One of the most impressive rituals of Holy Week in the Byzantine Rite is the Ritual of the Holy Shroud (Plaschanicja) which is taken during the Vespers of Good Friday. Symbolically, the ritual commemorates the removal of the Body of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ from the cross, together with His burial, which followed immediately after His redeeming death.
Although the ceremony reflects an ancient liturgical tradition of the Byzantine Rite, nevertheless the ritual, as such, came to us relatively late, not sooner than at the end of the XIV century.
Among the Ruthenians, depending on the Kievan tradition, the present ritual developed during the XVI century, when it was introduced into general practice.
The Vespers of Good Friday in the Byzantine Rite are the re-enactment of the crucifixion and death of our Saviour as described to us in the Holy Gospels. The Gospel reading at this service is combined from the three Evangelists, Mt. 27: 1-38, Lk. 23:39-43, Mt. 27:39-54, In. 19:31-37, and Mt. 27:55-61 . The Gospel ends with the following words: ” When it was evening, there came a rich man of Arimathea, called Joseph, who had himself become a disciple of Jesus. This man went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus.
Pilate thereupon ordered it to be handed over. So Joseph took the body, wrapped it in a clean linen and put it in his own new tomb which he had hewn out of the rock. He then rolled a large stone across the entrance of the tomb and went away.” (Mt. 27:57-60)
These scriptural words inspi red the hymnologists to describe the burial of Christ in a poetical way in the moving sticheras that follow. In order that the burial scene be more deeply impressed on our souls, the Fathers decided to insert a liturgical re-enactment of this ceremony into the Vespers immediately after the sticheras. The Vespers of Good Friday, consequently, end with the procession of the Holy Shroud and its placement into the tomb. During this time, the faithful repeatedly sing the troparion, which could be considered the theme song of Good Friday :
“The Noble Joseph took down Your most pure body from the cross and, anointing it with fragrant spices, he wrapped it in a clean linen and put it in a new tomb.”
2 The Holy Shroud (Plaschanicja) which is used for this service is an artistically decorated and richly embroidered canvas depicting the burial of Christ. Toward the end of the Vespers for Good Friday, as the people begin singing the canticle of Simeon “Now You can dismiss . .. ,” the priest places the Holy Shroud on the altar and incenses it three times. Meanwhile, the faithful light their candles and prepare themselves for the procession which symbolizes the funeral procession of Christ.
As the faithful begin singing the troparion, ” The Noble Joseph … ,” the priest takes the Holy Shroud on his shoulders and holding it above his head begins the procession. He is preceded by two candlebearers and an incense bearer. If there is a deacon participating in the service, he incenses the priest carrying the Holy Shroud during the entire procession. The people, with lighted candles in their hands, follow the priest and repeatedly sing the troparion, ” The Noble Joseph .. . . ”
The procession with the Holy Shroud is taken outside around the church and, since it symbolizes the funeral procession of Christ to the grave, is made only ONCE. When an outdoor procession is not possible, it is held inside the church . Returning into the church, the priest places the Holy Shroud into a prepared tomb and incenses it on all sides while the people sing the troparion of the Ointment-bearing Women, ” The Angel stood by the grave . .. . ”
After the entombment of the Holy Shroud in the grave, the priest delivers an appropriate sermon on the significance of the death of Christ for our salvation. Then he returns to the grave and, kneeling down before the Holy Shroud, recites the prayer prescribed in the Trebnik, “0 Lord Jesus Christ, Our God . … ” (cf. back cover) Following the dismissal, the faithful , with great devotion and compunction in their hearts, approach the Holy Shroud on their knees (symbolizing their sorrow) and ” moved by their love” they kiss the saving wounds of our Saviour. (comp. the Stichera of the Vespers for Good Friday)
3 According to the Scriptures, the Venerable Joseph of Arimathea, having obtained permission to remove the Body of Christ from the Cross, wrapped it in a clean shroud (Gr. sindon-linen cloth) and placed it in the new tomb which he had prepared for himself. (Mt. 27:59) The shroud remained in the grave after the glorious resurrection of Jesus Christ (In. 20:5-7) and, without any doubt, became an object of Christian veneration.
There is no written evidence concerning the Holy Shroud during the first centuries and its history remained in obscurity until the fifth century.
Painted replicas with the image of the lifeless body of Christ were used in the Byzantine liturgical services at least since the VII century.
At the end of the X century, a Constantinopolitan priest, John Geometer, gave a detailed description of the original Holy Shroud which by that time was preserved in the imperial palace. In 1203, just before the sack of Constantinople by the Crusaders, the Holy Shroud was exposed for public veneration in the Church of Our Lady of Blacherne. An eyewitness to this, Knight Robert of Clary, testified that he was able to recognize the outline of Christ’s body on it. It was later transferred from Constantinople to France by the Crusaders where it once again appeared at Lirey in 1354.
In the XV century, the Holy Shroud came into the possession of the royal house of Savoy in Chambery, France. In 1578, after being somewhat damaged by fire, it was moved into the royal chapel in Turin, Italy, where it remains and is venerated to this day.
Scientific photography and studies of the Holy Shroud in modern times strongly support its authenticity. The majority of modern scholars in various fields also admit that the Holy Shroud of Turin is the genuine linen cloth in which the body of Christ was buried. (cf. New Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. XIII, p. 187 f.)
4 The beginning of our liturgical veneration of the Holy Shroud can be traced to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, where the mysteries of the earthly life of Our Lord Jesus Christ were solemnly celebrated every year in their historical setting. According to The Typikon of Jerusalem, revised by Patriarch St. Sophronius (d. ca. 638), the liturgical veneration of the Holy Shroud took place during the Matins for Holy Saturday, usually celebrated in the evening of Good Friday.
After the Canon of the Matins, the Patriarch, accompanied by the clergy, went to the Chapel of Golgotha where the Shroud was already placed on the altar. After the reading of the Gospel account of the Crucifixion of Christ (Mt. 27:33-54) and the Ektenia of Supplication, the Holy Shroud was carried by the clergy to the Stone of Anointing, the traditional place where the body of Christ was anointed after being taken from the Cross.
When the Shroud was placed on the stone, the faithful brought flowers and placed them around it while the deacon sprinkled it with fragrant spices. The reading of the Gospel of the burial of Christ (Mk. 15:43-47) by the Patriarch followed and then another Ektenia. The Patriarch then delivered a sermon.
Following the sermon, the Holy Shroud was carried to the sepulchre accompanied by the faithful singing the troparion ” The Noble Joseph.”
At the words “and put it in a new tomb,” the priests entered the sepulchre and placed the Holy Shroud on the exact place where, according to tradition, Our Lord was buried. During the singing of The Sficheras of Praise, the Patriarch, clergy and people entered the sepulchre to venerate and kiss the Holy Shroud.
After The Great Doxology of the Matins, the Holy Shroud was taken and placed on the Altar of Resurrection where it remained until the Wednesday before the feast of the Ascension.
5 In Constantinople the Ritual of the Holy Shroud was introduced during the VII century when, in all probability, the original Holy Shroud was brought from Jerusalem to the Byzantine Capital. The ceremony, however, was somewhat modified at this time. The exposition of the Holy Shroud was embodied into the Vespers of Good Friday while the procession with the Holy Shroud took place during the Matins of Holy Saturday.
This ceremony came to us relatively late, during the XIV century, as part of the Philothean liturgical reform when the influence of The Typikon of Jerusalem made a definitive mark on the Byzantine liturgy, especially among the Slavs.
According to the Russian tradition, the ceremony of the Holy Shroud was limited to the Matins of Holy Saturday (cf. Synodal Typikon, Moscow 1904, p. 384). The Kievan tradition, stabilized by the Lifurgikon of Pochajiv, (1767), moved the entire ceremony to the Vespers of Holy Friday as is described by our Subcarpathian liturgist, Canon A. Mikita, in his Cerkovnyj Typikon, Ungvar 1901, p. 72-73.
Our liturgical custom, based on an old typika of Mount Athas, is historically and symbolically more meaningful since the Vespers of Good Friday mystically represent the passion and death of Our Lord Jesus Christ which were followed immediately by His burial as expressed in the troparion, ” The Noble Joseph . . . . ”
The Holy Shroud is exposed for public veneration in the prepared grave until midnight of Holy Saturday at which time the Service at the Tomb ( ” Nadhrobnoje”) is taken. While the faithful sing the troparion ” The Noble Joseph . . . ” for the last time, the priest incenses the Holy Shroud and carries it to the main altar and spreads it in front of the tablenacle, where it remains until the Feast of the Ascension , symbolizing the glorious resurrection of Christ and His constant appearance to His disciples during His last forty days on earth.
On the day before the Feast of the Ascension, the Holy Shroud is solemnly taken off ths altar symbolizing the time when Our Lord, having completed His redemptive mission here on earth, ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father. (cf. Symbol of Faith)