Written by Marisa Hazakis
Good Friday, the most solemn day of the year, commemorates the death of Christ on the Cross. The services of Good Friday actually begin on Thursday evening with the reading of the twelve gospels, which recount the events of the Passion of Christ. The following morning, we observe the Reading of the Royal Hours leading up to the Vesper service of Friday afternoon, which commemorates Christ’s descent from the cross.
Remember the church day begins the evening before the calendar day, so the service of the twelve Gospels on Thursday evening recalls the events that happened on Friday morning and so on.
The Crucifixion (observed on the evening of Holy Thursday)
The commemorations of Holy Friday begin with the Matins service on Thursday evening. This service is unique because twelve Gospels are delivered describing all the events of His Crucifixion: Christ’s farewell at the Passover meal, the betrayal, arrest, trial, Crucifixion, death and sealing of the tomb. Some parishioners practice the custom of knotting a ribbon after each Gospel and using it later as a filakto (a religious charm used for protection). After the fifth Gospel, the cross is taken out of the altar area and carried around the church in procession while the priest chants the Fifteenth Antiphon:
“Today is hung upon the Tree, He Who did hang the land in the midst of the waters. A Crown of thorns crowns Him Who is King of Angels. He is wrapped about with the purple of mockery Who wrapped the Heavens with clouds. He received buffetings Who freed Adam in Jordan. He was transfixed with nails Who is the Bridegroom of the Church. He was pierced with a spear Who is the Son of the Virgin. We worship Thy Passion, O Christ. Show also unto us thy glorious Resurrection.”
During the procession, the faithful kneel and venerate the Cross and pray for their spiritual well-being, imitating the thief on the Cross who confessed his faith and devotion to Christ. At the end of the procession, the Crucifix is placed in the centre of the church and at the end of the service, parishioners come forward, make the sign of the cross and kiss the body or feet of Christ as He hangs on the cross.
You can listen to the chanting of the Fifteenth Antiphon here.
In the Icon of the Crucifixion of Christ (pictured above), Jesus is shown nailed to the Cross. His right side is pierced and blood and water flow from the wound. At the foot of the Cross is a skull because the site of His Crucifixion, Golgotha means “the place of the skull”. The top bar of the Cross is inscribed with the initials “I.N.B.I.”, the initials for the Greek words meaning “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” Pictured to the left of Christ, is Jesus’ mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. Mary Magdalene and to the right, the youthful St. John the Apostle.
Descent from the Cross (observed on the afternoon of Good Friday)
Good Friday is a time of mourning and strict fasting. It is the only day of the entire year that no Divine Liturgy may take place. Friday morning begins with the service of the Royal Hours, during which prophecies from the Old Testament and church hymns about the Passion and death of Christ are read. Apokathilosis, the Vespers service in the afternoon of Good Friday, commemorates Christ’s unnailing from the Cross. The faithful solemnly watch as the priest removes the body of Christ from the Cross and wraps Him in a white sheet. The priest reenacts the steps taken by Joseph of Arimathea, who took Christ’s body to the tomb. He does this by carrying the epitaphios (an icon of Christ’s burial embroidered on a cloth) around the church and then placing it in the kouvouklion (a carved wooden funeral bier decorated with flowers). Parishioners venerate the icon at the end of the service with the sign of a cross and a kiss, sometimes crawling underneath the epitaphios it in the shape of a cross to show humility and receive God’s blessing. This service begins in a solemn manner, but by the end of the service we are already anticipating the Resurrection of Christ. The evening Orthos of Good Friday commemorates the events of Holy Saturday, the day Christ’s soul descended into Hades to free the faithful of the Old Covenant, while His body rested in the tomb.
On Thursday or early Friday morning, the women of the each parish decorate the kouvouklion traditionally with white, red and purple flowers. They represent the women who prepared Christ’s body for the tomb. People popularly refer to the kouvouklion and epitaphios collectively as “the epitaphios“, however they represent the tomb and the body of Christ respectively. The epitaphios remains at the front of the church for the entire afternoon and into the evening service of Good Friday. Parishioners come to the church and pay their respects to the buried Christ with the same regard as they would a deceased family member.
In Greece, Good Friday is a national holiday, with no school or work. Flags are flown at half-mast and the tolling of church bells is heard throughout the day. In other parts of the world, the faithful take time off to emphasise the importance of the day, attend church services and pay respects to the deceased. Many people also visit the different churches in their area in order to view and venerate the epitaphia.
- “Great and Holy Friday.” Greek Orthodox Diocese of America, www.goarch.org/holyfriday. Accessed 17 Apr. 2020.
- “Holy Week: An Explanation.” Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese, ww1.antiochian.org/1175027131. Accessed 17 Apr. 2020.
- “Holy Week.” OrthodoxWiki, https://orthodoxwiki.org/Holy_Week#Holy_Friday. Accessed 17 Apr. 2020.
- Rouvelas, Marilyn, and George Papaioannou. A Guide to Greek Traditions and Customs in America. Nea Attiki Press, 2002.