The Eastern Orthodox faithful are commemorating Palm Sunday today. The most solemn events will be enacted liturgically in the church in the coming days.
Clergy and church members will relive the great mysteries of salvation, which will culminate with the celebration of the Holy Resurrection.
Orthodox Christians will spend this week preparing for their Easter celebrations on April 20.
For Orthodox Christians, the largest portion of the Great Fast is the 40 days of Lent.
Great Fast continues
Lent ended Friday, but the Great Fast continues with the feast of the raising of Lazarus on Saturday, which is why there was a triumphal entry of Jesus into the city of Jerusalem as palm branches were laid before him.
“In our tradition, we bless pussy willow branches along with palms,” said the Very Rev. Protopresbyter Robert A. Buczak, dean of Christ the Saviour Cathedral in the West End section of Johnstown.
“The soft buds of the willow branches are the first to come forth in our area from the harsh and long winter.”
Easter offers people a new purpose, meaning and direction to their lives. Through Christ’s death, people may no longer fear their own deaths and look at it as a pathway to the kingdom of God.
Everything builds during Holy Week. From Holy Monday, the daily services remind the faithful that Jesus, the bridegroom of the church, is coming, and they need to be ready to welcome him by living the Christian life he taught. The liturgical services mirror the biblical account.
The first three liturgical days of Holy Week have been reflections upon all the gospel passages in which Jesus speaks about the end time.
“They remind us that Holy Week and Easter are not simply annual religious celebrations, but a reminder of the second coming of Christ and how we are to live in the reality of the kingdom of heaven in the present days,” Buczak said.
Holy Thursday is the commemoration of the Mystical Supper.
“For Orthodox Christians, we do not replicate nor symbolically ‘act out’ the Last Supper, but we celebrate the Mystical Supper in the new kingdom,” Buczak said.
On Holy Friday morning, the Gospel accounts of the Crucifixion of our Lord are read.
“In the evening, the children of the parish process with the priest as he carries the burial shroud of Jesus around the church and lays it into a tomb,” Buczak said.
“In Orthodox tradition, although we do commemorate Jesus’ death on the cross this day, Christ is not depicted with is eyes closed and slumping of the cross. His cross is the ‘life-giving cross.’
“By his death on the cross, he has taken on the sins of all humanity and has enabled all to find eternal life through his cross,” Buczak said.
The Rev. George Johnson of St. John the Baptist Orthodox Church, 427 First St. in East Conemaugh, said Good Friday is the most spiritually intense day of the church year.
On Great and Holy Friday, the Orthodox Church commemorates the death of Christ on the cross. This is the culmination of the observance of his passion by which the Lord suffered and died for people’s sins.
Friday includes at least three services of royal hours, vespers and service of the vigil at the tomb.
Although the day is filled with the services of the church, there is no Divine Liturgy served on Friday.
Holy Friday is a day of total fasting.
“Holy Friday is truly a strict fast day, in the fullest sense of the term,” Johnson said.
“We eat nothing at all (at least until after the Friday vespers) unless someone needs to do so, with a strict fast menu.”
Good Friday is kept with the entire day being a liturgical meditation of the awesomeness of the passion and death of Jesus Christ by which the faithful are granted the gift of new life.
“This is done through the repetition of the gospel accounts, together with readings from Old Testamental prophecies concerning men’s redemption, and from letters of St. Paul relative to man’s salvation through the sufferings of Christ,” Johnson said.
The day of Great and Holy Saturday is a “day of waiting,” Johnson said.
“This is revealed in the services, that Christ lies dead, yet he is alive; and those who have died with him are alive in him (Romans 6:5-9),” he said.
Buczak said on Saturday evening, after dusk, services include the Resurrection Matins service. The service begins inside the darkened church. Then, the entire congregation with lit candles glowing, exits the church.
“We are going to the tomb to anoint the body of our Lord, but when we arrive outside at the front doors of the church, we find that he is risen,” Buczak said.
In Orthodox tradition, Easter is officially called Pascha, the word which means Passover.
Jesus Christ has now passed over from death to life, and the faithful celebrate the Resurrection of the Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ.
Sunday morning after Divine Liturgy, clergy bless Easter baskets.
Johnson said the best reflection that people can gain with the meditations on Holy Week and Easter (Pascha) is that, because God does not change, God’s love for people never changes.
“No matter what goes on in this world, and therefore no matter what things are affecting our lives at this moment, we have the constant love of the changeless God, there to transform and sustain our lives, for all those who will truly seek him,” he said.
Tom Lavis covers Features for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter.com/Tom LavisTD.