One of the more profound moments of Holy Week for me is one that is relatively private—the changing of the colors of the altar table on Palm Sunday afternoon. There is a saying “clothes make the man” and in the church, the colors set the mood. I literally feel lighter on Good Friday night when we begin the transition from the week of Christ’s Passion and begin to move towards the Resurrection in earnest. And likewise, I literally feel the heaviness of Holy Week descend on the church as the colors change from the bright ones we saw on Palm Sunday morning, to the dark ones that will adorn the church for most of the week. In our community, we turn the lights down on Palm Sunday afternoon, and they don’t return to full strength until the Resurrection of Christ.
Saturday of Lazarus and Palm Sunday morning are a brief respite from the long journey of Great Lent. There is definitely a festive character to both services. Many churches have their largest crowd of the year on Palm Sunday morning. With the arrival of Palm Sunday evening, the mood changes. The crowds of people are gone. It’s actually interesting that the mood of the church reflects what was actually happening during the first Holy Week two thousand years ago.
After the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, Jesus retreated to Bethany, outside of the city, where He most likely was staying with Mary, Martha and Lazarus, as well as His disciples. We can imagine them sitting around their home, maybe around a fireplace, and Jesus offering His teachings about the end times, the last judgment and the other topics that are found in the Gospel chapters that lie between the account of Palm Sunday and the Passion of Christ.
Likewise, the first four nights of Holy Week do not have much “action” in the church services. Other than a procession with the icon of the Bridegroom on Palm Sunday night, there is little in the way of liturgical movements during the services that are known as “the service of the Bridegroom” or “Nymphios Service.”
An important liturgical note is that all of the evening services of Holy Week are actually Orthros, or Matins, services. Orthros is a morning service, that properly celebrated ends with the Doxology coinciding with the rising of the sun. That means that this service would begin in the pre-dawn hours. It is still that way in monasteries. Because it is not practical for the faithful to attend these services in the early morning hours, somewhere in the middle ages, the services were transposed to the evening hours. Thus, the Orthros of Holy Monday morning is now celebrated on the evening of Palm Sunday. The Service of the Passion of Christ, which is the Orthros of Good Friday, where we commemorate the crucifixion of Christ, is celebrated Holy Thursday evening. Finally, the Vespers services, which are generally held in the evening, have also been moved up 12 hours to the morning hours. Thus, the Vespers of Good Friday, where we commemorate the Last Supper, is Holy Thursday morning, leaving room for the service commemorating the Crucifixion to be held Holy Thursday night. All the evening services are Orthros services, with events in the Passion week happening about 12 hours before they would have occurred in real time. Hopefully this explanation clears up any confusion about why we have the services in the way we do.
One more liturgical note, which is that most Orthros services begin with a hymn that we heard on Palm Sunday morning—“God is the Lord, and He revealed Himself to us. Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.” The Orthros services during Lent (outside of Saturdays and Sundays) replace this hymn with a simple word “Alleluia.” “Alleluia” means “praise the Lord.” In the Bible, you will find this word spelled “Hallelujah” and it appears only six times—four in Revelation, and once each in the apocryphal books of Tobit and Maccabees. When Alleluia is sung at the Orthros service, it is sung four times, four sets of three Alleluias interspersed with verses (which appear below).
The Orthros services traditionally begin with six Psalm readings (during Holy Week, there are an additional two Psalms that are intoned before the six Psalms are read). The first hymn sung is the Alleluia. The hymn invites us to literally “praise the Lord.” We have discussed how there are hymns that supplicate the Lord (ask for things) and that the majority of hymns teach us things (didactic hymns). The most fundamental hymn, however, is a doxological hymn, a hymn that gives glory to God and invites us to do the same. These hymns establish (or perhaps re-establish) our connection with God and our worship of Him. He is the Almighty, the Creator. We are the creation, created by Him to share in His love. Alleluia reminds us of this.
Each service of Holy Week is going to be jammed packed with Scripture, theology, history and teaching. However, before we get to any of that each night, we lead off by singing the most simply hymn of praise to the Lord, Alleluia, which again literally means “praise the Lord.”
The practical life application of this hymn (and there is generally a life application in everything we sing or hear in the church) is that before we begin our busy days, that each morning we should pause to simply praise God, to acknowledge Him as Creator, to acknowledge Christ as our Savior, and to acknowledge ourselves as grateful servants of God, sharers in His creation, and recipients of His love and mercy.
From the early night-watch my spirit seeks You, O Lord, for Your commandments ae light on the earth. Alleluia. Alleluia. Alleluia.
Learn righteousness, you, who dwell on earth. Alleluia. Alleluia. Alleluia.
Envy shall seize upon an untaught people, and now fire shall consume the adversaries. Alleluia. Alleluia. Alleluia.
Bring more evils upon them, O Lord, bring more evils upon those who are vainglorious on earth. Alleluia. Alleluia. Alleluia. (From the Bridegroom Service, Trans. by Fr. George Papadeas)
Praise the Lord—a theme that will repeat at every service, a theme we should repeat in our own lives each day!