By John Sanidopoulos
The Services of Holy and Great Week are initiated with the Service of Matins on Sunday evening, in what is called the Bridegroom Service. The Matins Bridegroom Service is repeated with different themes in the evenings of Holy Monday, Holy Tuesday and Holy Wednesday. Holy Thursday evening is the Matins Service of the Passion containing Twelve Gospel Readings, while Holy Friday evening is the Matins Service of the Burial of Christ. On Holy Monday, Holy Tuesday and Holy Wednesday mornings are Presanctified Divine Liturgies, which are connected with Great Vespers. Holy Thursday morning is a Vesperal Liturgy to commemorate the First Divine Liturgy, and Holy Saturday morning is the Vesperal Liturgy of the First Resurrection. The only services done in real time during Holy Week are the Services of the Hours on Holy Friday, where no liturgy takes place that morning.
This unique liturgical arrangement, where Matins is served in the evening and Vespers in the morning, is not done out of mere anticipation, but it in fact has a practical purpose to encourage participation.
First, since the celebration of the Divine Liturgy is not allowed during Holy Week, just as it is not allowed during weekdays of Great Lent, a Presanctified Liturgy is served instead on Holy Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday to allow the faithful to daily partake of Holy Communion if they wish. A partial celebration is allowed on Holy Thursday to commemorate the First Divine Liturgy, which was the initiation of the new covenant at the Passover meal with Christ and the Apostles. Then another celebration is the Vesperal Liturgy of the First Resurrection on Holy Saturday.
Since Orthodox Christians are to keep a complete fast before participating in the Holy Eucharist, these daily Vesper services were moved to the morning to allow as many people as possible to participate in the Holy Eucharist, without having to fast the entire day beforehand, a fast which customarily should begin at midnight the night before one receives Holy Communion.
Second, and most importantly, the themes of Holy Week are most expressed through rich hymnography and dramatization in the Matins services of Holy Week, and these are the services the Church wants its faithful to participate in the most. Since morning services are difficult services to attend daily, they were moved to the evening in order to encourage people to participate in them daily.
This leads us to the third reason, which is entirely based on sentiment and weakness. The fact of the matter is, our Holy Week services should not be done out of their normal arrangement. Morning services should be done in the morning and evening services should be done in the evening. Until recently, many villages in Greece still did this for some of the services, and even today the Epitaphios Service, which is a Matins service done in parishes on Holy Friday evening, is done early on Saturday morning in some places in Greece, as it should be.
So why do we continue to have morning services in the evening and evening services in the morning? It comes down to dramatics. Out of the four Bridegroom services, the most attended is the first one, the least attended is the second and fourth one, and the third one falls second highest. Why? The first contains the most drama, when the icon of the Bridegroom is processed around the church, while people hold candles and kneel. People love this dramatic and emotional representation, so they attend it. The second and fourth don't have any major drama going on, so people don't attend them as much. However, the third one on Holy Tuesday evening has the dramatic rendering of the Hymn of Kassiani, which people love, so they attend it. Of course, Holy Thursday evening and Holy Friday evening contain so much drama, with the procession of the Cross, Twelve Gospel readings and the procession outside the church with the Tomb of Christ (Epitaphios, Kouvouklion), that people attend these to capacity. And let's not forget the drama of the Holy Unction service of Holy Wednesday and the Vespers of Holy Friday with the taking down of the image of Christ from the Cross and the introduction of the decorated Epitaphios, which also bring in a lot of people. And though there is a lot of drama Holy Saturday morning with the First Resurrection, it is fairly well-attended but not so much, though this is only because many are tired from the service the night before, they are preparing meals for Easter, and they don't want to over-burden themselves with too many services since they will be attending one that night at midnight.
However, what would happen if we removed all or at least most of the dramatics, which are late innovations anyway, and reestablished morning services as morning services and evening services as evening services? It's difficult to say. Holy Week services will probably have less of an attendance, but liturgically and chronologically they would make more sense. Personally I believe that there should be at least one parish, in an area of many parishes, that does do it the right way, with morning services in the morning and evening services in the evening, for those who want to attend this cycle of the Holy Week services. But as things stand now, they will probably remain as they are, since now what we have has become established custom, and when you add drama to custom, it becomes like a seal over that custom that is difficult if not impossible to break.