461. Holy Thursday Night: Matins for Holy Friday, “The Twelve Gospels Service”

courtesy of Prav

Some advice: 

For the remaining three days of this Holy Week, do not read this Blog. Or rather: if it’s a choice between reading this Blog and going to church, Go to church. If you can’t get to church, worship Live-stream either live or by video. This Blog may help you (and me) to understand the Scripture readings and liturgical actions, but in no way can it substitute for the experience of being in church.

Regarding this service: Be prepared for at least three hours in church – in some places more. A powerful, intensely moving, three hours – and, speaking at least from my perspective at the altar, wearying and draining. And how do we suppose Jesus felt on the Cross?

The Gospel Readings:

1 John 13:31-18:1

2 John 18:1-29

3 Matthew 26:57-75

4 John 18:28 -19:16

5 Matthew 27:3-32

6 Mark 15:16-32,

7 Matthew 27:33-54

8 Luke 23:32-49

9 John 19:25-37

10 Mark 15:43-47

11 John 19:38-42

12 Matthew 27:62-66

I will not (believe me!) comment on each of these readings, which carry the story from Holy Thursday evening through Holy Saturday evening.

First, two points:

1  In the services and readings of Holy Thursday and Holy Friday, there is much repetition in the Gospel readings. When I was first Orthodox, that nearly drove me up the wall. I thought: Wasn’t once enough? I was still thinking in my tidy Anglican way.

The answer is No, it is not enough. Eventually I understood. The Church is trying to drum this life-giving story of our Lord’s Passion so deep into our heads and hearts that it is just part of us. It works. I have never known and understood so much, and felt so deeply, about Christ’s Passion, Death and Resurrection, as since I’ve been Orthodox. It’s said that Western Christianity focuses on the Cross, while Eastern Christianity focuses on the Resurrection. Wrong. We Orthodox focus on both. If you don’t believe that, come to Orthodox Holy Week.

2  The first reading in the Twelve Gospels service goes on seemingly forever: Christ’s last teachings to His disciples, and then His high priestly prayer to His Father. It would take a lifetime and more to absorb it all. * But we should try to take in what we can.

  • Years ago I was invited to do a “teaching retreat” at an Episcopalian convent. I foolishly attempted to do a series of talks on this passage. I wish I had not. It was too much for me. They never invited me back.

And also, if you’re new to this service, don’t despair and go home! The Gospel readings immediately and progressively get shorter.

Unless I’ve missed something, the story of Christ’s “command performance” before King Herod, when He refused to do a miracle trick for him (Luke 23:6-12), is not read during Holy Week. I wonder why.

Here I will try to provide a brief overall narrative of the events. In this conflation I’ll omit much and hope I have not got anything out of order. Sometimes it’s hard (for me at least) to precisely harmonize the Gospel accounts.

unknown Flemish artist, c 1620

Picking it up early on Holy Friday morning: Jesus had been captured during the night in the Garden of Gethsemane, taken in custody and mistreated while waiting for the Jewish Sanhedrin, their high court, to gather. Meanwhile, Simon Peter had thrice denied that he even knew Jesus, then had fled, crying bitterly, so ashamed of himself.

So Jesus had been left to face it alone – till later in the day when His Mother Mary, young John and the holy women would bravely stand with Him at the foot of the Cross.

The Lord had been condemned to death by the Sanhedrin on grounds of blasphemy, “making himself equal with God”. “Blasphemy! He deserves to die!” However, Israel was an occupied country, and the Romans reserved for themselves the right to execute people. So now they had no choice but to cooperate with the enemy.

Duccio di Buoninsegna, c 1310

The chief priests and elders took Him to Pontius Pilate the Roman governor. The Romans could not have cared less about blasphemy against this peculiar God of the Jews, so the priests were forced to lie about Jesus. They gathered a crowd on the Gabbatha, the pavement in front of the Praetorium, the governor’s palace, telling Pilate that this Jesus was making himself a king and something had to be done about it. 

Pilate understood none of this and surely was irritated by being awakened so early by all this commotion – couldn’t they at least have waited till later in the day? But he needed to settle things down, so he interviewed Jesus: “So you are a king then.” Jesus gave a nebulous answer: “You say that I am a king… but my Kingdom is not of this world.” John 18:36  Pilate was perplexed, but saw no threat in this humble, quiet, very unkinglike young  man. He went out and announced that he found no fault in the man, and so announced he would release Him. “No! Crucify Him!” came the crowd’s response. Now what to do…? So he had Jesus beaten, thinking maybe this would satisfy them. It didn’t. “Why?” asked Pilate, “what evil has He done?” “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!”

Were these the same people who had welcomed Him on Sunday with “Hosanna”? Great sermons have been preached here about how the populace can turn on a dime. That is true, but in this case I think likely not. Why would ordinary folks be here at dawn on a workday? I’d guess the crowd had been gathered for the event – perhaps paid off by someone? We do know well – there is very recent evidence – that almost any group of people, when cleverly riled up, can turn into an irrational mob. Whatever the cause, they chose a criminal rather than an innocent Man. It had happened before in history. It would happen many times again.

Meanwhile Pilate’s wife sent a message. She’d had a dream about this man, “so leave Him alone”. Pilate was at his wits’ end. Now he had not only to settle these unruly incomprehensible people, but also not offend his wife! So he tried again. He had Jesus dressed up sort of like a king and brought Him out.

“Ecce Homo” by Antonio Cisera, c 1870

“Behold, the man”, said Pilate.

No truer words were ever spoken. Here was The Man, perfect Man, humanity brought to  completion. No other true Man has ever lived.

 Pilate thought surely they will now see that this humble, mild-mannered man is no king. “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” again came the cry. “Crucify your king?” asked Pilate, in a half-taunting, half-jocular way, half-hoping maybe he could still work his way out of this.

The Jewish authorities must have been prepared for it, for now they took the big lie a step farther: “If you let this man go you are no friend of Caesar’s. Whoever makes himself a king speaks against Caesar.” John 19:12  – which would, of course, be treason. They were not the last religious authorities to take this attitude: “We have no king but [you fill in the blank].”

And so here it was: Who was blaspheming God? It was not Jesus. They, the righteous Jewish religious authorities, were the ones who were blaspheming God, they whose only true King was and had always been the Lord God of Israel. They were liars, and Pilate knew it: the Jews hated Caesar.

icons with permission of Saint Isaac’s Skete at skete.com

Pilate knew he was trapped. What if word got back to Rome that he had let a treasonous man go free? So now, fearing for his own position as governor, Pilate literally “washed his hands” of the matter – and you know the rest.

Every great man wants to leave a “legacy”. Here, as it turned out, would be the legacy of Pontius Pilate, proclaimed by millions upon millions upon millions of people for the next 2000 years: “He was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate”.

Was Pilate an evil man? The evidence is that he tried hard to satisfy his conscience – so much so that the Ethiopian Orthodox Church lists him on their calendar as Saint Pontius Pilate! But I don’t think so. What we know of the rest of Pilate’s life gives no evidence that he was a saint. He was just a politician. Are there good politicians? Yes. But we all know how many politicians who once meant well become willing to forsake their honor, so as not to lose their positions, their power.

So here it was: In the end they all – the religious leaders and the politicians and the mob – got together and executed God.

In this service in most churches, the Cross of Christ is processed around the congregation and placed in front of the icon screen. The figure of His Body is then affixed again to the Cross, as this hymn is sung:

Today is suspended upon the Tree He who suspended the earth upon the waters. Today is suspended upon the Tree He who suspended the earth upon the waters. Today is suspended upon the Tree He who suspended the earth upon the waters.

A crown of thorns crowns Him Who is the King of the angels. He is wrapped about with a purple of mockery Who wrapped the heavens with clouds. He receives smiting He Who freed Adam in the Jordan. He is transfixed with nails Who is the Son of the Virgin.

We worship Thy Passion, O Christ. We worship Thy Passion, O Christ. We worship Thy Passion, O Christ.

Show us also Thy Glorious Resurrection.

Please take time to listen to this. Please:

chanted by Alina Buzdugan. Boston Byzantine Choir (“Orthodox Christian Chants” site)

A cause to grieve, to mourn? Yes, at how evil, how horrible this world can be.

But no! This is above all a cause to rejoice! Because the powers of the fallen world did their worst. They and we cannot do worse than kill God in the flesh. And it did not work! Christ arose! He could not be put down.

And so, despite appearances sometimes, despite our despair sometimes, the truth is that the salvation of the world and our salvation (if we will have it) is assured. The world can never get rid of God, of Christ our God, or of His holy Body the Church.

So now Jesus Christ will die and enter into hades to do His most important work. He will “trample down death by death” from the inside, and set free all the dead from all times, and He will lead all with Him out into the Light.

That is how Christ has conquered death, even for those of us who still must die. We no longer need fear death, for we know Who will lead us through death, and Who is waiting for us there on the Other Side.

God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. John 3:16 

Greater love has no man than this, than that He should lay down His life for His friends. John 15: 13 

When we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly… Perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die. But God shows His love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Romans 5:6-8 

In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to take away our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. I John 4:10-11

Tomorrow: Holy Friday afternoon Great Vespers, Holy Friday evening Lamentations Service

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