Holy Week is a very busy time in an Orthodox Church. There is at least one service every day, and some of them are quite long, but I think if you can follow the path toward Pascha, the Resurrection will be that much more meaningful and real. I say “I think” because there are several of these that I’ve never been to myself at this point… This following is adapted from the list of services at St. John. Other churches will do somewhat different things, but I thought this was a good overview of the last leg of this journey toward Pascha.
Holy Sunday, Monday and Tuesday evenings
Bridegroom Orthros services are so called from the haunting theme song which begins:
Behold, the Bridegroom comes at midnight
And happy is that servant whom he shall find watching,
But behold, unworthy is that servant whom he shall find heedless… (cf Matt. 25:1 ff, Luke 12:35 ff)
Our Lord is the Bridegroom whom His beloved bride, His people, were not ready to
receive. At these services we read the scathing prophesies addressed these three
days to the leaders of Israel (Matthew 21:18 – 23:39). Will we be ready when He
Holy Wednesday Evening
Unction: We bless oil and members are anointed with it for healing, for Our Lord’s death and Resurrection are for this as well: “By His stripes we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5). At this service the choir sings the first part, but the second half is mostly readings.
Holy Thursday afternoon
We serve the Vesperal Liturgy of St. Basil celebrating the Mystical Supper at which Our Lord washed His disciples’ feet and instituted the Eucharist.
Holy Thursday evening
Orthros of Holy Friday: During it we read twelve Gospel readings of Our Lord’s crucifixion, interspersed with some of the most beautiful hymns of the whole year. In the middle of this service a large Cross is placed in the center of the Church for veneration.
Holy Friday morning
Royal Hours of Holy Friday: We again contemplate the crucifixion, reading sections from the Gospel readings from the previous service.
Holy Friday afternoon
Great Vespers of Holy Saturday: The Epitaphios, a fabric with an image of the Lord laid in the tomb, representing the burial cloth of the Lord, is carried in procession and laid in the bier, which is covered with flowers. In some traditions, the bier represents His Tomb. In others, it represents the “Unction Stone” on which He was laid and wrapped in the clean linens and spices before He was placed in the tomb.
Holy Friday evening
Orthros of Holy Saturday: The Epitaphios is carried in procession around the Church. The many readings and hymns of the Holy Friday services present us with many the different facets of the awesome and compelling mystery of our Lord’s Passion. It is at this service that the Epitaphios taken from the bier to the altar, symbolizing Christ’s body being placed in
the tomb, which will also be the place of Resurrection.
Holy Saturday morning
Initiation of new members and Divine Liturgy: This is the ‘Blessed Sabbath’ on which God rested — in the Tomb, the real meaning of Genesis 2:2. It is the most appropriate time for Baptism, as those baptized are ‘buried’ with Christ to share His Resurrection (Romans 6:3-4). Lent has its origin as the last intensive preparation for those who would be baptized this day. Today we read from the 15 Old Testament readings appointed that illuminate Baptism, including the Creation from Genesis, and the Exodus, and we read the first Resurrectional Gospel from Matthew 28.
Holy Saturday night (and into Sunday morning)
Paschal Service: This is THE service of the year for Orthodox, and no one wants to miss it. At midnight all lights in the Church are put out. This is the darkness and silence of the Tomb. Finally the bishop or priest comes out of the altar with a candle. Everyone comes forward and lights a candle from this light. Carrying the candles, we make an outdoor procession to the front door of the Church. There we hear the greeting ‘Christ is Risen!’ for the first time and reply, ‘Indeed He is Risen!’ We will greet each other this way for forty days. We go into the Temple, now brightly lighted, and sing the joyous Paschal Orthros and the Divine Liturgy, and receive the Body and Blood of the Risen Lord. After this service we go to the Parish Hall and find the tables sagging with every kind of good food, and we celebrate together until quite late.
Pascha, Sunday afternoon
We gather for the joyous Paschal Agape Vespers (the Gospel is read in many languages) and more feasting.