By the nun Egeria
In the latter half of the fourth century, a nun named Egeria, from what is now Spain, went on a pilgrimage to the sites of Biblical history in Egypt and Palestine. Her observations are especially of interest because she brings an outsider’s viewpoint to everything she sees – coming as she does from possibly the farthest outpost of Christianity in the West, she compares the worship of the Eastern Church to her own experience.
“Today let us all be ready to assemble at the seventh hour at the Eleona.”
Palm Sunday procession in Jerusalem
When the dismissal has been given in the Martyrium, or major church, the bishop is led with the accompaniment of hymns to the Anastasis1 and there all ceremonies are accomplished which customarily take place every Sunday at the Anastasis following the dismissal from the Martyrium. Then everyone retires to his home to eat hastily, so that at the beginning of the seventh hour everyone will be ready to assemble in the church on the Eleona2, by which I mean the Mount of Olives, where the grotto in which the Lord taught is located.
At the seventh hour all the people go up to the church on the Mount of Olives, that is, to the Eleona. The bishop sits down, hymns and antiphons appropriate to the day and place are sung, and there are likewise readings from the Scriptures. As the ninth hour approaches, they move up, chanting hymns, to the Imbomon, that is, to the place from which the Lord ascended into heaven and everyone sits down there. When the bishop is present, the people are always commanded to be seated, so that only the deacons remain standing. And there hymns and antiphons proper to the day and place are sung, interspersed with appropriate readings from the Scriptures and prayers.
As the eleventh hour draws near, that particular passage from Scripture is read in which the children bearing palms and branches came forth to meet the Lord, saying: Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord. The bishop and all the people rise immediately, and then everyone walks down from the top of the Mount of Olives, with the people preceding the bishop and responding continually with Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord to the hymns and antiphons. All the children who are present here, including those who are not yet able to walk because they are too young and therefore are carried on their parents’ shoulders, all of them bear branches, some carrying palms, others, olive branches.
And the bishop is led in the same manner as the Lord once was led. From the top of the mountain as far as the city, and from there through the entire city as far as the Anastasis, everyone accompanies the bishop the whole way on foot, and this includes distinguished ladies and men of consequence, reciting the responses all the while; and they move very slowly so that the people will not tire. By the time they arrive at the Anastasis, it is already evening. Once they have arrived there, even though it is evening, vespers is celebrated; then a prayer is said at the Cross and the people are dismissed3.
On Monday, the following day, they carry out in the Anastasis whatever ceremonies are customarily performed from the first cockcrow until dawn, as well as whatever is done at the third and sixth hours throughout Lent. However, at the ninth hour everyone comes together in the major church or Martyrium, and until the first hour of the night they continually sing hymns and antiphons, and read passages from the Scriptures fitting to the day and the place, always interrupting them with prayers. Vespers is celebrated in the Martyrium, when the hour for it is at hand. The result is that it is already night when the dismissal is given at the Martyrium. As soon as the dismissal has been given, the bishop is led from there to the Anastasis to the accompaniment of hymns. When he has entered the Anastasis, a hymn is sung, a prayer is said, first the catechumens and then the faithful are blessed, and finally the dismissal is given.
On Tuesday they do everything in the same way as on Monday. Only this is added on Tuesday: late at night, after the dismissal has been given in the Martyrium and they have gone to the Anastasis, and a second dismissal has been given at the Anastasis, they all go at that hour in the night to the church which is located on Mount Eleona. As soon as they have arrived in this church, the bishop goes into the grotto where the Lord used to teach His disciples. There the bishop takes up the book of the Gospels and, while standing, reads the words of the Lord which are written in the Gospel according to Matthew at the place where He said: Take heed that no man seduce you. Then the bishop reads the Lord’s entire discourse. When he has finished reading it, he says a prayer and blesses the catechumens and then the faithful.
The dismissal is given, and they return from the mountain, and everyone goes to his own home, for it is now very late at night.
On Wednesday everything is done throughout the day from the first cockcrow just as on Monday and Tuesday. However, following the dismissal at night at the Martyrium, the bishop is led to the accompaniment of hymns to the Anastasis. He goes immediately into the grotto within the Anastasis, and he stands within the railings. A priest, however, standing in front of the railings, takes up the Gospel and reads that passage where Judas Iscariot went to the Jews to set the price they would pay him to betray the Lord. While this passage is being read, there is such moaning and groaning from among the people that no one can help being moved to tears in that moment.
Afterwards, a prayer is said, first the catechumens and then the faithful are blessed, and finally the dismissal is given.
On Thursday whatever is customarily done from the first cockcrow until morning and what is done at the third and sixth hours takes place at the Anastasis. At the eighth hour all the people gather as usual at the Martyrium, earlier, however, than on other days, because the dismissal must be given more quickly. When all the people have assembled, the prescribed rites are celebrated. On that day the oblation is offered at the Martyrium, and the dismissal from there is given around the tenth hour. Before the dismissal is given, however, the archdeacon raises his voice, saying: “At the first hour of the night let us assemble at the church which is on the Eleona, for much toil lies ahead of us on this day’s night.” Following the dismissal from the Martyrium, everyone proceeds behind the Cross, where, after a hymn is sung and a prayer is said, the bishop offers the oblation and everyone receives Communion. Except on this one day, throughout the year the oblation is never offered behind the Cross save on this day alone? The dismissal is given there, and everyone goes to the Anastasis, where a prayer is said, the catechumens as well as the faithful are blessed, as is customary, and the dismissal is given.
Everyone then hurries home to eat, because, immediately after having eaten, everyone goes to the Eleona, to the church where the grotto in which the Lord gathered with His disciples on that day is located. And there, until around the fifth hour of the night, they continually sing hymns and antiphons and read the scriptural passages proper to the place and to the day. Between these, prayers are said. Moreover, they read those passages from the Gospels in which the Lord spoke to His disciples on that day while sitting in the same grotto which lies within this church. And from here, around the sixth hour of the night, everyone goes up to the Imbomon, singing hymns. That is the place from which the Lord ascended into heaven. There also they sing hymns and antiphons and read scriptural passages proper to the day; and whatever prayers are said, whatever prayers the bishop recites, they will always be proper to the day and to the place.
Great and Holy Friday
As soon as it begins to be the hour of cockcrow, everyone comes down from the Imbomon singing hymns and proceeds toward the very place where the Lord prayed, as it is written in the Gospel: And He went as far as a stone’s throw and He prayed, and so forth. On that spot stands a tasteful church? The bishop and all the people enter there, where a prayer fitting to the day and the place is said, followed by an appropriate hymn, and a reading of that passage from the Gospel where He said to His disciples: Watch, that you enter not into temptation. The whole of this passage is read there, and a second prayer is then said. Next, everyone, including the smallest children, walk down from there to Gethsemane, accompanying the bishop with hymns. Singing hymns, they come to Gethsemane very slowly on account of the great multitude of people, who are fatigued by vigils and exhausted by the daily fasts, and because of the rather high mountain they have to descend. Over two hundred church candles are ready to provide light for all the people.
On arriving in Gethsemane a suitable prayer is first said, followed by a hymn, and then the passage from the Gospel describing the arrest of the Lord is read During the reading of this passage there is such moaning and groaning with weeping from all the people that their moaning can be heard practically as far as the city. And from that hour everyone goes back on foot to the city singing hymns, and they arrive at the gate at the hour when men can begin to recognize one another. From there, throughout the center of the city, all without exception are ready at hand, the old and the young, the rich and the poor, everyone; and on this day especially no one withdraws from the vigil before early morning. It is in this fashion that the bishop is led from Gethsemane to the gate, and from there through the whole city to the Cross. When they finally arrive before the Cross, it is already beginning to be broad daylight. There then is read the passage from the Gospel where the Lord is led before Pilate, and whatsoever words are written that Pilate spoke to the Lord or to the Jews, all this is read.
Veneration of the Wood of the Cross
Afterwards, the bishop addresses the people, comforting them, since they have labored the whole night and since they are to labor again on this day, admonishing them not to grow weary, but to have hope in God who will bestow great graces on them for their efforts. And comforting them as he can, he addresses them saying: “Go, for the time being, each of you, to your homes; sit there awhile, and around the second hour of the day let everyone be on hand here so that from that hour until the sixth hour you may see the holy wood of the cross, and thus believe that it was offered for the salvation of each and every one of us.
From the sixth hour on we will have to assemble here, before the Cross, so that we may devote ourselves to prayers and scriptural readings until nightfall.
After this, following the dismissal from the Cross, which occurs before sunrise, everyone now stirred up goes immediately to Zion to pray at the pillar where the Lord was whipped. Returning from there then, everyone rests for a short time in his own house, and soon all are ready. A throne is set up for the bishop on Golgotha behind the Cross, which now stands there. The bishop sits on his throne, a table covered with a linen cloth is set before him, and the deacons stand around the table. The gilded silver casket containing the sacred wood of the cross is brought in and opened. Both the wood of the cross and the inscription are taken out and placed on the table. As soon as they have been placed on the table, the bishop, remaining seated, grips the ends of the sacred wood with his hands, while the deacons, who are standing about, keep watch over it. There is a reason why it is guarded in this manner. It is the practice here for all the people to come forth one by one, the faithful as well as the catechumens, to bow down before the table, kiss the holy wood, and then move on. It is said that someone (I do not know when) took a bite and stole a piece of the holy cross. Therefore, it is now guarded by the deacons standing around, lest there be anyone who would dare come and do that again.
All the people pass through one by one; all of them bow down, touching the cross and the inscription, first with their foreheads, then with their eyes; and, after kissing the cross, they move on. No one, however, puts out his hand to touch the cross. As soon as they have kissed the cross and passed on through, a deacon, who is standing, holds out the ring of Solomon and the phial with which the kings were anointed. They kiss the phial and venerate the ring from more or less the second hour; and thus until the sixth hour all the people pass through, entering through one door, exiting through another. All this occurs in the place where the day before, on Thursday, the oblation was offered.
And when the sixth hour is at hand, everyone goes before the Cross, whether it be in rain or in heat, the place being open to the air, as it were, a court of great size and of some beauty between the Cross and the Anastasis; here all the people assemble in such great numbers that there is no thoroughfare. The chair is placed for the bishop before the Cross, and from the sixth to the ninth hour nothing else is done, but the reading of lessons, which are read thus: first from the psalms wherever the Passion is spoken of, then from the Apostle, either from the epistles of the Apostles or from their Acts, wherever they have spoken of the Lord’s Passion; then the passages from the Gospels, where He suffered, are read. Then the readings from the prophets where they foretold that the Lord should suffer, then from the Gospels where He mentions His Passion. Thus from the sixth to the ninth hours the lessons are so read and the hymns said, that it may be shown to all the people that whatsoever the prophets foretold of the Lord’s Passion is proved from the Gospels and from the writings of the Apostles to have been fulfilled.
When the sixth hour is at hand, everyone goes before the Cross, regardless of whether it is raining or whether it is hot. This place has no roof, for it is a sort of very large and beautiful courtyard lying between the Cross and the Anastasis. The people are so clustered together that there is no room to move. A chair is placed for the bishop before the Cross, and from the sixth to the ninth hours nothing else is done except the reading of passages from Scripture. First whichever Psalms speak of the Passion are read. Next, there are readings from the Apostles, either from their Epistles or from their Acts, wherever they have spoken of the Lord’s Passion. Next, the texts of the Passion from the Gospels are read. Then the readings from the prophets where they foretold that the Lord should suffer, then from the Gospels where He mentions His Passion. And so, from the sixth to the ninth hour, the Scriptures are continuously read and the hymns are sung to show the people that whatever the prophets had said would come to shown, both through the Gospels and the writings of the apostles, to have taken place.
And so, during those three hours, all the people are taught that nothing happened which was not first prophesied, and that nothing was prophesied which was not completely fulfilled. Prayers are continually interspersed, and the prayers themselves are proper to the day. At each reading and at every prayer, it is astonishing how much emotion and groaning there is from all the people. There is no one, young or old, who on this day does not sob more than can be imagined for the whole three hours, because the Lord suffered all this for us. After this, when the ninth hour is at hand, the passage is read from the Gospel according to Saint John where Christ gave up His spirit. After this reading, a prayer is said and the dismissal is given.
As soon as the dismissal has been given from before the Cross, everyone gathers together in the major church, the Martyrium and there everything which they have been doing regularly throughout this week from the ninth hour when they came together at the Martyrium, until evening, is then done. After the dismissal from the Martyrium, everyone comes to the Anastasis, and, after they have arrived there, the passage from the Gospel is read where Joseph seeks from Pilate the body of the Lord and places it in a new tomb. After this reading a prayer is said, the catechumens are blessed, and the faithful as well; then the dismissal is given. On this day no one raises his voice to say the vigil will be continued at the Anastasis, because it is known that the people are tired. However, it is the custom that the vigil be held there. And so, those among the people who wish, or rather those who are able, to keep the vigil, do so until dawn; whereas those who are not able to do so, do not keep watch there. But those of the clergy who are either strong enough or young enough, keep watch there, and hymns and antiphons are sung there all through the night until morning. The greater part of the people keep watch, some from evening on, others from midnight, each one doing what he can.
Paschal vigil at the Anastasis (the original 4th-century church is fully enclosed within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre)
On the following day, which is Saturday, there is as usual a service at the third hour and again at the sixth hour. There is no service, however, at the ninth hour on Saturday, for preparation is being made for the Pascha vigil in the major church, the Martyrium. The Pascha vigil is observed here exactly as we observe it at home. Only one thing is done more elaborately here. After the neophytes have been baptized and dressed as soon as they came forth from the baptismal font, they are led first of all to the Anastasis with the bishop. The bishop goes within the railings of the Anastasis, a hymn is sung, and he prays for them. Then he returns with them to the major church, where all the people are holding the vigil as is customary.
Everything is done which is customarily done at home with us, and after the oblation has been offered, the dismissal is given. After the vigil service has been celebrated in the major church, everyone comes to the Anastasis singing hymns. There, once again, the text of the Gospel of the Resurrection is read, a prayer is said, and once again the bishop offers the oblation. However, for the sake of the people, everything is done rapidly, lest they be delayed too long. And so the people are dismissed.
On this day the dismissal from the vigil takes place at the same hour as at home with us.
The eight days of Pascha are observed just as at home with us. The liturgy is celebrated in the prescribed manner throughout the eight days of Pascha just as it is celebrated everywhere from Pascha Sunday to its octave. There is the same decoration, and the same arrangement for these eight days of Pascha, as for the Epiphany, both in the major church and in the Anastasis, in the Cross as well as the Eleona, in Bethlehem, and in the Lazarium, too, and indeed everywhere, for this is Pascha time.
On that first Sunday, Pascha, everyone assembles for the liturgy in the major church, in the Martyrium, and on Monday and Tuesday also. But it always happens that, once the dismissal has been given from the Martyrium, everyone comes to the Anastasis singing hymns. On Wednesday everyone assembles for the liturgy in the Eleona; on Thursday, in the Anastasis; on Friday, at Zion; and on Saturday, before the Cross. On Sunday, however, on the octave that is, they go once again to the major church, to the Martyrium. During the eight days of Pascha, everyday after lunch, in the company of all the clergy and the neophytes – I mean those who have just been baptized – and of all the aputactitae4, both men and women, and of as many of the people as wish to come, the bishop goes up to the Eleona. Hymns are sung and prayers are said, both in the church which is on the Eleona and where the grotto in which Jesus taught His disciples is located, and at the Imbomon, the place, that is, from which the Lord ascended into heaven.
After Psalms have been sung and a prayer has been said, everyone comes down from there, singing hymns, and goes to the Anastasis at the hour for Vespers. This is done throughout the eight days. On Pascha Sunday, after the dismissal from vespers at the Anastasis, all the people singing hymns conduct the bishop to Zion. When they have arrived there, hymns proper to the day and the place are sung, and a prayer is said. Then is read the passage from the Gospel describing how on this day and in this very place where there is now this same Church of Zion, the Lord came to His disciples, although the doors were closed, at the time when one of the disciples, namely, Thomas, was not there. When he returned, he said to the other apostles, who had told him that they had seen the Lord: I will not believe, unless 1 see. After this passage has been read, a prayer is again said, the catechumens and then the faithful are blessed, and everyone returns to his home late, around the second hour of the night.
Then on Sunday, on the octave of Pascha, immediately after the sixth hour all the people go up to the Eleona with the bishop. First of all everyone sits down for a time in the church which is there; hymns are sung as well as antiphons proper to the day and to the place, and prayers also that are proper to the day and the place. Then, everyone, singing hymns, goes from there up to the Imbomon above; and what was done in the Eleona is done in like manner again here. When it is time, all the people and all the aputactitae, singing hymns, lead the bishop to the Anastasis. They arrive at the Anastasis at the hour when Vespers is customarily celebrated, and the vespers service is held both at the Anastasis and at the Cross.
From there, all the people without exception, singing hymns, lead the bishop as far as Zion. When they have arrived there, hymns proper to the place and to the day are sung as usual. Then they read the passage from the Gospel where, on the octave of Pascha, the Lord came into where the disciples were, and He reproved Thomas because he had not believed? The whole passage from Scripture is then read. After a prayer has been said and the catechumens and the faithful have been blessed according to custom, then everyone returns to his home at the second hour of the night, just as on Pascha.
From Pascha to the fiftieth day, that is, to Pentecost, absolutely no one fasts here, not even the aputactitae. During the period the customary services are held at the Anastasis from the first cockcrow until morning, as is done throughout the year, and likewise at the sixth hour and at vespers. On Sundays they assemble as always for the liturgy in the Martyrium, the major church, according to custom; then, from there, singing hymns, they go to the Anastasis. On Wednesdays and Fridays, since absolutely no one fasts here on these days, they assemble for the liturgy at Zion, but in the morning. The divine service is celebrated in the prescribed manner.
- Anastasis – Literally “the Resurrection” – the empty tomb of Christ at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
- Eleona – Like the name Gethsemane [oilpress] the Greek Eleona refers to the oil produced by the olive grove.
- The Dismissal as Egeria refers to it is the prayer of blessing over the people, prayed by the priest at the end of a liturgical service. In Egeria’s time the term dismissal is coming to refer to the entire service; this is the origin of the later Latin word missa [Mass] i.e. the Eucharistic service, which Egeria here calls the oblation.
- Aputactitae – ascetics who vow to abstain from nearly all food during Lent.