Sunday, March 27, 2016

Experiencing the Double Feast of Good Friday and the Annunciation

I post this entry on Easter, and I wish a Happy Easter to all! I have to say this has been one of the most enriching Holy Weeks in my memory. I was able to receive the Eucharist multiple times over the past 8 days, and was able to experience the great traditions of the Church both East and West, as I attended the Extraordinary Form of the Mass on Easter Sunday, and the Divine Liturgy at the local Ruthenian Catholic church for Good Friday and there again for Jerusalem matins on Saturday morning. But Id like to focus on the wonderful things I saw celebrated through the Byzantine Rite on the double feast of Holy and Great Friday (as the Byzantines call it) and the Annunciation.

It was fitting that the church I went to on Friday was named "Annunciation", and the parish went all out, with the pastor making a new icon of Christ entombed on a shroud to be venerated for the faithful, as this double feast will never happen again in our lifetimes. the next time Good Friday and the Annunciation will coincide will be in the year 2157! So this surely was a once in a lifetime experience, and it was sure worth it going out to be a part of it. Many reflections were posted throughout the web, detailing the seeming contradiction between celebrating the conception and death of our Lord, but this paradox really makes sense when you think about it, and it's a powerful reminder of how much Christ loves us; that by divine condescension He became man in a Virgin's womb, and then in the ultimate act of love died for us so as to redeem us. This juxtaposition was seen clearly at Divine Liturgy, and here's how it all went down.
Annunciation of the Theotokos- Serbian Icon

First, it should be mentioned that the usual liturgy said for Good Friday (that is, Vespers) is combined with the Divine Liturgy for the Annunciation. So the priest, deacons, and altar severs all came out at the beginning wearing blue vestments for the Marian feast, but started off by saying the Vespers for Good Friday, with some portions reflecting the feast of the Annunciation also. For instance, here is one of the prayers that was chanted:
"The Theotokos heard a voice she did not know. The archangel spoke to her the words of good news. She received the greeting with faith and conceived you, the God from before all ages. Therefore, we also rejoice and cry out to you, O unapproachable God who were incarnate of her: Grant peace to the world and great mercy to our souls."
Contrast that with what was sung just prior to that selection, with this below:
"The whole creation was transformed with fear, when it saw you hanging on the Cross, O Christ. The sun grew dark and the earth's foundations were shaken. All things suffered along with you, who made all things. O Lord, who willingly endured this for us, glory to you!"
The parallel between mourning and rejoicing are so closely intertwined in this specific liturgy, it was very moving and very awesome to see these two events both being described in such a beautiful way.

 They then followed that with the Liturgy of the Word where all the readings for both Annunciation and Good Friday were read without interruption. So for example, the "Apostolic Reading" (the Eastern equivalent of the Epistle or Second Reading) included Hebrews 2:11-18 first for the Annunciation, and then immediately after the last word was said, 1 Corinthians 1:18-2:2 was read for Good Friday. The same happened during the Gospels.

Father then dispensed with the homily until the end of the liturgy, so the rest of the Divine Liturgy went on as usual until after the Eucharist. Then, after the Ambon Prayer, the Apostichera was sung by the faithful, recalling st. Joseph of Arimathea's act of great charity when he gave Christ his own tomb. While we sang this, the priest, deacons, and servers all changed into dark red, full penitential vestments. This was in preparation for the procession that was about to take place with the burial shroud that is venerated by the Byzantine Church every Good Friday. This one in particular, was made by the pastor of the Church for this very special occasion of Good Friday and the Annunciation falling on the same day. So when the priest and the others came back out in their new vestments, the Canticle of the Holy Prophet Simeon was sung while the clergy and servers prostrated before the burial shroud three times. Then, in the same way that the Latin-Rite priest places has the cope placed around his shoulders during benediction, the shroud was put over the shoulders of the priest while the deacons incensed the shroud. The cross-bearer than led the procession outside as we all exited the church with candles given to us and we walked around the Church in the cold, March air. We all sang:
"Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever and forever. Amen. The angel standing by the tomb cried out to the myrrh-bearing women: Myrrh is fitting for the dead, but Christ has shown himself not subject to corruption."
As we entered the church again, the shroud was placed back in front of the ambon, which had been turned into a kind of mini-"tomb" Where the entire congregation came forward on their knees to venerate the icon, much in the same way that we in the Latin Rite venerate the wood of the Cross. As we venerated the icon, one of the deacons and some of the laity read the "Lamentation of the Theotokos", in which we see how sorrowful our Blessed Mother was as she watched her Son suffer and die and be buried. It was very moving and excellent time of reflection. The priest then heard confessions in the back while those that wanted to stay remained in silent prayer. The church remained open all night until Jerusalem Matins in the morning, and I myself stayed until about 11:30, with the Divine Liturgy having begun at 7pm.

It was a wonderful experience, something that I'll never witness again in my lifetime in the same way, although I will at least get to experience the Good Friday portions of this again in the future. I did end up attending Jerusalem Matins the following morning, but was unaware of how long it would take, and had to leave after an hour or so as I had my 1 year old son in tow. But even in the limited time I was there, I was very moved by the beautiful chanting of the men's choir and the prayers that were said. For a good write-up of the Jerusalem Matins, check out this report by a Latin Catholic seminarian over on Shameless Popery at the link. 

Once again, I have to say that the traditions of the Byzantine Rite Churches are beautiful. It makes me wonder why we can't keep our traditions in the Latin Rite, as I've written before. I made the same comment to a friend after Easter Mass, and he told me "It's not that we can't keep our traditions, it's that people don't want to." And that may be the sad truth; some Latin Catholics just don't want to be bothered with all the "extra stuff." It's truly sad, but I'm glad that some Latin and Byzantine Catholics still care about the traditions that lead us closer to Christ, the ones that make us remember and recall the sense of the sacred in our lives. Some of those being the beautiful traditions I just described; may everyone have a blessed Easter season.

Here are some videos from the Divine Liturgy below, specifically towards the end as the Procession of the Burial Shroud was getting underway:

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