Saint Thomas Aquinas

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Venerating the Epitaphios

Yesterday on I attended the Great Friday Vespers and veneration of the Epitaphios at Epiphany of Our Lord Ukrainian Catholic Church in St. Petersburg. Although I usually spend much of my time down south where I live in Sarasota at Christ the King, I miss attending the parish of my own Rite, which is Ukrainian. So I had the day off and decided to make the longer drive yesterday to St. Pete. The Great Friday Vespers and veneration is one of the most solemn and yet peaceful days of worship in the Church, and has always been one of the most memorable for me. The veneration of the shroud and tomb of Christ is an ancient one, and it seems to have prospered more in the East than the West, yet you may not know that venerating the tomb of Christ was quite popular in England in the middle ages as well. Instead of venerating the burial shroud as is done in most of the Eastern Rites, they instead used a constructed tomb or chest called a sepulchre. In the English practice they would crawl on their knees up to the crucifix and venerate it, and then it would be wrapped in a shroud and placed in the sepulchre, which could then be venerated through Holy Saturday. It seems that this practice died in the West due to the heinous and radical iconoclasm of the Protestant heretics which swept over England like a plague in the 16th century. Most in the Latin Rite know little about this practice. You can read more about it here.
   
In the Ukrainian liturgy after the Vespers are sung on Great Friday, we have a procession around the church with the Epitaphios and then we solemnly enter into the church and place it on an altar that is constructed in the front of the nave. There we chant the words “The Noble Joseph, taking Thy most pure body down from the Tree and having wrapped it in pure linen and spices, laid it in a new tomb.” Then everyone prostrates before the shroud each time it is chanted. After this starting with the priest, each person crawls on their knees up the nave of the church to venerate the wounds of Our Lord on the shroud, and then kissing the Gospels. This is certainly a most moving experience since it draws you into the very Gospels that were just read, and you are moved to enter into that very Friday two thousand years ago when Our Lord’s body was taken down from the cross and carried to His tomb. You are able to transcend time in a limited sense, and walk in the footsteps of St. John the Evangelist or the Blessed Virgin as they carried Our Lord, venerating His precious body which was given up for each and every one of us. If you are ever near an Eastern Rite Catholic Church during Holy Week you should not pass up the opportunity to attend the Great Friday Vespers and veneration of the burial shroud.

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