Doing Holy Week at Home During COVID-19

by Gregory Tucker | Ελληνικά

Many Christians around the world have come to realise over the last few weeks that this year’s Holy Week and Pascha will be somewhat unlike any that they have previously experienced, on account of the current viral pandemic. Very many churches are now closed, with services cancelled or in-person participation restricted to a select “skeleton crew.” Orthodox Christians are obviously not exempt from the consequences of the pandemic and many are already mourning the loss of public worship at the high point of the liturgical year, even as they understand and respect the regulations imposed by civil authorities.

Although it may be possible during the coming weeks to view or listen to liturgical services online, many churchgoers will rightly acknowledge that this is no substitute for prayer and worship in person. Screens and speakers necessarily render us the passive audience of a performance. Clergy can quickly become like stars of stage and screen, existing in a glittering world somewhere “out there,” apart from our own mundane experience of isolation and enclosure. The edges of our electronic devices frame liturgical action like the proscenium arch in a theatre, with the same effect of separating drama from life. Even if we successfully minimise distractions, disable pop-up notifications, and discipline ourselves to remain quiet and present to the broadcast, many of us will still desire something more immediate and active than online liturgy—something truly in the here-and-now of our reality of social distancing and quarantine.

Various possibilities present themselves as alternatives (or, complements) to watching liturgy online, including the observation (or revival!) of our prayer rule with renewed energy and attentiveness, and the disciplined reading of scripture, especially the Psalms and Gospels. But it is also possible to bring the services themselves into our homes, and some may be inclined to do this during a period that would ordinarily be saturated by liturgy.

This may come as a surprise! Those Orthodox who habitually attend only the Divine Liturgy may be unaware that almost all of our Holy Week services are, structurally speaking, little more than slightly adapted versions of the offices that are celebrated throughout the year (daily in monasteries; on weekends and feasts in most parishes) with some unique ritual elements added (many of which are, in fact, of quite recent provenance). Even those with an appreciation of this fact may be unaware that our services can be celebrated, at least occasionally, outside the context of formal public worship in the church building.

Indeed, the offices—the non-sacramental services of Vespers, Matins, Compline, and the Hours—can be served without clergy. In fact, some communities even habitually celebrate them in this manner—this includes all women’s monasteries without a full-time priest-chaplain and those (nowadays rarer) men’s monasteries that follow the ancient custom of not having ordained members of the brotherhood. Since most of the Holy Week services are offices, they can also be served by lay people. It goes without saying, of course, that the celebration of the sacramental rites (Divine Liturgy, unction, confession, etc.) is not possible for laypersons, and they should not substitute “sacrament-like” rituals in place of the Divine Liturgy or other services requiring the ministry of a priest. Nonetheless, laypersons can read the offices, and thus observe much of the Holy Week liturgy, albeit somewhat denuded of the ritual splendor normally associated with it.

What does this involve? As always, there is much variety across different Orthodox traditions, and those who are serious about trying to take up liturgical practice at home should seek guidance where they can. Basically, however, the services are observed as described in the liturgical books (at this time of year: Book of Hours/Horologion [for the fixed parts of the services], Triodion [for the seasonal texts], and Typikon [for the rules]), but clerical formulae and rituals are omitted. Thus, for example, there are no processions, censings or sprinklings, or entrances into the altar (one of which, presumably, most Orthodox Christians do not have at home in any case). Moreover, blessings (e.g. “Blessed is our God…” at the start of the services and “May the blessing of the Lord be upon you…” at the end of services) are substituted with the formula “Through the prayers of our holy Fathers, O Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy upon us and save us,” the giving of the peace (e.g. “Peace be with you all”) is omitted, and litanies and their concluding prayers are replaced by “Lord, have mercy,” twelve times for a long litany and three times for a small litany.

It must be acknowledged that the services of the Byzantine Rite are not simple and Holy Week can be a challenge even under regular conditions! For those who have never celebrated a reader’s service (as they are technically known) at home, it is probably too ambitious to imagine that you will be able to execute a flawless “reader’s Holy Week” at short notice this year. But you may be able to do something—and necessity is the mother of invention, as they say! Even if you cannot put together a full office, you might, at the very least, find an opportunity to read or hear the appointed scriptural passages, sing or read a few hymns (the canons at Matins are especially rich and good summaries of the principal themes of each day), and begin to cultivate the disciplines of prayer, contemplation, and silence at home. None of this will make up for the absence of beautiful services concelebrated by our liturgical communities, but we need not miss out entirely. In fact, this crisis may even present us with an opportunity to deepen our understanding and appreciation of the liturgical services and to re-engage with them personally as a source and rule of faith.

Many resources are available online and in print for the celebration of the Byzantine Rite (Orthodox) offices. For Holy Week, one can make do with a Book of Hours (Ὡρολόγιον, Часocлoвъ) and the Lenten Triodion (Τριῴδιον, Постнаѧ Трїωдь); the Pentecostarion or Flowery Triodion (Πεντηκοστάριον, Цвѣтнаѧ Трїωдь) will need to be added for Matins of Pascha and the services thereafter. St Vladimir’s Seminary Press offers a reasonably-priced package of Lenten service books that do much of the hard work of assembling services for you (i.e. you do not need any other books for Holy Week); other publishers offer other options and much is, indeed, available online for free.

Since they are difficult to find online, here are rubrics for occasions in Holy Week when the Divine Liturgy would usually be celebrated, when circumstances dictate that this cannot be so, translated from the Russian Typikon:

On Holy & Great Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday

At Vespers: at “O Lord, I have cried” we chant half of the appointed stichera on six. Glory, Both now: Doxastikon. Entrance with the Gospel. “O joyful Light.” Prokeimena and readings. Gospel. “Make us worthy.” Evening Litany of Completion. At the Aposticha: the other half of the stichera, with the usual verses. Glory, Both now: Doxastikon. “Now you let your servant depart.” Trisagion. Lenten dismissal troparia: “Rejoice, O Virgin Theotokos” and the rest as usual with bows. Lenten daily ending.

[The first “half” of the appointed stichera, for “O Lord, I have cried” corresponds to those given in the Triodion at the Praises of Matins; the second “half” of the appointed stichera, for the Aposticha, corresponds to those given at the Aposticha of Matins. There is basically one set of Stichera (for the Praises and “O Lord, I have cried”) and Aposticha (for Matins and Vespers) for each day of Holy & Great Week.]

Great and Holy Thursday

The Typikon is silent on how to serve Vespers on this day apart from the Divine Liturgy of Saint Basil the Great. It may be assumed that the order given for Vespers on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday in Holy & Great Week apart from the Divine Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts is to be followed. However, one should note both (i) that the Typikon does not appoint the Aposticha of Matins to be sung at “O Lord, I have cried” on Holy Thursday when Vespers is celebrated with the Divine Liturgy and (ii) that the Triodion supplies a unique Doxastikon, “Judas is truly of the generation of vipers,” for the same service.

The following order thus seems appropriate: at “O Lord, I have cried,” we chant stichera on six (from the Praises of Matins, including the Doxastikon, doubling one sticheron). Glory, both now: Doxastikon (given in the Triodion at Vespers of the day). Entrance with the Gospel. “O joyful Light.” Prokeimena and readings. Prokeimenon. Apostle. Alleluia. Gospel. Augmented Litany of Fervent Intercession. “Make us worthy.” Evening Litany of Completion. At the Aposticha: stichera with their proper verses (from the Aposticha of Matins). “Now you let your servant depart.” Trisagion. Troparion: “When the glorious disciples.” The rest as usual [with no bows, since they are given up following vespers on Holy & Great Wednesday], including the dismissal of the day.

Great and Holy Saturday

It should be known that, if out of some great need, there is no celebration of the Liturgy, At Vespers: at “O Lord, I have cried” we chant stichera on eight: three of the Resurrection, one from Anatolios, and three from the Triodion, doubling the first. Glory: Tone Six, “Moses mystically prefigured today.” Both now: Tone One, Theotokion [i.e., Dogmatikon]. Entrance with censer. “O joyful Light.” Prokeimenon: “The Lord is king.” And the readings from the Triodion in their order. After the readings have ended, Augmented Litany of Fervent Intercession. “Make us worthy.” Evening Litany of Completion. At the Aposticha: sticheron of the Resurrection in Tone One and the three Alphabetical stichera with their verses, “The Lord is God.” Glory, both now: Theotokion from the Octoechos in Tone One. “Now you let your servant depart.” Trisagion. Troparion: “The noble Joseph” Glory: Resurrection troparion in Tone Two, “When you descended to death.” Both now: “The myrrh bearing women.” Dismissal.

Great and Holy Pascha

If out of need there be no Liturgy, following Matins: instead of [the usual] Typika, we sing “Christ is risen” thrice. “Having beheld the resurrection of Christ” once. Then: Hypakoē, “Before the dawn, Mary and the women.” Glory: Kontakion, “You descended into the tomb, O immortal Lord.” Both now: “Only-begotten Son.” Then, at the Beatitudes: the troparia from Odes III and VI of the Matins Canon. Prokeimenon. Apostle. Alleluia. Gospel. Then: “Remember us, O Lord”, “The heavenly choir sings to you.” Then we sing the Creed. The prayer: “Remit, pardon, forgive, O God, our offences.” The Lord’s Prayer. Then: Kontakion, “You descended into the tomb, O immortal Lord.” Glory, both now: Theotokion [from the Paschal Hour], “Rejoice, divine and sanctified dwelling of the Most High.” “Lord, have mercy” forty times. Then: “One is holy, one is Lord, Jesus Christ, to the glory of God the Father. Amen.” And then, instead of “Blessed be the name of the Lord”, we sing “Christ is risen” thrice. Then Psalm 33, “I will bless the Lord at all times” up to “shall not be deprived of any good.” Then we sing the dismissal and depart to the Trapeza.

Gregory Tucker is a doctoral candidate, currently finalising a dissertation on liturgical theology in the hymns of the Middle Byzantine cathedral rite of Constantinople. He is also a former parish choir director and a frequent concelebrant of reader’s services.

Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.