On Good Friday, Don’t Miss Out on This Powerful Byzantine Ceremony
Every Catholic should experience the Great and Holy Friday Burial Vespers in the Byzantine tradition at least once in their lives.
One of the most poignant liturgical services of the year is the celebration of the “Burial Vespers” on Great and Holy Friday in the Byzantine tradition. It is a symbolic commemoration of Christ’s descent from the Cross and the burial of his most pure Body in the tomb.
The Body of the dead Christ is represented iconographically upon an embroidered shroud, called in Slavonic usage the “Plaschanicja” or in the Greek usage the “Epitaphios.” The culmination of the service is a liturgical procession around the Church (inside, but commonly outside of the Church depending on local usage) and the placement of the shroud in an ornate tomb. For those who have not witnessed this beautiful service, it is certainly worth placing on your liturgical radar this Good Friday. Additionally, the service is always offered in the evening, so Latin-rite Catholics, who do not have liturgical services beyond the celebration of the Passion of the Lord (usually offered around 3pm) could attend at their local Byzantine Catholic Church.
The service begins with the reading of the crucifixion accounts from the Synoptic Gospels. The final Gospel recounts Joseph of Arimathea going to Pilate to ask for the Body of Jesus. St. Joseph of Arimathea is highlighted frequently during the Burial Vespers. The Troparion (a short hymn of one stanza), “The Noble Joseph took down your most pure body from the cross and, anointing it with fragrant spices, he wrapped it in a clean linen and put it in a new tomb,” is repeated throughout the liturgy. The Canticle of Symeon concludes the first part of the liturgy and marks a transition to the funeral procession of Christ with the Shroud.
The shroud is taken up by the priest and placed upon his back and shoulders. The procession is accompanied by candles and the deacon incensing the shroud while the congregation follows and repeatedly sings “The Noble Joseph.” The priest entombs the shroud and may preach a brief sermon on the theological significance of Christ’s death for our salvation. He then kneels at the tomb and prays:
O Lord Jesus Christ, our God, we thank you and we praise you as our Savior and Benefactor, since you helped us, your unworthy servants, to pass through this holy and divine season of Lent; to attain to the resurrection of your friend, Lazarus, who remained in his grave for four days; to reach to your triumphant entry into Jerusalem on the colt of a donkey and, following the example of the Jewish children, to welcome you with palm branches and cries, ‘Hosanna in the highest’; to behold your most holy and salutary Passion; to venerate your divine Crucifixion and burial according to the flesh in the hope of arriving at your most glorious and divine resurrection.
And now, in all humility, we prostrate ourselves and sincerely implore you for your servants, who came under this roof of your holy temple: Receive their confession and their repentance as you received the Publican’s sighing and, for the sake of your holy resurrection on the third day, forgive them all their voluntary and involuntary sins, cleanse them as you did the repentant adulteress, and receive them as you have received Peter, who, after having denied you, bitterly repented.
Place your fear in their hearts, that they may honor you and love you with their whole heart and walk according to your holy will. Grant them to partake, without condemnation, of your most pure Body and of your most precious Blood that they may be worthy to take part in your heavenly kingdom with all the Saints.
For you are a God of mercy and salvation, and we render glory to you, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, now and ever, and forever. Amen.
The clergy and congregation then each approach the tomb and make a prostration (kneeling and touching one’s head to the floor), then venerate the shroud with a kiss.
The first time I attended this service, I was moved in a way that I had never experienced before. The concept of “Christ’s funeral” was so foreign to me. The darkness of the Church, the somber yet theologically rich liturgical texts, the procession; all made me feel that I was there with Joseph of Arimathea, St. John and the Blessed Mother. You experience a glimpse of the sorrow they felt and trod down the path of pain that they trod. It is truly a service that draws you in. It is an anamnesis, or as the Catechism defines in its glossary, “The ‘remembrance’ of God’s saving deeds in history in the liturgical action of the Church, which inspires thanksgiving and praise.” The Byzantine expression of Burial Vespers is a liturgical experience that feeds the journey toward Easter in a powerful way and is a gift to the universal Church. If you have a Byzantine Church in your area, don’t miss out!