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The Epitaphios procession on Great Friday

It may be known as Good Friday to many, but to the Greeks there’s nothing good on the Friday before Easter Sunday. That is the day when the entire Orthodox community mourns the passing of Jesus Christ.

Symbolic death and burial

Mourning starts on the day before with a special mass, during which the details of the Passion are not simply read from the holy books, but re-enacted by means of special rituals. A large cross is placed in the middle of the church bearing an icon of the crucified Jesus Christ, on whose feet the faithful leave piles of flowers. At the end of the evening service, the body is deposed and the cross carried away. A small wooden canopy, representing the tomb, takes its place. Into that another icon is placed, usually an embroidered textile, showing the body of Jesus Christ, usually in a scene of lament.

Epitaphios-embroidery-lament-Christ

Epitaphios textile with inscription and gold-thread embroidery. The scene shows the sun, moon and angels watching over the Mother and followers of Jesus, lamenting over His dead body. From the church of St. George in Ankara, made by the famous embroideress Despoineta of Constantinople (Istanbul) in 1682. (Athens, Byzantine Museum)

Both the textile and the canopy are called the “Epitaphios” and are decorated with flowers. Traditionally, it is members of the congregation that will stay in church until late at night, using the flowers left by the other faithful to improvise the best decoration they possibly can, although nowadays cathedrals and the richer parishes hire florists for a more professional effect.

 

A day of mourning

The next day, all church bells toll mournfully, from dawn until the end of the evening service. No work is allowed and the faithful follow a strict fast: no animal products whatsoever and no oil may be consumed. Traditionally, the only activity allowed is going to church, so people may spend their morning going from church to church, lighting their candles and offering their prayers without neglecting to take a good look at each “Epitaphios”; these will be compared in detail later and the unofficial champion pronounced by next day at the latest.

The “Epitaphios” procession

Sundown is the time when everyone prepares for church. Attendance is at its maximum with young and old filling the churches to overflowing and spilling into the courtyard and onto the street. Traffic winds to a stop, as streets are cordoned off, for the procession that will follow. This is actually nothing short of a funerary procession – some of the faithful act as pall-bearers for the “Epitaphios”, carrying it though the parish streets.

The priest leads the way and the rest of the congregation follows, singing hymns of loss and bereavement. With the exception of the youngest, there is not, I think, a single soul who is not affected, as the soulful hymns remind everyone of their lost ones.

The procession will make s"Epitaphios" decorated with flowers in a Greek Orthodox church.everal stops along the way, with hymns sung and excerpts from holy books read. The canopy will be raised for the faithful to pass under – it is considered a sort of blessing. The wind may blow out the candles, it may be chilly or, sometimes, even rainy, but the procession will go on and only the very ill will watch with lit candles from their windows. In the end, the canopy will stop in front of the church and people will bow and enter passing under it.

Epitaphios procession

Villages and cities

In villages and small towns, the procession makes a stop at the cemetery, where candles are lit at the graves of the departed, before the procession turns back towards the church. In larger towns and cities, this is often not feasible. Instead, the “Epitaphios” processions meet at a central square, in an unofficial beauty pageant which is decidedly less mournful and may even be described as festive.

Preparing for joy

Suddenly, after it is all over, the mood changes. Perhaps sharing a common sorrow is cathartic – I don’t know. The fact remains that the bell stops its tolling and people go home in better spirits; the next day is a time of preparation for the Resurrection.

Have a happy Easter everyone!

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