There is no greater feast in the church than the commemoration of the resurrection of Our Lord. In the morning service on the Sunday of Pascha, we sing at Ode 8, "This is that chosen and holy day, feast of feasts, most solemn day, only king and Lord of all Sabbaths." We call the feast "Pascha," from the Jewish word for "Passover," which in turn commemorated the freeing of the Hebrew people from the slavery of the Egyptian pharaoh by the power of God.
The Christian passover was called greater by St. Paul, for Christ is our paschal lamb (1 Cor 5:7), who " entered once for all into the sanctuary, not with the blood of goats and calves but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption" (Heb 9:12).
The sixth day
Though the climax of this feast is the first day of the week, Sunday, the eighth day of a new creation, it begins on the sixth day of the week, on the day of which the work of the old creation was completed, on the day Christ died on the cross to shatter the power of death and sin.
In the Sixth Hour of the Great Fast, we sing, "O Lord, on the sixth day and at the sixth hour you nailed to the cross the sin which Adam presumed to commit in paradise. Now also tear up the list of our iniquities and save us, O Christ our God."
This Friday is a day of intense prayer and fasting, sometimes called the victory of darkness, as the Son of God was seemingly conquered by the forces of evil through crucifixion, but it is actually a day of joy and victory, for Jesus, by his love manifested on the cross, overcame the power of hatred, and "trampled upon death by death." Our fasting on this day is in itself a sign of our victory over sin. Therefore, in the English tradition, it is called "Good Friday," and it is truly the beginning of our paschal celebration. Pascha, then, is a three-day feast culminating on the joyful commemoration of Our Lord’s resurrection.
The passion of Our Lord is read three times on this day. It is read first in a series of 12 Gospels in the morning service, matins, telling the whole story from the Lord’s teaching at the Last Supper, from the Gospel of John, to his burial and the sealing of the tomb after his body was removed from the cross.
Yet even in this service we see the beginning of new life, and in one of the final stichera (hymns), the church puts these words into the mouth of his mother, "O my Son, I cannot endure this sight of unjust crucifixion. Hasten and arise, so that I may also see your resurrection from the dead on the third day."
This service of matins came from the holy city of Jerusalem, which was able to physically retrace the path of Our Lord’s passion in the holy places. It was originally a night-time service, but liturgical practice moved it forward to Thursday evening, a more convenient time for the faithful. However, it now seems more appropriate to celebrate the Divine Liturgy with Vespers on Thursday evening, the hour in which Our Lord revealed the mystery of holy Communion in his body and blood given for the life of the world. As a result, the first Friday service of the Passion Gospels is now quite often celebrated in the morning.
The second reading of the passion, according to the four Gospels, is at the "Royal Hours," called in Greek, the "Great Hours," because they are celebrated with greater solemnity than usual. Associated with the Gospels are also four readings from the Old Testament and the Epistles, and 12 ancient stichera. In this service we approach closer to the Resurrection, and the stichera conclude, "we worship your passion, O Christ, let us now behold your glorious resurrection."
The third reading of the passion is at the evening service of Good Friday. The trial and condemnation of Jesus, his crucifixion, death and burial are all read. The vespers itself is the regular evening service, but with hymns and readings appropriate to this solemn day. Though, of course, the salvation of God through the death and resurrection of Christ took place almost two thousand years ago, the reality of God’s love for us, and the mystery of salvation itself, is eternal and is happening now. Therefore, many of the stichera on Good Friday begin with the word, "today," as at Psalm 140, "Today the Master of creation stands before Pilate, and the Creator of all is condemned to the Cross." We relive the passion, and the freedom from sin and death brought through it is happening now (today).
The Vespers of Good Friday especially commemorates the burial of Jesus. The apostichera just before the burial procession begin, "When the Arimathean (Joseph) lifted you lifeless from the cross, o lord of life, he anointed you, O Christ, with myrrh and wrapped you in a shroud, and he was moved by heartfelt love."
Originally the Good Friday vespers in Constantinople concluded with a Presanctified Liturgy. In this way, the body of Christ was truly present, and our Communion in it was communion in the risen Lord, setting a seal on this paschal day. The last sticheron, then, concludes, "I exalt your suffering. I extol in song your burial and resurrection, calling out, ‘O Lord, glory to you.’"
In the 10th century, the Byzantine Empire conquered the Syrian city of Edessa and brought a most valuable relic from there, the image of Christ "not painted by human hands." By legend, this was an image of the face of Christ, which he miraculously put on a cloth that was sent to the King of Edessa for the healing of his servant. This was called the "true image" of Christ, which is in Latin "vera icona" and became the "veronica," or "veronica’s veil," with which she wiped the suffering face of Christ on the road to the cross.
This may have influenced the making of "burial shrouds," cloths on which the image of Christ taken down from the cross, was embroidered or painted. By the 12th century, this burial shroud was carried in procession and laid in a representation of the tomb, so that the faithful could imitate the work of Joseph of Arimathea. Because of the length of the procession, it replaced the Presanctified Divine Liturgy and is now the way the celebration of Good Friday concludes.
Archpriest David M. Petras is a professor of theology and liturgy at the Byzantine Catholic Seminary of SS. Cyril and Methodius in Pennsylvania. His book, “Time for the Lord to Act: A Catechetical Commentary on the Divine Liturgy,” is now available. Order from: Byzantine Seminary Press, 3643 Perrysville Ave., Pittsburgh, PA 15214. Individual copies are $10, for 10 or more copies, $8 per copy. For more information contact firstname.lastname@example.org. NEW: "Facilitator's Guide: TIME FOR THE LORD TO ACT"; Brother Jerome Wolbert, OFM; Byzantine Seminary Press, 3643 Perrysville Ave., Pittsburgh, PA, 15214; 2007; 55 pages; $10.00 (plus $3.50 S&H)