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Orthodox Holy Week Services in Brixton, Johannesburg, 2009

10 April 2009

A couple of months ago a number of emerging church people in Gauteng visited St Nicholas Orthodox Church in Brixton, Johannesburg, for Vespers, and engaged in discussion with members of the congregation afterwards.

Those who might be interested in experiencing more of Orthodox worship might like to attend some of the Holy Week and Easter Services in the Orthodox Church, and in case there are any such people, here is a list of some of the services, and a brief description and recommendations.

Orthodox Pascha is a week after Western Easter in 2009 (next year they will coincide), and so it may be easier for members of Western churches to attend some of these services. The church of St Nicholas holds most of its services in English, and is at 156 Fulham Road, Brixton, Johannesburg.

Lent officially ends on Lazarus Saturday, on the eve of Palm Sunday. Palm Sunday is 12 April,

During Holy Week the services are pushed back in time by about 12 hours, so that Matins (the morning service) is celebrated the evening before, and Vespers (the evening service) is celebrated in the morning.

The first three days are marked by Bridegroom Matins at 18:30 (Sunday, Monday and Tuesday evenings). Monday 13 April is a public holiday, so the traffic might be slightly easier. It is called “Bridegroom Matins” because of Christ’s warning that the bridegroom comes in the middle of the night, and his people should be ready and waiting.

The main services, however, begin on Holy Thursday (16 April).

In the morning of Thursday at 09:00 there is a Vesperal Divine Liturgy, which commemorates the establishment of the Eucharist by Christ at the last Supper.

Thursday evening, 16 April at 18:30 is the Matins of Great Friday. The service is marked by the reading of the entire passion narrative, and it is sometimes called the service of the 12 gospels, because there are 12 gospel readings interspersed with prayers and hymns. After the fifth reading the cross is brought out and placed in the centre of the church, and people venerate the cross. This is a long service, and lasts nearly 4 hours.

Friday morning, 17 April
08:30 The Imperial Hours
10:30 Great Friday Vespers

In practice the services run into each other, but if you are coming from Pretoria it is better to aim to arrive at 10:30 to miss the worst of the traffic.

At Vespers there is the taking down from the cross. The cross is left bare, and then the Epitaphios (winding sheet, funeral shroud) is brought into the body of the church and placed in the middle of the church in front of the empty cross.

Friday Evening, 17 April
18:30 Matins of Holy Saturday (by anticipation)

This is the funeral service, marked by the singing of the Lamentations of the Mother of God, and the procession with the Epitaphios around the block, representing a funeral procession.

Saturday 18 April
09:00 Vesperal Divine Liturgy of St Basil

This is also called the first resurrection service. There are also many scripture readings, dealing with the whole history of salvation. It is usually shortened a little, but is still long.

The most dramatic moment of the service is when the priest bursts from the holy doors, scattering bay leaves, representing Christ bursting from the tomb, while the choir sings Psalm 82, and the people repeat the refrain “Arise O God, judge the earth, for to Thee belong all nations”, and the colours are changed from dark to light. The Divine Liturgy which follows is celebrated on the Epitaphios in the centre of the church.

Saturday 18 April
23:15 The Paschal Vigil

The Paschal Vigil consists of Nocturns (Midnight Service), and at midnight the lights are extinguished, and the priest appears holding a single candle, from which everone lights candles, and the congregation goes outside and the church is shut, and the priest bangs on the door, saying “Lift up your heads O ye gates, that the King of Glory may come in”, and then people sing the resurrection hymn

Christ is risen from the dead
trampling down death by death
and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.

and people exchange the Easter greeting

Christ is risen
Indeed he is risen

Then follows Matins, with all the lights on, and during the singing of the odes the Easter greeting is exchanged in several languages

Later there is the Easter kiss, where the priest proclaims “Christ is risen” and the deacon greets him and stands next to him, and so on until everyone in the congregation has kissed and greeted everyone else. This mirrors the beginning of Lent, where people prostrate themselves before each other, and ask each other for forgiveness, but this time it is the celebration that “pardon has shone forth from the grave”.

Then there is the reading of the Catechetical Address of St John Chrysostom, one of the best sermons ever preached, that says it all, really.

The Divine Liturgy continues with Holy Communion (note that only baptised and chrismated Orthodox Christians may receive the communion). And at the end of that there is an agape meal where we finally break the Lenten fast, with eggs, cheese, meat and fish.

Sunday 19 April
18:30 Vespers of Love

This is a short, bright and joyful service, marked by the reading of the gospel account of Thomas hearing the news of the resurrection. It is read in many languages.

So which services should you come to?

1. The Paschal Vigil
2. The Saturday morning first resurrection service.

If you can manage others,

3. Friday Evening
4. Friday morning
5. Thursday evening

and any of the others you are able to come to

If anyone is interested I can e-mail a calender of the services.

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