Malankara World

Passion Week (Holy Week)

Good Friday Services - A Commentary on the Orthodox Liturgy

by Dr. Jacob Mathew, Editor in Chief, Malankara World
(Revised by Rev. Fr. Jose Daniel Paitel)

For those not familiar with the meaning of the Liturgy of the Orthodox Church, Good Friday provides a challenge. How can you attend such a long service? This is the first question people ask. Actually, once you understand the services, you will want more.

Orthodox service is full of imagery and mystery. If you understand that, then you will start enjoying the liturgy. I may be prejudiced; but I can tell you that the Orthodox Liturgy cannot be beaten; it is just beautiful!! It is the best there is!

Orthodox worship is rooted on the Jewish worship practices at the time of Jesus. After the resurrection of Jesus and Pentecost, the apostles have started the worship services and we follow that without any change. The prayers are completely biblical. It is not that we are arbitrarily chanting some words. The words come from bible. When we pray, we are actually meditating on the bible!

Let us go through a capsule summary of what happens on Good Friday.

To understand the service we have to go back to the half way point of the Great Lent. (This year, it falls on Wed Mar 6). Many people who do not attend the services on that day (as it is a working day) suddenly notice a man-shaped stand with a wooden cross at the top in the midst of the church. (We call the stand Golgotha). The cross represents Jesus. What is strange is that this is placed in the middle of the faithful, not in the sanctuary as one would expect.

The story of the bible is the fall of man and God's plan for the redemption of mankind. The first step is the incarnation of God as man on Christmas Day. The plan is fulfilled on Good Friday with the death of Jesus on the cross and the resurrection of Jesus on Easter.

Note: Significance of the erected Golgotha goes back to the death of the people bitten by the poisonous saraph serpents at the time of exodus from Egypt. [Numbers. 21: 4-9]. As per the result of the prayer of Moses to save the children of Israelites from their death due to the bite of saraph serpents, God commanded Moses to raise a saraph serpent in a long pole in the middle of the camp. So Moses made a bronze serpent and erected it in a pole. This was God's plan (instrument) for the redemption of those bitten by the serpent. Whoever looks on the bronze serpent erected in the middle of the camp will be saved from death. The cross erected in the middle of the Church resembles the bronze serpent. The Jesus is in the middle of the people. He is the instrument of our salvation. See John 3:13-15.

The significance of "Golgotha" is that it is an imagery that shows that God has incarnated; word became flesh and is residing in the midst of us. Jesus is not in the sanctuary (which represents the heaven); He has come down from heaven and is in the midst of us. He has assumed human nature and is just like one of us. He feels the pain; he weeps with us as he has done several times during his public ministry.  The color of the cloth below the cross is crimson or violet. (spiritual or royal color.) While He was in earth, Jesus was fully human and fully divine. The two natures blended in him simultaneously.

The passion week begins with the Palm Sunday on March 24. This is the day Jesus comes to Jerusalem as a King riding a donkey. People welcome him as a King by waving palm leaves. In Orthodox Liturgy, the image of the arrival of the King is represented by a procession around the church with the people waving the palm leaves. At the end of the service, the priest places two palm leaves on the cross on Golgotha.

Then we have Maundy Thursday (Pes'ho) service. This recalls the Last Supper of Jesus when the Eucharist/Holy Qurbana was established. In churches where there is a bishop, a feet washing ceremony is held on Thursday evening to recall the scene of Jesus washing the feet of the disciples and giving the new commandment - Love others as I loved you; if you want to be a leader in the Church you have to be a servant - your job is to serve not to rule.

Now we come to Good Friday.

Good Friday is the day we recall the sacrifice of Jesus. We recall his death on the cross for the sins of the mankind. This paves the way for His eventual victory over death and resurrection on Easter.

Since this is a day of sacrifice, there is no Qurbana/Eucharist on Good Friday. (The only exception is if Good Friday falls on March 25, the day of the annunciation to St. Mary, the church requires Holy Qurbana be conducted on that day prior to starting Good Friday Services.)

Note: Since the beginning of the passion week, the Madbaha is kept closed most of the time. It is effectively replaced by the Gogultha. The sanctuary is only used for the Holy Pes'ho Qurbana.

When you come to the church on Good Friday, you will notice that the cloth covering the Golgotha is now black - color of passion. It is also moved next to the table where the services are held. [Attention is now on Jesus.] All the colorful things in church are gone. It is replaced by black. The alter is covered with black cloth too. We are reminded that this is a day of weeping and sorrow. Jesus is undergoing the passion.

Good Friday is a day of reflection and meditation. We are reflecting/meditating on what Jesus underwent that day.

On Good Friday, we revisit the events of the day through public reading of specific Psalms and the Gospels, and singing hymns about Christ's death. Rich visual imagery and symbolism along with stirring, beautiful hymns are remarkable elements of these observances. For the Orthodox faithful, the events of Holy Week are not just an annual commemoration of past events. We actually participate in the death and resurrection of Jesus on this day.

In the Orthodox tradition, a day is divided into seven yamas. This is based on what happened to Jesus on Good Friday as stated in the Gospels.

Midnight - Jesus is arrested at the Garden of Gethsemane and taken to High Priest for trial
Morning - Jesus is tried by the High Priest. He was later sent to Pilate for trial.
Third Hour - Pilate releases Jesus to be crucified
Noon Hour (6th hour) - Jesus was crucified
Ninth Hour - Jesus dies on the cross
Evening - Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea takes down the body of Jesus from the cross
Soothoro - Jesus' body was buried - funeral service.

The midnight prayer is usually performed by the priest prior to his arrival at the church. We normally have the morning thru the ninth hour worship followed by the Veneration of the Cross and Burial.

If you recall, our regular Sunday liturgy also follows a similar pattern:

Noon Hour
Eucharist/Qurbana - The living sacrifice.

(The ninth hour prayers are not done because our services are usually over by noon on normal Sundays.)

Good Friday Namaskaram

On Good Friday, we recall the passion Jesus underwent during each of these hours. We do not use the regular Qaumo or any intercessionary prayers. The Qaumo is replaced by special Qaumo that depends on the specific hour. Each of the yama devotion begins with the special Qaumo followed by Psalm 51 and ends with a Qaumo. We also do prostration on Good Friday (Kumbideel). Make the sign of the cross. Now kneel on your legs; fold your hands and touch the ground; allow your face to come in contact with the ground; now get up by reversing the steps.

Each hour of the service on Good Friday represents the new suffering and the new effort of the atoning (sacrificial nature of the) suffering of the Savior that is hard for us to imagine and understand. The echo of this suffering is heard in every word of our worship service - the prayers, poems/hymns, scripture readings, etc. These are presented with tenderness; we feel the depth of the boundless compassion for the suffering of the Savior as we go through this experience. It is difficult to explain; we just have to experience it.

On Good Friday, we get a full picture of the redeeming suffering of the Lord beginning with the bloody sweat in the Garden of Gethsemane (If you have seen Mel Gibson's movie, Passion of Christ, recall the blood oozing from Jesus instead of sweat due to the intensity of passion) up to the crucifixion on Golgotha. Towards the end of the day, we are standing at the foot of the cross listening to the conversation of the thieves. We see the savior entrusting the care of his mother to his best loved disciple, only one to be found anywhere - the rest of them had disappeared. We hear the Lord asking for a drink and served with bitter. We experience earthquakes and the curtain in the synagogue splitting into two when Jesus dies. And finally, we stand near the cross and watch Nicodemus and Arimathea Joseph lowering the body of Jesus from the cross. We are present as if we are standing among the quivering spectators watching all the torture of the Savior unfolding on that day.

Here is how it unfolds:


We start at the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus is praying. He is betrayed and was arrested. He was taken to the High Priest for trial with false witnesses. The Chief Priest finds him guilty and sends him to Pilate for sentencing. (The morning worships begins with the questioning of Jesus by the high priest.)

Jesus is taken to Pilate. Pilate does not find any punishable crime. He does not want to get involved as his wife told him not to. But he was afraid of the Jews. He was relieved when he heard that Jesus may fall under the jurisdiction of Herod. He want to pass the buck!

Jesus is taken to Herod. Herod does not want to get involved either. So, Jesus is taken back to Pilate.

Third Hour

Pilate tried to get away from murder by having Jesus beaten. The mob is not buying it. Pilate offers to release Jesus as they normally pardon one criminal person during the high festivals. The crowd chants for the release of Barabbas, and ask that Jesus be crucified.

Pilate had no choice. He 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 Orthodox Liturgy this journey is represented by a procession. The Priest takes down the cross from the Golgotha. It is stripped off all the decorations. He places the cross in a cloth and carries it on his shoulder with the tip of the cross on his right shoulder and the base held by his hands. The people follows him as they did on Jesus' journey to Golgotha. The heart breaking scene is when St. Mary cries (like a dove) asking Jesus why he has allowed these bad people to do these to you? She cannot control herself. May be she remembers what Simeon prophesied when she took Jesus to the church on Ma'altho that a spear will penetrate her heart. The priest also reminds people that Jesus didn't have any energy to carry the heavy cross and the soldiers asked Simon, Cyrenian, to help Jesus carry the cross.

Note: The procession conducted in this occasion is very different from the other processions in our liturgy. Visually and verbally it may look similar to a casual observer. For example, the procession starts from the south door of the church and moves clockwise to the west, and finally enters the church by the north door. There the similarity ends. In all our processions we used symbols and sounds to show the respect to the triune God and the presence of angels. This procession, however, depicts the most sorrowful moments of the passion week. When Jesus was taken to Calvary, the Jews and Satan showed no respect to the divinity of Jesus; he was insulted and mocked. So, in this procession, no symbols showing respect to the trinity will be used. You will notice that only the priest who carries the wooden cross covered in the cloth will be wearing the vestments. [Jesus is still the son of God irrespective of what the Jews think.] Nobody else, including the sextons and altar boys following the procession, may wear their white vestments. Deacons or other assisting priests may wear their black vestment (kuppayam). No decorations that show respect to the divinity or presence of angels will be carried in the procession. The Madbaha (depicting heaven) will be kept closed during this procession. After the procession, all the lights will be turned off depicting the darkness that surrounded the earth when Jesus was on the cross. Only two unlighted candles will be placed on either sides of the cross. [In churches that have a choir, organ or other musical instruments are not allowed during the the passion week.]

If you had been following the liturgy, it will be hard not to cry during this procession especially after listening to the lamentation of a mother. Remember, Jesus was sinless. He had done all these so that we can be saved. He was the lamb that took away all the sins of the world and got slaughtered.

This ends the third hour. Usually there is a break at this time. Some people stays in the church and sings hymns and meditates. At the end of the break, we may have a short reflective talk based on the time. This will be followed by the Noon Prayers.

Noon Prayers/6th Hour

Jesus has arrived at Calvary.

At Golgotha, Jesus was crucified in the midst of two thieves.

Ninth Hour

On the ninth hour service, there is a reflection of the conversation between the thief at the left and the one at the right. The thief at the right asks Jesus to remember him when He comes in His glory. Jesus tells him that he will be with him in paradise. It is as simple as that. Ask and you shall be given. It is all paid for.

Jesus asks for a drink and then dies. The soldiers come to check if they have died. To be sure, they plunge a sphere on to Jesus' heart. Blood and water pours out from the wound. Jesus was dead.

Sometimes there is a short break here followed by a short reflective speech if there is time available. Some faithful stays in the church and meditates by singing songs.

Veneration of the Cross

This is a full service. Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea go to Pilate and obtains permission to bury Jesus. Permission was granted. They take the body down from the cross and carries to a new tomb. Three important segments of the service are:

1. Sleeba Vandanavu

The imagery here is that we go to the foot of the cross to pay tribute to the savior and to thank him for what he did for us. We ask Jesus to remember us also when he comes in glory just like the thief at his right did. (sogatheenan ... or njangalude almathinu athinale ...)

This scene is reminiscent of our paying last respects to a dear one before his/her body is taken from home to the church for the funeral. Some people kiss the face; some may hug; some may just touch; some may bend the head and move on. The priests, deacons, and assistants will offer incense and pay respects.

2. Carrying the Body of Jesus for Burial

The carrying of the body of Jesus to the burial place is represented by a second procession on Good Friday. Since, during this journey, only a very few people participated (most of the people including the disciples were all long gone. Only a few women were remaining), this procession is done by the priest and assistants. The public stays in the church. The cross is now covered with a white cloth, symbolizing the burial cloth. The burial cloth is a virgin cloth; never used before. The tomb where Jesus was buried was also a virgin tomb as stated in the bible.

There is a big difference between the first procession (when Jesus is taken to Calvary for crucifixion carrying his own cross) and the second one (when Jesus' body is taken for burial). There are no adornments for the first procession. Our Lord is still undergoing passion. The second service, on the other hand, is a celebration. It is more festive in character. By his death, Jesus has conquered death. He has accomplished the mission He came here to do. The plan for the redemption of mankind is now completed. We are now saved from the bondage of sin. It is time for celebration! In byzantine tradition, this service is called "Royal." We commemorate Christ the King who humbled himself for the salvation of mankind. So, the send off is given fit to a king with the priests and assistants wearing the full adornments.

3. Veneration of the Cross (Haudu Malakhe ... or Salutation of Angels)

One of the most important part of Orthodox prayers is the Trisagion. This prayer came from a revelation received by Ignatius Noorono, a disciple of St. Paul.

At the time of the burial of Jesus, the seraphims (angels) came down and one group sang:
Holy art thou of God (Psalm 99:5)

Then another group sang:
Holy art thou Almighty

and then another group sang:
Holy art thou, immortal (Rev. 1:18)

The Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus sang: (Mark 15:43)
Thou that has crucified for us, have mercy on us.

Significance of using Trisagion and the worship of the angels at this time:

When Jesus was on earth, he was a perfectly divine as well as perfectly human. People have trouble visualizing the God dying as is the case when Jesus died on the cross. But we believe that although the humanity of Jesus died at that time; nothing has happened to his divinity. He was still God and was respected by all angels as God. The angels worshipped him at the time of his burial recognizing his divinity. So, this part of the service reminds us that when Jesus was taken for the burial, the angels were present and worshipped him and we join Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea in praising Jesus - "crucified for us have mercy on us." We join the continuous worship that is going on in heaven (Isaiah 6:3).

After praising the trinity we continue the prayer:

Lord have mercy on us
Lord, be kind and have mercy
Lord, accept thou our office,
And our entreaties;
Have mercy on us.

Glory be to Thee, O Creator
Glory be to Thee, O King,
Christ who dost pity,
sinners Thy Servants.

This prayer is directed at Jesus Christ, the second person of the trinity.
We got the right to call God, the Father, as father only through our relationship with Jesus who earned us our sonship. We acknowledge that in this prayer.

Notice that this is the first time on Good Friday, we are using the regular Qaumo with trisagion. The passion and the sacrifice of Jesus is over.
We can now look forward to His resurrection.

Burial Service

This is a private service as was done on Good Friday. The veil is closed. The faithful can sing a song or repeat "Kurielaison" (Lord, have mercy on us.) while this solemn service is performed in mystery.

The burial service also ends with us worshipping God through Quomo prayers followed by the Nicene Creed. It is the appropriate ending of a long day of reflection and meditation.

The burial service completes the liturgy for Good Friday. The participants are asked to drink the sour drink recalling how Jesus was given the sour drink while he was on the cross just before his death. There are two more days left for the lent. So, we partake on Kanji, payar (beans), and pickle - the traditional Good Friday meal. The kanji really taste good on Good Friday!!

Biblical Basis of Good Friday Liturgy

When we examine the Good Friday Liturgy, we will find that we examine the crucifixion as the fulfillment of all the old testament prophesies. The priest recalls how Adam committed sin on a Friday and he died as a result. On Friday, Abraham was asked to sacrifice Isaac. Isaac was saved when a lamb took his place on the alter. These events are compared and contrasted to what Jesus did on Good Friday as part of the plan for the redemption of mankind. The faithful is repeatedly reminded that Jesus will resurrect on the third day. So, although this is a day of mourning, we will be filled with joy on Sunday. The prayers also goes into detail about the importance of sleebo or cross (representing Jesus).

The Gospel readings in each hour is a compendium of all the gospel readings (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) reflecting on what Jesus underwent during that hour. This is supplemented with Psalms (Psalms are an important prayer book for Jews - Orthodox Liturgy uses psalms extensively.) In fact, if you analyze the prayers, you will find that all of them comes from the bible - psalms, Daniel, Revelation, Isaiah, Gospels, and other books of the bible. Nothing is added. All of them can be traced to the bible. You can think of this as a giant bible study and reflecting on it; meditating with imagery to make it easy to understand. We are not repeating something arbitrarily. We are reading and meditating on the bible.


Good Friday Morning
Psalm 51
Psalm 63
Psalm 35
Psalm 69:20-30
Psalm 54-55 (parts)
Psalm 22

Old Testament Readings:

Leviticus 4:1-7
Numbers 19:1-11
2 Kings 19:20-29
Zechariah 13:7-14:5
Habakkuk 1:1-12
Ezekiel 13:17-22

New Testament:

Acts 22:30-23:16
1 Corinthians 1:18-31


Matthew 27:1-10
Mark 15:1-10
Luke 22:66-71
John 18:28-40

Gospel for 3rd Hour

Matthew 27:26-30
Mark 15:21-27
Luke 23:26-31
John 19:5-11

6th Hour (noon)

John 19:15-22
Matthew 27:38-44
Mark 15:29-32
Luke 23:34-43

9th Hour:

Matthew 27:45-56
Mark 15:33-41
Luke 23:44-49
John 19:23-30

Veneration of the Cross

Psalm 51
Luke 1:46-55
Psalm 113:1-9
Matthew 5:3-12

Old Testament:

Genesis 22:1-14
Exodus 17:8-14
Isaiah 52:13-53:12

New Testament:

1 Peter 2:19-25
Galatians 2:26-3:14, 6:11-18

John 19:31-42

So, please come to the Good Friday service ready to experience the passion of Jesus and to understand the importance of what He did for us. Remember that we are going through what Jesus underwent hour by hour from the Garden of Gethsemane to his burial in the tomb; if you do, you will enjoy and appreciate the service. You will be blessed.

This is a very short version of the passion. Please refer to Malankara World for details including the words uttered by Jesus on the cross.

PS: I do not claim to be a bible or theology expert. So, I am sure there are some errors in my interpretation. If you find them, please let me know so that it can be corrected.

See Also:

What Do We Celebrate in Passion Week by Very Rev Dr. Geevarghese Kunnathu, MD., Cor Episcopa

Passion Week Supplement in Malankara World

Sermons for Passion Week

Passion Week Home | Sermons Home | Malankara World Journal | General Sermons and Essays | Library - Home

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