In popular language the Vesper Service of Great Friday is often called the Apokathelosis, a name derived from the liturgical reenactment of the deposition of Christ from the Cross. The service is characterized by two dramatic liturgical actions: The Deposition or Apokathelosis Apokathilosis -literally the Un-nailing); and the Procession of the Epitaphios (‘Epitafios, i.e. the icon depicting the burial of Christ encased within a large embroidered cloth).
The rite of the Apokathelosis originated in the Church of Antioch. During the course of the nineteenth century it came to Constantinople and from there it passed gradually into the Church of Greece. At Constantinople it received the form we know and practice today.
Prior to the introduction of the solemn procession of the Estavromenos at the Orthros and the rite of the Apokathelosis at the Vespers, the churches practiced two simpler rituals. First, at the fifteenth antiphon of the Orthros, an icon of the crucifixion was brought in procession to the proskynetarion which stood in the middle of the solea. Second, at the Vesper service the Epitaphios was carried in solemn procession to the kouvouklion.
In the Church of Antioch these two rituals developed along different lines. First, instead of an icon a large cross was carried in the procession at the Orthros. Fastened to the cross was a movable figure of the crucified Christ. Second, at the Vesper service the Epitaphios was carried in procession at the appointed time and was placed in the kouvouklion. Then, the figure of the crucified Christ was removed from the cross and placed in the kouvouklion. The figure was covered with a cloth and flowers. Last, the Gospel was placed in the kouvouklion.
These rites received a new form as they passed into the Greek Church. The rite of the Apokathelosis was lifted up and especially accentuated by attaching it to the reading of the Gospel at the Vesper service. As the priest intoned the passages of the lesson that narrate the event of the Deposition, the deacon re-enacted the Un-nailing. The figure of the Crucified Christ was removed from the Cross and wrapped in a new linen cloth. The figure was received by the priest, brought into the sanctuary and laid upon the Holy Table. After this the priest concluded the Gospel lesson. This dramatic representation of the Deposition has -become the prevailing practice in the Greek Church.
The procession with the Epitaphios is the second significant liturgical act of this service. It appears that the rite developed around the fifteenth century.”‘ In some descriptions of the ritual, the procession takes place at the aposticha, while in others it takes place at the apolytikia. According to the order in the Patriarchal Text, the procession of the Epitaphios takes place at the aposticha.
Most descriptions of the procession presuppose a presence of several clerics. Let us look at one such description. The Epitaphios is censed by the senior priest. It is then lifted up by four other priests who carry it above the head of the senior priest. He holds the Gospel Book (Evaggelion). The deacon(s) precede(s) holding the censer. However, it is obvious that such an elaborate ritual cannot be performed by only one priest, as is the case in most of our parishes today. For this reason, the ritual has been simplified in the current liturgical practice. Where two clergymen are present, both carry the Epitaphios. The senior priest precedes holding the Gospel in one hand and the Epitaphios over his head in the other. The second priest or deacon holds the other end of the Epitaphios over his head. If there is only one priest, he carries one end of the Epitaphios upon his head and holds the Gospel in the other hand. Two acolytes walk in back of him holding the other end of the Epitaphios. It is proper also for the Epitaphios to be held by four acolytes above the head of the priest. However, this is a rare occurrence in current usage. In some local traditions the Epitaphios is lifted up on poles, in order to facilitate the procedure. The Epitaphios is held high, above the head as a sign of deep reverence.
The Gospel – It is important at this point to say something about the way the Gospel (Evaggelion) is held at the processions of the Epitaphios on Great Friday. In the liturgical tradition of our Church, the Gospel is considered to be the chief icon of Christ. Therefore, as the rituals of the passion began to develop, the Gospel Book was given special attention by the way it was held and adorned. Long before the Epitaphios was introduced into the liturgy of Great Friday, it was the Gospel, wrapped in the aer, that was carried in the processions. The aer symbolized the burial cloth. To further depict the death of Christ, the Gospel was held flat upon the right shoulder of the celebrant, instead of the usual upright position.
The Icon – On Great Friday besides the Cross and the Epitaphios we display the icon known as the “Axra Tapeinosis – The Extreme Humility.” This icon depicts the crucified dead body of Christ upright in the Tomb with the Cross in the background. It combines the two awesome events of Great Friday, the crucifixion and burial of Christ.