Good Saturday Tomato Soup

By: | Post date: April 18, 2009 | Comments: 7 Comments
Posted in categories: Culture

So yes, I don’t know what the Anglo-Catholic for Good Saturday is. It’s simpler in Orthodoxy, where each day of Holy Week is Great: Great Monday, Great Tuesday, Great Wednesday. And each day of Holy Week matters: Orthodoxy has a well-ordered liturgical calendar around Holy Week. The Office of the Bridegroom on Great Monday, the hymn of Kassiane Great Tuesday, the Blessed Oil Great Wednesday. The Twelve Gospels on Great Thursday, each marked off on a candelabra, with candles signalling the flow of the Passion narrative: just like a menorah, but quicker, and on the opposite side ideologically. After Simon of Cyrene lifts the cross (Mt 27:32) in the Fifth Gospel, the priest lifts the cross around the church—

Σήμερον κρεμᾶται ἐπὶ ξύλου
ὁ τὴν γῆν τοῖς ὕδασι κρεμάσας.

Στέφανον ἐξ ἀκανθῶν περιτίθεται
ὁ τῶν ἀγγέλων βασιλεύς.

Ψευδῆ πορφύραν περιβάλλεται
ὁ περιβάλλων τὸν οὐρανὸν ἐν νεφέλαις.

Today He is hanged from a tree
Who hanged the earth on the waters.

He is placed with a crown of thorns
the King of angels.

He is surrounded with false purple
Who surrounded the heavens with clouds.

The funeral of Christ comes on Great Friday, with the Canon “By a wave of the sea”, running through all nine minus one odes, each with its own Old Testament reference. (The canon was a very strict poetic form—its intertextuality is regimented—though now more allusively, since the Old Testament canticles it is based on are nowadays left out. And its structure is odd: the second ode only gets used on Lent weekdays, and there are numerous digressions and recaps. But at its best it is effective poetry.)

The canon is followed by the Encomia, lamenting Christ (surprisingly, composed only in the Ottoman period, but the highlights of the liturgical year), followed by the Epitaphios, the funeral procession of Christ, taking over the streets around the church.

Easter Matins, which are Saturday midnight, launch pretty quickly into the victorious anthem, “Christ is Risen from the dead”, followed soon after by John Damascene’s joyous canon,

Ἀναστάσεως ἡμέρα, λαμπρυνθῶμεν λαοί.
Πάσχα, Κύριου Πάσχα.

Day of resurrection: shine ye people!
Easter, the Lord’s Easter.

In Greece, Damascene is intoned to a mostly empty church, despite the priest’s annual request to “please stay, it is a lovely Mass”. The canon is the exit queue for the congregation, who have offal soup and hardboiled eggs to get back to: the problem with the point of Orthodoxy being tradition is, the laity have their traditions too. I forced my folks to stick to the end one Easter, so I could find out what the Mass was like; I think they were happier to stay back in theory than in practice. Though when I was in Easter services in the States, I found not a soul budged when Damascene started. In the US, people are Orthodox first in Church, and Greek only incidentally—it’s been one more generation of assimilation than here. So the laity’s traditions take a back seat: you’ll get your offal soup when the Mass is good and over.

(Can’t stomach the offal soup btw.)

But it’s Good Saturday that I wanted to reminisce on after all that. When a community is overtly religious, as a Greek village is, religion impinges on daily life, even if you yourself are not going to all the masses. When we’d go to the village for Easter, Orthodox dietary restrictions were in place at my grandmother’s house. Lent abstained meat and dairy, of course: we didn’t stick to all 42 days, but Holy Week in the village, it was hard to sneak out and get a cheeseburger. (Much easier here; in fact, my sister and I instituted a tradition of going to McDonald’s after Good Saturday morning communion, as preemptive breaking the fast. Latterly, it’s ended up the only time I set foot in Macca’s.)

Fasting meat and dairy is not as big a deal in a pre-modern agricultural society, when meat is pretty scarce to begin with. So Orthodoxy has a way to enforce fasting on even the perforce vegan peasantry: no oil. The strict rules on fasting, which banned oil on all but a feast day coinciding with a fast day, had been relaxed by 1980 in the village; but in Holy Week, Good Saturday was still a day with No Oil. With No Oil, your culinary options get very limited very fast. In fact, all we ended up eating was a thin watery tomato soup, and boiled potatoes. With all the salt and pepper I could muster to make them palatable. It made Good Saturday pretty bleak. Which of course was the idea.

The other striking thing about Good Saturday was Good Saturday Vespers, the one time I went to them in the village. The Passion services are somewhat out of sync, because the Orthodox liturgical day starts at sundown. So the Twelve Gospels, Thursday 8 PM, are actually Good Friday Matins, fitting the Passion narrative. The Good Friday evening mass is actually Good Saturday Matins; hence Christ is buried.

And Good Saturday Vespers, which somehow end up on Saturday afternoon, do something Orthodox masses don’t do a lot of; halfway through the Vespers, there’s a sizeable chunk of the Old Testament. There are bits of the Prophets and Psalms in the mass through the year, but they’re not highlighted, and the Old Testament has not captured popular imagination. The only Greek Abrahams and Solomons I know of are Cypriot; the only Greek Davids I know of are Pontian; and the only Greek Daniel I know of is Jewish. So it came as a surprise to me to hear, Saturday afternoon in a Greek church, Genesis 1, Jonah 1, and Daniel 3.

Jonah 1 and Daniel 3 are a quite straightforward metaphor: Jesus is harrowing hell, and is compared to Jonah in the whale and the three boys in the furnace explicitly in the canons; the bible readings reiterate the comparison. Genesis 1 is a more clever intertextuality: the church calendar of movable feasts comes to an end on Good Saturday, and Jesus’ mission on earth is concluded. Genesis looks back to the start of everything, at the end of everything. I find that moving.

What I did not remember from the two or three times I’ve stayed past John Damascene on Easter midnight mass, is that the bible readings do the same thing after “Shine ye people!” The readings that I missed by going home to crack eggs and avoid offal soup are Acts 1 and John 1. Every mass has an Apostle reading (Acts or Epistles), and a Gospel reading. Easter is the start of the movable church calendar (the fixed calendar starts September 1, Byzantine New Year), and both the Apostle and Gospel readings go back to the beginning.

I’ll wrap this up tomorrow, before heading to the Easter Festival Of Meat, with a sermon from John Chrysostom. We’ll resume normal godless broadcasting after that…


  • tania says:


  • opoudjis says:

    Consider yourself stalked 🙂 — Bach’s St Matthew’s Passion or something, eh? Will have to dust off the iPod to see what I make of it. It probably was the Bach: “Laß ihn kreuzigen!” matches “Han skal krossfestur!”

    I’m just surprised that Icelandic deigned to borrow the word for “Passion”. Can’t find anything in a hurry about how much Church Latin ended up in Icelandic; I can’t imaging it’s been that much.

    You’re missed too, btw.

  • tania says:

    ooh ‘vespers’, I’ve been looking for that word for ages, thanks! Michael ?Halliday had a great example using that word of how we string up genitives/relationships together, the example was something like: ‘Oh! John his sister her boyfriend his butcher something something vespers at the church’.

    And I went to St Matthias’ Passia here in Reykjavík. Well, actually it was in Kópavogur, but close enough. Never heard of a Passia/Passion before, but it had some lovely music in. The scary part was when they changed from being sad to being happy and started singing in the chirpiest tones I’ve ever heard ‘Crucify him!!’ (Han skal krossfestur!) Gah!

  • tania says:

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  • opoudjis says:

    oops, wrong article.

  • opoudjis says:

    @George: … συ είπας. 🙂

    There’s a more stiff translation of the sermon at the Orthodox Church in America.

  • George says:

    Water-boiled lentils with no salt or pepper, and also with no work or even attention required — great dish, not only during Lent, and who cares about my cousin’s diagnosis that “I am simply hanging on to dear life” :-))

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