188. Great and Holy Friday Afternoon: Great Vespers – “The Descent from the Cross”

In many Orthodox churches *  the Crucifix stands behind the Altar. But from the middle of the Twelve Gospels Service on Holy Thursday night until Holy Friday afternoon – less than 24 hours – it is placed out in front of the icon screen for veneration. Then it returns to its usual place often half hidden from view –  almost as if it is too “strong”, too “heavy” for us to handle it full-strength up close for very long.

  • Is this mostly in the Greek/Antiochan tradition?

At Holy Friday afternoon Vespers, the story of Christ’s Passion and Death is read yet again at length, drawing from the various Gospel accounts. When we come to the words “When Joseph had taken his body, and wrapped it in a clean linen cloth and laid it in a new tomb” Matthew 27:59-69, the Priest removes the figure of Christ from the Cross, wraps it in a clean white cloth and places it on the Altar table. It is not placed behind the Altar again till Ascension Day, for Christ is risen!

Below: Saint Mary’s OCA Cathedral, Minneapolis

“The noble Joseph, having brought down thy most pure Body from the tree, wrapped it in fine line, embalmed it with ointments, and laid it in his new tomb.”

All this time, on the Epitaphion below has lain on the Altar – this cloth showing the Body of Christ being wept over by His holy Mother, Saint Joseph of Arimathaea, Nicodemus and the Holy Myrrhbearing Women.

This is then carried in procession to a beautifully decorated “bier” (“kabuklion” in Greek) which all this time has been standing in front of the icon screen, where we now await His “funeral” tonight.

From the Epistle: I Corinthians 1:2-18

“Jesus Christ is the power of God, the wisdom of God.” Where is real power to be found? What is true wisdom? Saint Paul isn’t talking theory here; he is describing what had just happened, was happening. What Jesus did on Holy Friday looked at the time like the most ridiculous, most unwise thing imaginable, utter failure. The Messiah came to save the world and instead He let the world kill Him. Total weakness, absurd foolishness. And yet Jesus Christ dead, Jesus Christ in His weakness turned out to be stronger than Caesar and his imperial armies, wiser than all the Greek philosophers. Already in the First Century, as the Gospel spread and the infant Church grew, Paul saw it happening. Three centuries later Caesar and his Empire would be Christian.

And now twenty centuries later we see it far more clearly. Not only are all the great powers of the ancient world gone, but also a multitude of nations and empires since then have risen and fallen and vanished – as someday all the great powers of our world will be gone, including our own. Yet Jesus Christ and His Church live on. And the bullies in so many nations now throwing their weight around, ignoring the least of Christ’s brothers and sisters, they will also fade away and be gone – and the sooner the better. Likewise, over the centuries so many philosophies and ideologies and religions have arisen. A few of them with value for people have had more lasting power, but most of them have been quickly here and gone. And Jesus Christ and His Church live on.

This crucified Man, this failure, this fool as it seemed, today has over two billion followers. The power of Jesus Christ and his Kingdom have continued on earth, generation after generation. Multitudes, including you and me,  still hang on the words and wisdom and power of Jesus Christ, and we have learned how to truly live and love and endure in this life on earth. But above all, through His Death and Resurrection, He has given us “a sure and certain hope” in our life to come..

People may explain Him as they like. But this is the simple obvious truth. Saint Paul knew what he was talking about.

Paul wrote: “God chose the foolish things of this world to put to shame the wise, the weak things of the world to put to shame the mighty”, “God chose lowly things, things which in the eyes of the world are nothing, to bring to nothing the things that are.” He still does. Here we are: the Church of Jesus Christ alive and well 2000 years later. Not because we’re so powerful or so wise or so virtuous, God knows. What makes the Church endure and will make the Church endure to the End of the Age is not us. It is Jesus Christ. He is “our wisdom, our righteousness, our sanctification, our redemption”.

So, as Paul says, let us glory only in the Cross of Jesus Christ.


Next Post: Holy Friday Evening Matins: “The Lamentations Service”



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