Holy Week Journal: Pascha

It’s 11:00 p.m. on Holy Saturday night.  Hilary is wide awake and running on adrenaline.  She’s excited to have the flowing white dress on that she wore as a flower girl in my brother’s wedding.  I made a sash out of a pink patterned ribbon and a matching headband to give it a little color.  Many of the kids in my parish come to the service in their pajamas and sleep, but Hilary always wants to take this opportunity to dress in her fanciest, girliest clothes.

There’s a lot of whispering and electricity in the air.  It is dark and subdued in the nave, the candles from the tomb glowing in the center of the church.  At 11:30 p.m. the Nocturns service begins.  We sing verses and set the tone for the evening.

At midnight, all the lights are put out in the church.  It is completely dark.  A hush falls throughout the crowd.  We wait in expectation.  Then, one light is lit behind the altar.  The glow fills the space and reaches out to us.  Father sings:

Come, receive the light from the Light that is never conquered by night.  Come, glorify Christ, who is risen from the dead!

Then, the men from the choir who have gathered behind the altar pick up the next lines along with Father.  More and more voices are added each time until everyone joins and sings:

Your Resurrection, O Christ our Savior, the angels in heaven sing.  Enable us on earth to glorify You in purity of heart.

Father comes out through the Royal Doors with the Paschal light, the new fire of Christ.  The children gather up front and light candles from his candle.  Everyone in the church passes the light to their neighbor, until everyone’s candles are lit.  The clergy and altar servers lead the way as we all exit the church.  We process around the outside of the building three times, continuosly singing:

Your Resurrection, O Christ our Savior, the angels in heaven sing.  Enable us on earth to glorify You in purity of heart.

We arrive back at the doors to the church.  Father reads from the Gospel of Mark.  Early in the morning, the Myrrhbearing Women went to the tomb, but when they arrived, all they found was an angel.  He asked them such a basic question…Why do you seek the living among the dead?  He is not here.  He is risen!

Then, Father beats on the door of the church with the cross and sings the song that fills the world with joy:

Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!

The doors of the church are thrown open, and the bells, which had been mournfully tolling a funeral dirge as we processed, break into an ear-splitting, resounding proclamation of celebration.

Over and over we sing the good news as we enter the church.  Several of the members stayed behind while we were outside and transformed the nave.  The tomb is gone.  So is the darkness.  Everything glows in brilliant white and piercing light.

Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!

The choir continues to sing of the Resurrection, as the clergy shout to the people: Christ is Risen!  Everyone shouts back with smiles and glistening eyes: Indeed He is Risen!  The Paschal greeting is repeated throughout the service in many languages, a bow to the ethnic heritage of many of our parishioners and a testament to the universal Truth.  This isn’t just an announcement for our time and place.  This is an announcement for the ages.

  Christ is Risen!  Christos Anesti!  Christos Voskrese!  Hristos a înviat! Христос воскрес!  Tá Críost éirithe!  Kristus aq ungwektaq!  Al Maseeh Qam!

We sing the words of the Psalms:

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!

And always, always we cry:

Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!

Father does not preach his own words this night.  He reads the sermon of St. John Chrysostom.  The church has established eight weeks of fasting before this day.  There have been rigors of long services, prostrations, hunger and self-denial.  Not all have done this.  Some because of illness or age.  Some because they just didn’t.  But St. John reassures us that even if we have delayed until the third hour, or the sixth hour, or even the eleventh hour, we all can rejoice the same.  Christ descended into Hell and smashed it.  Death has held us captive, but Christ turned that captivity onto Hell itself.  Oh, it was embittered to see Christ!  It was embittered to be overthrown!  Again and again St. John’s sermon talks about the embitterment of Hell, and every time Father reads the word, we shout back in triumph “Embittered!”

At this point, the Divine Liturgy begins, and we prepare for the Eucharistic service.  This week, we watched Christ break the bread and share the wine.  We watched Him willingly sacrifice His own body and blood.  We watched Him be tortured and scourged and beaten and killed in a horrific way.  We watched Him be laid in a tomb.  We sat by the tomb in the darkness of death and despair.  And now, we join in the new day of brightness.  We grab the hand that pulls us up from the depths of death and Hell.  Christ is Risen!  Indeed He is Risen!

It’s time to sing to the Mother of God.  She watched her Son’s unimaginable suffering.  Her heart was indeed pierced.  To her, too, we announce the glory:

The angel cried to the Lady Full of Grace: Rejoice, rejoice, O Pure Virgin!  Again I say: Rejoice.  Your Son is risen from His three days in the tomb.  With Himself He has raised all the dead.  Rejoice, rejoice all ye people.

Shine!  Shine!  Shine, O new Jerusalem!  The glory of the Lord has shone on you.  Exult now, exult!  And be glad, O Zion!  Be radiant, O pure Theotokos!  In the Resurrection, the Resurrection of Your Son!

It is after 2:00 a.m. when we finish.  We have sung “Christ is Risen!” so many times, that virtually every other thought is pushed out.  Isn’t that glorious?  No thoughts of pain or suffering or despair or sorrow or death.  I sat by the tomb of my soul yesterday and watched it fester and rot.  Today, though, the tomb is gone.  The barriers, the hindrances, the chains are broken.  Christ is risen from the dead…there is no more sorrow.  Christ is risen from the dead…there is no more separation.  Christ is risen from the dead…there is no more defeat.  Upon those in the tombs…upon me…He has bestowed life.  Not mere existence.  Not just getting by.  LIFE.  Everlasting union with God.  Everlasting joy.  LIFE… LIFE… LIFE.

We began Lent at Forgiveness Vespers by exchanging the kiss of peace with each other.  We end it by doing the same.  Everyone approaches Father and receives a red egg from him.  Then, we go around to each and every person in the church, kiss them and tell them as if for the very first time: “Christ is Risen!”  And they say back, “Indeed…He IS Risen!”

In the parish hall, we have all laid out our Pascha baskets.  The baskets traditionally contain many things.  Salt to show we are the salt of the earth.  A bitter herb to remember Passover.  But mostly, the baskets contain all the meat and dairy items we haven’t eaten in two months.

The first couple years of being Orthodox, I tried very much to make my Pascha basket traditional.  I brought kielbasa.  I did everything the “right” way.  Then, I embraced the fact that I don’t really like kielbasa, and the rest of my family doesn’t really love the traditional cheese everyone makes…and that’s O.K.  The Paschal meal is about celebrating what we love and have missed during the Fast.  So, our Pascha basket has a big bucket of fried chicken, candy, pop, and breakfast sausage (biscuits and gravy on the morning after Pascha is the best thing ever!!!).

We all sit around with our family and friends, laughing and eating and licking chicken grease off our fingers in an extremely undignified and wonderful way.  Finally, the adrenaline begins to wear off.  We gather up the remnants of our basket and the Pascha light to take home to light the lamp in our icon corner.

About 3:30 a.m. we crawl into bed, and my heart sings as I fall asleep:

Christ is Risen!  Indeed He is Risen!

We wake up and go to one last service in the early afternoon.  At Agape Vespers, we sing again of the Resurrection.  Father reads the Gospel about Thomas, who doubts.  Then, others in the parish come forward to read as well.  The Gospel is read in many languages.  Greek and French.  Serbian and Latin.  In some monasteries and parishes this will go on for some time.  The Resurrection is proclaimed to all people in all lands in all tongues.

We go back home and collapse in a heap.  Nineteen services since Lazarus Saturday.  If you include the day before that, then it is twenty-one consecutive services in ten days.  So, as the day comes to a close, I try to savor the memories of each of those services…each of those days.  I’ve been in church so much this week…but what does that mean?  If it just means that I feel good about myself for being pious or just plain don’t feel anything, then it was a waste of my time.  These services, these prayers, they were not for my ego or to earn bonus points.  They were opportunities to see what life is and what it should be.  This is the day of my resurrection.  May I not continue to live as one who is dead.

As we move into Bright Week, it feels odd to not go to church.  I’m glad for that feeling of loss.  It makes me remember that my life should be one continuous prayer.  Just because the services ended doesn’t mean the prayer has to stop.  Here is another opportunity.  It is up to me now.  Will I take this joy and nurture it and grow it and develop it into a deeper relationship with God, or will I go right back to the tomb?  There is an opportunity here.  Lord, help me not to miss it.

Christ is Risen!  Indeed He is Risen!

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4 thoughts on “Holy Week Journal: Pascha

  1. This is the first time I’ve heard of the tradition of greeting each person on Pascha, just as you asked forgiveness on Forgiveness Sunday. What a fitting way to close the fast and celebrate the feast!

  2. This year will be my first Pascha so I was looking online for more info on making my basket and found this treasure of a post. Thank you so much for going into more detail about the movements (physically and in your heart) of the service. I am looking forward to it even more now!

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