The Good Friday burial procession

The first Eastern Orthodox service I have ever attended occurs again tonight. On the evening of Good Friday, we commemorate the burial of Jesus’ body (we commemorate the crucifixion itself earlier in the day). The service includes hymns about the crucifixion, and burial of Jesus, and about Joseph of Arimathea, the man who claimed Jesus’ body from Pilate and whose tomb Jesus is buried in.

The highlight of the service is the procession around the church, we carry a bier, a flowery arrangement which is meant to represent Jesus’ body or coffin.

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I would describe the procession as “hauntingly beautiful”. The bier is at the head, with the choir and the rest of the congregation trailing behind. During the procession, we sing the Trisagion, one of the most commonly used prayers in the Orthodox liturgy. It simply goes,

Holy God, Holy mighty, Holy immortal have mercy on us!

This prayer is sang at almost every Orthodox service, but usually set to upbeat music. For the funeral procession, we switch to singing these words in slow, sad music. Listen to it here!

I like that this procession makes us feel like we are mourning the death of Jesus with his first followers. Orthodox Christians believe that it is not possible to know God merely through intellectual understanding, but rather that divine revelation includes the participatory and experiential as well.

Thus our Good Friday does not just include theology of the crucifixion and of atonement (although there is a great deal of that in the services too).  It also places us with the first Christians on the day of Jesus’ burial, and we get to feel a bit of that sadness, anxiety and longing they must have felt, as the executioner’s cross ended the man we hoped would heal our infirmities, rescue us from bondage, relieve our pains.

But as we mourn with these earliest believers, we also get to hope with them. Did he not promise that he would return from the dead after three days? And as the sad, slow Trisagion rings out in the crowd,  I can’t help but wonder what an odd thing it is to sing “Holy Immortal” in a funeral.

 

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Christ the Bridegroom

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For most of Holy Week, Orthodox churches display this particular icon of Jesus Christ, known as “The Bridegroom”. The name is taken from the parable of the ten virgins in Matthew 25:1-13.

My copy of the icon came with an insert that contained a brief explanation of the icon.

As a husband is to his wife so is Jesus Christ to His Church. His Crucifixion is His marital vow and His mockery and beating His wedding feast. The Bridegroom icon shows Christ stripped of His garments and clothed in a scarlet robe to mock Him. He wears a crown of thorns, causing blood to flow from the wounds. A reed is placed in His bound hands as a scepter.

In Christ’s halo are the Greek letters for “I AM,” to remind us that Christ is the All-Powerful God who freely chose to experience pain and death. For the first three days of Holy Week this icon is placed prominently in the Church to remind us of Christ’s great love and great suffering.

This is one of my favorite depictions of Christ. I purchased my copy of this icon immediately after my first Orthodox Holy Week service. The church had a very large copy, close to a meter tall, and it made a very strong impression.

I was struck by this beautiful, sad, juxtaposition of joy and pain. The allusion to marriage is a strong one, and a significant part of this icon’s emotional power. Here is a picture of the crowns worn by the bride and groom in a Greek wedding. Note the similarity to Christ’s crown of thorns:

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This icon’s reference to the parable of the ten virgins is a warning against complacency. We have to prepare ourselves to follow Christ, to love and sacrifice as He did. To neglect this preparation leads to our destruction.

Thus in our Lenten journey, in our marriages, and in our Christian lives, we have to learn to be patient, to set aside our wants and desires, and to suffer deeply for the sake of those we love. What a perfect message to close out the Lenten season!