The Great and Holy Thursday is celebrated on the 13th of April this year in the Belarusian Orthodox Church. This is the day we commemorate the Last Supper - the revelation of God’s love for people.
The Gospel of Matthew tells us about the Last Supper that Jesus Christ shared with His disciples. It happened on the day of the Jewish Festival of Unleavened Bread. In the evening, Christ and the disciples gathered together to eat the Passover. It is interesting how this is the day Christ will exchange the Old Testament Passover with the New Testament Pascha.
When at the table, Jesus said to His disciples:
“Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me.” (Matthew 26:21)
Everyone got sad and Judas, that one disciple that will in fact betray Christ, asked Him:
“Surely you don’t mean me, Rabbi?” (Matthew 26:25)
To which Christ simply answered, “You have said so.”
On Holy Thursday, we also commemorate another important event - the betrayal. Judas betrayed Christ and gave Him a kiss, which is the sign of love and friendship. This is where we see how sin changes our nature, how it rebels against God, against love and light.
What happens next has such a great meaning to every Orthodox Christian - the very first Eucharist took place:
“While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take and eat; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you, I will not drink from this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.” (Matthew 26:26-29)
The Eucharist is the new Pascha, the revelation of God’s unconditional love to us. Instead of a sacrificed lamb, we now eat Christ’s very Body and drink His very Blood in order to live. This is His ultimate gift to mankind; we get to experience the Kingdom and be with God here, on this earth, at the Divine Liturgy, every time we take the Holy Communion.
After Christ and His disciples shared the Mystical Supper, they went to the garden of Gethsemane where Christ prayed to God, saying:
“Abba, Father,” he said, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” (Mark 14:36)
Even though Christ is fully God, He is also fully human, which means he was probably scared and worried because He knew what was going to happen. He came to save mankind, and we can see just how humble one must be to accept that. Christ already showed how humble He is when he washed the disciples’ feet (John 13:2-17) and His death on the cross on Friday just proved that.
On Holy Thursday, Orthodox Christians gather for a special service where the Twelve Passion Gospels are read. From these readings we find out about Christ’s last instructions to the disciples, the prophecy, the prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane and other events of Holy Thursday.
On Great and Holy Friday, we commemorate Christ’s suffering and crucifixion. This is the day when our Lord died for us, so that we can live. By dying on the cross He destroyed death itself.
On Holy Friday, we celebrate a special Vespers service, during which the priest removes the Body of Christ from the cross, wraps it in a white cloth and carries it into the altar. Then this cloth, which symbolises Christ’s body is placed in a bier - a symbol of a tomb.
On Holy Saturday, we commemorate two things - the burial of Christ and His descent into Hades. In the Orthodox Church we also call this day the Blessed Sabbath. This is when Christ is “trampling down death by death” as the Paschal troparion says - He descends into Hades and gives life to the dead.
The service of the Great Saturday is full of expectation and hope - Christ’s body is still in the tomb, but we can already feel the triumph, the victory of life over death when we sing this hymn:
“When You did descend to death, O Life Immortal,
You did slay hell with the splendor of Your Godhead,
And when from the depths You did raise the dead,
All the Powers of Heaven cried out,
O Giver of Life, Christ our God, glory to You!”
(Troparion of the Holy Saturday)