Thursday, 12 April 2012


“Just as a candle cannot burn without fire, men cannot live without a spiritual life.” – Buddha

Today is the Orthodox Good Friday and the liturgy is dedicated to the climax of Christ’s passion, death and burial. The liturgy follows the gospels as they describe Jesus’ capture, trial, Pilate’s judgment, the crucifixion, and Christ’s six hours of agony on the cross. Jesus died at 3:00 pm and Joseph of Arimathaea obtained special permission from Pilate to bury the Lord on Friday afternoon as funerals and burials were forbidden on the Sabbath. The body of Jesus was wrapped in a winding sheet and he was buried in a tomb that was carved out of living rock. The opening of the tomb was covered with a heavy tombstone.

The Greek Orthodox Church celebrates a requiem mass for Christ on this day, re-enacting Jesus’ deposition from the cross, His preparation for burial and placement on a bier to be buried in the tomb. Some of the most dramatic, moving and heart-rendingly sweet chants are sung in church on this day.

The Epitaphios (Greek: Ἐπιτάφιος, epitáphios, or Ἐπιτάφιον, epitáphion) is an icon, today most often found as a large cloth, embroidered and often richly adorned, which is used during the liturgies of Good Friday and Holy Saturday in the Eastern Orthodox Churches and those Eastern Catholic Churches which follow the Byzantine Rite. It also exists in painted or mosaic form, on wall or panel. The Epitaphios is also a common short form of the Epitáphios Thrēnos, the “Lamentation upon the Grave” in Greek, which is the main part of the service of the Matins of Holy Saturday, served in Good Friday evening.

In Greek churches, an elaborately carved canopy, called a “kouvouklion”, stands over the Epitaphios. This bier or catafalque represents the Tomb of Christ, and is made of wood. On Good Friday morning, the bier is decorated with spring flowers, mostly white, red, and purple, until it is covered by the flowers in its entirety. The Tomb is often sprinkled with flower petals and rosewater, decorated with candles, and ceremonially censed as a mark of respect. The bells of the church are tolled mournfully, and in traditionally Orthodox countries, flags are lowered to half-mast. Then the priest and faithful adore the Epitaphios as the choir chants hymns.

The faithful continue to visit the tomb and venerate the Epitaphios throughout the afternoon and evening, until Matins—which is usually served in the evening during Holy Week, so that the largest number of people can attend. The form which the veneration of the epitaphios takes will vary between ethnic traditions. Some will make three prostrations, then kiss the image of Christ on the Epitaphios and the Gospel Book, and then make three more prostrations. Sometimes, the faithful will crawl under the table on which the Epitaphios has been placed, as though entering into death with Christ. Others may simply light a candle and/or say a short prayer with bowed head.

In the evening, the Kouvouklion carrying the Epitaphion is carried in procession along the neighbourhood streets by the chanting priest and deacons, while the faithful follow it with lit candles. In many towns where more than one parish exists, the processions often converge to a central square, where they temporarily stop and a common Triságion psalm is sung before they resume their routes. On the island of Hydra, the Epitaphios from the Kamíni parish is brought into the sea until the bier bearers are waist-high in the water, as a special blessing for those who have perished at sea. In larger towns the procession is led by a local marching band playing funeral marches; in some cities the Epitaphios is escorted by military detachments, their arms in the mourning (muzzle towards the ground) position.

At the end of the procession, the Epitaphios is brought back to the church. Sometimes, after the clergy carry the Epitaphios in, they will stop just inside the entrance to the church, and hold the Epitaphios above the door, so that all who enter the church will pass under it (symbolically entering into the grave with Christ) and then kiss the Gospel Book. The flowers that decorated the Kouvouklion will be distributed to the faithful who will place them near the holy icons.

Fasting on Good Friday in the Orthodox tradition is the strictest on this day, with all meat and dairy products forbidden as they are in Lent, but also on Good Friday, even the consumption of oil of any kind is prohibited. The faithful may eat bread, vegetables, nuts and fruit, but they also traditionally must consume a little vinegar in memory of the vinegar Christ was made to drink on the cross, instead of the water he thirsted for. No work at all should be done on this day, but especially so handling of iron tools is expressly forbidden as their use may be seen to be a re-enactment of Christ’s crucifixion.

On Good Friday it is also customary for people to visit cemeteries and take flowers to their relatives and friends’ graves, light a lamp or candle on the graveside and cense the air with burning aromatic resins.

The Encomia of Good Friday are chants where Christ’s death is reflected upon by the psalmist and the faithful are encouraged to take heed of Christ’s sacrifice. They are quite moving and beautiful in their lyrics and the music is some of the saddest in the Church’s hymnology. Here is Petros Gaitanos singing three of these encomia: ‘I Zoi en Tafo” (Life is in the Grave); “Axion Esti” (It is Truly Meet) and “Ai Geneai Pasai” (All of the Generations).

This post is part of the Spiritual Sunday meme hosted by Charlotte.


  1. This is so interesting! I love learning about different cultures.

  2. Thank you for your interesting post. I had a Greek friend who attended the Greek Assemblies of God Church in Oakland. Their services were probably different than yours. It is interesting to me that it takes so long for you and also for my church to celebrate the death of Jesus. May we rejoice now that we know He is risen and celebrate each day that He lives in our hearts.

  3. Very informative post. I did not know anything about these celebrations. Thank you for sharing with us on Spiritual Sundays.