The Veneration of the Holy Shroud
According to the Byzantine Rite Tradition
One of the most impressive rituals of Holy Week in the Byzantine Rite is the Ritual of the Holy Shroud (Plaschanicja). 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.
The Holy Shroud (Plaschanicja) which is used for this service is an artistically decorated and richly embroidered canvas depicting the burial of Christ.
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 (Jn. 20, 5-7) and, without any doubt, became an object of Christian veneration.
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”
As the faithful begin singing the troparion “The Noble Joseph…”, the priest with the people begin the procession. He is preceded by two candlebearers and a 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. Returning into the church, the priest places the Holy Shroud into a prepared tomb and incenses it on all sides. Following the dismissal, the faithful, with great devotion and compunction in their hearts, approach the Holy Shroud.
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. 638), the liturgical veneration of the Holy Shroud took place during the Matins for Holy Saturday, usually celebrated in the evening of Good Friday.
Our liturgical custom, based on an old typika of Mount Athos, 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 (Nadgrobne) 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 tabernacle, 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 the 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.