Every year I am asked by some faithful Orthodox why it is that we change the "traditional" times of some of our Great and Holy Week services. Actually, the reason is that what happens elsewhere is not traditional at all and suffers from some grave defects. Why then do we have the service times as we do in Great and Holy Week? In our parish in Manchester we do something quite extraordinary. We celebrate Vesperal services in the evening!
(1) We serve the Holy Thursday Vesperal Liturgy of the Last Supper (as its title suggests!) on Holy Thursday EVENING, not in the morning.
(2) We serve the Holy Saturday Vesperal Liturgy (as its title suggests!) on Holy Saturday EVENING, not in the morning.
The only other change is the placing of the 12 Gospel Matins of Holy Friday on Friday morning rather than on the Thursday evening.
The original Greek word is "Orthros" meaning "dawn" or "daybreak." In monasteries this ends the Night Vigil and is served to conclude with the rising of the sun. In parishes, since few people would attend at 4am-5am in the morning, it is either served in the evening after Vespers (Slav tradition) or in the morning before the Liturgy (Greek tradition). Each option in the parishes is either earlier or later than it should be out of practical and pastoral necessity.
In Great and Holy Week it is perfectly acceptable to serve the various Matins Services either in the late evening of the day before or in the early morning of the correct day. Usually the evening before is the pattern adopted in most places. This then is the usual schedule for Matins:
Holy Monday Bridegroom Matins is served on Sunday evening.
Holy Tuesday Bridegroom Matins is served on Monday evening
Holy Wednesday Bridegroom Matins is served on Tuesday evening.
Holy Thursday Matins of Divine Healing and the Blessing of the Oils is served on Wednesday evening.
Holy Friday Matins of the 12 Passion Gospels is served on Thursday evening.
Holy Saturday (Lamentation) Matins is served on Friday evening.
The one Matins service we do change at St. Aidan's is the timing of the Holy Friday Matins of the 12 Passion Gospels which is served here on Holy Friday morning.... which, as I have shown, is entirely acceptable since Matins can be served either in the evening or in the morning. But why, you may say, do we change that? The explanation for this lies in the need to adjust the Vesperal Liturgies - to which I referred at the beginning of this explanation.
We therefore now consider the two vesperal services.
Clearly if the Vesperal Liturgy of Holy Thursday is to be served on Thursday EVENING the 12 Gospel Matins of Holy Friday has to be moved to its alternative position on Holy Friday morning. But why do we serve the Vesperal Liturgies in the evening not the morning?
Well the first and most important reason is that they were written as VESPERAL Liturgies, that is, evening Liturgies based on Vespers. Nowhere else in the Church's year has it been considered correct to move Vespers to the morning! Everyone can get to Church in the evening after all and prayers that refer to the sun going down and the night are clearly not designed to be used in broad daylight!
The second reason for not serving these Liturgies in the morning is historical.
The Last Supper (Holy Thursday's Liturgy) was celebrated by Christ with His disciples in the evening. The Eucharist is NOT simply a repetition of the Last Supper so we usually have Liturgies in the morning to celebrate the resurrection of Christ … after that is the rising of the sun with its attendant symbolism. However the Institution of the Last Supper in Holy Week is different. The context is the evening..... which is why the Church assigns a Vesperal Liturgy with its associated prayers of the evening.
With reference to the Holy Saturday Liturgy the reason is historical also. Originally this Vesperal Liturgy was the actual Liturgy of Pascha. This is difficult to believe I know, but it is true. The clue is in the 15 Old Testament readings which were designed to be read throughout the night BEFORE THE ACTS OF THE APOSTLES!
Sometime in the Middle Ages, perhaps because some people were too lazy or indifferent to come to Church late on Saturday and into the early hours of Sunday, this Liturgy was moved onto the morning of the same day, (the same happened to the Holy Thursday Liturgy). This really was a nonsense since it destroyed the integrity and completeness of the Paschal Vigil. Of course the Church did not abandon the Vigil, but the removal of the Vespers part meant that it started with the Acts of the Apostles reading before the Midnight Vigil which precedes both Paschal Matins and the Paschal Liturgy. So, here you can see that two Liturgies were unnecessarily and confusingly created out of the original one.
Well, we could just accept what happened and leave this orphaned Vesperal Liturgy hanging there out of place in the morning OR we could at least restore it to the early evening, especially since in parish practice the 15 readings have often been shortened to 3. This is what we do at St. Aidan's. It has the merit of being a conservative change in the timing and not the content of the service. This, however, can only be a transitional temporary change on the way to restoring the integrity of the original single complete Paschal Vigil. That would require the removal of the Eucharistic content of the present Vesperal Liturgy thereby allowing Vespers to rejoin the EXISTING Paschal Vigil. The Old Testament readings would then immediately precede the reading of the Acts of the Apostles before the Night Office and Matins followed on. This is the true liturgical reform that we actually need from our bishops and it is long, long overdue. In the meantime we do what we can at St. Aidan's to respect the original integrity of the Paschal celebration.
For more information about the historical development of the services of Great and Holy Week and Pascha please consult this by the late great Orthodox liturgical scholar, Fr. Gregory Woolfenden, especially his final paragraph entitled: "An Afterthought" which contains this amusing reference:
"I do not think that it might be heresy to suggest that Matins be served in the morning and Vespers in the evening." Quite so!