The Epitaph, a Good Friday Tradition / Video



Greek Orthodox Easter in Crete

 The Great Week or Passion Week represents the apogee of the seven-week fasting and prayer period, which precedes Easter, the most important Christian feast in the Liturgical calendar. By tradition, during this week, the Church commemorates the last days of Jesus Christ on earth, before His Crucifixion and Resurrection. The faithful participate in great numbers in the sober services and rituals.

  According to the customs, for all Christians, Good Friday or Holy Friday is the most solemn day of Holy Week, a day of mourning, silence, and total fasting, because on this day the Savior of the world was crucified and died.

 In Greece, where almost the entire population is Christian-Orthodox (98%), Good Friday is also a national holiday, not just a religious one. Curches everywhere become too small for their congregations. On this day, the believers participate in the services that remind of the Savior's sacrifice and descent from the cross, ending with the evening service, called Epitáphios Thrēnos (The Lamentation at the Tomb, or Lamentation Over the Dead Christ).

 Three elements confer distinction and uniqueness to this event: the Epitaph / Epitáphios (Επιτάφιος), an allegorical construction depicting the tomb of the Lord, the Chants of Lament of Epitaph (the hymns and songs of the symbolic funeral service), and the Epitaph Procession on the streets and around the church, where the faithful spend the journey to the tomb.

 The Epitaph is an icon painted or embroidered on linen, velvet, or silk, showing the scene of the burial of Jesus Christ, after his descent from the cross. The Epitaph itself represents the body of Jesus wrapped in a burial shroud and is placed in the middle of the church, on a high table, decorated entirely with flowers ("epi tafos" means "on the tomb"), on which is laid also the Holy Gospel and the Holy Cross.

 According to tradition, believers piously kiss the Gospel, the Cross, and the Epitaph, and then pass under the table, thus symbolically going through the ritual of descent into the grave, together with Christ, so that afterward, they will rise together with Him, overcoming death and achieving salvation.

 The kneeling under the Epitaph also has a deep sense of humility and faith in the face of the One who has suffered and sacrificed for humanity, washing its ancestral sin and offering divine forgiveness and blessing. Tradition also says that this ritual assists believers in the healing of diseases and physical suffering and strengthens their courage in facing the challenge of daily life.

 A unique feature of the service is the Chanting of the Lamentations or Praises, a long series of sad and tender church hymns for the funeral, with profound significance for Orthodox Christians. While the priests wear sober robes, the atmosphere of the Lamentation expresses the tragedy in which the believers are not only spectators but become partakers, body, and soul, recalling the passions of the Savior that end with His sacrifice.

 The service of Lamentation continues with the Epitaph Procession, which symbolizes the funeral cortege and the burial of the Lord Jesus Christ. In all Greek neighborhoods, villages or cities, the Epitaph is taken out of the Church on the shoulders of priests and carried with solemnity on the streets, followed by the convoy of believers with lit candles in their hands, women carrying myrrh and altar servers -children with crosses. Usually, Christians scatter flowers over the Epitaph, or spray incenses and rose water. All this time, the bells of the churches are accompanying the sad processions with their mourning sound in the background.

 In small communities, the Epitaph Procession takes place only around the church, while in large towns, it goes through boulevards and streets, the masses often being accompanied by a band that performs funeral marches, choirs of clergy along with believers, and military guards. Being an important holiday of the whole nation, hierarchs of the church, officials from the local administration, and representatives of the army and public order forces are attending the Good Friday service, at the main churches in the cities.

 Late at night, after the Procession, the Epitaph is taken back to the church and placed on the table in the Holy Altar, where it will remain throughout the Easter period, until the eve of Ascension feast. This marks the end of the rituals that remind of the sacrifice and suffering of Jesus Christ for man's salvation and victory over death and sin, culminating in the crucial event of Christianity: Resurrection.

 In the video material of this article, there are some moments of the Epitáphios ceremony from the Agios Minas Metropolitan Cathedral, one of the most beautiful churches and historical monuments in Heraklion city.



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