Rites of Holy Pascha

Without question, the Holy Pascha week is the holiest week of the entire year. The artistic beauty and spiritual depth of the rites of the Coptic Orthodox church are at its zenith during this week. Christ's crucifixion and resurrection are the foundation upon which is built the whole fabric of Christianity. This document seeks to serve as a guide through the journey of our Lord Jesus Christ through His passion and crucifixion.

CHURCH TRADITION

During Holy Week the Church reenacts before us the entire passion of Christ. We do, within the confines of the church building, what the early Christians did in Jerusalem every year during this week. The early Christians used to celebrate Holy Week by visiting and praying at each site where the events had originally taken place.

The early Church had understood the great importance of Holy Week and took several steps to devote this week to the Lord. The level of asceticism (fasting, prayer, metanias, vigil) was at its maximum. They only ate bread and salt, abstaining from any cooked food or dessert. They considered it inappropriate to taste anything sweet while commemorating the suffering of the Lord and also tried to avoid the distractions of cooking. Women did not wear jewelry or make up, and devoted all of their time for worship and devotion. Most Christians also abstained from food from Good Friday until Easter service, spending the whole week in the church.

Emperor Theodosuis, a Christian king, ordered a universal holiday during this time so that all those working within the government or private business sector could assemble in prayer and devotion as one family. Masters alleviated their slaves from working during this week, allowing them to worship in the Church. Prisoners were even set free to go to Church and join in the ceremonial prayers.

The early Church used to celebrate Pascha once every 33 years. But because many died without ever celebrating this feast, the church decided to celebrate it once every year. Initially, there was some discrepancy between the Church of Antioch (which celebrated Easter on Passover, the 14th of Nissan, even if it was not a Sunday) and the Churches of Rome and Alexandria (which set Easter as the Sunday following the Passover). The Council of Nicea resolved this by setting its date as the latter.

Our blessed Church has set the schedule of prayers and readings to correspond with the journey, the teaching, and the events that lead up to the crucifixion. The hymns, sermons and meditations are so expositive that the catechumens used to learn the entire story of Christ during this one week.

CHURCH SETTING

Under the Old Testament law, the sin offering was to be burned outside of the camp so that the camp would not be defiled by the sins of the congregations (Leviticus 4:12, 21). In a similar manner, Christ had taken away the sins of the world outside of Jerusalem. The Church follows the example of the Old Testament and Christ's sacrifice by celebrating all of the prayers of Pascha outside of the main church, the altar. Instead, the Holy Week prayers are done in the middle section of the church. No one enters the Altar because the Lord Christ's suffering and crucifixion took place outside of Jerusalem. As St. Paul explains, we go outside the camp: "Let us go forth therefore unto Him outside the camp bearing His reproach." (Hebrews 13:13). We do not go near the sanctuary, for we remember how the door to the heavens were closed before the crucifixion. We enter with Him on Holy Thursday, as we commemorate the Eucharist. Then we continue with Him for the remainder of the events in Jerusalem.

Additionally, black veils are placed on the pulpit, draped along the walls and wrapped around the columns of the church. The atmosphere is transferred into one of intense mourning, so that we may participate in the Lord's sufferings. As St. Paul explained, "that I may know Him and the power of His Resurrection and the sharing of His sufferings." (Philippians 3:10)

THE SACRAMENTS

Throughout Holy Week, the Church focuses again on the sufferings of the Lord. There is no raising of incense to be made during the first three days. Consequently, during this time, none of the sacraments are performed (except for confession). The first sacrament allowable outside of this is the Divine Liturgy celebrated on Holy Thursday. For this reason, the Church prepares the congregation for the lack of these sacraments by having general services.

The Sixth Sunday of Lent is also known as Baptism Sunday, where most of the catechumens and children would be baptized so that they may receive communion and prepare for Easter. On the Last Friday of Lent, a general Unction of the Sick service is held. After a series of prayers over Holy Oil, the priest anoints the congregation with the oil for the healing of their sicknesses and diseases. Additionally, after Palm Sunday, there is a general funeral service. There are only two Divine Liturgies celebrated throughout the entire Passion Week, on Holy Thursday and Bright Saturday. Both are prayed with minimal hymns, since most of the hymns of the Liturgy are joyous ones.

THE HYMNS OF PASCHA

It has been said that the hymns of the Coptic Orthodox Church are among the oldest ecclesiastical chants still chanted today in the entire world. The service of the ritual is interspersed with a number of hymns of great antiquity and amazing magnificence. The mournful tunes fill us with comfort and inner relief. They lead man into impalpability and transcendence over worldliness to rest in the serenity and peace of God. In addition to these hymns, most parts of the Holy Week service are set to plain tunes-simple in their structure, but matchless in their penetration and their power to bring man into the depth of devotion thereby filling him with celestial ecstasy.

The Paschal hymn is perhaps the great hallmark of the entire week. Its repetition leads to one of great depth and internal reflection. The church repeats this one hymn twelve times in each hour to replace the twelve psalms for each prayer of the canonical hour. Its words are very simple, comprised of only twelve words in Coptic, thirteen in English. Not only is the Paschal hymn a psalm of prayer, it is also a historical sermon. It becomes a simple introduction, not only to the prayer of our Heavenly Father, but into the life of our dear Lord. As our beloved Pope Shenouda III writes:

The Lord Christ left Jerusalem to Bethany, were we follow Him, saying, 'Thine is the Power, the Glory, the Blessing." The Chief Priests were annoyed when the Lord cleared the Temple, and said "By what authority are you doing these things?" But we say, 'Thine is the Power, the Glory, the Blessing, and the Majesty, Emmanuel our God and our King." They planned to kill Him while we defend Him saying, 'Thine is the Power, the Glory, the Blessing." The Lord in humility, bent to wash the Disciples' feet, and we praise Him saying, 'Thine is the Power and the Glory, the Blessing and the Majesty." The Lord prayed at Gethsemane in such agony that His sweat became as drops of blood and we proclaim, 'Thine is the Power and the Glory, the Blessing and the Majesty." We follow Him hour by hour; when arrested, put under trial in the presence of His enemies, crowned with thorns, flogged, falling under the Cross, nailed, till He commended His Spirit into the hands of the Father and when He took the robber on His right with Him into Paradise, and we continually chant unto Him the hymn, 'Thine is the Power and the Glory, the Blessing and the Majesty, forever Amen"

THE HOURS and GOSPEL READINGS

This is the only time during the year that we do not read from the Agpeya. This is because its prayers encompass the entire life of Christ (prophecies, nativity, crucifixion, resurrection, ascension, etc.); but during Holy Week, we simply focus on the Passion of our Lord. Consequently, there are separate prayers for each hour.

The Didache also mandated the reading of all the books of the Bible, including the Old and New Testaments. Since this became difficult due to the Christians' occupation with other business, Pope Gabriel the 70th Pope of Alexandria, selected some of the prophesies from the Old Testament, Psalms, and the New Testaments that memorialized the Passion of our Savior. He then distributed them among the daily hours and compiled it into the Holy Pascha. This book was then reorganized and revisited by H.G. Bishop Peter, Bishop of Bahnasa. Bishop Peter added some of the sermons and homilies of the early Fathers of the Church.

Each of the hours are divided into six separate sections:

1. Prophesies and Poetry

  • Number of readings vary from 2-5 (except on Good Friday 18 are read)
  • Most of the readings are from the book of Isaiah. By Easter, the Church would have finished the entire book. Isaiah contains the most prophecies.
  • Each hour generally has one prophecy explaining how Jerusalem would treat the Messiah, and one chapter (usually Proverbs or Sirach) discussing the importance of wisdom, fear of God, righteousness, etc.
  • As in the great Lent, the first prophecy is the same theme as the Pauline (during Lent), the Gospel, and the sermon. The other prophecies fulfill the first prophecy. They are arranged to fit the life of Christ during His days on earth.

2. Homilies (only read in the 1st, 9th and 11th hours of Mon-Thurs)

3. Doxology of the Pascha (Thine is the power, the glory)

The community joins together in singing, "Thine is the Power.." twelve times (six towards the North and six towards the South), followed by the Lord's Prayer. This beautiful praise is repeated continuously. Humans did not create this praise, as many may believe. Rather, the praise is of divine inspiration, as the psalms. It is taken from the Book of Revelation. Whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to Him who sits on the throne, who lives forever and ever (Revelation 4:9), they say with loud voice: "Worthy is the Lamb who was slain To receive power and riches and wisdom, And strength and honor and glory and blessing!" (Revelation 5:12). The Church joins the angels who are before the throne of God praising the Living One forever.

Beginning at the Eleventh Hour of Wednesday, we add "my Good Savior" to the praise, strongly attesting that Christ's sufferings for our salvation began when the high priests and the elders were consulting the arrest of Jesus and plotting His death. Beginning at the vigil of Friday, and continuing throughout the day, we add "my salvation" to the praise, emphasizing that the Church recognizes that salvation is fulfilled on the Cross.

4. Psalm and Gospel.

The Church selects verses and Psalms that relate to the sufferings of Christ to be read in a sad tune. Following the Psalm, the introduction of the Gospel is either read or chanted. "We beseech our Lord and God that we may be made worthy to hear to the Holy Gospel. In wisdom, let us attend to the Holy Gospel". The psalms contain many prophecies on the life of Jesus from His birth to His ascension. Considering that at this time we are commemorating the agony of Christ, the Church chooses texts that are connected with the events.

5. Expositions (el Tarh)

6. Litanies for the church (clergy, servants, catechumens), the sick, the poor, the leaders and rulers, the whole world. (Prostrations during the daytime litanies except Sunday)

7. 12 Lord Have Mercy's

8. Final Hymn (O King of Peace)

9. Benediction

The content of this document was gathered from two main sources: The Way from Jerusalem to Golgotha by Father Bishoy Kamel and Pascha by St. Athanasius Coptic Orthodox Church of Los Angeles, CA.

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