The Origins Of Pascha

Rev. Alkiviadis Calivas

In worship we encounter the living God. Through worship God makes Himself present and active in our time, drawing the particles and moments of our life into the realm of redemption. He bestows upon us the Holy Spirit, who makes real the promise of Jesus to be in the midst of those gathered in His name (Matt. 18:20). In our ecclesial assemblies, therefore, we do more than remember past events and recall future promises. We experience the risen Christ, who is "clothed with his past and future acts," as someone has noted. Thus, all that is past and all that is future are made present in the course of our liturgical celebrations.

Pascha, which commemorates the resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, is the oldest, most venerable and preeminent feast of the Church. It is the great Christian festival, the very center and heart of the liturgical year.

Jesus' passion, death and resurrection constitute the essence of His redemptive work. The narrative of these salvific actions of the Incarnate Son of God formed the oldest part of the Gospel tradition. The solemn celebrations of Great Week and Pascha are centered upon these events. The divine services of the Week, crafted long ago in continuity with the experience, tradition and faith of the first Christians, help us penetrate and celebrate the mystery of our salvation.

The prototype of Pascha is the Jewish Passover, the festival of Israel's deliverance from bondage. Like the Old Testament Passover, Pascha is a festival of deliverance. But its nature is wholly other and unique, of which the Passover is only a prefigurement. Pascha involves the ultimate redemption, i.e., the deliverance and liberation of all humanity from the malignant power of Satan and death, through the death and resurrection of Christ. Pascha is the feast of universal redemption. Our earliest sources for the annual celebration of the Christian Pascha come to us from the second century. The feast, however, must have originated in the apostolic period. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to imagine otherwise. The first Christians were Jews and obviously conscious of the Jewish festal calendar. They scarcely could have forgotten that the remarkable and compelling events of Christ's death, burial and resurrection had occured at a time in which the annual Passover was being observed. These Christians could not have failed to project the events of the passion and the resurrection of Christ on the Jewish festal calendar, nor would they have failed to connect and impose their faith on the annual observance of the Jewish Passover. St. Paul seems to indicate as much when writing to the Corinthians,

"purge out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, since you truly are unleavened. For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth" (1 Cor 5:7-8).

The early Church rejoiced in the event of the Resurrection. The new and principal day of worship of the Christians was the first day of the Jewish week, i.e., the day in which the Lord was raised from the dead. They assembled on that day to celebrate the Eucharist, through which they proclaimed the Lord's death and confessed his resurrection. Eventually they gave this day a Christian name, the Day of the Lord, Kiriaki Hmera (Rev 1:10). It would be hard to imagine that the Christians of the first century would not have projected and connected in some new and significant way their weekly celebration of the sacred events of Christ's death and resurrection on the annual observance of the Passover.

Another point of interest in this connection is the emergence of the paschal fast and vigil. According to the earliest documents, Pascha is described as a nocturnal celebration with a long vigil, that was preceded by a fast. This suggests a connection with the Jewish rites of the Passover, even though there is a distinct difference of faith and rite between the Jewish and Christian observance. One such difference centers on the time of the celebration. The Jewish rite was an evening meal that ended at midnight while the Christian festival consisted of a long vigil that ended in the early dawn. It may well be that this delay was intentional, in order to distinguish the Christian night from the Jewish. Furthermore, the delay symbolized the fulfillment of the Passover by Christ, and thus signaled the transition from the old to the new Pascha. It has been suggested that this particular feature of the Paschal night prompted the persistent demand, which we encounter early on, that the Christian Pascha must come after the Jewish Passover.

According to the chronology of the Gospel of John, the Lord was crucified and buried on the day before the Passover and rose the day after. In the year we have come to number 33 A.D., the Passover fell on a Saturday. The crucifixion, therefore, occurred on Friday, while the resurrection happened early Sunday morning. Eventually, the celebration of Pascha in the early Church would be predicated upon this chronology.

In the beginning, the Christian Pascha was the occasion for the remembrance of the entire work of redemption, with a special reference to the Cross and the Resurrection. By the second century the churches of Asia Minor had come to observe Pascha on the 14 of Nisan, the day on which the Lord was crucified, while all the other churches observed Pascha on the Sunday after the 14 of Nisan, emphasizing the resurrection. These two ways of computing the date of Pascha gave rise to the Paschal controversies of the second century. At the beginning of the third century, these disputes were settled in favor of the Sunday observance of Pascha. However, difficulties with inadequate calendars continued to plague the local churches, until the issue was finally resolved by the First Ecumenical Synod of Nicea in 325 A.D. The Fathers of the Synod decreed that henceforth Pascha was to be celebrated on the first Sunday, after the first full moon of the spring equinox. The Synod, also, determined that the date would be calculated in accordance with the Alexandrian calendar. The Orthodox Church continues to maintain this order.

In the early Church, according to local custom, the celebration of Pascha was preceded by a one or two day fast. In a letter written to Pope Victor regarding the Paschal disputes, St. Irenaios (+ ca. 200) makes mention of the fasting practices that were being observed in his time by various local churches. He wrote,

“for the controversy is not only concerning the day, but also concerning the very manner of the fast. For some think that they should fast one day, others two, yet others more; some moreover, count their day as consisting of forty hours day and night. And this variety in its observance has not originated in our time; but long before in that of our ancestors."

It is clear from this testimony that fasting had become an integral element of the Paschal observance from the apostolic period. It probably came about as a result of the words of the Lord,

"can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come, when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast" (Matt. 9:15).

The Paschal fast, mournful in nature, came to honor the Bridegroom of the Church, who was taken away, crucified, and buried.

The original one or two day fast was expanded by many local churches to include the whole week before Pascha. This process began in the third century. During the course of the fourth century the week long fast had become a universal practice, and the week itself came to be known as "Holy and Great" (Agia kai Megali Evthomas).

The one week fast was increased still further by another development: the formation of the forty day period of the Great Fast or Lent (Agia kai Megali Tessarakosti). Lent represents the maximum expansion of the paschal fast. Though linked to the six day fast of the Great Week, the Lenten fast is separate and distinct from it.

The celebrations of the Great Week developed gradually and in stages. The chronology of the sacred events of the serial aspects of the passion and the resurrection, as recorded in the Gospel of John, would effect the development of the last three days of the Week (Thursday, Friday and Saturday); while the sayings of the Lord and the events in His life immediately preceding the passion, as recorded in the Synoptic Gospels, would effect the development of the first three days of the Week (Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday). In a subsequent development, the chronology of events pertaining to the raising of Lazaros and the triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, according to the Gospel of John, would bring about the configuration of a two day festival (the Saturday of Lazaros and the Sunday of Palms) immediately preceding the Great Week. These two festal days anticipate the joy and the victory of the resurrection, and bridge the Great Fast with the Great Week.

The single liturgical event commemorating Christ's death and resurrection expanded very early "as a result of a more historically oriented approach and a more representational type of presentation" of the Paschal mystery. Each aspect of the mystery was broken down, emphasized ritually, and assigned to the day of the week in which it had occurred.

Thus Great Week was born. The crucifixion, burial and resurrection of Christ, together with the event of the Mystical Supper, constituted the very heart and center of the Great Week. The solemn celebration of these events began on Thursday evening and ended on the early dawn of Sunday. During the course of the fourth century a process was set in motion by which the solemnities of the Week would be further enhanced and elaborated.

The Text-An Historical Overview

The divine services of Great Week are an expanded version of the series of services of the daily cycle of worship. As we shall see below, the services from Great Monday to Great Thursday are ordered in accordance with the Lenten form of the weekday services. From Great Friday to Pascha they are structured basically according to the festal form of these services.

The services of the daily cycle contain both fixed and variable elements. The fixed elements of the services are contained in the liturgical book called the Horologion - Horologion while, in the case of Great Week and Pascha, the variable festal elements are contained in the Triodion - Triodion and Pentecostarion - respectively. The prayers, petitions and litanies said by the priest and deacon are contained in the Hieratikon. I mention here briefly, that at the turn of this century both the fixed and variable elements of the services of Great Week, as well as the priestly prayers and petitions were gathered together in one volume, under the title "The Holy and Great Week." But, more will be said about this below.

The variable elements of the divine services of Great Week and Pascha, consist chiefly of a substantial body of hymns and a group of selected readings from the Scriptures. This material is found in the Triodion and Pentecostarion. The Triodion is the liturgical book of the Pre-Lenten and Lenten seasons (Great Fast), as well as Great Week; while the Pentecostarion is the liturgical book of the Paschal season. Together they contain the services of the movable cycle of feasts, which is determined and regulated by the date of Pascha, which changes from year to year. The movable cycle of feasts, with its manifold celebrations of sacred memories and events, covers a period of eighteen weeks and creates a rich and varied landscape in the liturgical year.

At one time these two books constituted a single volume divided into two sections. The first, which is the present Triodion, was known as the Penitential Triodion - Kataniktikon Triodion.

The second was called the Joyful Triodion or Harmosinon Triodion. At one point in the history of their respective development the two sections were separated to form two distinct liturgical books.

The decision to create two separate volumes out of one was of little consequence. However, the point chosen to part the texts in the sequence of the services was significant. The decision to conclude the services of the Triodion with the Paschal Vespers and Liturgy, and to begin the Pentecostarion with the Orthros of Pascha dramatically altered the unity of the Paschal vigil." We shall say more about this below.

The Triodion in its present form was first published in Venice in 1522 while the Pentecostarion was first published in 1568. Much of the material contained in the Triodion and Pentecostarion was composed, compiled and arranged by the monks of the Monastery of Studios in Constantinople during the course of the eighth and ninth centuries. Considerable additional materials, however, were introduced and incorporated into the texts in subsequent centuries, both for the older established feasts as well as for the new and emerging ones. The process of development continued through to the fifteenth-sixteenth centuries. By then, the texts of the divine services had become more or less settled. The same, however, cannot be said about the manner of celebration or ritual action, nor about the order and arrangement of the services. All of these, one could say, continue to be in a state of development.

Characteristically, in our liturgical texts many hymns and prayers do not bear the names of their authors. However, we do know a good number of them.

Many of the hymnographers, whose works are contained in the Triodion, before and after its formative period, came from places other than Constantinople, such as Palestine, Syria, Asia Minor, Greece and Southern Italy. Among these, the most prominent came from the Lavra of St. Savas in Jerusalem.

The hymns of Great Week and Pascha were written by some of the most excellent hymnographers of the Church. Among those whom we can identify we count: Romanos the Melodist (ca. + 560); Kosmas the Melodist, Bishop of Maiouma (ca. + 750); John of Damascus (ca. + 749); Andrew of Crete (ca. + 720); Leo the Emperor (ca. + 912); and Kassiane (ninth century); and others such as Methodios the Patriarch, Byzantios, Theophanes, Sergios the Logothete, Symeon, George the Akropolites, and Mark the Bishop. Others remain anonymous.

The hymns of Great Week and Pascha are probably the finest example of Orthodox hymnography, which in its totality, according to many, is among the very finest, if not the finest expression of Christian poetry.

The hymns of the divine services we are considering are richly ladened with theology and are replete with biblical language and imagery. They are superbly didactic and inspirational. They reach and touch all aspects of human experience at the deepest level. When properly executed, the nuances of the hymnography are especially enhanced by the traditional chant of the Church. It could be said of these hymns that they are a string of sermonettes in song, especially rich, inspiring and powerful both for their poetic beauty and melodic synthesis, as well as for their theological content and deep spirituality.

We experience worship essentially as a confession of faith. Therefore, the hymns and prayers of the divine services are more doctrinal than lyrical in nature. Thus, the service books of the Church are counted among the "symbolic books," and count as a source for doctrinal teachings.

The Liturgical Text According to Present Usage

The liturgical books presently used by the Orthodox Church have either originated in the monasteries or have been greatly influenced by monastic practices.

The Typikon Of St. Savas

The services of the daily cycle of worship as we know them today, reflect monastic usages and traditions; especially of the two monastic centers that produced and developed them, i.e., the Holy Lavra of St. Savas of Jerusalem and the Monastery of Studios in Constantinople.

The monastic liturgical tradition of the Orthodox East has come down to us through the "Typikon of the Church Service of the Holy Lavra at Jerusalem of our God-bearing Father St. Savas," popularly known as "The Typikon of St. Savas." As the title indicates, this Typikon originated at the Lavra founded by St. Savas (+ 532) at Jerusalem in the year 484. In the initial stages of its development, the Typikon was influenced by practices and customs of the early monastic communities in Egypt, Palestine and Asia Minor, as well as the Cathedral Office of Jerusalem, which had become a center of pilgrimage. During the seventh and eighth centuries the Typikon of St. Savas was revised and greatly enriched by the massive infusion of ecclesiastical poetry. In the course of the eighth century as a result of the iconoclastic controversy, the Palestinian monastic Typikon came to the monasteries of Constantinople, and especially to the Monastery of Studios. Due to the work of its hegoumenos St. Theodore (+ 826), this monastery had become the center of monastic revival and reform in the Imperial City. At Studios the Palestinian Typikon underwent a new synthesis. It was embellished further with new poetry and with elements of the Cathedral Office of Constantinople. The Studite rite spread to other monastic communities as well.

In a subsequent development, the Studite synthesis was reworked and further modified by Palestinian monks during the course of the eleventh century. In the process a new, revised Typikon of St. Savas was produced and established. This new revised monastic Typikon soon gained in popularity and use. At the beginning of the thirteenth century it began to replace both the Cathedral Office as well as the Studite synthesis at Constantinople. By the fifteenth century these usages had become defunct. The new, revised Typikon of St. Savas prevailed throughout the Orthodox world, until the nineteenth century. The position of the new Sabaite Typikon was especially solidified in the sixteenth century by virtue of its publication in 1545, thus becoming the earliest of the printed typika.

These revisions together with the infusion of new poetry composed by Sabaite and Studite monks and others, resulted in the formation of the Horologion and the liturgical books we know as the Octoechos, Triodion, Pentecostarion, and Menaia.

The Cathedral Or Sung Office

The Cathedral Office or Rite represents the type of services and liturgical traditions which from ancient times were practiced in the parochial or secular churches. These rites are called Cathedral, because the bishop's church was considered the center of all liturgical life. Consequently, the liturgical practices of the cathedral churches permeated the parishes.

In time, the Cathedral of Hagia Sophia at Constantinople would emerge as the single most significant Church edifice in the East. As Robert Taft has noted,

"... in no liturgical tradition has one edifice played such a decisive role as Justinian's Hagia Sophia ... where the Byzantine rite was molded and celebrated, and where the vision of its meaning, enacted elsewhere on a smaller stage, was determined and kept alive.”

The Cathedral Office at Constantinople, known also as the Sung or Secular Service (Asmatiki or Kosmiki Akolouthia) was regulated by the Typikon of the Great Church. It was called by that name, because Hagia Sophia itself was known as the Great Church (Megali Ekklisia).

The Cathedral Office had four services for the daily cycle: Vespers, Pannychis, Orthros and Trithekte. The structure, order and number of services differed from the Monastic Office. While elaborate and imposing, the Cathedral Office lacked the large body of hymnody contained in the revised Monastic Office. By comparison it had become the more staid of the two. For this and other reasons, it finally fell into disuse. However, as we have noted above, various elements of the Cathedral Office had already passed into the monastic Typikon. From the fifteenth century until 1838 all Orthodox Churches, whether parish or monastic, followed the same basic Typikon of St. Savas.

Typikon Of The Great Church Of Christ

By the beginning of the nineteenth century it had become obvious that the monastic typikon could not be sustained in parish usage. Already, numerous abbreviations and omissions were taking place. The Ecumenical Patriarchate, in an effort to forestall further arbitrary changes as well as to sanction existing practices and traditions, took an enormous first step towards revising the typikon and accommodating it to parish usage. In 1838 it authorized the publication of the The Ecclesiastical Typikon according to the Style of the Great Church of Christ - Tupikon Ekklisiastikon kata to ifos tis tou Christou Megalis Ekklisia - prepared by the Protopsaltis, Konstantinos. This typikon was clearly intended for parish use.

Subsequently, in order to correct the mistakes of Konstantinos, as well as to incorporate further revisions, the Ecumenical Patriarchate established two committees, one under Patriarch Joachim III (1878-84) and another under Patriarch Dionysios V (1887-1891), to study the issue of the Typikon and to make further recommendations. As a result of these efforts, the Patriarchate authorized in 1888 the publication of a second revised Typikon prepared by the Protopsaltis, George Violakis, under the title Typikon of the Great Church of Christ - Tipikon tis tou Christou Megalis Ekklisias. Violakis made many changes, including abbreviations and changes in the order of the services. The new typikon did not create a body of new material; but it did create a new liturgical practice, which is essentially a revised and abbreviated monastic office adapted to parochial usage.

It may be, as it has been suggested, that some of the revisions made by Violakis were ill-advised. Yet, inspite of its shortcomings, the effort must be commended as a necessary response of the Church to emerging needs and circumstances.

The new Typikon of Constantinople was adopted gradually by: the churches under the immediate jurisdiction of the Patriarchate; all Greek-speaking churches; and to a varying degree by other churches. The older Typikon of St. Savas continues to be used by most monastic communities, as well as the Churches of Jerusalem and Russia and others.

Liturgical Texts

The decision to develop a new Typikon, in order to regulate liturgical practices in the parishes and to give formal approval to established usages, was not free from difficulties and problems. One such problem was related to the liturgical texts themselves and the need to bring them into conformity with the new regulations. This was a formidable as well as a sensitive task. Nevertheless, the need was real and obvious. A process, though gradual and slow, was set in motion to accomplish the job. That process is still evolving.

To avert unnecessary tensions, one solution to the problem was to continue publishing the books related to the daily office (i.e. the Octoechos, Triodion, Pentekostarion and Horologion), in the traditional manner. This avoided the necessity to alter and or abbreviate the venerable texts., The priestly books, however, and the guides for chanters and readers reflected the order of the new Typikon. The burden was placed on the clergy and the chanters to wade through the materials and decipher the order. While this arrangement for the most part prevails to the present day, it had become obvious that it could not apply to the celebration of Great Week without severe difficulties.

Thus, in 1906 the Ecumenical Patriarchate approved the Publication of a single volume containing the services of Great Week and Pascha, under the title The Holy and Great Week - H Agia kai megali Evdomas. Besides the material from the Triodion and Pentecostarion, the volume contained priestly prayers and petitions, the designated pericope of the Scriptures and other useful items. The order of the divine services was in accordance with rubrics of the new Typikon of Constantinople.

This text spread and prevailed throughout the Greek-speaking Orthodox Churches. For the purposes of our study we shall refer to it as the Patriarchal Text. The order of the divine services described below is based on this text.

The Patriarchal Text was compiled and edited by Nikodemos P. G. Neokles, a cleric of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. This volume, however, was not unique. A similar work containing the divine services of Lent and Great Week was published a decade earlier by another cleric, Emmanuel Liodopoulos.

The Patriarchal Text o the Great Week was republished by the Apostolike Diakonia of the Church of Greece in 1953. This and subsequent editions of "The Holy and Great Week" of the Apostolike Diakonia found wide, if not universal, use among the Greek Orthodox parishes in the United States.

However, the demand for a bilingual text for use by the faithful of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America was becoming more apparent. To meet this need Archbishop Michael in 1952 commissioned the Press of the Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology to reprint the Greek-English text of The Services for Holy Week and Easter Sunday From the Triodion and Pentecostarion, printed by Williams and Norgate of London in 1915. This edition was soon exhausted.

To fill this void, Father George Papadeas, a priest of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese, compiled, edited and published in 1963 a new bilingual volume of the services of Great Week and Pascha. This book has been reprinted several times and has enjoyed considerable popularity. Because of this, it could be said that in some respects, it has determined the manner by which the divine services are celebrated and observed in many parishes of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese.

These English translations, together with others, such as the Book of Divine Prayers and Services, compiled and arranged by Father Seraphim Nassar (published in 1938) and the Service Book Of the Holy Orthodox-Catholic Apostolic Church compiled, translated and arranged by Isabel Florence Hapgood (1906 and 1922) found wide appeal and use among Orthodox peoples in the Americas.

Immensely important contributions to the study and knowledge of the liturgical tradition and rites of the Orthodox Church have been the publication of The Festal Menaion (in 1969, 1977) and The Lenten Triodion (in 1978), translated from the original Greek by Mother Mary and Archimandrite (now Bishop) Kallistos Ware. The excellent translation, as well as the scholarly introductory sections, appendices and notes provide the reader with a wealth of information and a deep appreciation of Orthodox liturgical theology.

Finally, we should note that during the course of Great Week, besides the services of the daily cycle of worship, we celebrate also the following services: the Liturgy of the Pre-Sanctified Gifts, on the first three days; the Vesperal Divine Liturgy of St. Basil on Great Thursday and at the Paschal Vigil; and the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom after the Paschal Orthros. On Great Wednesday we conduct the Sacrament of Holy Unction, and, in some places, especially in Cathedral Churches, the service of the "Washing of the Feet" on Great Thursday.


Throughout the centuries the faithful have observed Great Week and Pascha with fervor and great solemnity. Twice each day in the morning and in the evening, they would gather in the churches to celebrate the designated service at the appointed times.

However, at some point in history the appointed times of the services began to change. The morning services were moved to the preceding evening and the evening services to the morning. It is not clear when and why these changes began to occur. By the middle of the nineteenth century, if not much sooner, it had become a common practice throughout the Orthodox Church. P. Rombotes in his book Christianiki Ithiki met' Leitourgiki published in Athens in 1869 makes reference to the custom, as does the new Typikon of Constantinople. The reasons for the change appear to be ambiguous. Both Rombotes and the Typikon mention that it was done to accommodate the people. This may have meant any number of things. For example, the new Typikon hints at one such possibility. By mentioning the fact that the services were very lengthy, it implies that the transposition occured in order to address this problem. Another reason for the change may have come about as a result of some socio-political factors during the Ottoman rule. For example, a rule regulating the time for the public assembly of the Christian populace may have resulted in the shift of the services. Sometimes, an imposed practice in one generation or period has a way of becoming permanent.

Perhaps the most plausible reason for the rearrangement of the divine services is based on late medieval attitudes concerning the time of the celebration of the Divine Liturgy and the reception of Holy Communion. According to long held popular beliefs, it was thought that the morning hours of the day were the most suitable and acceptable for the reception of Holy Communion. This being the case, it follows that all celebrations of the Divine Liturgy should be placed in the morning hours, regardless of the fact that some such celebrations were in fact nocturnal in nature.

An additional factor of considerable importance, which may also help explain the transfer of the morning services to the previous evening is the vigil or extended nocturnal service. There were several different types of vigils in the early and medieval Church. Their structure, content and length varied according to purpose and local custom and usage. They were conducted as late night, all-night or pre-dawn observances. Vigils were held on the eve of great feasts as a sign of watchfulness and expectation. We know from several early and medieval documents that the Passion of our Lord was observed liturgically in both Jerusalem and Constantinople with some type of vigil service. There is sufficient evidence to connect the present Great Friday Orthros with these earlier vigil services. It is reasonable to assume from this that the present Orthros was originally observed as a nocturnal celebration. Thus, as the order and hours of the divine services of Great Week began to change and shift, this service - and by extension the other morning services of the Week - was advanced to earlier evening hours.

Whatever the reasons for the transposition of the services, we have in fact inherited a particularly peculiar tradition, which circumvents both the normal liturgical practice as well as the natural order of things. Beginning with Great Monday and lasting through Great Saturday, the divine services are in an inverted position. Morning services are conducted the evening before and evening services are celebrated in the morning of the same day. Thus, on Palm Sunday evening, we conduct the Orthros of Great Monday and on the morning of Great Monday we celebrate the Vespers with the Pre-Sanctified Liturgy. This pattern places us one half day ahead of the historical events and the natural order.

Of particular interest in this matter, is the order of the divine services for Great Thursday contained in the now defunct Typikon of the Great Church. The services of the Orthros and the Trithekte in this Typikon are assigned to the morning hours, while a series of long services are designated for the evening hours. They are: the Vespers, followed by the Nipter (Washing of the feet), to which the Divine Liturgy of St. Basil is added beginning with the entrance of the Gospel. Before Holy Communion was distributed, the Patriarch also consecrated the Holy Myron. After the Divine Liturgy came the service of the Pannychis. In the Cathedral Office the Pannychis was a type of vigil service. This particular Pannychis on Great Thursday commemorated the passion of the Lord ("Ti de auti espera eis tin ida ton pathon tou Kiriou imon Ihsou Christou…). The twelve Gospel pericopes narrating the events of the passion were read at this service. These pericopes are the same as those now read in the present service of the Orthros of Great Friday, which in current practice is conducted on the evening of Great Thursday by anticipation.

From this description we learn at least two things. First, that Great Thursday evening in the late medieval church was supplied heavily with a series of long services. Second, the commemoration of the passion was conducted in the context of a vigil service (the Pannychis) on the night of Great Thursday. Because of the length of these services, I think we can safely assume they lasted well into the night. Can we assume also that Great Thursday evening with its overburdened liturgy became the pivotal day in the process that saw the breakdown of liturgical units and their transposition to earlier hours? The Vesperal Divine Liturgy, for the reasons stated above, may well have been the first to be dislodged from its original moorings, moving steadily forward in the day until it came to be celebrated in the morning hour. Next, the Pannychis or Vigil lost its original meaning and began to gravitate to an earlier hour. As these arrangements gradually evolved, the transposition of the morning services to the preceeding evening became the established practice.

Difficult as it may be, however, I believe that the Church is obliged to press the issue through careful study and find a way to restore the proper liturgical order. She can do no less, if she is to be true to her quest for and commitment to liturgical renewal and reform. St. Symeon of Thessalonike (+ 1429), an inspired student and teacher of liturgy noted in one of his treatises that once the Church has clarified and determined correct liturgical usages, we are obliged to change even those things that have become a practice by default. While we must honor and reverence our liturgical inheritance, we are also obliged to look at it more carefully and to distinguish between Tradition and custom. Here let me stress the point that it is the Church in her collective wisdom that must authenticate the need and procede to the reform of liturgical practice and usage.


The salvific events, which the Church remembers and celebrates in Great Week, are rooted in the inexhaustible mystery of God's ineffable love for the world that culminated in the incarnation, the death and resurrection of His only-begotten Son and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

The solemnities of Great Week help us to enter and penetrate the depths of this mystery. Each day has a particular theme, focus and story. Each story is linked to the other; and all together, they are bound up in the central event: the Pascha of the cross and the resurrection - the stavrosimon kai anastasimon Pasxa. Everything converges on the person of Jesus Christ, who was betrayed, crucified and buried; and who rose on the third day. These events are the keystones of the structure of Great Week. Through them we embrace the mystery of our salvation. Their radiance helps us to see again more clearly the depth of our sins, both personal and collective. Their power bursts upon us to remind us again of God's immeasurable love, mercy and power. Their truth confronts us again with the most crucial challenge:

"... to dare to be saints by the power of God…To dare to have holy respect and reverence for ourselves, as we are redeemed and sanctified by the blood of Christ ... To dare to have the courage to grasp the great power that has been given to us, at the same time realizig that this power is always made perfect in infirmity, and that it is not a possession.”

Great Week brings us before two realities. On the one hand we are made aware of the dreadful blight of human sin, issuing from the rebellion against God that resides in us and around us; on the other hand, we experience anew the omnipotent, transforming power of God's love and holiness.

From the beginning, Jesus and His gospel were met by a twofold response: some believed and became His disciples; others rejected Him and came to hate him, and to despise and scorn His Gospel. These opposing attitudes towards the person and the message are especially evident in the events of Great Week. As the events unfold, false religiosity is unmasked (Matt. 23:2-38); and the hellish bowels of the power of darkness are laid bare (Lk. 22:53). Ensconced in the hearts of evil men - demonic, malignant and odious - the darkness seethes with deception, slander, deviousness, greed, cowardice, treachery, betrayal, perfidy, rejection, hatred and aggressive hostility. Evil, in all its absurdity and fury, explodes on the Cross. But it is rendered powerless by the love of God (Lk. 23:34). Christ is victor. Death is swallowed up. The tombs are emptied (Matt. 27:52-53). Life is liberated. God and not man controls the destiny of the world.

In the course of the events of Great Week we encounter many contrasting figures and faces that call to judgement our own dispositions towards Christ. Great Week is not simply a time to remember; it is a time for repentance, for a greater and deeper conversion of the heart. Two hymns from the Orthros of Great Tuesday say it best:

"O Bridegroom, surpassing all in beauty, Thou hast called us to the spiritual feast of Thy bridal chamber. Strip from me the disfigurement of sin, through participation in Thy sufferings; clothe me in the glorious robe of Thy beauty, and in Thy compassion make me feast with joy at Thy Kingdom.

"Come ye faithful, and let us serve the Master eagerly, for He gives riches to His servants. Each of us according to the measure that we have received, let us increase the talent of grace. Let one gain wisdom through good deeds; let another celebrate the Liturgy with beauty; let another share his faith by preaching to the uninstructed; let another give his wealth to the poor. So shall we increase what is entrusted to us, and as faithful stewards of His grace we shall be counted worthy of the Master's joy. Bestow this joy upon us, Christ our God, in Thy love for mankind."

In the solemnities of Great Week we experience afresh the embrace of God's love and forgiveness; the gift and promise of eternity and plenitude. Quickened and energized by the experience, we continue by faith to climb the ladder of divine ascent. Certain of His love, we live in the saving tension of joyous-sorrow (charmolipi) until He comes. With a repentant heart we live the joy of hope and the rapture of expectation for things to come (1 Cor. 2:9).


As the order in the liturgical books clearly indicates, the full cycle of the daily services is observed on each day of Great Week at least in principle. In practice, however, parish communal worship is generally centered on the daily Orthros and Vespers and the Divine Liturgies assigned to particular days. In the chapters that follow, I shall endeavor to give a detailed explanation of these divine services as they are currently observed and practiced. Each chapter begins with a brief reflection to help introduce the reader to the inner meaning of the observance. This is followed by some general observations and comments on the liturgical celebration of the day. Then, the order of the divine services of the particular day is presented, together with a description of special rites and an analysis of the rubrics. Finally, the reader will find useful historical, liturgical and bibliographical information in the endnotes.

The descriptions and rubrics of the divine services as we have noted are based chiefly on the book H Agia kai Megali Ebdomas, authorized by the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. For the sake of brevity, further reference to this book will be noted simply as, The Patriarchal Text.

Copyright: 2002-2003 Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America

Source: Rev. Alkiviadis Calivas


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