Comments on the Main Themes
On Great Saturday the Church contemplates the mystery of the Lord's descent into Hades, the place of the dead. Death, our ultimate enemy, is defeated from within. "He (Christ) gave Himself as a ransom to death in which we were held captive, sold under sin. Descending into Hades through the Cross ... He loosed the bonds of death" (Liturgy of St. Basil). The hymnographer of the Church describes the mystery with these words:
Come, let us see our Life lying in the tomb, that He may give life to those that in their tombs lie dead. Come, let us look today on the Son of Judah as He sleeps, and with the prophet let us cry aloud to Him: Thou hast lain down, Thou hast slept as a lion; who shall awaken Thee, O King? But of Thine own free will do Thou rise up, who willingly dost give Thyself for us. O Lord, glory to Thee.
Today a tomb holds Him who holds the creation in the hollow of His hand; a stone covers Him who covered the heavens with glory. Life sleeps and hell trembles, and Adam is set free from his bonds. Glory to Thy dispensation, whereby Thou hast accomplished all things, granting us an eternal Sabbath, Thy most holy Resurrection from the dead.
~ Hymns of the Ainoi
On Great Saturday our focus is on the Tomb of Christ. This is no ordinary grave. It is not a place of corruption, decay and defeat. It is life-giving (zoopoios) a source of power, victory and liberation.
O happy tomb! It received within itself the Creator, as one asleep, and it was made a divine treasury of life, for our salvation who sing: O God our Deliverer, blessed art Thou.
The Life of all submits to be laid in the tomb, according to the law of the dead, and He makes it a source of awakening, for our salvation who sing: O God our Deliverer, blessed art Thou.
~ Hymns of the 7th Ode
Great Saturday is the day between Jesus' death and His resurrection. It is the day of watchful expectation, in which mourning is being transformed into joy. The day embodies in the fullest possible sense the meaning of xarmolipi - joyful-sadness, which has dominated the celebrations of Great Week. The hymnographer of the Church has penetrated the profound mystery, and helps us to understand it through the following poetic dialogue that he has devised between Jesus and His Mother:
Weep not for me, O Mother, beholding in the sepulcher the Son whom thou hast conceived without seed in thy womb. For I shall rise and shall be glorified, and as God I shall exalt in everlasting glory those who magnify thee with faith and love.
"O Son without beginning, in ways surpassing nature was I blessed at Thy strange birth, for I was spared all travail. But now beholding Thee, my God, a lifeless corpse, I am pierced by the sword of bitter sorrow. But arise, that I may be magnified."
"By mine own will the earth covers me, O Mother, but the gatekeepers of hell tremble as they see me, clothed in the bloodstained garment of vengeance: for on the Cross as God have I struck down mine enemies, and I shall rise again and magnify thee."
"Let the creation rejoice exceedingly, let all those born on earth be glad: for hell, the enemy, has been despoiled. Ye women, come to meet me with sweet spices: for I am delivering Adam and Eve with all their offspring, and on the third day I shall rise again."
~ 9th Ode of the Canon
Great Saturday is the day of the pre-eminent rest. Christ observes a Sabbath rest in the tomb. His rest, however, is not inactivity but the fulfillment of the divine will and plan for the salvation of humankind and the cosmos. He who brought all things into being, makes all things new. The recreation of the world has been accomplished once and for all. Through His incarnation, life and death Christ has filled all things with Himself He has opened a path for all flesh to the resurrection from the dead, since it was not possible that the author of life would be dominated by corruption.
Moses the great mystically prefigured this present day, saying:
”And God blessed the seventh day." For this is the blessed Sabbath, this is the day of rest, on which the only-begotten Son of God rested from all His works. Suffering death in accordance with the plan of salvation, He kept the Sabbath in the flesh; and returning once again to what He was, through His Resurrection He has granted us eternal life, for He alone is good and loves mankind.
~ Hymn of the Ainoi
St. Paul tells us that "God was in Jesus Christ reconciling the world to Himself" (2 Cor 5.19). Hence, eternal life - real and self-generating - penetrated the depths of Hades. Christ who is the life of all destroyed death by His death. That is why the Church sings joyously "Things now are filled with light, the heaven and the earth and all that is beneath the earth" (Canon of Pascha). The Church knows herself to be "the place, the eternal reality, where the presence of Christ vanquishes Satan, hell and death itself.
The solemn observance of Great Saturday help us to recall and celebrate the great truth that "despite the daily vicissitudes and contradictions of history and the abiding presence of hell within the human heart and human society," life has been liberated! Christ has broken the power of death.
The death of Christ is the greatest miracle as well as the ultimate manifestation of God's boundless love for the whole creation. It is no mere man who died. The One who was laid in the tomb is none other than the eternal and deathless Word of God, who taking on flesh humbled Himself, obediently accepting even death, death on a cross (Phil 2.8). Pascha has nothing to do with romanticism and sentimentalities. Someone put it in these bold, vivid terms: "Easter is not about the return of the robin in spring or crocuses or a butterfly coming out of the cocoon or any of that pagan drivel. Its about a Body that somehow got loose. The Gospel accounts strain to describe what happened, but don't make any mistake about it, they're trying to describe something unearthly: death working backwards. So I can't talk about 'the eternal rebirth of hope' or 'Jesus living on in our hearts.' We're talking about a dead Jew, crucified, who came back to life ... This is God we're talking about, a real God, people, not some projection of our ego."
It is not without significance that the icon of the Resurrection in our Church is the Descent of Christ into Hades, the place of the dead. This icon depicts a victorious Christ, reigned in glory, trampling upon death, and seizing Adam and Eve in His hands, plucking them from the abyss of hell. This icon expresses vividly the truths resulting from Christ's defeat of death by His death and resurrection.
The observances of Great Saturday include the whole cycle of the daily office. In practice, however, only the Vespers and the Orthros are celebrated in the parishes. The Vespers are part of the Great Friday afternoon celebration, as noted above.
- The Orthros, for the reasons we have mentioned above, is celebrated on the evening of Great Friday. This is the only day in the entire liturgical year, for which the Church may not assemble for a eucharistic celebration. Sadly, however, this prohibition has been inadvertently circumvented by a faulty liturgical practice, caused by the gradual transfer of the Paschal Vesperal Liturgy to the morning hours of Great Saturday. Vestments - The priest begins the service wearing the rason and a black or purple colored epitrachelion. When the chanters or choir begin the fourth ode of the Canon, the priest retires to the vestry. There he vests, putting on a full set of his priestly vestments."' This time the priest wears bright colored vestments, because of the transitional character of the service.
- The Fast - In the tradition of our Church, Saturday like Sunday is considered a festal day. Even during the Great Lent the rules of fasting are relaxed on Saturdays and Sundays. However, Great Saturday is the one important exception. The day is observed with xerophagia. The fast is so strict that Great Saturday is observed with profound silence. I mean by this, that the Divine Liturgy is not celebrated.
- Candles - It is customary for the clergy and people to hold candles during the singing of the Lamentations and at the procession of the Epitaphios. It is necessary, therefore, to make certain that a sufficient number of candles have been prepared and distributed to the faithful. This practice is rooted in ancient Christian burial practices. Candles were lit in order to symbolize the victory of Christ over death, and to express as well the Church's belief in the resurrection.
The Egkomia -Encomia
The Encomia162 or Praises are short poetic verses lamenting the passion, death and burial of Christ. The Encomia are also known as 'Epitafios Thrinos" - Lamentations and more rarely 'Epitafia Megalinaria Burial Megalynaria.
In the printed Triodia, as well as the 1906 edition of the Patriarchal Text, there are 185 such verses divided into three staseis (sections). The repertoire of the Encomia first appeared in the 1522 edition of the Triodion. Subsequent editions have relied heavily on this source.
The early manuscripts do not mention these hymns. The first reference to encomia is found in manuscripts of the thirteenth century in connection with Psalm 118 (119), known as the "Amo -Amomos. Their number, however, is undefined. It appears that the collection grew gradually to its present form. Also, there are variations in the collections.
The Amomos is the longest of the Old Testament Psalms, containing one hundred seventy six verses. It plays an important role in the liturgical tradition of the Orthodox Church. Divided into three sections, it comprises the entire Seventeenth Kathisma of the Psalter. The Amomos forms part of the Saturday and Sunday Orthros. On Sundays the Amomos is read as the third Kathisma, while on Saturday it is always read as the second Kathisma. The first, second and third Kathisma always precede the Canon in the order of the Orthros. Thus, in all the editions of the Triodion the Encomia appear before the Canon in the order of the Orthros of Great Saturday. However, the same is not true for the Patriarchal Text of Great Week. There, the Encomia appear after the Canon.
This discrepancy between the Triodion and the prevailing practice of the Greek Church regarding the place of the Encomia in the order of the service is difficult to explain. I suspect that some practical considerations prompted the change. As late as the turn of this century, the time for the celebration of the Great Saturday Orthros had not yet been definitively settled. Some places continued to celebrate the service after midnight in the early morning hours of Great Saturday, while most other places had already shifted the service to the evening of Great Friday. In either case, the change in the order of the service allowed more time for the faithful to assemble and participate in this highly popular part of the service.
It is not clear when the change in the order had begun. We do know that it was authenticated, confirmed and formalized by the new Typika in the last century.
The Encomia are interpolated short refrains of lamentation added to the Amomos. The division of the Encomia into three stasei is corresponds to the Amomos, which, as we have already noted, is divided into three sections and forms the Seventeenth Kathisma of the Psalter. The Encomia were sung after each verse of the Psalter. This arrangement continues to be observed in monasteries. For the most part, however, in parish usage - at least in the Greek liturgical practice - the Amomos has long since been suppressed. Only the Encomia are sung in three staseis.
The full repertoire of the Encomia are no longer said in parish usage. The tendency to decrease the number of verses has always been operative for a variety of reasons. In recent times several such smaller collections have appeared in print. For example, the first eight editions of the Patriarchal Text printed by the Apostolike Diakonia contained only thirty verses for each stasis. To my knowledge the shortest collection is contained in the Greek-English Services For Holy Week and Easter Sunday, published in London in 1915. In our own country, the number of verses varies from parish to parish. In most places, however, the collection has been determined more or less by the following three editions: (1) The earlier editions of the Patriarchal Text by the Apostolike Diakonia; (2) the Holy Week - Easter, edited by Fr. George Papadeas; and (3) the O Logos Good Friday Evening - The Service of the Lamentations, edited by Fr. George Mastrantonis.
The Evlogetaria - are the Kathismata troparia - Sessional hymns of the Amomos."'
In our liturgical tradition there are two types of Evlogetaria, the resurrectional and funereal. The resurrectional Evlogetaria are sung on Sundays. The funereal are always chanted on Saturdays and at funeral services.
On Great Saturday, however, we sing the resurrectional Evlogetaria and not the funereal, even though we are observing the burial of Christ. The reason for this is clear. On Great Saturday we contemplate the defeat of death. The Author of life is trampling down Hades and is transforming death into life. Funereal hymns are not appropriate to Him Who is the source and giver of all life. Also, the funeral evlogetaria as written would be inappropriate for Christ, since they presuppose deceased Christians.
The Orthros of Great Saturday is festive in nature, with the "Theos Kirios" - God is the Lord" at the beginning, and a sung Great Doxology at the end. The service contains several distinctive features. The order of the service is as follows:
The Enarxis to Psalm 50 - The service is conducted in the usual manner from the Enarxis to the Kathismata and the recitation of Psalm 50. The order is articulated clearly in the Patriarchal Text.
The choirs begin the Canon after the Reader has completed the recitation of Psalm 50. The Holy Door, according to custom, is closed when the Canon begins.
The Canon is chanted in the prescribed manner. At the appointed intervals the priest intones the Small Litany.
When the Eighth Ode has been sung, the priest, as usual, intones the bidding "Tin Theotokon kai Mitera tou fotos- us magnify the Theotokos." However, he does not offer the incense.
The choir sings the Ninth Ode of the Canon. When the Canon is concluded the Holy Doors are opened. The priest stands before the Holy Table holding a candle and the Thimiaton (thurible -censer).
The choir and chanters along with the acolytes proceed to the Epitaphios and stand on either side. The candles of the Kouvouklion are lit.
The Encomia - Engomia
The Encomia are accompanied by two ritual acts. When the Canon has been completed, the Holy Doors are opened. The priest holds a candle and the thurible (censer). He chants the first verse of the First Stasis and proceeds to the Epitaphios. He censes the Kouvouklion cross-wise (i.e., on each side), the iconostasion and the people, in the usual manner at an Orthros service.
The priest stands in front of the Kouvouklion throughout the Encomia. Between each stasis of the Encomia the priest intones the Small Litany with the prescribed ecphonesis noted in the Patriarchal Text. At the Third Stasis when the verse "Eranan ton Tafon ai miroforoi mira lian proi elthousai- early in the morning the myrrh-bearers came to Thee and sprinkled myrrh upon Thy tomb" is sung the priest sprinkles the Epitaphios with rosewater, using the rantistirion (sprinkler). This verse is usually repeated three or more times. It has become the custom to sprinkle the people as well.
When the Encomia have been completed the priest returns to the sanctuary. The acolytes, chanters and choir also return to their place.
The Evlogetaria - Evlogitaria
When the Encomia have been concluded, the choir or chanters sing the Evlogetaria in a stately manner.
The Exaposteilarion, Ainoi and Doxology
Following the Evlogetaria the priest intones the Small Litany, after which we sing the Exaposteilarion. It consists only of the verse "Agios Kirios O Theos imon - Holy is the Lord our God," as at the Orthros for Sundays. There are no Exaposteilarion hymns.
The psalms of Praise and the hymns are then chanted. They are followed by the Great Doxology at the end of which we conduct the procession of the Epitaphios.
The Procession of the Epitaphios
The procession of the Epitaphios takes place at the conclusion of the Doxology. To be precise, the rubrics say that the procession begins when the choir sings the concluding segment of the Doxology, the "Agios O Theos - Holy God.”
The procession is usually conducted around the outside of the Church. According to custom the procession is formed in the following manner: first to proceed are the acolytes holding the processional cross, hexapteryga, candles and censer; the large Cross of the Estavromenos follows; then the priest, holding the Gospel in a raised but flat position; the Epitaphios is carried last. The people, holding candles follow the Epitaphios. In some places the clergy process in back of the Epitaphios at the head of the people. The former order, however, appears to be older and in keeping with tradition.
In some traditions, it is the custom to make three or four staseis (stops) during the procession. At each staseis the priest intones petitions of the Fervent Litany.
During the procession the choir and people sing the "Agios O Theos - Holy God" in a solemn manner. In many places, however, it has become the practice to repeat some of the Encomia. This is clearly an innovation, and probably a concession to popular devotional piety.
The procession returns to the interior of the Church. In many places it is customary for the faithful to pass under the Epitaphios before reentering the Church. In this instance, the Epitaphios is held aloft, while the clergy and people pass under it. By this practice, we express the belief that we have already passed from death to life (Jn 5.24).
The Return of the Epitaphios to the Holy Table
When the procession has returned to the Church and everyone has taken their place, the priest says: 'Prosxomen - Let us be attentive." He then gives the peace, "Eirini pasi - Peace be with all." And says, "Sofia - Wisdom."
After this the priest and the people sing the apolytikia of the Vesper service. In earlier times only the hymn "Noble Joseph" was sung at this point. Today, however, all three hymns are sung in the following order: "Ote katilthes," "Tais Miroforois ginaixi and '"O eusximon 'Iosif - Noble Joseph."
While these hymns are being sung, the priest censes the Epitaphios. Then he lifts it out of the Kouvouklion and carries it into the sanctuary through the Holy Doors. He circles the Holy Table three times and places the Epitaphios upon it, when the words "en mnimati kaino kidefsas apetheto - and he laid it in a new tomb" - of the hymn Noble Joseph are being sung. The Epitaphios remains on the Holy Table until the feast of the Apodosis of Pascha.
The people venerate the Epitaphios at the Vesper service and upon entering the Church for the service of the Orthros on Great Friday evening. It is customary for the people to receive a flower. This is done in two ways. The flowers can be distributed at the end of the service, usually by the priest. This seems to be the prevailing practice in the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese. Or they can be distributed by some designated person(s) to the people after they have venerated the Epitaphios during the course of the service. In either case, care must be given to preserve the proper decorum and solemnity.
The Readings to the Apolysis
After the Epitaphios has been deposited upon the Holy Table, the choir sings the hymn of the Prophecy. Then, the Reader intones the Prokeimenon (Ps 43) and reads the Old Testament pericope (Ezekiel 37.1-14). The Prokeimenon (Ps 9) and Epistle reading (1 Cor 5.6-8; Gal 3.13-14) follow. When the Epistle lesson has been concluded, the priest gives the peace to the Reader; and the Prokeimenon (Ps 67) with the Alleluia is chanted. Then, the priest bids the people to listen to the Holy Gospel and gives the peace in the usual manner. The priest proceeds to the amvon, where, by custom, he intones the pericope of the Gospel (Mt 27.62-66).
After the Readings, the priest intones the Dismissal Litany; gives the peace; and reads the prayer for the bowing of heads after the usual bidding.
The Apolysis is conducted in the usual manner. The prologue is peculiar to the day.
Since the office of the Hours has been omitted in parish usage, the Orthros service concludes the solemnities of Great Saturday. The Divine Liturgy which is now celebrated on Great Saturday morning properly belongs to the Paschal Vigil. Great Saturday is the only day of the year without a Divine Liturgy. While this is true also for Great Friday in current liturgical practice, at one time the Pre-sanctified Liturgy was celebrated on Great Friday.