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Greeks Mark Solemn Holy Friday With Epitaphios Processions

The epitaph procession at the St. Andreas (V.Sophias Ave. Athens 2022)

Holy Friday or Good Friday is a profoundly mournful day in Greece which commemorates the Passion of Christ with the traditional Epitaphios processions.

A nationwide affair, it recalls the moments leading up to and including the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, as told in the New Testament of the Bible.

Even the most remote churches honor the tradition of the Epitaphios (Bier of Christ), creating a pious atmosphere full of tradition.

Holy Friday with the traditional Epitaphios processions in Naxos island.

(Metropolis of Naxos island. 2022)

The word epitaphios is an adjective meaning “funerary, happening on a grave”; it is the Greek title for Thucydides’ famous “Pericles’ Funeral Oration”, and the origin of the word epitaph.

Within a liturgical context, this is also the name of an icon, usually made of cloth and richly embroidered, depicting the body of Christ being laid in the grave, often by the Virgin Mary and some disciples.

On Good Friday morning, the Epitaphios is decorated with spring flowers — mostly white, red, and purple — until it is entirely covered.

The Tomb is often sprinkled with flower petals and rosewater, decorated with candles and ceremonially censed as a mark of respect.

Then the priest and faithful venerate the Epitaphios as the choir chants hymns, called the “Epitaphic Lamentation.”

The epitaph procession at the island of Hydra ends in the sea.

Epitaphios processions on Holy Friday march into the sea

The epitaph procession begins around the streets of the city, with bells ringing the funeral toll, commemorating the burial procession of Christ. Accompanying the solemn procession are the people of the congregation, who continually chant the Lamentations.

At the end of the procession, the Epitaphios is brought back to the church. Sometimes, after the clergy carry the Epitaphios in, they will stop just inside the entrance to the church, and hold the Epitaphios above the door, so that all who enter the church will pass under it.

The faithful continue to visit the tomb and venerate the Epitaphios throughout Great Saturday.

These practices have numerous variations according to regional traditions.

Perhaps the most impressive case is that of some coastal towns, most notably on the islands of Hydra and Tinos, where the men carrying the Epitaphios reach the beach and march right into the sea, until they are at least waist-deep in water, where they may remain for several minutes, often holding the platform high to protect it.

During this time, prayers are said for the welfare and safe return of the many seafarers coming from those communities.

Local Greek traditions on Good Friday

In many Greek towns, women used to clean the streets just before the Epitaph procession passed by and as soon as the procession arrived, they would stand at their doors holding a roof tile containing a small piece of charcoal and incense.

Meanwhile, on the evening of Good Friday, in Nafpaktos, western Greece, the crowd, both locals and visitors, follows the Epitaph procession, passing through the port where locals light torches and place them across the castle wall.

Torches are also placed in the middle of the port, forming a large cross and offering a unique and spectacular spectacle to the people following the procession.

In Crete locals boil snails and drink their juice, which is very bitter. In Koroni, Peloponnese, people do not eat anything during the whole day. Also, in many Greek villages, the men refrain from doing any manual work and especially using nails because it resembles the way Jesus died.

In Naxos, people do not kiss on Good Friday, because Judas betrayed Jesus with a kiss. The women gather to clean the churches and decorate the Epitaph before following the procession.

In Syros, Easter is celebrated with great amity. Both religious communities, the Orthodox and the Catholic, commemorate the death of Christ together.

The Cyclades is perhaps the only region across the world where Catholics celebrate Easter together with the Orthodox. Two religious worlds meet at the island’s main square to celebrate Good Friday with devoutness and mutual respect.

The epitaph procession at the island of Naxos ends in the sea.


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