On this day we celebrate the sufferings of Christ: the mockery, the crown of thorns, the scourging, the nails, the thirst, the vinegar and gall, the cry of desolation, and all that the Saviour endured on the Cross; also the confession of the Good Thief. At the same time, the Passion is not separated from the Resurrection; even on this day of our Lord’s deepest self-abasement, we look forward also to the revelation of His eternal glory:
We venerate Thy Passion, O Christ:
Show us also Thy glorious Resurrection.
The Cross and the Resurrection, as we have seen, are aspects of a single, undivided act of salvation:
Thy Cross, O Lord, is life and resurrection…
Friday Matins are usually ‘anticipated’ and held on Thursday evening. They take a special form, with a series of twelve Gospel readings that begins with Christ’s discourse at the Last Supper and ends with the account of His burial. In the Greek use there comes a ‘high point’ shortly before the sixth Gospel, when the priest carries a large Cross from the sanctuary and sets it up in the centre of the church. This ceremony, which originated in the Church of Antioch, was only adopted at Constantinople as recently as 1824; it is not found in the practice of the Slav Churches. Here we find the principle of dramatic representation carried a stage further than hitherto, through the use not only of words but of visible actions.
On Friday morning, the Hours take a solemn form, as on the eves of Christmas and Theophany, with an Old Testament reading, an Epistle and a Gospel at each Hour. Vespers follow, either immediately after the Hours (normal Greek use) or in the afternoon (Slav use). At the end of Vespers, as was done earlier at Matins in the Greek use, the events of Great Friday are represented not only through words but through dramatic actions.+ The Epitaphion – an oblong piece of stiffened cloth on which is painted or embroidered the figure of the dead Christ laid out for burial – is carried in procession from the sanctuary to the centre of the church, and is then venerated by the faithful. There are few more moving moments in the whole of the Church’s Year. The Greek and Slav Triodia say nothing about this procession with the Epitaphion at the end of Vespers, nor about the corresponding procession at the end of Matins on Holy Saturday. It seems that the practice of carrying the Epitaphion processionally on these two occasions originated at a relatively recent period, in the fifteenth or the sixteenth century.
In present practice no Liturgy is celebrated on Great Friday – neither the complete Liturgy (except when it is the Feast of the Annunciation) nor the Liturgy of the Presanctified. But in earlier times there was a Presanctified Liturgy on this day.*