By Shawn Thomas
What’s so “great” about Great and Holy Friday? The term “Good Friday” or “Great and Holy Friday” is used in Orthodox vocabulary without giving much thought about what makes it so great. Our Lord and Savior died. God died on this day. Yet the Church claims it as great and holy! It begs the believer to ask “why?” It is a day spent in church for almost 8 hours, prostrating hundreds of times, filled with long prayers, songs, processions, and a “burial” at the end, yet so many leave wondering the meaning of it all. However, in the context of the liturgical practices of the Church, the greatness of Holy Friday is unveiled.
There is a sedro during the Morning Prayers of Good Friday where the Adam and Christ are contrasted in a way where the celebrant reads, “On Friday, Adam…On Friday, He [Christ]...” The Church uses the sixth day of creation and Good Friday as the sixth day of the week as a literary device to help us understand that Christ’s obedience on the Cross undid Adam’s disobedience (Genesis 3). “On Friday, by his implicit obedience, he blotted out the sins of the disobedient Adam, the father of our race” (Good Friday 6th Hour Sedro). Christ showed us what it means to be God, in the way He died as a man. Jesus Christ came to die. It was His only purpose from the beginning. This was the Father’s plan before all time: that He would send His Son to die, so that man could have eternal life. The prophet Simeon understood this even when Christ was an infant, telling the Mother of God, “A sword will pierce through your own soul” (Luke 2:35), prophesying that this baby was born to die.
Christ’s life and purpose is exemplified during the final liturgical practices of the Holy Friday services. The curtain is closed, signifying the darkening of the earth, and the congregation, in their humility repeatedly cries, “Kurielaison” (Lord, have mercy). The priest ascends the barren altar with the wooden cross, signifying the lifeless body of the Lord, to perform the last rites. He uses incense (frankincense), perfume (myrrh), works on the altar table, usually laden with gold, and wraps the cross in white swaddling cloth. The materials used are not random, but purposely prescribed by the Church to reminds the faithful of the gifts the infant Jesus received from the three magi after His birth (Matthew 2:11) and the cloth the angels told the shepherds would help them recognize the baby Jesus (Luke 2:12). Finally, the priest ties the cross closed with palm leaves from the previous Sunday, reminding us that in a matter of six days we have gone from shouting “Hosanna!” to “Crucify Him!” The cross is, then, buried inside the altar. Christ has accomplished the purpose of His life. There is nothing more He can do. “It is finished” (John 19:30).
This is what makes Great and Holy Friday, “great” and “holy.” St. Ephrem the Syrian taught that since a tree brought about the downfall of mankind, it was upon a tree (the Cross) that mankind crossed over to the realm of life. Our God has acted and sent His Son to die, so that through His death, death has been defeated, and, through the Resurrection, life is bestowed on humanity. Creation has come full circle, and God has reconciled it to Himself, once and for all.