Orthodox Church of the Mother of God

Joy of all the Sorrowful - Mays Landing, NJ (f. 1966)

Holy Thursday - Twelve Gospels

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The Order of the Holy Passions of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ

When the Lord was going to His voluntary Passion,
He said to the Apostles on the way,
"Behold, we go up to Jerusalem,
and the Son of Man shall be delivered up, as it is written of Him."
Come, therefore, let us also go with Him, purified in mind.
Let us be crucified with Him and die through Him to the pleasures of this life.
Then we shall live with Him and hear Him say:
"I go no more to the earthly Jerusalem to suffer,
but to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God,
I shall raise you up to the Jerusalem on high in the Kingdom of Heaven."
(Matins of Great and Holy Monday)

This verse from the Matins of Great and Holy Monday serves as an excellent introduction to Holy Week, the high point in the yearly liturgical life of the Orthodox Christian. Beginning with the evening of Palm Sunday he is called upon to accompany Christ along the road of His voluntary passion and death. As a fellow traveler with Christ, a person, as the above verse indicated, must abandon the pleasures of this world. He must be purified in his entire being. He must fervently seek union with his Lord and Savior. The life of the Church actualizes these necessities in the Sacraments of Confession and Communion. Only after being purified and forgiven in the Sacrament of Confession and firmly united with Christ in the Sacrament of Holy Communion can the Orthodox believer approach the hallowed ground of accompanying Christ in the great hour of His work for the redemption of all.

The Matins of Holy Friday, commonly celebrated on the evening of Holy Thursday and known as "The Order of the Holy Passions of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ," or more popularly as "The Passions" or "Twelve Gospels," is a climactic point of the entire task set before us during Holy Week. During this wonderful Service we accompany Christ, step by step, from the time of His last discourse with His disciples to His being laid in a new tomb by the noble Joseph of Arimathea and the pious Nicodemus. Each of the twelve Gospel sections read during the Service involves us in a new scene: the arrest and trial before Annas and Caiaphas, the Jewish High Priests; the threefold denial of Peter; the trial and other happenings before Pontius Pilate; the scourging and mocking by .the soldiers; the carrying of the Cross; the engaging of Simon of Cyrene; the Crucifixion and the opposing fates of the two thieves hung with Christ; the loving tenderness of that moment when Jesus commits His Mother to the care of His faithful disciple, John; the Lord's final yielding up of the spirit and burial.

The twelve Gospel readings, however, are only a part of the Service. Another large part is composed of liturgical hymnography. This hymnography (the antiphons, verses and kanons sung during the Service) sets the Gospel readings within the consciousness of the entire Church, with all of her history and people. The Gospel texts narrate the events. The hymnography gives the response of the Church, the community of true Christian believers from all ages, to these events. The hymnography clarifies and gives deeper meaning as well as the proper sense of significance, to the narrations which the Gospel relates with such epic simplicity. We are confronted and perplexed by the horrid and the sobering:

What caused you to betray the Savior, 0 Judas?...
The bridegroom of the Church is fastened with nails . . .
He who clothes himself with light as with a garment Stood naked for trial.
He was struck on the cheek by hands that He Himself had formed.
A people that transgressed the law
Nailed the Lord of Glory to the cross.
Then the curtain of the temple was torn in two.
Then the sun was darkened,
Unable to bear the sight of God outraged,
Before Whom all things tremble.
Let us worship Him.

(Antiphon 10)

We are comforted and uplifted by signs of hope for us:

But we, imitating the righteous thief, cry out in faith: Remember us also, O Savior, in Thy Kingdom.
Thy Cross, O Lord, Is life and resurrection for Thy people. Trusting in it, we praise Thee, our crucified God. Have mercy on us.
(Antiphon 15)

The total effect of this integration of the twelve Gospel sections and the responsorial hymnography is to uplift each participant of the Service into the total life of the Church. In this life, past, present and future are one, and our own accompanying of Christ is not merely a dramatic enactment of past and irrelevant events, but a reality. The entire spectrum of our Lord's saving Passions is opened before us, and we are placed within that spectrum. Within this spectrum a judgment begins to come upon us. Where do we stand in reference to all those who are accompanying Christ on the road of His
Passion? Do we share a common spirit with the treacherous Judas, the scheming priests, the fearful and abandoning disciples, orthedenyingPeter? Do we in any way find ourselves among the fickle and unruly crowds, or the mocking and blasphemous groups of soldiers? Is the indifference of Pilate in any way indicative of our response to Christ? Hopefully, we perhaps see ourselves more clearly in the devotion of the disciple John, or in the confessing centurion, or the faithful Joseph of Arimathea, or, most of all, in the repentant thief. The words from the Gospel come to us as a concrete and present judgment;

And this is judgment, that the light has come into the world and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.

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