Three services today. We begin with Royal Hours, or as I call it, the best kept secret in Orthodox services. Of course, it’s not a secret, but I think most people don’t realize how profound it is, therefore, it is usually not well attended.
For each and every day, there are prayers and services appointed for different times. At the Royal Hours service, we read the prayers for First, Third, Sixth, and Ninth Hours, as well as Typica all in a row. Royal Hours is served on Christmas Eve, Theophany, and Holy Friday. The readings for Holy Friday are jaw dropping.
We read Psalms of Christ. Then, an Old Testament prophecy referring to the Crucifixion. Then, an Epistle reading commenting on that same prophecy. Then finally, the Gospel account where that prophecy was fulfilled. In between, we sing hymns expanding on the themes. We repeat the same process until we have gone through all the services for that day’s Hours of Prayer.
I know I’ve said it before, but the layers! Oh, the layers! I’ve read Scripture since I was a little girl, which my Protestant raising instilled in me…something I’m extremely grateful for! But never, never have I seen the connections in this way. The Orthodox services are dripping with Scripture. The prayers. The songs. The actual readings. The words of Scripture flow in and out and weave a story, a picture. Perhaps I could have made those connections all by myself in a scholarly way. Perhaps…but I didn’t. I stand in Church today, and I am enveloped by the fullness of the Faith. The awesomeness of the ways and plans of God. I am struck by the “Aha!” moments of realizing what things mean, and am just as quickly struck by how much I still don’t know and never will. God is mighty.
After the morning service, we set up a tomb in the center of the church. It is traditional to prepare an area in the church where a large, cloth icon shroud of the dead Christ can be displayed. In Greek, it is called an epitaphios. Depending on the ethnic tradition, this tomb is constructed in different ways. In the afternoon, we have Vespers. No service with Communion today, for this is the day of the Lord’s death. During the Vespers service we pause, and Father comes out to remove the icon of Christ from the cross.
At night, we return for Lamentations. The rain has been nearly incessant this week, but it blessedly pauses for us to process around the outside of the church with the shroud. We sing the familiar prayer to the Holy Trinity, this time in the tune reserved for funerals:
Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal have mercy us!
We are at a funeral. Christ is dead. We lay Him in the tomb. However, there is still a hint of brightness to this service. As we mourn, we also sing gently, almost in a whisper:
Do not lament Me, O Mother, seeing Me in the tomb. The Son conceived in the womb without seed.
And then our voices rise to a thunderous shout:
For I shall arise and be glorified with eternal glory as God. I shall exalt all who magnify you in faith and love.
Immediately after the service, someone begins to read the Psalms in front of the tomb. The Psalms will be read continuously throughout the night and the next day. After the Vesperal Liturgy on Holy Saturday afternoon, the reading will switch to the Acts of the Apostles, taking us up to the beginning of the service for Pascha.
Finally this day, we take advantage of the fact that we live in an area overflowing with Orthodox churches. Many local parishes (usually the ones of Slavic descent) also have someone keep vigil by their tombs, so the churches are open to visitors all night long. We all get in a caravan and go what we affectionately call “tomb-hopping”. Over the next few hours, we visit eight local parishes (including my own) : St. Innocent Orthodox Church, Olmsted Falls, OH; St. Matthew the Evangelist Antiochian Orthodox Church, North Royalton, OH; Archangel Michael Orthodox Church, Broadview Heights, OH; St. Sava Serbian Orthodox Church, Broadview Heights, OH; St. Sava Serbian Orthodox Cathedral, Parma, OH; Holy Trinity Orthodox Church, Parma, OH; St. Sergius Russian Orthodox Cathedral, Parma, OH; and St. Theodosius Orthodox Cathedral, Cleveland, OH.
It is our unity in the Faith that makes my heart swell this night. All the Orthodox Christians wait by the tomb this night. And this year, we share the same date as the Western churches’ Easter, so we join with them in vigil as well. The world is waiting. In the darkness, we pause and contemplate this unimaginable event. It seems so impossible that God would become man and die. Absolutely mind-boggling impossible. But there are even more impossible things to come…
As we’ve been traveling around to the different tombs, we pause at several of them to sing the song whose lyrics are printed around the edges of the shrouds:
The Noble Joseph, when he had taken down Your most pure body from the tree, wrapped it in fine linen, and anointed it with spices, and placed it in a new tomb.
As we sing for the last time, lightning flashes outside the windows of the cathedral we’re visiting. The heavens open and torrential rain pours from the sky. We all get drenched to the bone running back to our cars. Even the heavens weep this day. Even the heavens…