Explanation of Holy Week from Fr Alexander Schmemann+

“Having fulfilled Forty Days… we ask to see the Holy Week of Thy Passion.”
With these words sung at Vespers of Friday, Lent comes to its end and we enter into the
annual commemoration of Christ’s suffering, death and Resurrection. It begins on the
Saturday of Lazarus. The double feast of Lazarus’ resurrection and the Entrance of the
Lord to Jerusalem (Palm Sunday) is described in liturgical texts as the “beginning of the
Cross” and is to be understood therefore, within the context of the Holy Week.  [Lazarus Saturday]   is a Sunday, i.e., a Resurrection, service on a
Saturday, a day usually devoted to the liturgical commemoration of the dead. And the
joy which permeates these services stresses one central theme: the forthcoming victory of
Christ over Hades. Hades is the Biblical term for Death in its universal power, for that
unescapable darkness and destruction that swallows all life and poisons with its shadow
the whole world. But now — with Lazarus’ resurrection — “death begins to tremble.” For
there the decisive duel between Life and Death begins and it gives us the key to the
entire liturgical mystery of Pascha. In the early church Lazarus Saturday was called
“announcement of Pascha”, it announces and anticipates, indeed, the wonderful light and
peace of the next Saturday – the Great and Holy Saturday, the day of the Lifegiving

Prayer:  We adore Thee O Christ and we bless Thee, for by Thy Holy Cross Thou hast redeemed the world.



Palm Sunday announces the meaning of victory as the triumph of the Kingdom of God, as the
acceptance by the world of its only King, Jesus Christ. In the life of Jesus the solemn
entrance in the Holy City was the only visible triumph. Up to that day, He consistently
rejected all attempts to glorify Him. But six days before the Passover, He not only
accepted to be glorified, He Himself provoked and arranged this glorification by doing
what the prophet Zacharias announced: “behold, Thy King cometh unto thee… lowly
and riding upon an ass.. “(Zac. 9:9). He made it clear the He wanted to be acclaimed and
acknowledged as the Messiah, the King and the Redeemer of Israel. The Gospel
narratives stress all these Messianic features; the Palms, the cry from the crowd of
“Hosannah”, the acclamation of Jesus as the Son of David and the King of Israel. The
history of Israel is now coming to its end, such is the meaning of this event, for the
purpose of that history was to announce and to prepare the Kingdom of God, the advent
of the Messiah. And now it is fulfilled. For the King enters His Holy City and in Him all
prophecies, all expectations find their fulfillment. He inaugurates His Kingdom. The
Liturgy of Palm Sunday commemorates this event. With palm branches in our hands,
we identify ourselves with the people of Jerusalem, together with them we greet the lowly
King, singing Hosannah to Him.

We, know however, that the King whom the Jews acclaimed then, and whom we
acclaim today, is on His way to Golgotha, to the Cross and to the grave, we know that
this short triumph is but the prologue of His sacrifice. The branches in our hands
signify, therefore, our readiness and willingness to follow Him on this sacrificial way and
our acceptance of sacrifice and self-denial as the only royal way to the Kingdom.
And finally these branches, this celebration, proclaim our faith in the final victory
of Christ. His Kingdom is yet hidden and the world ignores it.


O Lord and Master of my life, a spirit of idleness, despondency, ambition, and idle talking give me not.



Bridegroom Services (evening of Sunday-Wednesday)

“Behold, the Bridegroom cometh at midnight and blessed is he
whom He shall find watching, but unworthy is he whom He shall
find heedless. Beware, therefore, O my soul, do not be weighed
down with sleep, lest you be given up and shut out from the
Kingdom. But, rouse yourself crying: Holy, Holy, Holy art
Thou, O God. Through the Theotokos, have mercy on us.”

Midnight is the moment when the old day comes to its end and a new day begins.
It is thus the symbol of the time in which we live as Christians. For, on the one hand, the
Church is still in this world, sharing in its weaknesses and tragedies. Yet, on the other
hand, her true being is not of this world, for she is the Bride of Christ and her mission is
to announce and to reveal the coming of the Kingdom and of the new day. Her life is a
perpetual watching and expectation, a vigil pointed at the dawn of this new day… But we
know how strong is still our attachment to the “old day,” to the world with its passions
and sins. We know how deeply we still belong to “this world.” We have seen the light, we
know Christ, we have heard about the peace and joy of the new life in Him, and yet the
world holds us in its slavery. This weakness, this constant betrayal of Christ, this
incapacity to give the totality of our love to the only true object of love are wonderfully
expressed in the Exapostalarion of these three days:
“I behold Thy Bridal chamber richly adorned, O my Savior; but
I have no wedding garment to worthily enter. Make radiant the
garment of my soul, O Giver of Light and save me.”


But rather a spirit of chastity, humble-mindedness, patience, and love bestow upon me Thy servant.

Yea, O Lord King, grant me to see my failings and not condemn my brother; for blessed art Thou unto the ages of ages. Amen.


Service themes:  On Monday
At Orthros: Matthew 21:18-43; the story of the fig tree, the symbol of the world
created to bear spiritual fruits and failing in its response to God.
At the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts: Matthew 24:3-35; the great eschatological
discourse of Jesus. The signs and announcement of the End. “Heaven and earth will pass
away, but my words will not pass away.”

On Tuesday
At Orthros: Matthew 22:15-23:39; condemnation of Pharisees, i.e., of the blind
and hypocritical religion, of those who think they are the leaders of man and the light of
the world, but who in fact “shut the Kingdom of heaven against men.”
At the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts: Matthew 24:36-26:2; the End again and
the parables of the End: the ten wise virgins who had enough oil in their lamps and the
ten foolish ones who were not admitted to the bridal banquet; the parable of the ten
talents “… Watch, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” And, finally,
the Last Judgement

On Wednesday
At Orthros: John 12:17-50; the rejection of Christ, the growing conflict, the
ultimate warning: “Now is the judgement of this world… He who rejects me and does not
receive my sayings, has a judge; the word that I have spoken will be his judge on the last
At the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts: Matthew 26:6-16; the woman who
poured the precious ointment on Jesus, the image of love and repentance which alone
unite us with Christ.

One warning, one exhortation runs through all of them: the end and the judgement are
approaching, let us prepare for them



Yea, O Lord King, grant me to see my failings and not condemn my brother; for blessed art Thou unto the ages of ages. Amen.


Holy Thursday:  Two events shape the Liturgy of the Great and Holy Thursday: the Last Supper
and the betrayal of Jesus by Judas. The Last Supper is the ultimate revelation of God’s
redeeming love for man. The betrayal by Judas reveals that sin, death and selfdestruction
are also due to love, but love directed at that which does not deserve love.
The mystery of this unique day, and its liturgy where light and darkness, joy and sorrow
are so strangely mixed, challenges us with the choice on which the eternal destiny of
each one of us depends.

It is also on Holy Thursday that Holy Chrism is consecrated by the primates of autocephalous Churches,
and this also means that the new love of Christ is the gift we receive from the Holy Spirit
on the day of our entrance into the Church.  The Cherubic hymn and the hymn of Communion are replaced by the words of
the prayer before Communion:
“Of Thy Mystical Supper, O Son of God, accept me today as a
communicant, for I will not speak of Thy Mystery to Thine
enemies, neither like Judas will I give Thee a kiss; but like the
thief will I confess Thee: Remember me, O Lord, in Thy

Prayer:  O Most Holy Trinity, have mercy on us. O Lord, blot out our sins. O Master, pardon our iniquities. O Holy One, visit and heal our infirmities for Thy name’s sake.


So often we watch the beautiful and solemn
sadness of these services in the spirit of self-righteousness and self-justification. Two
thousand years ago bad men killed Christ, but today we — the good Christian people —
erect sumptuous Tombs in our Churches — is this not the sign of our goodness? Yet,
Good Friday deals not with past alone. It is the day of Sin, the day of Evil, the day on
which the Church invites us to realize their awful reality and power in “this world.” For
Sin and Evil have not disappeared, but, on the contrary, still constitute the basic law of
the world and of our life. And we who call ourselves Christians, do we not so often make
ours that logic of evil which led the Jewish Sanhedrin and Pontius Pilate, the Roman
soldiers and the whole crowd to hate, torture and kill Christ? On what side, with whom
would we have been, had we lived in Jerusalem under Pilate? This is the question
addressed to us in every word of Holy Friday services. It is, indeed, the day of this world,
its real and not symbolical, condemnation and the real and not ritual, judgment on our
life… It is the revelation of the true nature of the world which preferred then, and still
prefers, darkness to light, evil to good, death to life. Having condemned Christ to death,
“this world” has condemned itself to death and inasmuch as we accept its spirit, its sin, its
betrayal of God — we are also condemned… Such is the first and dreadfully realistic
meaning of Good Friday — a condemnation to death…But this day of Evil, of its ultimate manifestation and triumph, is also the day of
Redemption. The death of Christ is revealed to us as the saving death for us and for our

Prayer:  Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us. (3X)

The “Great and Holy Sabbath” is the day which connects Good Friday, the
commemoration of the Cross with the Day of His Resurrection. To many, the real
nature and the meaning of this “connection,” the very necessity of this “middle day”
remains obscure. For a good majority of Church-goers, the “important” days of the Holy
Week are Friday and Sunday, the Cross and the Resurrection. These two days, however,
remain somehow “disconnected.” There is a day of sorrow, and then, there is the day of
joy. In this sequence, sorrow is simply replaced by joy… But according to the teaching of
the Church, expressed in her liturgical tradition, the nature of this sequence is not that of
a simple replacement. The Church proclaims that Christ has “trampled death by death.”
It means that even before the Resurrection, an event takes place, in which the sorrow is
not simply replaced by joy, but is itself transformed into joy. Great Saturday is precisely
this day of transformation, the day when victory grows from inside the defeat, when
before the Resurrection, we are given to contemplate the death of death itself… And all
this is expressed, and even more, all this really takes place every year in this marvelous
morning service, in this liturgical commemoration which becomes for us a saving and
transforming presence.


Prayer:  Christ is Risen…indeed He is Risen!