Wednesday, 31 March 2010

A journey together through Holy Week

Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea take Jesus down from the Cross

Patrick Comerford

Throughout this week, in the chapel each morning we are reading dramatised versions of the Passion Narratives in each of the Four Gospels, concluding with the Passion Narrative in Saint John’s Gospel with my tutorial group tomorrow morning, Maundy Thursday [1 April].

As we journey together through Holy Week, the week before Easter, you will have noticed how there is a gradual build-up from Palm Sunday, through the Passion Narratives each morning, the Community Eucharist this evening, the Service of Tenebrae tonight, and the Maundy Eucharist tomorrow evening, so that we can mark Good Friday prayerfully and appropriately and be prepared to celebrate the Resurrection on Easter morning.

That stepping up of the tempo is reflected in the Book of Common Prayer, for example, by providing the same Post-Communion prayer for Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, and then providing another Post-Communion Prayer and a choice of collects on Maundy Thursday.

[The Revd Dr] Maurice [Elliott] talked on Monday morning about the origins of Holy Week in the Church calendar. The earliest reference to the custom of marking this week as a whole with special observances is found in the Apostolic Constitutions (v. 18, 19), dating from the late third century and early fourth century. It tells us abstinence from meat was expected for all the days of week, and in addition, on the Friday and Saturday, an absolute fast was commanded. Holy Week became an established custom and tradition in the Church, and The Pilgrimage of Egeria is an early text describing the traditions of the Early Church, with complete details of the observance of Holy Week when she went on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem around 381 to 384.

Sunday of Holy Week (Palm Sunday):

Holy Week begins with the Sixth and last Sunday in Lent, Palm Sunday, which recalls Christ’s Triumphant entry into Jerusalem of Christ on the Sunday before his Passion and death (see Matthew 21: 1-11; Mark 11: 1-11; Luke 19: 28-44; John 12: 12-19).

In many churches, Palm Sunday is marked by the distribution of palm leaves, often tied in the shape of crosses, and by dramatised readings of the Passion Narrative in one of the Four Gospels. In Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, on Sunday morning, we began with the Blessing of the Palms in the Cloister Garth, along with the Gospel reading (Luke 19: 28-40). Then, back inside the cathedral, instead of a sermon we had and a dramatised reading of the Passion Narrative (Luke 22: 14 - 23: 56) from the pulpit.

The Gospels tell us that, before entering Jerusalem, Christ was staying at Bethany and Bethphage. The Gospel according to Saint John adds that he had dinner with Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha.

While he was there, he sent two disciples to the neighbouring village to retrieve a donkey that was tied up but had never been ridden. Christ then rode the donkey into Jerusalem. As he rode into Jerusalem, the people lay down their cloaks in front of him, and also lay down the small branches of trees. The people sang part of Psalm 118: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” (Psalm 118: 26; Matthew 21: 9; Mark 11: 9; Luke 19: 38; John 12: 13).

On Palm Sunday, in many Anglican churches, palm fronds and palm substitutes – or sometimes substitutes, such as yew cuttings – are blessed outside the church, and the blessing is followed by a procession into the church. In some churches, children are given palms and then walk in procession around the inside of the church while the adults remain seated.

The palm leaves or palm crosses are often saved to be burned the following year to use as ashes used on Ash Wednesday.

The liturgical colour has changed from violet to red, indicating the supreme redemptive sacrifice Christ was entering into as he entered the city of his Passion and Resurrection.

The Collect of the Day:

Almighty and everlasting God,
who, in your tender love towards the human race,
sent your Son our Saviour Jesus Christ
to take upon him our flesh
and to suffer death upon the cross:
Grant that we may follow the example
of his patience and humility,
and also be made partakers of his resurrection;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The Post-Communion Prayer:

Lord Jesus Christ,
you humbled yourself in taking the form of a servant
and in obedience died on the cross for our salvation.
Give us the mind to follow you
and to proclaim you as Lord and King,
to the glory of God the Father. Amen.

Monday of Holy Week:

The days between Palm Sunday and Maundy Thursday are known as Holy Monday (Fig Monday), Holy Tuesday, and Holy Wednesday, sometimes called Spy Wednesday. The Gospels of these days recount events not all of which occurred on the corresponding days between Christ’s entry into Jerusalem and the Last Supper. For instance, the Monday Gospel tells of the Anointing at Bethany (John 12: 1-11), which occurred before the Palm Sunday event described in John 12: 12-19.

Yesterday, we begin a series of readings of dramatised versions of the Passion Narrative, beginning with the Gospel according to Saint Matthew.

In the Western Church, the Monday in Holy Week is not a major feast. But traditionally, the cleansing of the Temple in Jerusalem is said to have taken place on this Monday. This was when Jesus overturned the tables of the money-changers, saying to them: ‘It is written, “My house shall be called a house of prayer”; but you are making it a den of robbers’ (Matthew 21: 13).

An icon of Christ the Bridegroom

In the Orthodox tradition, the service of Matins on these first three days of Holy Week – Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday – is known popularly as “The Bridegroom Service,” and includes the “Bridegroom Prayer.” An icon of Christ the Bridegroom is displayed in the centre of the Church, showing Christ wearing the robe of mockery and crowned with the crown of thorns. The theme of Christ as the Bridegroom of the Church is extended by drawing on the parable of the ten bridesmaids.

But, alongside the suffering of Christ, three other themes mark Orthodox services on the Monday:

● The story of Joseph (Genesis chapters 37 and 39-40), whose innocent suffering and his persecution by Potiphar’s wife prefigures the suffering of the innocent Christ.

● The cursing of the barren fig tree by Christ on his way into Jerusalem (Matthew 21: 18-22). This serves as an image of the judgment that befalls all of us if we do not produce the fruits of repentance and holy living.

● The demand by the mother of Zebedee’s sons for a place of privilege in the Kingdom for James and John (Matthew 20: 20-28). James and John are seeking pride of place in the Kingdom, in sharp contrast to the humility of Christ, who renounces his status as Creator in order to suffer with and for those he has created.

Collect of the Day:

Almighty God,
whose most dear Son went not up to joy,
but first he suffered pain,
and entered not into glory before he was crucified:
Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of his cross,
may find it none other than the way of life and peace;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Post-Communion Prayer:

Lord Jesus Christ,
you humbled yourself in taking the form of a servant
and in obedience died on the cross for our salvation.
Give us the mind to follow you
and to proclaim you as Lord and King,
to the glory of God the Father. Amen.

Tuesday of Holy Week:

The Gospel reading for Tuesday in Holy Week (John 12: 20-36), when Christ tells his disciples that the hour for him to be glorified has come – the hour when he will be lifted up from the earth. Yesterday we read the Passion Narrative in the Gospel according to Saint Mark, and in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, the clergy of the Diocese of Dublin and Glendalough renewed our ordination vows at the Chrism Eucharist.

Traditionally, the Tuesday in Holy Week is traditionally also with the encounter between Christ and Pharisees, when they try to trap him into making a blasphemous remark, and with his discourse with his disciples on the Mount of Olives about the destruction of Jerusalem and the signs of the last day. The theme for Orthodox services on Tuesday is found in the parable of the Wise and Foolish Bridesmaids (Matthew 25: 1-13), and the parable of the Talents (Matthew 25: 14-30).

These are understood as parables of vigilance and judgment, emphasising our need to accept responsibility for our own lives. They also develop and elaborate the note of judgment found in the Bridegroom motif on these first three days of Holy Week: when the bridegroom comes at Easter, we must be prepared.

Collect of the Day:

O God,
who by the passion of your blessed Son made
an instrument of shameful death
to be for us the means of life:
Grant us so to glory in the cross of Christ,
that we may gladly suffer pain and loss
for the sake of your Son our Saviour Jesus Christ;
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Post-Communion Prayer:

Lord Jesus Christ,
you humbled yourself in taking the form of a servant
and in obedience died on the cross for our salvation.
Give us the mind to follow you
and to proclaim you as Lord and King,
to the glory of God the Father. Amen.

Wednesday in Holy Week, Spy Wednesday

Today is popularly known in Ireland and in other countries as Spy Wednesday, because, as in today’s Gospel reading (John 3: 21-32), this day is thought of as the day Judas Iscariot agreed to show the chief priests where they could easily capture Christ, betraying him for thirty pieces of silver (see Matthew 26: 14-16; Mark 14: 10-12; Luke 22: 3-6).

The tempo of Holy Week is stepped up today. In the chapel this morning, we continued our dramatised readings of the Passion Narrative, with Saint Luke. At the Community Eucharist at 5 p.m. this evening, the visiting preacher is Archbishop Alan Harper. Then at 9 p.m., we end the day with Tenebrae, a traditional Holy Week service.

The word tenebrae comes from the Latin meaning darkness. In this service, the candles and the lights are gradually extinguished until the whole church is in complete darkness. At the moment of darkness, a loud clash occurs symbolising the death of Jesus. This strepitus also symbolises the earthquake that followed his death: “Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last. At that moment, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split” (Matthew 27: 50-51).

In Orthodox tradition, this Wednesday is associated with the dinner Christ had in the house of Simon the Leper in Bethany. There he was anointed on the head by Mary with very expensive ointment. Some of the disciples were indignant at this apparently wasteful extravagance, claiming the myrrh could have been sold and the money given to the poor. But Christ told them that the woman’s actions would be remembered wherever the Gospel is preached (Matthew 26: 13), for she had anointed him in preparation for his burial (Matthew 26: 12).

Judas went to the Sanhedrin and offered them his support in exchange for money. From this moment on, Judas was looking for an opportunity to betray Jesus.

Peter Paul Rubens, the Feast of Simon the Pharisee

In the Orthodox Liturgy today, the hymns of the Bridegroom Service remind us of the woman who poured precious ointment on Christ’s head at the home of Simon the Leper (Matthew 26: 7).

Those two principle themes are interwoven in the texts of the Orthodox liturgy today: the betrayal of Christ by Judas, and the anointing of Christ by the woman in the house of Simon in Bethany (Matthew 26: 6-16).

The woman figuratively draws a sharp contrast with Judas. She is a repentant sinner, and as she prepares for the death and burial of Christ she is reconciled with God. Judas, who has been given everything by Christ, shows no gratitude and turns his back on salvation.

The theme of anointing is continued in most Orthodox parishes this evening, when the principle service is the Anointing of the Sick.

Collect of the Day:

Lord God,
whose blessed Son our Saviour
gave his back to the smiters,
and did not hide his face from shame:
Give us grace to endure the sufferings
of this present time,
with sure confidence in the glory that shall be revealed;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord. Amen.

Post-Communion Prayer:

Lord Jesus Christ,
you humbled yourself in taking the form of a servant
and in obedience died on the cross for our salvation.
Give us the mind to follow you
and to proclaim you as Lord and King,
to the glory of God the Father. Amen.

Maundy Thursday

The Last Supper, known in Orthodoxy as the Mystical Supper

Among Anglicans, Maundy Thursday is the normal name for tomorrow, and is used in the Book of Common Prayer; among Roman Catholics, it is normally known as Holy Thursday; in the Orthodox Church, it is usually Great and Holy Thursday.

In all traditions, this day is associated with the Last Supper. This is the day before the Crucifixion, and on this day Christ had his last meal with his disciples. As the Gospel according to Saint Matthew tells us:

“While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, ‘Take, eat; this is my body.’ Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins ...” (Matthew 26: 26-29).

Tomorrow morning, we are reading a dramatised version of the Passion Narrative according to Saint John. In the evening, the celebration of the Maundy Eucharist includes the Washing of Feet.

The name Maundy for this day is said to be derived through Middle English and the Old French mandé, from the Latin mandatum, the first word of the phrase Jesus uses to explain to his disciples why he is washing their feet: “Mandatum novum do vobis ut diligatis invicem sicut dilexi vos” (“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another” (John 13: 34). This new commandment is part of the Lectionary reading for the Eucharist on Maundy Thursday (John 13: 1-17, 31b-35).

Until the reign of James II, the monarch washed the feet of poor people on Maundy Thursday. These days, the Maundy Thursday celebrations in the United Kingdom involve the monarch giving alms in the form of “Maundy Money” in red and white purses to selected senior citizens – one man and one woman for each year of the sovereign’s age.

In the Roman Catholic tradition, the Mass of the Lord’s Supper commemorates Christ’s Last Supper with the Twelve, along with the institution of the Eucharist, the institution of the priesthood, and the new commandment to love one another. This is the only Mass on this day, and inaugurates the period of the three days known as the Easter Triduum, including Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Day. Any private celebration of Mass is forbidden on this day. Although the Chrism Mass is celebrated in some dioceses this morning, with the bishop as celebrant, it is an increasing practice that the Chrism Mass is celebrated on another day earlier in Holy Week.

All the bells of the church, including the altar bells, may be rung during the Gloria at the Mass, but the bells and the organ then fall silent until the Gloria at the Easter Vigil. It is recommended that immediately after the homily the priest should celebrate the rite of washing the feet, usually of twelve people.

At the end of the Mass, the consecrated Communion hosts may be carried in procession to a place away from the main part of the church, often called an “altar of repose.” Later, the main altar is stripped bare and crosses are removed from the church or are veiled.

You will notice how tomorrow, for the Maundy Eucharist, the liturgical colours change to white. In the Orthodox Church tomorrow, the Lenten character of the services is for the most part set aside, and the liturgical colours change from sombre Lenten hues to more festive colours, such as red.

The primary Orthodox service today is Vespers, at which there are three Old Testament readings:

● Exodus 19: 10-19. God’s descent from Mount Sinai to his people as the image of God’s coming in the Eucharist.

● Job 38: 1-23, 42: 1-5. God’s conversation with Job and Job’s answer: “Who I this that hides counsel without knowledge? Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand not, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.” These great and wonderful things are fulfilled in the gift of Christ’s Body and Blood.

● Isaiah 50: 4-11. The beginning of the prophecies on the suffering servant of God,

The Epistle reading (I Corinthians 11: 23-32) is the Apostle Paul’s account of the Last Supper and the meaning of communion. The Gospel reading – the longest of the year – is from all four Gospels and is the full story of the Last Supper, the betrayal of Judas and Christ’s arrest in the garden. This Passion Gospel (John 13: 31 to 18: 1) is known as the “Gospel of the Testament.”

The ceremony of the Washing of Feet is performed in some monasteries and cathedrals, but is not part of normal worship today in Orthodox parish churches. Then, after the Liturgy, all of the hangings and vestments are changed to black or another Lenten colour, to signify the beginning of the Passion.

The Collect of the Day:

God our Father,
you have invited us to share in the supper
which your Son gave to his Church
to proclaim his death until he comes:
May he nourish us by his presence,
and unite us in his love;
who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen.

or

Almighty God,
at the Last Supper your Son Jesus Christ
washed the disciples’ feet
and commanded them to love one another.
Give us humility and obedience to be servants of others
as he was the servant of all;
who gave up his life and died for us,
yet is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Post-Communion Prayer:

Lord Jesus Christ,
in this wonderful sacrament
you have given us a memorial of your passion.
Grant us so to reverence the sacred mysteries
of your body and blood
that we may know within ourselves
the fruits of your redemption,
for you are alive and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen.

or

O God,
your Son Jesus Christ has left us this meal of bread and wine
in which we share his body and his blood.
May we who celebrate this sign of his great love
show in our lives the fruits of his redemption;
who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Good Friday

On the Friday of Holy Week, Good Friday, we remember the day on which Christ was crucified outside the walls of Jerusalem, on the Hill of Calvary, and in most traditions this day is marked by solemn observances in memory of the crucifixion.

The 1662 Book of Common Prayer did not specify a particular way to observe Good Friday. And so, local custom came to expect an assortment of services, including the Seven Last Words from the Cross and a three-hour service consisting of Matins, the Ante-Communion (using the Reserved Sacrament in some parishes) and Evensong.

The Seven Last Words have been identified in tradition as:

● “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23: 34).

● “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23: 43).

● “Woman, here is your son … Here is your mother” (John 19: 26-27).

● “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27: 46, Mark 15: 34).

● “I am thirsty” (John 19: 28)

● “It is finished” (John 19: 30)

● “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23: 46).

Recent revisions of the Book of Common Prayer and Common Worship in the Church of England have introduced forms for observing Good Friday. However, the Church of Ireland’s Book of Common Prayer (2004), although it introduced provisions for Ash Wednesday, makes no provisions for Good Friday, apart from the Collects, and leaves it to local tradition to decide how to observe this day.

But as you read the notes on the calendar, and notice that no Post-Communion prayer or liturgical colour for Good Friday, you see that it is implicit that there must be no celebration of the Eucharist on Good Friday in the Church of Ireland.

Roman Catholics usually observe Good Friday with fast and abstinence, which is understood as eating only one full meal and two repasts that together ought not to equal a full meal. There is no Mass from the Mass of the Last Supper on Maundy Thursday evening to the Easter Vigil on Saturday night, and the only sacraments on Good Friday are Baptism occasionally, Penance, and the Anointing of the Sick. Holy Communion is distributed only in the Service of the Passion of the Lord.

In churches, the altar remains completely bare, without a cross, candles or altar cloths. It is customary to empty the holy water fonts in preparation of the blessing of the water at the Easter Vigil. Traditionally, no bells are rung on Good Friday or Holy Saturday until the Easter Vigil.

The Commemoration of the Passion of the Lord takes place in the afternoon, usually at 3 p.m., although for pastoral reasons a later hour may be chosen. The vestments are red, although traditionalists sometimes use black. This liturgy consists of three parts: the Liturgy of the Word, the Veneration of the Cross, and Holy Communion.

For the Veneration of the Cross, a crucifix is solemnly displayed and venerated while special chants are sung. The Eucharist, consecrated at the Mass of Holy Thursday is distributed at this service. The priest and people then leave in silence, and the altar cloth is removed, leaving the altar bare except for the cross and two or four candlesticks.

In addition, the Stations of the Cross are often prayed either in the church or outside, and a prayer service, known as the Three Hours’ Agony, may take place between mid-day and 3 p.m.

The Roman Catholic tradition includes specific prayers and devotions as acts of reparation for the sufferings and insults that Christ suffered during his Passion on Good Friday. These Acts of Reparation do not involve prayers for the living or the dead, but seek to repair the sins against Christ. Pope Pius XI described these Acts of Reparation as a duty for Catholics and referred to them as “some sort of compensation to be rendered for the injury” and sufferings of Christ. Pope John Paul II referred to them as the “unceasing effort to stand beside the endless crosses on which the Son of God continues to be crucified.”

In the Orthodox Church, Good Friday is known as Holy and Great Friday, or simply as Great Friday. Because of the penitence and sorrow associated with the Crucifixion, the Divine Liturgy is never celebrated on Great Friday. On Great Friday, the Orthodox clergy no longer wear the purple or red that is customary throughout Great Lent, and instead wear black vestments. All the church hangings are changed to black, and they remain so until the Divine Liturgy tomorrow, on Great Saturday. The day is observed as a strict fast, with Orthodox adults expected to abstain from all food and drink throughout the day if their health allows.

Just before the sixth Gospel reading, which recounts Christ being nailed to the cross, a large cross, with an image of the body of Christ, is carried out of the sanctuary by the priest, accompanied by incense and candles, and is placed in the centre of the nave. During the service, everyone comes forward to kiss the feet of Christ on the cross. Later, a brief, moving hymn, The Wise Thief, is chanted by singers who stand at the foot of the cross in the centre of the nave.

In the afternoon, around the 3 p.m. all gather for the Vespers of the Taking-Down from the Cross, recalling Christ’s Deposition from the Cross. The Gospel reading is from all four Gospels. During the service, the image of the body of Christ is removed from the cross, wrapped in a linen shroud, and taken to the altar. Near the end of the service, an Epitaphios or “winding sheet” – a cloth embroidered with the image of Christ prepared for burial – is carried in solemn procession from the sanctuary to a low table in the nave that represents the Tomb of Christ. This is often scattered with and decorated with flowers.

The Epitaphios itself represents the body of Christ wrapped in a burial shroud, and looks like a full-size cloth icon of the body of Christ.

Later on Friday evening, there is a unique service that takes place around a representation of the tomb of Christ in the centre of the church, with the chanting of the Lamentations or Praises, interspersed with the verses of Psalm 119. At one point, the priest sprinkles the tomb with rose petals and rose water.

Then, at the end of the Great Doxology, while the Trisagion is sung, the Epitaphios is taken in procession around the outside the church, and is then returned to the tomb. In some churches, the Epitaphios is held above waist level at the door so people must bow under it as they re-enter the church, symbolising their entering into the death and resurrection of Christ.

The Collect of the Day:

Almighty Father,
Look with mercy on this your family
for which our Lord Jesus Christ
was content to be betrayed
and given up into the hands of sinners
and to suffer death upon the cross;
who is alive and glorified with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen.

As I pointed out, no Post Communion is provided for Good Friday.

The entombment of Christ

Easter Eve or Holy Saturday

Saturday is known as Easter Eve in the Anglican tradition, is known to our neighbours as Holy Saturday and in the Orthodox Church is Great and Holy Saturday or the Great Sabbath.

This is traditionally a day of silence and prayer, a time for thinking about the dead Christ lying in the tomb. No Holy Communion is distributed, no Mass is celebrated.

In some Anglican churches, including the Episcopal Church in the United States, there is a provision for a simple liturgy of the word with readings commemorating the burial of Christ. Once again, there is no liturgical colour and no Post-Communion Prayer in the Book of Common Prayer, which is an implicit understanding that there is no celebration of the Eucharist in the Church of Ireland before the Easter Vigil.

In Roman Catholic churches, the tabernacle is left empty and open, the lamp or candle usually lit next to the tabernacle has been extinguished, and the remaining Eucharistic hosts, consecrated on Maundy Thursday, have been removed, perhaps to the sacristy. In the Orthodox tradition, Holy and Great Saturday or the Great Sabbath is the day on which Christ “rested” physically in the tomb, but it is also the day on which he performed the Harrowing of Hell, raising up those who had been held captive there.

During the day, the hangings, the altar cloths, and the vestments are changed from black to white, and the deacon censes the church. The clergy scatter laurel leaves and flower petals throughout the church, symbolising the shattered gates and broken chains of hell after Christ’s victory over death. But, while the liturgical atmosphere is changing from sorrow to joy, the Paschal greeting, “Christ is Risen! He is truly Risen!” (Χριστός ἀνέστη! Ἀληθῶς ἀνέστη!) is not yet exchanged, and the people continue to fast.

Collect of the Day:

Grant, Lord,
that we who are baptized into the death
of your Son our Saviour Jesus Christ
may continually put to death our evil desires
and be buried with him;
and that through the grave and gate of death
we may pass to our joyful resurrection;
through his merits, who died and was buried
and rose again for us,
your Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Once again, no Post-Communion prayer is provided for Easter Eve.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay is based on notes prepared for a lecture on the Year III BTh course, ‘Spirituality for Today,’ on 31 March 2010.

Wednesday in Holy Week, Spy Wednesday

Caravaggio, The Taking of Christ in the Garden (1598), the National Gallery of Ireland ... the betrayal of Christ is a major theme for the Wednesday of Holy Week

Patrick Comerford

This week, the week between Palm Sunday and Easter Day, is the last week of Lent. This week is known in the Western Church as Holy Week, and in the Orthodox Church as Great and Holy Week.

The dates of Lent, Holy Week and Easter fall on the same days this year for the Western Church and the Orthodox Church. In the Western Church, this week lasts from Palm Sunday until but not including Easter Day. In the Orthodox Church, Great Week lasts from Lazarus until but not including Easter Day.

On this week, we recall the last week of Christ’s earthly life culminating in his crucifixion on Good Friday and his resurrection on Easter Day. Then today, which is popularly known in Ireland and many other countries as Spy Wednesday, the tempo of Holy Week is stepped up.

In the chapel of the Church of Ireland Theological Institute this morning, we continue our series of readings of dramatised versions of the Passion Narrative, reading from the Gospel according to Saint Luke. At the Community Eucharist at 5 p.m. this evening, the visiting preacher is Archbishop Alan Harper. Choral Evensong in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, at 6 p.m. is sung by the Cathedral Girls’ Choir. Then at 9 p.m. this evening, we end the day with Tenebrae, a traditional Holy Week service.

The word tenebrae comes from the Latin word meaning darkness. In this service, all of the candles on the altar and in the church are gradually extinguished until the whole church is in complete darkness. At the moment of darkness, a loud clash occurs symbolising the death of Jesus. The strepitus, as it is known, may also symbolise the earthquake that followed his death: “Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last. At that moment, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split” (Matthew 27: 50-51).

The Betrayal by Judas, Giotto, ca 1304-1306

This Wednesday is traditionally known as Spy Wednesday because it is said that on this day Judas Iscariot agreed to show the chief priests where they could easily capture Christ, betraying him for thirty pieces of silver (see Matthew 26: 14-16; Mark 14: 10-12; Luke 22: 3-6).

Jesus was in Bethany, visiting the house of Simon the Leper. There he was anointed on the head by Mary with very expensive ointment. Some of the disciples were indignant about this apparently wasteful extravagance, claiming the myrrh could have been sold and the money given to the poor.

But Christ told them that the woman’s actions would be remembered wherever the Gospel is preached (Matthew 26: 13), for she had anointed him in preparation for his burial (Matthew 26: 12).

Judas went to the Sanhedrin and offered them his support in exchange for money. From this moment on Judas was looking for an opportunity to betray Jesus. Because that betrayal took place on Wednesday, many Orthodox Christians fast on most Wednesdays during the year.

In the Orthodox Liturgy today, Great and Holy Wednesday, the hymns of the Bridegroom Service remind us of the woman who poured precious ointment on Christ’s head at the home of Simon the Leper (Matthew 26: 7).

The story of the woman who washed Christ’s feet in the house of Simon the Leper in Bethany is recalled in the Hymn of Kassiani

The Matins (ὄρθρος, Orthros) for Great and Holy Wednesday was served towards the end of the Bridegroom service yesterday [Tuesday] evening. The troprarion, ‘See the Bridegroom comes at midnight,’ was sung last night, as on Monday and Tuesday evening, and the Hymn of Kassiani was sung too. This hymn, which was written in the ninth century by Kassiani the Nun, tells the story of the woman who washed Christ’s feet in the house of Simon the Leper in Bethany.

The two principle themes of the day in Orthodox liturgy are interwoven in the texts: the betrayal of Christ by Judas, and the anointing of Christ by the nameless woman in the house of Simon in Bethany (Matthew 26: 6-16), which is read at Vespers.

The hymns sung at Vespers are drawn from those of Matins and – as on Monday and Tuesday – the service is part of the Liturgy of the Presanctified which, in practice, is celebrated this morning.

Much of the Hymn of Kassiani is written from the perspective of the sinful woman:

O Lord,
the woman who had fallen into many sins,
sensing your Divinity,
takes upon herself the duty of a myrrh-bearer.

With lamentations
she brings you myrrh in anticipation of your entombment.
“Woe to me!” she cries,
“for me night has become a frenzy of licentiousness,
a dark and moonless love of sin.

“Receive the fountain of my tears,
O you who gathers into clouds the waters of the sea.
Incline unto me, unto the sighings of my heart,
O you who bowed the heavens by your ineffable condescension.

“I will wash your immaculate feet with kisses
and dry them again with the tresses of my hair;
those very feet at whose sound Eve hid herself from you in fear
when she heard you walking in Paradise in the twilight of the day.

“As for the multitude of my sins
and the depths of your judgments,
who can search them out, O Saviour of souls, my Saviour?

“Do not disdain me your handmaiden,
O you who are boundless in mercy.”


The Byzantine musical composition expresses the poetry so strongly that it leaves many people in a state of prayerful tears. The hymn can last for 25 minutes or more and liturgically and musically it is one of the high points of the year.

The woman figuratively draws a sharp contrast with Judas. She is a repentant sinner, and as she prepares for the death and burial of Christ she is reconciled with God. Judas, who has been given everything by Christ, shows no gratitude and turns his back on salvation.

The theme of anointing is continued in most Orthodox parishes this evening, when the principle service is the Anointing of the Sick. Although these services are not canonically liturgical, they attract large numbers of people, who ask for anointing for both spiritual and physical healing.

Collect of the Day:

Lord God,
whose blessed Son our Saviour
gave his back to the smiters,
and did not hide his face from shame:
Give us grace to endure the sufferings
of this present time,
with sure confidence in the glory that shall be revealed;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord. Amen.


Post-Communion Prayer:

Lord Jesus Christ,
you humbled yourself in taking the form of a servant
and in obedience died on the cross for our salvation.
Give us the mind to follow you
and to proclaim you as Lord and King,
to the glory of God the Father. Amen.


Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.