox.  This means the earliest possible date for Easter is April 4th and the latest is May 8th. Holy Week always precedes Easter Sunday, so it can move around within that window.

For 2024, Holy Week starts on April 29th up to Easter Sunday on May 5th.

3. The religious importance of each day

Holy Week is a solemn and sacred period, commemorating the final week of Jesus’ life leading to his crucifixion and resurrection. Each day holds deep meaning and serves as a reminder of the momentous events that unfolded.

  • Palm Sunday (Kyriaki ton Vaion): The prelude of Holy Week. The triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, where he was greeted by crowds waving palm branches. It signifies the start of the events leading to his sacrifice.
  • Great & Holy Monday (Megali Deftera):  This day has a two-fold significance. It remembers Joseph son of Jacob, a righteous figure from the Old Testament who foreshadowed Jesus’ rejection. Additionally, the parable of the barren fig tree that Jesus cursed, which  serves as a metaphor for those who lack faith.
  • Great & Holy  Tuesday (Megali Triti):  This day focuses on the Parable of the Ten Virgins, a cautionary tale emphasizing the importance of faith and preparedness for Jesus’ return.
  • Great & Holy Wednesday (Megali Tetarti):  This day honors a woman who, despite her past sins, demonstrated immense faith in Christ by anointing His feet with myrrh. It represents forgiveness and God’s acceptance.
  • Great & Holy Thursday (Megali Pempti):  This crucial day holds immense significance. It commemorates the Last Supper, a final meal Jesus shared with His disciples before his betrayal. Additionally, it remembers Jesus’ prayer at Gethsemane, Judas’ betrayal, His arrest, and the interrogations he faced.
  • Great & Holy Friday (Megali Paraskevi):  This somber day is dedicated to the crucifixion of Jesus. It’s a time for reflection on His suffering and sacrifice for humanity.
  • Great & Holy Saturday (Megalo Savvato):  This day observes the period between Jesus’ burial and His resurrection. It signifies a time of waiting and anticipation.
  • Easter Sunday (Kyriaki tou Pascha):  The culmination of Holy Week, Easter Sunday celebrates the joyous resurrection of Jesus from the dead. It represents the triumph of life over death and hope for humanity’s salvation.

4. The church services of each day during Holy Week

The Services of Holy Week transport the faithful on a journey through time, culminating in the eternal present.  They step us through the week leading to the Resurrection of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, allowing us to experience the final days of his earthly ministry. Through these services, we participate in the events of Jesus’ suffering, crucifixion, burial, and ultimately, His glorious resurrection.

From Palm Sunday to Holy Tuesday

Τhe evenings feature the Service of the Bridegroom, which incorporates the Matins service for the following day.  Holy Week services gain momentum on Holy Wednesday with the morning Vespers of the Presanctified Gifts.

Holy Thursday

Τhis day holds central importance.  The morning features the Divine Liturgy of Saint Basil, culminating in Holy Communion for the faithful.  The evening presents a dramatic portrayal of Christ’s Passion through the Service of the Holy Passion. Twelve Gospels recount the events leading to the crucifixion, and the veneration of the Holy Cross emphasises the sacrifice to come.

Holy Friday

The day marks the peak of Holy Week. In the morning, The Service of the Great Hours and the Vespers of the Deposition depict the final hours of Jesus’ life.  Later in the afternoon, The Epitaphios, symbolising Christ’s body, is prepared, and a procession carries it through the community later that evening, while singing mourning chants.

Holy Saturday

Alwaysushers in the joy of the Resurrection.  On the morning of Holy Saturday, the Vespers of the Resurrection, also called the “First Resurrection,” is celebrated. The troparion “Arise, O God” is sung. In the evening, the Service of the Resurrection is held. The service begins with the hymn “Come, receive light”  where the Holy Light that has arrived earlier from Jerusalem, is distributed by the priest to the faithful holding white candles. After that the hymn “Christ is Risen” is sung. The joyful sounds of the bell, the kisses of love, and the firing of fireworks accompany the service. Immediately after the Service of the Resurrection, the Matins and the Easter Divine Liturgy are celebrated.

Easter Sunday

The Holy Week concludes with the Vespers of Love (taking place either in the morning or in the afternoon), a service where the Gospel is read in multiple languages, signifying the universality of Christ’s message. At the end of the service the faithful hug each other and kiss their cheeks, a movement that signifies the love of Christ that conquered the world.

5. Conclusion: Embracing the Spiritual Journey of Holy Week

In the bustling tapestry of our modern lives, it is all too easy to overlook the profound significance of Holy Week in the Greek Orthodox tradition. Yet within its rituals, symbols, and ancient liturgies lies a timeless message of hope, redemption, and renewal. Through the solemnity of Palm Sunday, the sorrow of Good Friday, and the exultation of Easter Sunday, believers are invited to journey with Christ through his passion, death, and resurrection, experiencing the fullness of the Christian faith in all its depth and richness.

As we reflect on the spiritual journey of Holy Week, may we be reminded of the enduring truth of Christ’s love for humanity, and may we be inspired to embrace the hope and joy of the resurrection in our own lives, now and always.

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