Saturday, April 23, 2011

Great and Holy Saturday -- Lamentations and Procession of the Bier

If there is anything that a person relatively new to Orthodoxy can say to someone who is not Orthodox that is almost guaranteed to irritate the non-Orthodox, it is "I can't really describe it for you -- you have to come and see." The fact that this is a true statement doesn't help much. It is something to which most non-Orthodox cannot fully relate.

Such it is with Holy Saturday services (celebrated on the eve of Holy Friday by anticipation). It had been explained to me what would happen (and I will explain it to you), but words simply are inadequate to describe this service. First, a funeral bier is decorated with flowers by the children in the congregation. The bier is then set up in the middle of the nave, front and center of the solea. Then there is the Service of the Taking Down from the Cross, where Christ's corpus, having been nailed (yes, nailed) to the cross the evening prior, is now taken down off the cross. The corpus is wrapped in burial cloths and taken behind the altar, and the Epitaphios (a cloth icon of the burial of Christ) is placed on the bier. The now-empty cross is set up behind the bier and (in our case) to the right.

The Service of the Lamentations begins Friday evening. I had been told what would happen, so nothing particularly was a surprise except for the great beauty and reverence of this Service. The Canon is chanted, and the Lamentations are sung, but the really amazing part was when the bier was picked up and elevated as with any other funeral procession, the entire parish lit candles and the Priest led the bier, followed by the choir and congregation, on a procession around the parish grounds singing the Trisagion hymn:

Holy God
Holy Mighty
Holy Immortal
have mercy on us

Then, when we arrived again at the parish entrance, the bier was elevated, and each and every member of the parish re-entered the parish by walking in under the bier and Epitaphios. We enter the Church through the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Christ, and this act symbolizes that it is our grave -- our death -- which Christ has now entered.

Even with this level of detail, words cannot describe, and frankly what I've written above does not do justice to, what we experienced. The Lamentations themselves are simply beautiful. Likewise the Canon. As my friend and Chrismation sponsor told me before the service, "anyone who leaves this service not understanding why we hold the Mother of God in such high esteem doesn't have a soul." The weight of my own sin, the price that was paid for that sin, the great love that was demonstrated by the act of laying down His own life that by His death, Hades might swallow a man and choke on God Almighty -- and yet the words above are insufficient to explain. It must be experienced.

Following the Service of the Lamentations, members of the parish stayed behind for an all night vigil. So in addition to watching the beauty of the Service of the Lamentations, I was able to participate (in a small way) in the reading of the entire Psalter and most of the four Gospels. We got more than halfway through the Gospel According to Saint John before it was time for the Vesperal Divine Liturgy this morning. Like the Apostles before me, I fell asleep and missed a fair amount of the readings. But that's one of the beautiful things about the Church -- she was praying even as I was unable in my weakness to do so myself. Sitting in the darkened Church, with the Psalter and the Gospels being read and only candles to light the room was quite peaceful. Silence and stillness, broken only by the Word of God. Again, something that words cannot describe -- this too must be experienced.

Everyone is telling me that if I thought last night was beautiful, tonight will be even better. We therefore anticipate all the more Christ's Holy Resurrection.

1 comment:

David Garner said...

The bier at the top of the post is the actual bier in our parish, in the process of being decorated. Since I didn't have a photograph of our entrance, the one at the bottom is from a procession in Greece.