Syriac Orthodox faithful often gets challenged by the relevance of Good Friday Services in today's busy world. How can anyone attend a service for more than six hours, that too on a working/business day? An in-depth understanding of the Syriac Orthodox Good Friday liturgy gives a definite answer to this. When we understand the imagery and mystery in the service, we will find the service very beautiful and length truly justified.
On Good Friday, we recall the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. Normally, there is no Eucharist on Good Friday. The only exception is, if Good Friday falls on March 25, annunciation of Theotokos (Mother Mary) - the Church requires to have Holy Qurbono before the Good Friday Services. This explains our Church’s non-compromising recognition and acceptance of the holiness and importance of Mother Mary.
Preparation of the sanctuary for Good Friday
For the Good Friday, the sanctuary is prepared after the Palm Sunday services. If the sanctuary has pews, they are removed to make space for the faithful to kneel down during the services and be part of the sufferings Jesus went through. All the colorful things in Madbaha are removed. The cloth covering Golgotha (man shaped stand with cross erected in the middle of Church on mid-lent), veil (thirasheela), tri-color spread (Virikootam) and Altar cloth (Chithola) are replaced by black. This reminds us that coming are the days of weeping and sorrow. For the Good Friday services, the Golgotha is moved next to the table where the services are held. This is to keep our full and complete attention to Jesus.
The basis of Good Friday Service Order
In the Syriac Orthodox tradition, a day has seven yamas. According to the Gospels, below are the events happened on Good Friday.
Midnight : Jesus's arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane
Morning : Jesus is taken before Pilate, the Roman Governor
3rd Hour : Pilate releases Jesus to be crucified
6th Hour : Jesus is crucified
9th Hour : Jesus dies on the cross
Evening : Body of Jesus is taken down from the cross
Soothoro : Jesus' body was buried
The Syriac Orthodox Good Friday liturgy is not only an annual commemoration of these historical events, instead, we participate in the trial, suffering, death and burial of Jesus. In the liturgy, we recall the suffering Jesus went through each of the yamas. The liturgy is also filled with beautiful songs and prayers to keep the faithful engaged through out.
We do not use the regular Qaumo or intercession prayers, instead, each hour has special Qaumo specific to the hour. Choir does not use any musical instruments in Passion Week services.
Now, let us examine the imagery and mystery in the Good Friday liturgy corresponding to each yama
Jesus is in Garden of Gethsemane for the final prayer. He is betrayed by Jude and arrested by a group of Roman soldiers and officials (John 18:3). He is brought before Annas, Caiaphas, and an assembly of religious leaders called the Sanhedrin. (John 18:19-24, Matthew 26:57). Jesus is charged with blasphemy, claiming to be the Son of God, the Messiah.
These events, recalled in the midnight prayer is done at house before coming to Church for the Good Friday service.
The morning worship starts with the trial of Jesus in the court of High Priest. The trial before Roman authorities starts in the court of Pilate. Hearing all the charges against Jesus, Pilate finds no reason to punish Him. But, being afraid of Jews he sends Jesus to king Herod (Luke 23:7). Herod ridicules Jesus and sends Him back to Pilate. (Luke 23:11-12).
In this part, the bibilical basis of Good Friday Liturgy is brought out in song 'On this Friday...' ('Velliyatham naal…'). In the song, we recall that Adam committed sin on a Friday. Abraham was asked to sacrifice Issac on a Friday, and was saved by replacing with a Lamb. These events are compared with events on Jesus’ trial day and how it is part of the redemption of mankind.
Pilate tries to get away from punishing Jesus. As a last attempt, Pilate offers that prisoner Barnabas be crucified and Jesus be released. But, the crowd calls for Jesus to be crucified. Having no choice left, Pilate reluctantly sentences Jesus to be crucified. The soldiers put a wooden cross on the shoulders of Jesus and take him to Golgotha to be crucified.
In our liturgy this is symbolized by the first procession. This procession is done different from other processions in our liturgy. The priest, wearing the vestments, carries a wooden cross (taken down from Golgotha) in a cloth. To symbolize the mockery and insult given to Jesus, no symbols are used in the procession. Normally in our processions, decorations represent the respect to Trinity and presence of angels. In this procession, no decorations are carried because no respect was given to Trinity when Jesus was carrying the cross to Golgotha. It may be noted that the priest carrying the cross still wears the vestments because, although Jews were not agreeing, Jesus was indeed the Son of God.
The procession is accompanied by beautiful song and readings, depicting the heart breaking scene of St. Mary crying like a dove and asking Jesus why He allowed this to happen to Himself.
Noon (Sixth hour):
In this hour, the crowd reaches Calvary. Jesus is crucified in the midst of two thieves. The liturgy has beautiful songs here, with some very impressive literary techniques like imagery and symbolism. For instance, there is a part where the tree (wood) is weeping for its bad fortune of carrying the righteous man. The tree is also showing its pity to the Jews who failed to realize Jesus.
chollunno maram – Kashtameni-kkenthulavai
srishteeshaneyen - meethe ha kurishichar
pottee, nja-pakaram chaithu
mishiha than – krushakaram – yoodanmare kashtam!
Tree said today - what did I do wrong to
Cru-cify my Lord - on me this Friday
He gave me - rain and light and food
I did wrong - taking him on me
Pity you !! Jews who did - crucify Christ on me.
This part starts with the conversation between two thieves. The thief on the right asks Jesis to remember him in the glorious next coming. Jesus confirms that he will be with Him in paradise. Jesus tells that He is thirsty and receives the last drink. “It is finished” - with those final words, Jesus bows His head and gives up His spirit (John 19:30). The strange events that happened in earth when Jesus died are depicted beautifully in the songs.
Next day being Sabbath, the Jewish leaders do not want the bodies left on the crosses. They ask Pilate to have the legs broken and bodies taken down. When the soldiers come to Jesus to break the legs, they find Him already dead and hence do not break His legs. Instead one of the soldiers pierces Jesus’s side with a spear and there is a sudden flow of blood and water. (John 19:38-42).
Veneration of the Cross:
Joseph of Arimathea takes down the body of Jesus from the Cross with the permission of Pilate. Joseph and Nicodemus lay Jesus in a tomb in accordance with Jewish burial customs. A big stone is rolled in front of the entrance to the tomb. There are three parts to this service
Here, everyone comes forward to the cross and pays tribute to the savior. Through the song 'Knee-ling before Thy Cross' (sogatheenan… or Aathma-akkale rakshichoru) we urge Jesus to remember us in His next coming, similar to the thief on the right side.
2.Carrying the body of Jesus for burial:
Carrying the body of Jesus for burial is symbolized by the second procession of the day. This procession is done only by priest and assistants because there were very few people participated in the burial of Jesus. The cross is covered by a fresh (never used before) white cloth. It is stated in the Bible that Jesus was buried in a tomb where no one was buried before. (John 19: 41). The second procession is done with priests and assistants wearing the full adornments, symbolizing the completion of redemption of mankind, hence to be celebrated. It is also a ‘Royal’ sent-off of Christ, the King who humbled himself on the cross.
3.Veneration of the Cross:
In this part, the Trisagion is used for the first time in Good Friday services. The sacrifice of Jesus is over and now we look forward to His divine resurrection. Worship by angels is also recited here. This emphasizes our belief that the human death by Jesus did not affect His divinity. He is still God and respected by all the angels.
This is a private service done with veil / curtain closed. When this service of mystery is performed, the faithful repeats Kurielaison (Lord, have mercy on us). Inside the Madbaha, the cross which was taken from Golgotha, used in processions and paid tribute to, is buried in a compartment built inside the altar. Incense and perfumes are used as it was used in Jesus' burial by Joseph and Nicodemus (John 19: 39-42). The burial service ends with Quamo prayers, followed by Nicene Creed, which is the perfect ending of a day full of reflection and meditation.
All the faithful, before departing, accept the sour drink experiencing the last sour drink Jesus received on Cross. Throughout the service there are hundreds of 'kumbideel' (Kneeling or prostration), which also help us experience Jesus' agony. The most important aspect of the liturgy is that when we are engaged in the services we get to experience the events on the day Jesus was crucified.
- by Biju George with inputs from Alias George