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The History of Our Salvation: Reading the Old Testament During Lent and Holy Week


O almighty Master, who hast made all creation and by thine inexpressible providence and great goodness hast brought us to these all−revered days, for the purification of soul and body, for the controlling of passions and for hope of resurrection, who, during the forty days didst give into the hands of thy servant Moses the tablets of the Law in characters divinely traced by thee: Enable us also, O good One, to fight the good fight, to complete the course of the fast, to preserve inviolate the faith, to crush under foot the heads of invisible serpents, to be accounted victors over sin; and, uncondemned, to attain unto and worship the holy resurrection. For blessed and glorified is thine all−honorable and majestic name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages.1

From the first Presanctified Liturgy of the Lenten season, the Old Testament is offered to us for instruction and inspiration, and revealed to us as our guide through the forty days−those forty days which we keep in memory of Moses’ sojourn on Mount Sinai, during which God gave into the hands of His servant the tablets of the Law in characters which He Himself divinely traced. This is, of course, a reference from the Book of Exodus. The second Old Testament citation in this prayer hearkens from the earliest chapters of the Book of Genesis, in which God curses the
serpent who has just led Adam and Eve into temptation:

On your belly you shall go, and you shall eat dust all the days of your life. And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her Seed; He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise His heel. (Genesis 3:14−15)

And on Holy Saturday itself−the final day of Holy Week and the very eve of Pascha−at Lauds and again at the Vesperal Liturgy, it is "The Great" Moses himself, the central figure of the Old Testament, who reveals to us the meaning of this great day, as we sing in the doxastikon:

Moses the great mystically prefigured this present day, saying: "And God blessed the seventh day." For this is the blessed Sabbath, this is the day of rest, on which the only−begotten Son of God rested from all His works. Suffering death in accordance with the plan of salvation, He kept the Sabbath in the flesh; and returning once again to what He was, through His Resurrection He has granted us eternal life, For He alone is good and loves mankind.2

It is no accident that the central figure of the Old Testament, Moses, and the central events of the Old Testament, the exodus from Egypt, the giving of the Law on Mt. Sinai, and the Israelites’ forty year pilgrimage in the desert, frame for us our forty day pilgrimage to Pascha.

Bishop Kallistos of Diokleia describes Great Lent as "an annual return to our Biblical roots. It is, more specifically, a return to our roots in the Old Testament; for during Lent, to a far greater degree than at any other time of the year, the Scriptural readings are taken from the Old Testament rather than the New."3

Fr. Alexander Schmemann, of thrice−blessed memory, goes even further:

One can say that the forty days of Lent are, in a way, the return of the Church into the spiritual situation of the Old Testament− the time before Christ, the time of repentance and expectation, the time of the "history of salvation" moving toward its fulfillment in Christ. This return is necessary because even though we belong to the time after Christ, and know Him and have been "baptized into Him," we constantly fall away from the new life received from Him, and this means lapse again into the "old" time. The Church, on the one hand, is already "at home" for she is the "grace of Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father, and the communion of the Holy Spirit"; yet, on the other hand, she is also "on her way" as the pilgrimage−long and difficult−toward the fulfillment of all things in God, the return of Christ and the end of all time.

Great Lent is the season when this second aspect of the Church, of her life as expectation and journey, is being actualized. It is here, therefore, that the Old Testament acquires its whole significance: as the book not only of the prophecies which have been fulfilled, but of man and the entire creation "on their way" to the Kingdom of God.4

And so as we go on our way to the great feast of Pascha, the Old Testament is our book, our guide, and our constant companion.


We find the Old Testament used−its histories and prophecies recounted, its wisdom recited and its hymns sung−in a number of liturgical contexts, which I will describe in turn. We have:

  • The chanting of Psalm 137 during the Matins services on the Pre− Lenten Sundays (in the Slavic practice)
  • Preparatory readings from the Prophecies of Joel and Zechariah during Cheesefare Week (the week just prior to the beginning of Lent)
  • The Commemoration of "The Casting Out of Adam from Paradise" on Cheesefare Sunday
  • Old Testamental references throughout the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete, which we read during Pure Week (the first week of Great Lent), and again, in its entirety, at Matins on Thursday of the fifth week
  • Daily readings from Genesis, Isaiah and Proverbs during the forty days of Great Lent, which are replaced by readings from Exodus, Ezekiel and Job during Holy Week
  • Readings from Genesis and the Prophecies of Zephaniah and Zechariah on the eve of Palm Sunday
  • A reading from the Prophecy of Jeremiah on Holy Thursday
  • A prophetic tour de force during the Royal Hours on Holy Friday
  • The completion of the daily readings at Vespers on Holy Friday
  • The reading of Psalm 119 with the Lamentations at the Matins of Holy Saturday
  • A reading from the Prophecy of Ezekiel−the vision of the "Dry Bones"−following the Lamentations
  • And finally, on the eve of Pascha itself, no less than 15 readings from the Old Testament: a recapitulation of the history of our salvation in its entirety

And so we begin.

Pre−Lenten Sundays

In the Russian Orthodox Church, and those churches which share its Slavic liturgical practices, we introduce the chanting of Psalm 137 during Matins on the Sunday of the Prodigal Son, and continue it on the two remaining Sundays of the Pre−Lenten season:

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept when we remembered Zion.

We hung our harps upon the willows in the midst of it.

For there those who carried us away captive required of us a song, and those who plundered us required of us mirth, saying, "Sing us one of the songs of Zion!"

How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?

If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her skill!

If I do not remember you, let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth; if I do not exalt Jerusalem above my chief joy.

Remember, O LORD, against the sons of Edom the day of Jerusalem, who said, "Raze it, raze it, to its very foundation!"

O daughter of Babylon, who are to be destroyed, happy shall he be who repays you as you have served us!

Happy shall he be who takes and dashes your little ones against the rock! (Psalm 137)

If you’re old enough to remember "Godspell", you’ll remember this as the song "On The Willows There".

Fr. Thomas Hopko writes, on this psalm and its pre−lenten usage,

The theme of man’s exile from God, his estrangement from the true spiritual reality to which he belongs, is constantly repeated in the lenten services. We are not at home. We are not where we belong. We are alienated and estranged. We are in exile...

Spiritually we are all by the waters of Babylon. Our true home is Jerusalem; not a place on the map but a spiritual reality. It is the true Jerusalem, the city of God, the Jerusalem on high...

Christians await "the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband," which is the true homeland of all human beings (Rev. 21:2). They long to be taken up into that festal gathering where they will be inflamed with the fire of God. They already live in it to the measure that they have discovered their authentic humanity made in God’s image and likeness in Christ. Their sin is that they forget it in the present age and become comfortable in Babylon, pampering the passions of the flesh, which wage war against the soul to destroy it.

To forget God is the cause of all sins. To be unmindful of Zion is the source of all sorrows. To settle down in this fallen world, which is not God’s good creation but rather the Babylon which the wicked have made, is death to the soul.5

And so as we remind ourselves, through ascetical efforts and the lessons taught to us in our liturgical services, that we are far from our true homeland−as we force ourselves not to settle down, not to settle into the Babylon of this world−it is the pre−eminent song of exile from the Old Testament that sets the theme for us, for our long and difficult pilgrimage back home.

Cheesefare Week

The Orthodox Church, in her two millennia of pastoral experience, prepares us gradually for the ascetical and liturgical rigors of the Lenten season. Like a swimmer about to enter a very cold pool, first we stick our toes in the water; then we go in up to our ankles, and then up to our knees, and then, ultimately we take the final plunge.

Ascetically−speaking, before beginning the full Lenten fast on "Pure Monday", we have a warm−up week of "Cheesefare", when we abstain from meat, but may enjoy dairy products throughout the week, even on the normally dairy−free Wednesday and Friday.

Liturgically−speaking, the services of this same Wednesday and Friday are also a warm−up, in that they are celebrated according to the Lenten typikon (order); the Divine Liturgy is not celebrated, and instead of the normal readings from the Epistle and Gospel, there are readings from the Prophecies of Joel and Zechariah. These readings help set the stage for the radical change to come in the following week.

On the Wednesday of Cheesefare Week, we read from the the second chapter of the Prophecy of Joel:

"Now, therefore," says the LORD, "Turn to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning." So rend your heart, and not your garments; return to the LORD your God, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness; and He relents from doing harm. Who knows if He will turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind Him; a grain offering and a drink offering for the LORD your God?

Blow the trumpet in Zion, consecrate a fast, call a sacred assembly; gather the people, sanctify the congregation, assemble the elders, gather the children and nursing babes; let the bridegroom go out from his chamber, and the bride from her dressing room. Let the priests, who minister to the LORD, weep between the porch and the altar; let them say, "Spare Your people, O LORD, and do not give Your heritage to reproach, that the nations should rule over them. Why should they say among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?’ "... (Joel 2:12−17)

And we continue, in the second reading, from the third chapter of the same Prophecy:

"Let the nations be wakened, and come up to the Valley of Jehoshaphat; for there I will sit to judge all the surrounding nations. Put in the sickle, for the harvest is ripe. Come, go down; for the winepress is full, the vats overflow; for their wickedness is great."

Multitudes, multitudes in the valley of decision! For the day of the LORD is near in the valley of decision. The sun and moon will grow dark, and the stars will diminish their brightness. The LORD also will roar from Zion, and utter His voice from Jerusalem; the heavens and earth will shake; but the LORD will be a shelter for His people, and the strength of the children of Israel. "So you shall know that I am the LORD your God, dwelling in Zion My holy mountain." ... (Joel 3:12−17)

During Great Lent, which Fr. Alexander Schmemann describes as a season of "bright sadness"6, there is a constant interplay between darkness and light, between sorrow and joy, between judgment and salvation. And so on Friday of Cheesefare week, when we take up the Prophecy of Zechariah, the readings are somewhat more encouraging than those of Joel:

Thus says the LORD of hosts: "Behold, I will save My people from the land of the east and from the land of the west; I will bring them back, and they shall dwell in the midst of Jerusalem. They shall be My people and I will be their God, in truth and righteousness."

Thus says the LORD of hosts: "...Now I will not treat the remnant of this people as in the former days," says the LORD of hosts. "For the seed shall be prosperous, the vine shall give its fruit, the ground shall give her increase, and the heavens shall give their dew. I will cause the remnant of this people to possess all these things. And it shall come to pass that just as you were a curse among the nations, O house of Judah and house of Israel, so I will save you, and you shall be a blessing. Do not fear, let your hands be strong."

For thus says the LORD of hosts: "Just as I determined to punish you when your fathers provoked Me to wrath," says the LORD of hosts, "And I would not relent, so again in these days I am determined to do good to Jerusalem and to the house of Judah. Do not fear." (Zechariah 8:7−9, 11−15)

And this encouragement continues in the second reading, when we are specifically told that the fast is to be "joy and gladness and [a] cheerful feast":

Thus says the LORD of hosts: "The fast of the fourth month, the fast of the fifth, the fast of the seventh, and the fast of the tenth, shall be joy and gladness and cheerful feasts for the house of Judah. Therefore love truth and peace."

Thus says the LORD of hosts: "Peoples shall yet come, inhabitants of many cities; the inhabitants of one city shall go to another, saying, ‘Let us continue to go and pray before the LORD, and seek the LORD of hosts. I myself will go also.’ Yes, many peoples and strong nations shall come to seek the LORD of hosts in Jerusalem, and to pray before the LORD."

Thus says the LORD of hosts: "In those days ten men from every language of the nations shall grasp the sleeve of a Jewish man, saying, ‘Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.’ " (Zechariah 8:19−23)

And so it is with both dire warnings of the coming judgment day of the Lord, and a joyful message of encouragement, that the Old Testament prepares us to begin the fast and the forty days of Great Lent.

Cheesefare Sunday

The Sunday immediately prior to the beginning of Lent is referred to by three names. "The Sunday of Forgiveness" refers to the reading from the Gospel of St. Matthew, in which the Lord warns us that "If you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses." (Mt. 6:14−15) This passage, as if written with this particular Sunday in mind, is immediately followed by His own instructions on how to keep the fast. It is also called "The Sunday of Forgiveness" because of the Rite of Forgiveness which we celebrate that evening at Vespers.

The second name for this Sunday is "Cheesefare Sunday", as this is the last day on which dairy products may be enjoyed until Pascha. The practice at St. Vladimir’s Seminary, at least when I went there almost 20 years ago, was for small groups of seminarians to hit the Eastchester Diner that afternoon, for a last serving of their outstanding cheesecake. I’m sure Holy Cross seminarians have similar practices and haunts.

Finally, this Sunday is known by its commemoration of "The Casting Out of Adam from Paradise". While there is no actual reading from Genesis, the liturgical hymns are one continuous meditation on the account of the fall of Adam and Eve in the third chapter of Genesis. We sing this mournful verse during the Aposticha of Great Vespers on Saturday evening:

Adam was cast out of Paradise through eating from the tree. Seated before the gates he wept, lamenting with a pitiful voice and saying: "Woe is me, what have I suffered in my misery! I transgressed one commandment of the Master, and now I am deprived of every blessing. O most holy Paradise, planted for my sake and shut because of Eve, pray to Him that made thee and fashioned me, that once more I may take pleasure in thy flowers." Then the Saviour said to him: "I desire not the loss of the creature which I fashioned, but that he should be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth; and when he comes to me I will not cast him out."7

Bishop Kallistos hears echoes of St. Paul’s First Epistle to Timothy in the Saviour’s words, but St. Paul is himself paraphrasing the Prophet Ezekiel: " ‘Do I have any pleasure at all that the wicked should die?’ says the Lord GOD, ‘and not that he should turn from his ways and live?’ " (Ezekiel 18:23)

In the Matins service, we hear these verses which find, in Adam’s breaking of the fast, the cause for his expulsion from Paradise, and reveal to us that our own way back to Paradise is to pick up where Adam left off, to do what he failed to do. Moses is held up, once again, as the example for us to follow:

Adam was driven out of Paradise, because in disobedience he had eaten food; but Moses was granted the vision of God, because he had cleansed the eyes of his soul by fasting. If then we long to dwell in Paradise, let us abstain from all needless food; and if we desire to see God, let us like Moses fast for forty days. With sincerity let us persevere in prayer and intercession; let us still the passions of our soul; let us subdue the rebellious instincts of the flesh...8

And the next verse tells us that it is now time to begin, and reminds us, as we begin the long journey, of our ultimate goal:

The time is now at hand for us to start upon the spiritual contest and to gain the victory over the demonic powers. Let us put on the armour of abstinence and clothe ourselves in the glory of the angels. With boldness Moses spoke to the Creator, and he heard the voice of the invisible God. In Thy love for man, O Lord, grant us with the same boldness to venerate Thy Passion and Thy Holy Resurrection.9

Pure Week

As I mentioned earlier, once we have (ascetically and liturgically) warmed up to the period of the fast by sticking our toes in the water, then going in up to our ankles, and then up to our knees, ultimately we take the final plunge.

Ascetically−speaking, this means that we go from Cheesefare Sunday right into what is sometimes referred to as "Pure Week", the first week of Great Lent, in which we keep the fast especially strictly.

Liturgically−speaking, we begin the series of intense Lenten services by celebrating Great Compline on Monday through Thursday nights, and we incorporate into that service, split into four parts, the Great Penitential Canon of St. Andrew of Crete.

As was the case on Cheesefare Sunday, when we commemorated "The Casting Out of Adam from Paradise", there is no actual reading from the Old Testament. But the Old Testament is used throughout the Great Canon as the background for an extended meditation on our fallen existence, the exile into which we have driven ourselves through sin.

Bishop Kallistos writes:

With its constant refrain, "Have mercy upon me, O God, have mercy upon me", the Great Canon forms a prolonged confession of sin, an unremitting call to repentance. At the same time, it is a meditation on the whole body of Scripture, embracing all the sinners and all the righteous from the creation of the world to the coming of Christ. [Hence, a meditation on the Old Testament itself−ds] Here, more than anywhere else in the Triodion, we experience Lent as a reaffirmation of our "Biblical roots". Throughout the Great Canon the two levels, the historical and the personal, are skillfully interwoven. [Bishop Kallistos quotes Fr. Schmemann:] "The events of the sacred history are revealed as events of my life; God’s acts in the past as acts aimed at me and my salvation, the tragedy of sin and betrayal as my personal tragedy."10

What do Bishop Kallistos and Fr. Schmemann mean by this interweaving of the historical and the personal? Of salvation history and of my own life? Just listen to a small handful of its refrains:

I have rivalled in transgression Adam the first−formed man, and I have found myself stripped naked of God, of the eternal Kingdom and its joy, because of my sins. [Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me!]11

Woe, to thee, miserable soul! How like thou art to the first Eve! For thou hast looked in wickedness and wast grievously wounded; thou hast touched the tree and rashly tasted the deceptive food. [Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me!]12

By my own free choice I have incurred the guilt of Cain’s murder. I have killed my conscience, bringing the flesh to life and making war upon the soul by my wicked actions. [Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me!]13

O Jesus, I have not been like Abel in his righteousness. Never have I offered Thee acceptable gifts or godly actions, a pure sacrifice or an unblemished life. [Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me!]14

And so the Great Canon continues, telling the stories of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Sodom and Gomorrah, Noah and his sons, Abraham and Isaac, Jacob and Esau, the twelve Patriarchs, Job the long−suffering, Moses and Joshua, the Judges of Israel, Samuel and Saul, David and Solomon, Elijah and Elisha, Jonah, Jeremiah, Daniel and all the prophets−virtually everyone who is anyone in the Old Testament makes an appearance. The Great Canon closes with a summary of the meaning of this sacred recollection of history:

I have put before thee, my soul, Moses’ account of the creation of the world, and after that all the recognized Scriptures that tell thee the story of the righteous and the wicked. But thou, my soul, hast followed the second of these, not the first, and hast sinned against God. [Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me!]15

The Law is powerless, the Gospel of no effect, and the whole of Scripture is ignored by thee; the prophets and all the words of the righteous are useless. Thy wounds, my soul, have been multiplied, and there is no physician to heal thee. [Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me!]16

Not the most uplifting message. But the purpose of the Great Canon is not to uplift, but to break down: to break down the walls of pride which we build up around ourselves, to break down our graven images of ourselves− as righteous, as not needing God, as able to stand on our own two feet. For four straight evenings, the words of the Great Canon hammer on our souls, and when they have finally broken through, when we can finally see ourselves as we truly are, there is only one thing to say: Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me!

To make sense of the Great Canon, though, and certainly to make full use of its references and images, we need to know the Old Testament scriptures, to be familiar with the "Who’s Who" of characters presented to us. Fr. Schmemann writes:

To be properly heard, the Great Canon implies, of course, knowledge of the bible and the ability to share in the meditations on its meaning for us. If today so many people find it dull and irrelevant, it is because their faith is no longer fed at the source of the Holy Scriptures which for the Church Fathers were the source of faith. We have to learn again how to enter into the world as revealed by the Bible and how to live in it; and there is no better way into that world than by the Church’s liturgy which is not only the communication of biblical teachings but precisely the revelation of the biblical way of life.17

Incidentally, if you missed out on the Great Canon during the first week of Great Lent, it is prescribed to be read in its entirety−not in quarters, but from beginning to end−at Matins on Thursday of the fifth week of Great Lent.

The Forty Days of Great Lent

There are occasions in the course of the Church year when we read from the Old Testament. Typically on the eve of a feast of the Lord, or of the Theotokos, or of one of the more important saints, there are three readings done after the evening entrance and "O Gladsome Light" ("Phos Hilaron"). But during the forty days of Great Lent, there are readings prescribed for every single weekday. At Vespers, or at the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts, when it is celebrated in its place, there are two readings: the first is from the Book of Genesis, the second from Proverbs. And at the service of the Sixth Hour−corresponding to 12 noon−there is a reading from the Prophecy of Isaiah. Why were these particular books selected, out of the entire Old Testament canon, to be read during Great Lent? Fr. Schmemann writes:

The "continuous reading" of Genesis, Isaiah and Proverbs has its origin at the time when Lent was still the main pre−baptismal season of the Church and lenten services were predominantly catechetical in their character, i.e., dedicated to the indoctrination of the catechumen. Each of the three books corresponds to one of the three basic aspects of the Old Testament: the history of God’s activity in Creation, prophecy, and the ethical or moral teachings. The Book of Genesis gives, as it were, the "framework" of the Church’s faith. It contains the story of Creation, of the Fall, and finally that of the promise and the beginning of salvation through God’s Covenant with his chosen people. It conveys the three fundamental dimensions of the Church’s belief in God as Creator, Judge, and Savior. It reveals the roots of the Christian understanding of man as created in the "image and likeness of God," as falling away from God, and as remaining the object of divine love, care, and ultimately salvation. It discloses the meaning of history as the history of salvation leading to and fulfilled in Christ. It announces the mystery of the Church through the images and realities of the People of God, Covenant, Ark, etc. Isaiah is the greatest of all prophets and the reading of his book during Lent is meant to reveal once more the great mystery of salvation through the sufferings and sacrifices of Christ. Finally, the Book of Proverbs is the epitome of the ethical teachings of the Old Testament, of the moral law and wisdom−without whose acceptance man cannot understand his alienation from God and is unable therefore even to hear the good news of forgiveness through love and grace.18

While we do not read these books in their entirety, they are taken in chronological order, and on the first day of Great Lent, Pure Monday, we begin at the beginning. The reading from Genesis, for example, is this most familiar passage:

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form, and void; and darkness was on the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. Then God said, "Let there be light"; and there was light. (Genesis 1:1−3)

And so over the course of the six weeks of Great Lent, we read of the creation and the fall, of Cain and Abel, of Noah and the great flood, of the Tower of Babel and the confusion of the tongues, of Abraham and Sarah, of the wicked men of Sodom and Gomorrah, of the binding of Isaac on Mt. Moriah, of Jacob and Esau, of Rachel and Leah, and finally, in the sixth week, of Joseph, who is, in his virtual "death and resurrection", the very image of Christ. The Book of Genesis is completed on the last day of Great Lent, with the death and burial of Isaac and of Joseph himself, at which point the children of Israel are living in Egypt, far from the promised land.

Proverbs and the Prophecy of Isaiah, as well, are read (in excerpts) from beginning to end.

Holy Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday

Now an interesting transition takes place when we pass from Great Lent to Holy Week. On Holy Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, at the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts, instead of the Book of Genesis, we read from the Book of Exodus, specifically of the early life of Moses, who presided over the Passover of the children of Israel from darkness and death in Egypt, to light and life in the promised land. We do this because our own Passover− our own Pascha−draws near, and the Old Testament illuminates for us what is to come not many days away.

Instead of Proverbs, we read from the Book of Job, the blameless man, the long−suffering man, who in his innocent sufferings is another image of Christ. We do this because the Passion of Christ draws near, and once again, the Old Testament illuminates for us what is to come.

Finally, at the service of the Sixth Hour, instead of the Prophecy of Isaiah, we read from the Prophecy of Ezekiel. Why Ezekiel? Because he was the great prophet of the exile, whose visions took place after the children of Israel had been carried away captive to Babylon. As Ezekiel himself introduces his prophecy, "Now it came to pass in the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, on the fifth day of the month, as I was among the captives by the River Chebar, that the heavens were opened and I saw visions of God." (Ezekiel 1:1) And, because the Resurrection of Christ draws near, when the tomb will be opened, and we will see not visions of God, but Christ Himself, risen from the dead. Once again, the Old Testament illuminates for us what is to come.

Palm Sunday

Palm Sunday, chronologically−speaking, comes before Holy Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. But thematically, it commemorates one of the key events leading to the passion, events which culminate in the betrayal of Christ to the Jewish and Roman authorities.

Three readings from the Old Testament prefigure the triumphal entry of the Lord into Jerusalem. From the Book of Genesis, we have Jacob’s prophecy of what will befall his son Judah, from whose line ("between whose feet") will come the Christ:

And Jacob called his sons and said, "Gather together, that I may tell you what shall befall you in the last days: Gather together and hear, you sons of Jacob, and listen to Israel your father..."

"Judah, you are he whom your brothers shall praise; your hand shall be on the neck of your enemies; your father’s children shall bow down before you. Judah is a lion’s whelp; from the prey, my son, you have gone up. He bows down, he lies down as a lion; and as a lion, who shall rouse him? The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh comes; and to Him shall be the obedience of the people. Binding his donkey to the vine, and his donkey’s colt to the choice vine, he washed his garments in wine, and his clothes in the blood of grapes." (Genesis 49:1−2, 8−12)

Note the allusion to the passion and resurrection: "Judah is a lion’s whelp; from the prey, my son, you have gone up. He bows down, he lies down as a lion; and as a lion, who shall rouse him?" And the reference to the donkey’s colt, which figured so prominently in the events of Palm Sunday: "Binding his donkey to the vine, and his donkey’s colt to the choice vine..." And finally, to the death of Christ: "...he washed his garments in wine, and his clothes in the blood of grapes."

From the Prophecy of Zephaniah, we hear the joyous proclamation that "the King of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst... The LORD your God in your midst, the Mighty One, will save..." (Zephaniah 3:15−17)

And finally, from the Prophecy of Zechariah, we hear the familiar passage which St. Matthew later quotes in the gospel reading of the day: "Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your King is coming to you; He is just and having salvation, lowly and riding on a donkey, a colt, the foal of a donkey." ( Zechariah 9:9)

Holy Thursday

On Holy Thursday, there is a reading from the Prophecy of Jeremiah at the Service of the First Hour−corresponding to 6 AM−foretelling the betrayal of Christ: "But I was like a docile lamb brought to the slaughter; and I did not know that they had devised schemes against me, saying, ‘Let us destroy the tree with its fruit, and let us cut him off from the land of the living, that his name may be remembered no more.’ " (Jeremiah 11:19)

At the Vesperal Liturgy of St. Basil the Great, there is a reading from Exodus, in which "the LORD said to Moses, ‘Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow, and let them wash their clothes. And let them be ready for the third day. For on the third day the LORD will come down upon Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people.’ " (Exodus 19:10−11) We too must consecrate ourselves today and tomorrow (Holy Friday, which begins liturgically during this Vespers service, and Holy Saturday) and be ready for the third day.

The saga of long−suffering Job continues: God has confronted him with the arrogance of his questions, with his assumption that the mystery of his suffering can be understood in human terms. And Job repents: "I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know." And he comes to find the answer to his questions not in words, but in the person of God Himself: "I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees You. " (Job 42:3, 5)

And there is a reading from the Prophecy of Isaiah, foretelling the obedience of Christ to the will of His Father, and His humility in the face of torment and humiliation: "The Lord GOD has opened My ear; and I was not rebellious, nor did I turn away. I gave My back to those who struck Me, and My cheeks to those who plucked out the beard; I did not hide My face from shame and spitting." (Isaiah 50:5−6)

Holy Friday

On Holy Friday, during the Royal Hours, which are typically celebrated consecutively in the morning, there is a veritable prophetic tour de force:

At the service of the First Hour, the reading is from the Prophecy of Zechariah: "So they weighed out for my wages thirty pieces of silver. And the LORD said to me, ‘Throw it to the potter’−that princely price they set on me. So I took the thirty pieces of silver and threw them into the house of the LORD for the potter." (Zechariah 11:12−13)

At the service of the Third Hour, Holy Thursday’s reading from the Prophecy of Isaiah is repeated.

At the service of the Sixth Hour, the reading is from the Prophecy of Isaiah, from that part of the prophecy known as the Fourth Song of the Suffering Servant:

Who has believed our report? And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed? For He shall grow up before Him as a tender plant, and as a root out of dry ground. He has no form or comeliness; and when we see Him, there is no beauty that we should desire Him. He is despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. And we hid, as it were, our faces from Him; He was despised, and we did not esteem Him. Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement for our peace was upon Him, and by His stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned, every one, to his own way; and the LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed and He was afflicted, yet He opened not His mouth; He was led as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so He opened not his mouth. He was taken from prison and from judgment, and who will declare His generation? For He was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgressions of My people He was stricken. And they made His grave with the wicked; but with the rich at His death, because He had done no violence, nor was any deceit in His mouth. Yet it pleased the LORD to bruise Him; He has put Him to grief. When You make His soul an offering for sin, He shall see His seed, He shall prolong His days, and the pleasure of the LORD shall prosper in His hand. He shall see the travail of His soul, and be satisfied. By His knowledge My righteous Servant shall justify many, for He shall bear their iniquities. Therefore I will divide Him a portion with the great, and He shall divide the spoil with the strong, because He poured out His soul unto death, and He was numbered with the transgressors, and He bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors. (Isaiah 53)

And at the service of the Ninth Hour, Holy Thursday’s reading from the Prophecy of Jeremiah is repeated.

Now something very interesting happens at Vespers on Holy Friday, during which service we begin to make the transition from Holy Friday, the day of the Lord’s passion, to Holy Saturday, the day of the Lord’s sabbath rest in the tomb. The tragic reading of the Song of the Suffering Servant from the Prophecy of Isaiah is repeated, but for the other two readings, we return, one last time, to the Book of Exodus and the Book of Job, to "complete them", as it were.

In the reading from the Book of Exodus, God reveals Himself to Moses:

So the LORD spoke to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend.... Then the LORD said to Moses, "I will also do this thing that you have spoken; for you have found grace in My sight, and I know you by name." And [Moses] said, "Please, show me Your glory." Then He said, "I will make all My goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim the name of the LORD before you. I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion." (Exodus 33:17−19)

And finally, in the ultimate "happy ending", the Book of Job ends with the restoration of all that he had lost, and then some:

Now the LORD blessed the latter days of Job more than his beginning; for he had fourteen thousand sheep, six thousand camels, one thousand yoke of oxen, and one thousand female donkeys. He also had seven sons and three daughters. And he called the name of the first Jemimah, the name of the second Keziah, and the name of the third Keren−Happuch. In all the land were found no women so beautiful as the daughters of Job; and their father gave them an inheritance among their brothers. After this Job lived one hundred and forty years, and saw his children and grandchildren for four generations. So Job died, old and full of days. (Job 42:12−17)

Interestingly, the Septuagint (Greek) version of the Old Testament appends three additional verses to the end of the Book of Job, which are not found in the various English−language bibles we have in our homes, which are based on the Hebrew version of the Old Testament. The better part of these are genealogical additions:

[Job] dwelt in Harran, on the borders of Edom and Arabia. Earlier he was called Yobab, and he took unto himself a wife, an Arabian woman, and she bore him a son called Hannoun. And Job’s father was Zerah, the son of Esau, making him the fifth in descent from Abraham.

But the final verse is especially noteworthy, given the day on which this passage is read:

And it is written that he will rise again with those whom the Lord will raise.

Holy Saturday

The most notable feature of the Matins of Holy Saturday, which we celebrate on Friday night, is the chanting of the Lamentations (or the "Praises", the "Enkomia") at the tomb of Christ. Now the Lamentations themselves are church hymnography, written by St. Epiphanius of Cyprus, and are not taken from the Old Testament. But they are interwoven, one− to−one, with verses from Psalm 119. Psalm 119 has 176 verses, and the Lamentations have 176 verses, plus a few "Glory, Now and Evers" added in for good measure.

If you look at Psalm 119 carefully, particularly in the Hebrew, you’ll notice some very interesting things. First, it is an "acrostic", or alphabetical psalm. It is divided into 22 sections of 8 verses each, one section for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Each verse in a given section begins with that letter of the alphabet: first, eight verses beginning with "Aleph", then eight verses beginning with "Beth", culminating in eight verses beginning with "Tau", the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet. More interestingly, with the exception of just four verses out of 176, every verse contains one of the following words: "Law", "Testimonies", "Precepts", "Statutes", "Commandments", "Judgments", "Words", and "Ordinances".

Why was this psalm chosen as the matrix for the Lamentations? I would say, first, because of its sheer size and complexity: it clearly stands out among all the other psalms and biblical canticles as the most rich and ornate of them all. What better vessel to hold the precious verses of lamentation at the Lord’s tomb? And second, consider the repetition of the synonyms for "law" in almost every verse. To the children of Israel, who did not have the incarnate Son of God, or the gospels, or the sacraments, their access to the Father was via the law. The law was His great gift to them, that law which, to paraphrase the prayer we opened our discussion with, He gave into the hands of His servant Moses during the forty days, on tablets, in characters which He Himself divinely traced. Obedience to the law was what He asked of them as their end of the covenant. Only through obedience to the law could they demonstrate their love for Him. And out of their great love for Him, they sang this hymn of praise to the law, calling it by every term of endearment they could come up with. How many names do we have for the ones we love? "Darling", "Sweetness", "Honey", "Angel"−and so they praised His law, His testimonies, His precepts, His statutes, His judgments, His words, His ordinances. And we choose this same hymn of praise as we sing praises to the One we love, who is His Word, His Law, made flesh.

We are now in the home stretch. One more extraordinary reading from the Old Testament, from the Prophecy of Ezekiel−the vision of the "Dry Bones"−at the Matins of Holy Saturday, following the Lamentations, and then, finally, on the eve of Pascha itself, no less than 15 readings from the Old Testament: a recapitulation of the history of our salvation in its entirety. If we were at the Boston Pops concert on the Esplanade on the Fourth of July, we would be hearing the opening strains of the 1812 Overture, and anticipating the symphony of canons and bells. But first to Ezekiel.

You will recall from our earlier discussion of the Prophecy of Ezekiel that the children of Israel had been carried away captive to Bablyon. In fact, they’d been in exile for a very long time: "Now it came to pass in the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, on the fifth day of the month, as I was among the captives by the River Chebar, that the heavens were opened and I saw visions of God." (Ezekiel 1:1) After thirty years (and four months and five days, not that they were counting), you can imagine that they had lost all hope of returning to their homeland, to the promised land. It was to these homeless, hopeless people that Ezekiel delivered a most astounding message:

The hand of the LORD came upon me and brought me out in the Spirit of the LORD, and set me down in the midst of the valley; and it was full of bones. Then He caused me to pass by them all around, and behold, there were very many in the open valley; and indeed they were very dry. And He said to me, "Son of man, can these bones live?" So I answered, "O Lord GOD, You know." Again He said to me, "Prophesy to these bones, and say to them, ‘O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD! Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: "Surely I will cause breath to enter into you, and you shall live. I will put sinews on you and bring flesh upon you, cover you with skin and put breath in you; and you shall live. Then you shall know that I am the LORD." ’ " So I prophesied as I was commanded; and as I prophesied, there was a noise, and suddenly a rattling; and the bones came together, bone to bone. Indeed, as I looked, the sinews and the flesh came upon them, and the skin covered them over; but there was no breath in them. Then He said to me, "Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath, ‘Thus says the Lord GOD: "Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they may live." ’ " So I prophesied as He commanded me, and breath came into them, and they lived, and stood upon their feet, an exceedingly great army. Then He said to me, "Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They indeed say, ‘Our bones are dry, our hope is lost, and we ourselves are cut off!’ Therefore prophesy and say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord GOD: "Behold, O My people, I will open your graves and cause you to come up from your graves, and bring you into the land of Israel. Then you shall know that I am the LORD, when I have opened your graves, O My people, and brought you up from your graves. I will put My Spirit in you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I, the LORD, have spoken it and performed it," says the LORD.’ " (Ezekiel 37:1−14)

We too have been in exile for a very long time. Not for thirty years and four months and five days, like the children of Israel, but for forty days, plus the seven days of Cheesefare Week, plus Lazarus Saturday, Palm Sunday, and Holy Monday through Friday. That makes fifty−four days (not that we were counting). And if we have learned anything at all in these fifty−four days, it is that unless and until there is some movement on God’s part, "our hope is lost, and we ourselves are cut off." "These bones are the whole house of Israel," the Lord said to Ezekiel. These dry bones are us. And the Church is telling us plainly, by means of Ezekiel’s vision, that God will take these dry bones and put sinews on them, and bring flesh upon them, and cover them with skin, and put breath in them−and they shall live. The resurrection is at hand!

The Eve of Pascha

Bishop Kallistos describes the character of Holy Saturday’s Vesperal Liturgy of St. Basil the Great:

The... ancient vigil service, now celebrated on Saturday morning, has a strongly baptismal character, reflecting the period when this sacrament was administered on Easter night. The texts at Vespers are dominated by the three connected themes of Passover, Resurrection, and baptismal initiation. Of the fifteen Old Testament readings−constituting the final stage in the teaching imparted to the catechumens before they were baptized−readings 3, 5, 6 and 10 refer directly or symbolically to the Passover; readings 4, 7, 8, 12 and 15 refer to the Resurrection; and readings 4, 6, 14 and 15 refer symbolically to Baptism.19

The readings themselves span the length and breadth of the Old Testament, from the first verses of the Book of Genesis, to the prophetic revelations of the Messianic age:

  1. Genesis 1:1−13 "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth"
  2. Isaiah 60:1−16 "The Lord will arise over you, and His glory will be seen upon you"
  3. Exodus 12:1−11 "It is the Lord’s Passover"−Passover
  4. The Book of Jonah "And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights" −Resurrection, Baptism
  5. Joshua 5:10−15 "So the children of Israel... kept the Passover on the fourteenth day of the month" −Passover
  6. Exodus 13:20−15:19 "I will sing to the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously! The horse and its rider He has thrown into the sea!"−Passover, Baptism (And we sing the Song of Moses: "For gloriously has He been glorified!")
  7. Zephaniah 3:8−15 "The King of Israel, the Lord is in your midst; you shall see disaster no more"−Resurrection
  8. I Kings 17:8−24 "Then the Lord heard the voice of Elijah; and the soul of the child came back to him, and he revived"−Resurrection
  9. Isaiah 61:10−62:5 "The Gentiles shall see your righteousness, and all kings your glory"
  10. Genesis 22:1−18 "Take now your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and... offer him there as a burnt offering"−Passover
  11. Isaiah 61:1−9 "The Lord has anointed Me... to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound"
  12. II Kings 4:8−37 "...and the flesh of the child became warm... and the child opened his eyes"−Resurrection
  13. Isaiah 63:11−64:5 "Since the beginning of the world men have not heard... nor has the eye seen any God besides You, who acts for the one who waits for Him"
  14. Jeremiah 31:31−34 " ‘Behold, the days are coming,’ says the Lord, ‘when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel’ "−Baptism
  15. Daniel 3:1−23 "Our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace"−Resurrection, Baptism (And we sing the Song of the Three Holy Children: "Praise the Lord, sing and exalt Him throughout all the ages!")

Shortly after this long series of readings is finished, and the reading from Epistle of the Holy Apostle Paul to the Romans, we are ready to hear the very first resurrectional gospel, in which the Holy Myrrhbearing Women find the empty tomb, and an Angel who proclaims to them "I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for He is risen, as He said!" (Mt. 28:5−6) Now under normal circumstances, the Gospel is introduced with the singing of "Alleluia!" But having been guided by the Old Testament throughout the forty days of Great Lent, and all through Holy Week, it is the Old Testament which prepares us to hear the good news of the resurrection. In place of "Alleluia", we cry out the glorious praise of Psalm 82, "Arise O God, judge the earth, for to Thee belong all the nations!" And Holy Pascha is upon us.


Bishop Kallistos reminds us of the inner meaning of our Lenten journey, which has its spiritual roots in Israel’s Old Testament pilgrimage to the Promised Land:

The forty days’ journey of Lent recalls in particular the forty years in which the Chosen People journeyed through the wilderness. For us, as for the children of Israel, Lent is a time of pilgrimage. It is a time for our liberation from the bondage of Egypt, from domination by sinful passions; a time for progress by faith through a barren and waterless desert; a time for unexpected reassurance, when in our hunger we are fed with manna from heaven; a time when God speaks to us out of the darkness of Sinai; a time in which we draw near to the Promised Land, to our true home in Paradise whose door the crucified and risen Christ has reopened for us.20

And Fr. Schmemann reminds us of the central role which the Old Testament readings have played in that journey:

Although Lent has long ago ceased to be the catechetical season of the Church, the initial purpose of these [Old Testament] readings keeps its full significance. Our Christian faith needs this annual return to its biblical roots and foundation for there can be no end to our growth in the understanding of Divine Revelation. The Bible is not a collection of dogmatic "propositions" to be accepted and memorized once for all, but the living voice of God speaking to us again and again, taking us always deeper into the inexhaustible riches of His Wisdom and Love. There is no greater tragedy in our Church than the almost total ignorance by her members of the Holy Scriptures and, what is worse, our virtually total indifference toward them. What for the Fathers and Saints was endless joy, interest, spiritual and intellectual growth, is for so many Orthodox today an antiquated text with no meaning for their lives. It is to be hoped, therefore, that as the spirit and significance of Lent are recovered, this will also mean the recovery of the Scriptures as true spiritual food and communion with God.21



Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America, The Liturgikon: The Book of Divine Services for the Priest and Deacon, Englewood, New Jersey: Antakya Press, 1989.

Hopko, Thomas, The Lenten Spring: Readings for Great Lent, Crestwood, New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1983.

Mother Mary and Archimandrite Kallistos Ware, translators, The Lenten Triodion, London, England: Faber and Faber, 1978.

Schmemann, Alexander, Great Lent, Crestwood, New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1974.

Scriptural Citations

Scriptural citations are taken from The Holy Bible, New King James Version, Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1982.

Additional verses from the Book of Job are taken from Great and Holy Friday, Syosset, New York: Department of Religious Education, Orthodox Church in America, 1974.

Other Recommended Reading

Manley, Johanna, compiler and editor, The Bible and The Holy Fathers for Orthodox: Daily Scripture Readings and Commentary for Orthodox Christians, Menlo Park, California: Monastery Books, 1990.

The One Year Bible, New King James Version, Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1992.



1 Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America, The Liturgikon: The Book of Divine Services for the Priest and Deacon (Englewood, New Jersey: Antakya Press, 1989), pp. 370−371.

2 Mother Mary and Archimandrite Kallistos Ware, translators, The Lenten Triodion (London, England: Faber and Faber, 1978), pp. 652−653, 656.

3 Ibid., p. 38.

4 Schmemann, Alexander, Great Lent (Crestwood, New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1974), pp. 38−39.

5 Hopko, Thomas, The Lenten Spring: Readings for Great Lent (Crestwood, New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1983), pp. 23−25.

6 Schmemann, op. cit., p. 15.

7 Mother Mary and Archimandrite Kallistos Ware, op. cit., p. 170.

8 Ibid., p. 179.

9 Ibid.

10 Ibid., p. 50

11 Ibid., p. 199.

12 Ibid.

13 Ibid., p. 218.

14 Ibid., p. 219.

15 Ibid., p. 207.

16 Ibid., p. 207−208.

17 Schmemann, op. cit., p. 66.

18 Ibid., p. 40.

19 Mother Mary and Archimandrite Kallistos Ware, op. cit., p. 63.

20 Ibid., p. 48.

21 Schmemann, op. cit., pp. 40−41.