Holy and Great Wednesday
According the Gospels, on Wednesday night the Lord passed into Bethany (Mt. 26:6-17). Here while He was in the house of Simon the leper and the high priests, the scribes and elders in assembly already decided to seize Jesus Christ by trickery and to kill
Him. A certain “sinful” woman poured precious myrrh on the head of the Savior
and in this way prepared Him for burial as He Himself judged her action. Here at
the same time the criminal intention to betray his Teacher and Lord to the lawless assembly was born in ungrateful soul of Judas, one of twelve disciples of the Savior.
It is for this reason in the church services of this day the sinful woman is glorified and the love of money and betrayal of Judas is censured and cursed. “As the sinful woman”, the Holy Church sings this day, “was bringing her offering of myrrh, the disciple was
scheming with lawless men. She rejoiced in pouring out her precious myrrh. He
hastened to sell the Priceless One. She recognized the Master, but He departed
from the Master. She was set free, but Judas was enslaved to the enemy”; “O the
iniquitous Judas! O God, deliver our souls from this”.
Kontakion, tone 4
Though I have transgressed more than the harlot, O Good One,
I have not offered Thee a flood of tears,
But praying in silence I fall down before Thee.
With love I embrace Thy most pure feet.
As Master, grant me remission of debts.
When I cry to Thee, O Savior:
Deliver me from the filth of my deeds.
In the Gospel narratives three women who were worthy to anoint Jesus Christ with myrrh on three different evenings are differentiated. Mentioned by Evangelist Luke (7:36-50) the sinful woman who anointed the Savior with myrrh in the evening in Jerusalem in the house of Simon the Pharisee, was, according to tradition, Mary Magdalene, “out of whom had come seven demons” (Lk. 8:2).
Another woman who anointed the Savior with myrrh in the evening, who was in
Bethany six days before Pascha, was Mary, the sister of Lazarus (Jn. 12:1-11). The
third evening also was in Bethany, but was two days before Pascha, in the house of
Simon the leper, and on it a certain woman who is distinct from the first two, was
worthy to anoint the Savior with myrrh (Mt. 26:6-13; Mk. 14:1-9).
According to the Commentary of St. John Chrysostom, the Evangelist Matthew reveals the specific events concerning that evening in the house of Simon the leper: “not without purpose did mention the leprosy of Simon, but in order that He might show the reason why the woman dared to approach Jesus. Since leprosy seemed an impure and abominable illness, and yet she saw Jesus both healed the man and cleansed his leprosy, otherwise He would not have chosen to stay at the leper’s house, that she hoped that Jesus would also easily cleanse the impurity of her soul” (Refer to the
Synaxarion for Great Wednesday).
What of the anointing? In ordinary life, especially among rich people, anointing with myrrh was very common in the East, partly because it was needed because of the attributes of the hot climate, and partly it was pleasant and convenient in life. They were especially anointed during festivals, during the presentation of dignitaries, or when
at their home they received especially close friends. They ordinarily anointed the
hair on the head, the forehead, the face, the beard and when they wanted to express
special respect to some person also the legs. Above all, the Hebrews had the
custom to rub the dead with aromatic balms.
“It was fulfilled”, teaches St. John Chrysostom, “what Christ declared
beforehand about the sinful woman. Wheresoever you go in the world, you will
hear everywhere what this woman has done; although she is not well-known and
had not many witnesses. Who then proclaimed it, and caused it to be spread about?
It was the power of Him Who is speaking these words. And so great a time has
passed, and yet the memory of this incident did not fade away, but Persians and
Indians, Scythians and Thracians, and Sarmatians, and the race of Moors, and the
inhabitants of the British Isles alike spread abroad what was done secretly in a
house by a sinful woman”.
How did Judas become the betrayer you may ask, having been called by Christ? Because the call from God is not compulsory, neither does it force the will of them who do not wish to choose virtue, but admonishes, advises, and does and manages all things in order to persuade them to become good; but if some people do not wish to be good, He does not compel them”.
According to the services, Great Wednesday is the last day of lent and repentance, and with it the order of the Great Lenten services comes to an end. This also is expressed in some of the features of the church services of Great Wednesday as follows: at the dismissal of Hours the prayer “O Master, great in mercy” which is normally read in Great
Compline is read over the people who have bowed to the to the ground; at the
Presanctified liturgy the great prostrations is done after “Blessed be the Name of
the Lord” for the last time, “and if the prostrations are completed in practice in the
church, they will continue to be done in the cells even up to Great Friday”, i.e. the
great prostrations, but not the small, is dropped in church, as is evident, for
example, in the Order of Compline where it is said: “let us do three prostrations, all
On Great Wednesday also is ended the reading of Great Compline and the reading of the Kathisma in Matins, the Hours and Vespers. “From this point on the saint of the day is not sung in the church during the Midnight Office until Thomas week. In the cathedral temples also the laity sings in the churches”.
Adapted from Handbook for Church Servers, by S. V. Bulgakov, (Kharkov, 1900) Translated by Archpriest Eugene D. Tarris © April 22, 2005. All rights reserved.