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April 25, 2019

The Secret Supper, the Washing of the Feet, the Twelve Gospels, the Epitaphios and the Paschal Vigil

By Archimandrite Vassilios Papavassiliou

The Secret Supper

As we come to the end of Great Wednesday, we move on from the theme of the Bridegroom, and on Great Thursday we commemorate the Secret Supper and Jesus washing the feet of His disciples. In the morning, a full Eucharistic Liturgy of St Basil the Great is served in combination with Vespers. The relationship between the Secret Supper and the Eucharist is obvious, but many Orthodox talk about this Secret Supper as though its sole purpose was to establish the sacrament of Holy Communion. This is just silly. I am not trying to play down the reality of Holy Communion as the Body and Blood of Christ or its connection to the Secret Supper, but there is more to the acts and words of the Secret Supper than this.

Christ showed His Apostles what He was about to do for us. In breaking the bread and saying “this is my body which is broken for you for the forgiveness of sins”, and giving them the cup and saying “this is my blood which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins”, He was illustrating what He was going to endure and to what purpose. Before He took the bread and wine, he said to the Apostles: “No man has greater love than this: to give his life for his friends”. When he commands us to “do this in memory of me”, he does not just mean, “celebrate the liturgy in memory of me”, he also means “sacrifice yourselves for others as I have done for you, in memory of me”. When Christ said “whoever does not eat my flesh and drink my blood has no life in him”, he meant more than taking Holy Communion, as important as that is. He meant also that without his love in our hearts, we have no life in us. It is with such love that we ought to take Holy Communion.

The Washing of the Feet

During the Gospel Reading at the Liturgy, we have the foot-washing rite. Here the bishop renders a dramatic re-enactment of Christ’s washing the feet of his disciples, with twelve priests or deacons, but in many places this is impossible, and so people are selected from the laity. According to the Gospel narrative:

‘Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a bowl and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered, “You do not understand now what I am doing, but later you will understand. Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet".'

The task of washing someone’s feet is hardly a task fit for a King. It is the task of the lowest servant or a slave, and so Peter refuses to allow Christ to wash his feet.‘Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me”.' In other words, “If I am to bring you up to my level, I first must come down to yours”. 'Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!”’ What St Peter is saying here, in other words, is, “if washing me is a yardstick for measuring how close I am to you, then never mind the feet, I want the full monty!”

I spoke of the foot-washing rite as a dramatic re-enactment, but it would be a mistake to suppose that there is nothing more to it. It is no coincidence that it is the bishop who performs the rite of foot washing. Christ said that, “Whoever wants to be the first must be the last, and whoever wants to be the greatest must become the servant of all”. The bishop is the holder of the highest office in the Church. He is Christ’s representative and stands in the place of Christ Who, in His own words, “came not to be served, but to serve”, and so bishops ought to do the same.

The Twelve Gospels

Let us now turn our attention to the service of Great Friday that takes place on Thursday evening. At this service, we have the reading of the Twelve Gospels, which tell us the accounts of Christ’s trial, suffering and death. The Fifth Gospel sees Christ sentenced to death by crucifixion, and so, after this Gospel Reading, the priest takes the crucifix that stands before the altar, and, preceded by lamps, he carries it around the church in procession and places it in the center. Bear in mind what I said earlier: how the church expresses her wonder at God’s humility; the Creator doing things for us which are, quite frankly, degrading. Nowhere is this more emphatic than in the hymns of Great Friday. I have selected two hymns from Great Friday, and the first is the hymn that is chanted during and immediately following the procession of the crucifix:

Today, He who hung the earth upon the waters is hung upon a tree.

The King of angels is decked with a crown of thorns.

He who wraps the heavens in clouds is wrapped in the purple of mockery.

He who freed Adam in the Jordan is struck on the face.

The Bridegroom of the Church is affixed to the cross with nails.

The Son of the Virgin is pierced by a spear.

We venerate your passion, O Christ.

Show us also your glorious Resurrection.

It is worth noting here the reference to the Resurrection. The Orthodox Church on Good Friday does not think of Christ’s human pain and suffering in isolation. We marvel at the paradox of God suffering on the Cross – the strange contrast between his humiliation and His eternal glory. The Crucifixion is not about the suffering of a good man; it is about the suffering of God Himself. Behind the image of this broken and humiliated figure, the Church still discerns the Second Person of the Holy Trinity. The Crucifixion, Burial and Resurrection are all seen as one action, and therefore, even in the Crucifixion itself, we already sense victory. The Resurrection is inevitable. This person on the cross is mortal only in His humanity, but in His divinity He is eternal. He is the giver of life, the source of life. Death is contrary to His divine nature. The Crucifixion can end in only one way: Resurrection. It is not wishful thinking. It does not come to us as a surprise. The Church, on Great Friday, awaits the Resurrection with eager expectation.

The second hymn I have selected follows shortly after the Ninth Gospel. This is perhaps the darkest moment of Holy Week. The hymn is chanted slowly in plagal of the second mode, which is a dark, almost eerie, tone:

They have stripped me of my garments
And have clothed me in a scarlet robe.
They have set upon my head a crown of thorns
And have given me a reed in my right hand…

Here we have an uncompromising expression of Christ’s humiliation, but when we come to the last line, the focus shifts entirely:

…That I might smash them in pieces, like a potter’s vessel.

Even now, in this utterly humiliated man, the Church still perceives the King of Glory coming to judge the world. I mentioned that because we see the Resurrection as inevitable and consider the Cross, Burial and Resurrection to be one action, we anxiously anticipate the Resurrection even on Great Friday. This is even more true of Great Saturday.

The Epitaphios

The service of Great Saturday is effectively a funeral service for Christ, and yet it is the most colorful service of Holy Week, because we have already begun to celebrate the Resurrection. The Epitaphios which represents the tomb of Christ, is adorned with an array of flowers, and is carried in a solemn and yet joyous procession outside the church. There is on Great Saturday a clear, steady progression from sorrow to joy. The Engomia or Lamentations – those beautiful dirges that we sing on the evening of Great Friday in honor of Christ’s death – begin in the sombre plagal of the first mode, then becoming brighter and ending in the joyful and festive third mode. This progression continues and accelerates into Great Saturday morning, when the celebration of the Resurrection becomes more explicit.

On Great Saturday we remember Christ’s burial and His descent into Hades. Why is this important? The whole point of Christ becoming a man is to restore mankind’s relationship with God. Christ is both God and man at once, and so it is only through Him that this restoration can happen. Christ, therefore, had to undergo everything that we do; and one thing that we all undergo without exception is death. Whatever Christ has done, whatever He has taken on and made His own, has been made holy by virtue of His divinity – a way to salvation. In effect, He paved a road for us. It is the same road that we have always trodden, but He made it a road to the Father, to paradise. In order to make death a passage to paradise, he had to endure death Himself. By doing this, he destroyed the power of death, because God is the source of life. By undergoing a state of death, He altered the very nature of death and made it a source of new life. This defeat of death is beautifully expressed in a hymn which we sing on Great Saturday morning, again chanted in the joyful third mode. It is a poetic hymn, personifying Hades and telling us the story of Christ’s descent into Hades from Hades’ point of view:

Today Hades cries out groaning: “I should not have accepted the man born of Mary; He came and destroyed my power. He shattered the gates of brass; He has raised the souls which I had held captive”. Glory to your Cross and Resurrection, O Lord.

Today Hades cries out groaning: “My authority has been taken away; I received a mortal man as one of the dead; but I was powerless to contain Him; Because of Him I have lost those whom I ruled. For ages I had dominion over the dead, but behold, He raises all”. Glory to your Cross and Resurrection, O Lord.

Today Hades cries out groaning: “My power has been trampled on; the Shepherd has been crucified and Adam is raised. I have been deprived of those whom I ruled. Those whom I swallowed in my strength I have given up. He Who was crucified has opened the tombs. The power of death has been vanquished”. Glory to your Cross and Resurrection, O Lord.

The Paschal Vigil

Throughout our journey along Holy Week, the tension building up to the Resurrection has been growing steadily greater, and it finally reaches its climax at the Paschal Vigil. I challenge anyone to be present at this midnight service without being caught up in the sense of universal joy. After all the anxious expectation of the Resurrection, there is an overwhelming sense of liberation, satisfaction and joy, as the church which was previously in darkness floods with light and we sing with inexhaustible joy:

“Christ is risen from the dead; by death trampling on death, and to those in the tombs granting life”.

The sense of liberation is even greater for those who have fasted and attended the services of Great Lent. The long austere fast is over. The time for kneeling and prostrations has ended. Religious disciplines have been relaxed. Furthermore, this joy is enhanced by Holy Communion at the liturgy which follows the midnight service. It is therefore a shame that so many choose to go home before the Liturgy begins. Indeed, it is quite embarrassing that, after the priest has sung the verse “Let God arise and let His enemies be scattered”, half the congregation clears off! Before the distribution of Communion, we chant “Receive the Body of Christ; and taste of the Immortal Spring”. In other words, “the proof of the pudding is in the eating”. To really experience Christ, we ought to taste him in the Eucharist.

Source: The Youth Conference & Workshop held at the Greek Orthodox Parish Community Hall of the Holy Cross & the Archangel Michael, Golders Green, London, 14th April 2006.