Holy Week starts on Palm Sunday and ends on Easter Sunday. This is the last week of the traditional fifty-day Lent. Through lent, sermons, prayers, and services, the church prepares the faithful for Holy Week. This is the time we celebrate five important events in the mission of our Lord Jesus Christ. During Holy Week, certain changes occur in the prayers and in the Holy Qurbana. The differences include the beginning prayer "kauma" (daivame nee parishudhan aakunnu) which changes to a different "kauma" for each day, according to the events that occurred. Other significant differences include: No prayers to Mary (Hail Mary, Full of Grace/Krupa Niranja Mariame), there is no peace giving in the Holy Qurbana, and there is no kissing of the hands (Kai Muthu) of the Bishop or priest conducting the services. (The faithful believers kiss the hand of the priest or bishop is to receive blessings. This is a tradition of the Syrian Orthodox Church and most of the Eastern Orthodox Churches. Priests and bishops are considered the messenger (Malachi 2: 7) of God and during the Eucharistic Service they touch the body and blood of Christ. It is considered a blessing to kiss the hands, which handled the holy mysteries.)
1) Palm Sunday
Palm Sunday is the day Jesus Christ entered in to the city of Jerusalem as the Messiah, the King of Israel. The people received news that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem for the feast of the great Passover and they went to see Him. Perhaps, they heard good things about Jesus, because He was associated with everyone, regardless of their wealth and status. He performed many miracles including the raising of Lazarus from the tomb after four days of his death. When the people saw him riding on a donkey into the city, they were filled with joy (believing that He would rescue them from the current rein of the king). The Holy Spirit embraced them and they Proclaimed, �Hosanna� (praise to the Lord), with branches from olive trees and palm leaves. They received Him as the King of Israel, the Messiah, and the one the people had eagerly been waiting for to redeem them from the rulers. They had anticipated Him to establish a New Kingdom in Jerusalem. Even with the objections of the high priests and the elders of Israel, the people welcomed Jesus with open arms. This was the fulfillment of the Prophesy made by the Prophet Zechariah (Zechariah 9:9). Matthew 21:1-11, Mark 11:1-10, Luke 19:28-40, and John 12:12-17.
We commemorate this day in the church with special services. The people of the church participate in a procession, while holding palm leaves. The ceremony includes blessing the palm leaves and requesting the faithful to hold the palm leaves until the conclusion of the Holy Qurbana. These events symbolize our readiness and eagerness to receive our Lord Jesus Christ in the Second Coming. Our hearts and spirit should be as enthusiastic and prepared to receive Jesus, just as the people of Jerusalem during the first Palm Sunday.
2) The Last Supper
During Holy Week we celebrate the establishment of the Holy Eucharist (The Holy Qurbana). This day is commonly known as the Last Supper, because Jesus had his Last Supper with his disciples on Wednesday during the Holy Week. The Orthodox Church gives the most importance to this day, as it is a new beginning of a new covenant. Jesus Christ celebrated the great Passover with the old tradition of the killing of the lamb, which was started from the last day of the captivity of Israel in Egypt, by the commandment of God through Moses (Exodus 12:1-12). Jesus and the disciples celebrated the traditional Passover and started the New Covenant with bread and wine, which transformed to the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. The old covenant ended with the blood of lamb and the new covenant began with the blood of Christ.
The day before the great feast of Passover, Jesus asked his disciples to prepare the Passover feast and they did just as He requested. Jesus celebrated the feast with his disciples the traditional way, except they used the leavened bread instead of the unleavened bread because He celebrated a day earlier than the real Passover. (According to the Passover tradition, any bread made before the actual day of Passover must be the leavened bread. This is the Orthodox Faith). During this supper, Jesus took the bread, blessed (consecrated) and said, �this is my Body eat of it�, likewise He took the Cup (wine) blessed (consecrated) and gave it to them, and said � drink of it, this is my blood, which is shed for many for the remission of sins and eternal life�. He asked them to do this in remembrance of Him until His Second Coming. Matthew 26:26-28, Mark 14:22-25, Luke 22:19-21, 1 Corinthians 11: 23-26.
Jesus Christ instituted the first Eucharist in the upper room of the house of St. Mark. For the Holy Qurbana, in our church we are using specially leavened wheat bread made with a special seal with thirteen crosses on it. Twelve of the crosses are small and one large cross, resembling Jesus Christ and His twelve apostles. Priests or deacons freshly make the bread on the same day of the service. We believe the consecrated bread and wine (the holy mysteries) are the body and blood of Christ not the resemblance as believed in many other churches. The faithful should not receive the Holy Mysteries without proper preparation, dedication, self-examination, and confession. (1 Corinthians 11:27). Also on this day, Jesus went to the garden of Gethsemane (Mount of Olives) to praying to God the Father, to strengthen Him to face the troublesome events that would take place moments later (Matthew 26:30-46, Mark 14:32-42, Luke 22: 39-46). He also asked the apostles to be awake and to pray to not enter into temptation (Matthew 26:41, Mark 14:38, Luke 22: 40, 46). This event reminds us of the importance of prayer in our lives. It is very important that we pray to God. Prayer is a link, which connects us to God. The other importance is Jesus washing the feet of the apostles to teach humbleness to the world. In the Orthodox Church if a bishop is present he performs the service of washing the feet on the evening of Thursday. The Bishop washes the feet of twelve priests, deacons, or men, to show the importance of being humble and loving one another. A Christian must remember that those that are humble will be exalted in the Kingdom of God.
3) Good Friday
Good Friday is another important day during Holy Week. The Orthodox Church gives much importance to the day. In our church we have the longest services for Good Friday commemorating Jesus� suffering and struggle endured on this day. We call this day "dukha velliyazcha" (sad friday) in Malayalam. Why is it a Good Friday in English and a sad Friday in Malayalam?
Jesus came to the world to provide salvation and remission of sins to mankind with His blood. He came down as the Lamb of God, and bore the sins of the world by sacrificing himself in Calvary (John 1:27, 36) for the sins of the world. He fulfilled the prophecies and gave His life on the cross on that Friday to bring back Adam and his children to Paradise. We receive the salvation through the sacrifice of Christ, which is why it is regarded as a Good Friday. We are sad because our sins are the cause of the death of our Lord. The reason it is referred to as a sad Friday is because we observe the loss of a son, brother, and friend through the sadness and tears shed by the mother of Jesus Christ, the disciples, and others who were close to Him.
The participation in Good Friday service reminds us of the pain, sufferings, and abuse endured by Jesus, the death on the cross, and the burial in the tomb by Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus. The bible readings, hymns, church doctrines, and the two processions (the first one remembering the journey of Christ carrying the heavy cross to Calvary, and second is to remind us of Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus carrying the body of Christ to be buried in the tomb) gives us the opportunity to see how much our Lord Jesus Christ suffered for us and allows the sinners to ask for forgiveness. The kneeling during Holy Week is for us to be humble and kiss our Lord's feet for all He has done for us. At the end of the service, the faithful drink a bitter substance (kaippu neeru) in memory of the sour wine that was given to Jesus Christ on the cross (Mathew 27:48, Mark 15:36, Luke 23:36, John 19:29). The four gospel writers, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John give much importance for the events that took place on Good Friday. The salvation we receive through the crucifixion of Christ on Good Friday makes it one of the most important days of an Orthodox Christian�s life.
4) Holy Saturday (memorial day for all the faithful departed ones)
The Saturday of Holy Week is called "dukha shaniazcha" in Malayalam. The Saturday after Good Friday our church remembers all the faithful departed people and especially remembers them in the holy Qurbana, and the church has special prayers for the departed ones with burned incense. Our Churches in Kerala, India have the tradition of going to the cemetery after the Holy Qurbana to pray for all the buried ones with the family members who are present in the church. We give the names of our departed ones to the priest to remember them especially in Holy Qurbana on their actual memorial day (date of their death) and two common memorial days which are acknowledged by our church. One is on the Sunday before the fifty-day lent and the other one is "dukha shaniazcha".
We believe that from the cross Jesus went down to Hell to bring back all souls of his people (Beginning with Adam all the way to the thief on the cross of his right side at crucifixion) to Paradise. Adam broke His commandment and brought sin and spiritual death to the world. Jesus Christ came down as a man and took all the punishment for the sins that began with Adam. Adam ate the fruit in the Garden of Eden, just as the sour wine given to Christ to drink as punishment. Adam disobeyed God causing Christ to endure beatings and sufferings. Adam was naked in Eden and they hung Christ naked (often a loincloth is seen on paintings and pictures of the crucifixion) on the cross. The blood shed by Jesus washed away the sins of Adam and the world. Christ was able to bring back His inheritance to Eden's Paradise. It was not a coincident that the cross of our Lord was placed on top of the tomb of Adam. The blood of Christ fell on the same ground where Adam was buried. This was the redemption God promised to Adam before he was cast out of Paradise.
5) Easter Sunday
"I am the resurrection and the life" (John 11:25). Easter is the most important and happy occasion for a Christian's life. Due to His resurrection on Sunday it is considered a holy day for the Christians, not the seventh day (Saturday) which was the Sabbath according the Law of Moses. The resurrection of Christ from His death was the fulfillment of the prophecies and the completion of His mission on earth. Jesus Christ rose from the dead and destroyed spiritual death, which had previously dominated the earth since the sin of Adam in the Garden of Eden. Christ wins over death and provides eternal life to all of His believers. After Christ�s resurrection, He appeared ten times to His followers. He was in the world for forty days then accented to heaven. The message of Easter is Peace, the heavenly tranquility that is granted to the world by Jesus.
Christianity is very different from the other religions of the world. In no other religion is there any mention of the founders, messengers, or gods resurrecting from their death. Christ's resurrection denotes the significant difference and constitutes its remarkableness and preservation over the centuries. Christianity is not a religion but it is a way of life. We as faithful Christian believers must observe Christ�s teachings and commandments. We must set an example for others to follow. We must not merely proclaim our title as Christians, but it is crucial to live in a manner that expresses the true meaning and value of Christianity. If one can see our life and proclaim us as Christians from our daily life, then in fact we are the quintessence of Christianity.
We celebrate Easter with special services in the church such as special songs, a red cloth, which is placed on the cross (the red color symbolizes the cloth worn by Jesus after the resurrection (Isaiah 63: 1-2). Also during Easter, a procession commemorates Jesus� journey to Galilee, immediately after His resurrection (Mark 16: 7).
When we celebrate Holy Week, we prepare ourselves, and attempt to live in holiness through prayers, meditation, confession, and receiving the Holy Qurbana. We must be willing to do whatever it takes to participate and endure the sufferings and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. As an Orthodox Christian believer, we must receive Jesus in our hearts and graciously appreciate the blessings and the salvation He has bestowed on us.
I wish everyone a blessed Holy Week. May God bless you
Rev. Fr. Joseph C. Joseph