Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Pascha, the Feast of Feasts!

I have tried numerous times in my life to describe this day. People are always curious about our Orthodox Easter since most years it does not fall on the same day as Western Easter. They ask questions and I try to explain. Something about the calendar and the calculations being different. I have a vague notion of how it all works but I tend to get a bit muddled. So instead of trying to explain something technical that will probably end up being confusing for all involved I try to tell them what we do on that day. I do my best to give a sense of the excitement and the anticipation that has built and built from before the beginning of Lent all the way up through Holy Saturday morning.

First comes the description of Holy Week. I tell how we spend every day in church from Lazarus Saturday through Holy Saturday. I tell about Holy Thursday and the way we read through the twelve Passion Gospels, lighting a candle for each one and how the cross is carried through the church and the icon of Christ is hung upon it.

I tell about Great and Holy Friday - how we spend the whole day in church praying and decorating the tomb of Christ. How we go home for a bit and then come back again in the evening to keep watch over the tomb. How we lament and mourn His death, all the while with the expectation of His triumph over death.

I try to describe how we spend Saturday in quiet preparation: how we go to church in the morning and celebrate Christ's descent into Hades to free the captives, with the priest scattering bay leaves throughout the church as a sign of victory. The rest of the day then spent putting together our basket, getting clothes ready and resting. The way we get ready for bed so early, just at dusk, in order to get a few hours rest before it is time.

Time to quietly dress in our best clothes. Time to wake sleepy children and dress them as well. Time to gather food and basket and family and go outside in the chilly spring air, with clear sky and bright stars shining down. It is the middle of the night. The new day is just about to begin.

We bring food and family into the church, gather our candles and head into the nave of the church, placing blankets and pillows on the floor or pews for each child to snuggle up in if they need to sleep. Some years they sleep, other years the excitement gets to them and they stay awake.

The service begins and some of the hymns from Friday night are repeated. It takes awhile and people begin to have a chance to feel a bit sleepy again.

But then! The lights go out. Darkness and quiet. Now the only light in the church comes from the single large, white, beautifully decorated Pascha candle being held by the priest. He turns to us and sings:


The people take up the song and take up the light. The flame is passed from candle to candle and there is light again. The priest, deacons and altar boys leave the altar in procession and we begin to follow, still singing. We head outside. The temperature doesn't matter. Whether Pascha falls in March or in May we head out the doors and process around the church with our candles and our voices. The song changes now: 

To Thy Resurrection, O Christ our Saviour,
Do the angels in heaven sing.
Make us also who are here on earth
Worthy to glorify Thee with pure hearts. 

We get back to the doors of the church and now our priest turns to face us and he reads from the gospel. We hear the Good News that the tomb is empty! He begins to sing: "Christ is risen from the dead and by His death He has trampled death and unto those in the tombs has He granted life!". The censer swings and the now the bells, which have been absent since Lent began, are back chiming loudly and joyfully. 

Christ is Risen! Truly He is Risen! We say it over and over again. We cannot stop proclaiming the joyous news! Christ is Risen! Truly He is Risen! 

The priest then turns and bangs on the doors of the church crying out the words from the psalm, "Lift up your heads, O gates! And be ye lifted up, ye everlasting doors, that the king of glory may enter in!" 
A voice responds from inside: "Who is the king of glory?" 
"The Lord strong and mighty, the Lord mighty in war. Lift up your heads, O gates! And be ye lifted up, ye everlasting doors, that the king of glory may enter in!"
"Who is the king of glory?" 
"The Lord of hosts, He is the King of glory!" 

The doors are flung open and we enter the nave once more. Every light is lit. The candles, which had burned low during Holy Week, have been replaced with fresh white candles. The black and purple vestments and altar cloths have been changed for pure white. White lilies are everywhere and we all move back inside as the Paschal canon is sung:

Today is the day of Resurrection!
O nations let us shine forth! 
For the Pascha is the Pascha of the Lord
In that Christ did make us pass from death to life, 
And from earth to heaven, 
Who now sing the song of victory and triumph! 

The canon goes on and on and the words wash over us. Every so often the singing of the canon is interspersed with our most beloved hymn - Christ is risen from the dead, and by His death He has trampled death and unto those in the tombs has He granted life! 

We continue singing, now with these words of psalm 67:

Let God arise, let his enemies be scattered; let those who hate him flee from before his face!
As smoke vanishes, so let them vanish; as wax melts before the fire,
So the sinners will perish before the face of God; but let the righteous be glad.
This is the day which the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it!
Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death,
and on those in the tombs bestowing life.


The Paschal Homily of St. John Chrysostom is read. The Divine Liturgy begins with the singing of Christ is Risen. We sing it again and again and again. The joy pours out of our overflowing cups. We partake of Holy Communion, all united as one Body in Christ as we celebrate what He has done for us! 

When liturgy ends we begin the feast! Children and adults go around with their red eggs, cracking them against each other to see whose egg will outlast all the rest. We share a meal together. Delicious dishes of all the foods we've been fasting from all this time. No one is tired now. We are all alive and exuberant with joy and thanksgiving. 

Sometime in the wee hours of the morning we head home to bed. Now the exhaustion sets in. Everyone snuggles gratefully under the covers once more and we sleep. 

But it's not over! The next day, Easter Sunday, we wake and enjoy breakfast together, and then it's back to church once more at noon for Agape Vespers. More singing of Christ is Risen, more joyous exclamations, more processing with candles. This time the gospel is read from all the four corners of the church, in as many languages as we can find readers for, as a reminder that this Good News is for all the world. Every person has cause to celebrate. Our celebration continues for the remainder of Bright Week and  for the next forty days. During all this time we greet each other with the words "Christ is Risen!" and respond "Truly He is Risen!" 

All this feasting and rejoicing, it's only days away now. May our hearts be ready to embrace this time with love and with gladness!





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