The Resurrection of the Lord is the climax of the Church's liturgical year, and the most glorious festival of the Christian Church. It is when Jesus Christ arose as victor over death. But, before the bright joy of Pascha, the Church has ordained a lengthy period of repentance and spiritual searching (i.e., the 40-day Great Lent).
The Forty Days of Great Lent partially commemorates the forty years of wandering as the Israelites longed for, and then received, entrance into the Promised Land (Ex. 16:35). In addition, Moses remained fasting on Mt. Sinai for forty days (Ex. 34:28), and the Prophet Elijah fasted for forty days as he journeyed to Mt. Horeb (1 Kings 19:8). Great Lent also recalls the forty days the Lord spent in the wilderness after His Baptism, when He contended with Satan, the Temptor. The time of Great Lent encompasses forty days, to which must be added Lazarus Saturday, Palm Sunday, and Passion Week.
Lazarus Saturday and Palm Sunday.
Immediately after the end of the forty days of penitence, and before the days of darkness and mourning of Passion Week, the Church celebrates the festivals of Lazarus Saturday and Palm Sunday. Lazarus Saturday commemorates Jesus' raising of Lazarus from the dead, and foreshadows the Lord's Resurrection eight days later. Palm Sunday commemorates Our Lord's glorious entrance into Jerusalem. On this day Palm branches are blessed and held by the faithful in remembrance of that joyous day.
Holy Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday.
The next three days (Holy Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday) are characterized by the beautiful melody sung at Matins, "Behold, the Bridegroom comes as midnight...", which is linked to the Parable of the Ten Virgins (Matt. 25:1-13). That teaching served to remind us that we must be faithful at all times, not only when it is convenient. Holy Monday is when Joseph (son of Jacob) is commemorated, as he epitomized how steadfest morality in the presence of tribulation enables one to inevitably triumph.
On this day we commemorate the washing of the disciple's feet, the institution of the Holy Eucharist (the Last Supper), the agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, and the betrayal of Christ by Judas.
On this day we commemorate Christ's suffering and death. The Matins Service is characterized by the reading of the Twelve Passion Gospels, which relate events connected with the final hours from the Last Supper, to the Lord's crucifixion, death, and burial. That morning the more solemn Royal Hours are said, and at the Vespers Service sung that afternoon. The burial shroud is brought out in a solemn procession and placed in a specially-prepared place for veneration.
On this day we commemorate the burial of Christ. At the Matins Lamentations Service the Praises are sung before the Burial Shroud in the center of the Church, and a solemn procession is undertaken with the Holy Shroud around the Church. On Holy Saturday (according to the Typikon, at 4:00 pm), the Vespers with the Liturgy of St. Basil are celebrated with the reading of fifteen Old Testament lessons which refer to Passover, the Resurrection, and Baptism. At this time the liturgical vestments and furnishings are changed to white. [Here we must remember that in the ancient Church the Catechumens were baptized on this day, which accounts for the singing of "As many as have been baptized into Christ..." instead of the Trisagion at the Liturgy, and the changing of the liturgical colors to white the Baptismal colors.]
At the conclusion of the service (which in ancient time ended near 8:00 pm), the faithful assemble in the now-darkened church for the reading of the Acts of the Apostles. Shortly before Midnight, the Resurrection Nocturns are sung and all lights are extinguished. The faithful wait in silence for the moment when the Priest emerges from the Altar with a candle, symbolizing the Light of the Risen Christ and the beginning of the Holy Pascha of the Lord the Feasts of Feasts.
At the stroke of Midnight, the clergy come out of the Holy Altar, all candles are lit, and a festive procession circles the Church three times with the singing of the hymn: "Thy Resurrection, O Christ our Savior, the angels in heaven sing. Enable us on earth to glorify Thee in purity of heart." Stopping before the closed outer doors of the Church, the Priest exclaims the Paschal verses, "Let God arise...", while the Faithful sing the triumphant Paschal hymn, "Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life."
The Clergy and Faithful re-enter the Church and sing the Paschal Canon, "This is the Day of Resurrection...", with numerous repetitions of the Paschal hymn, "Christ is risen..." The church is filled with the faithful holding lit candles and the Clergy are dressed in bright vestments. At the conclusion of the Matins, the catechetical address of St. John Chrysostom is read, summoning all, even those who have come only at the eleventh hour, to the great Paschal Banquet. Matins is then followed by the Paschal Liturgy.
On the afternoon of Paschal Sunday, a special Paschal Vespers is served, characterized by the singing of the Great Prokeimenon. All of the services of this Bright Week are characterized by the joyous Paschal Hymns which had been sung on Pascha itself. During the course of this week all the doors of the Iconostasis remain open, symbolizing free access to the Holy of Holies that our Great High Priest, Jesus Christ, opened to us by His Blood. The Burial Shroud remains on the Holy Table, and the Liturgies are celebrated upon it. No fasting is permitted during this week, and no kneeling until the Vespers of Holy Pentecost, fifty days hence.