Many years ago, I was a convert of the Eastern Orthodox Church and my favourite time of the year was the Lenten/Paschal season. It is a powerful and beautiful time to remember and honour the life of Christ; yet, while the Orthodox Church is the second largest Christian denomination in the world (an estimated 300 million believers), these traditions are not very well known or understood among the non-Orthodox.
Pascha (Greek: “Passover”) is the Eastern Orthodox equivalent of Easter—that is, the celebration of the Resurrection of Christ. Although the two celebrations often fall on dates several weeks apart, occasionally they coincide, as is the case this year. Pascha is calculated according to the Julian calendar and multiple phase cycles of the moon as well as the equinox. The details of how the moveable date is determined each year are truly numerous, and would require a separate article just to explain that one aspect; suffice to say, it is a complex process which makes little sense to anyone outside the clergy.
Pascha differs in other ways from Easter as well. In fact, there are many variations within Christian denominations, from Catholic to Pentecostal, in the way Easter itself is celebrated. Pascha is set apart from all of these. While many Christians follow a specific fasting period leading up to Easter known as Lent, the Orthodox Lenten season is about more than just abstaining from all foods connected to animals (meat, dairy, eggs, fish, etc.): it is a deeply spiritual fast. The Orthodox will abstain from sex, television, and many other “worldly” desires of the flesh and mind. Many will attend multiple evening services a week all through the entire forty days of Lent until Holy Week, the week before Pascha.
The Lenten Vespers is a particularly beautiful service. The faithful sing haunting Byzantine liturgical hymns, the words of which are taken from (or inspired by) Holy Scripture and are rich with meaning. As the priests and deacon begin preparation for the procession with the Chalice, the choir sings:
“Lord, I call upon You, hear me!
Hear me, O Lord!
Lord, I call upon You, hear me!
Receive the voice of my prayer,
when I call upon You!
Hear me, O Lord!
Let my prayer arise
in Your sight as incense,
and let the lifting up of my hands
be an evening sacrifice!
Hear me, O Lord!”
Not long after, everyone save the choir prostrates. They must first sing:
“Behold, the Bridegroom comes at midnight!
And blessed is the service whom He shall find watching;
And again unworthy whom He shall find heedless.
Before, therefore o my soul, do not be laid down with sleep!
Lest you be given up to death and lest you be shut out of the Kingdom!
But cry yourself ‘Holy! Holy! Holy are You, O Lord!
Through the Theotokos have mercy on us!’”
The Theotokos, incidentally, means “Mother of God” in Greek, and is the Orthodox term for the Virgin Mary, whose intercession is invoked in nearly every Orthodox prayer. Once the choir has finished the hymn, they too prostrate, and there is total silence but for the susurration of the priest’s vestments as they carry the Cross and the Chalice in procession around the sanctuary of the Church. It is a deeply holy and humbling moment, and the highlight of the Lenten Vespers.
Holy Week itself is quite extraordinary. Each day from Palm Sunday onward the last week of Christ’s life as described in Holy Scripture is honoured. Great and Holy Friday is the most poignant; a tapestry shroud with an icon of our Lord Jesus Christ wrapped in burial cloths is laid on a long box shaped like an ark or coffin, and the faithful kneel or prostrate and pray before it, often for hours on end for an all-night vigil. The heady fragrance of the incense, the dimness of the candlelit sanctuary, and the tears of many believers as they weep for Christ even knowing He is already Risen is often overwhelming to those who experience the service for the first time. For the Eastern Orthodox, time becomes meaningless during Holy Week, Pascha, and the liturgical Sunday morning services, in particular the calling down of the Holy Spirit to transform the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ. In these moments, time is suspended; at once, the faithful simultaneously exist in the past, specifically, the moment of Christ’s death or the Last Supper (depending on the service), the present—the service itself in the Church—and the future, or Everlasting Life when the Kingdom is brought to Earth. Thus, during the Holy Friday Vigil, the faithful spend the evening mourning and praying at the “literal” Tomb of Christ.
The celebration of Pascha itself is also remarkable. It is a day-long fast, from very early morning to midnight. Nothing is permitted but water. And all the while, the faithful prepare a feast which will be shared to break the fast after midnight. Baskets are decorated and filled with savouries, pastries, special braided breads and sweets. Eggs are painted in rainbow colours and, at least among the converts (not usually so much among those from the old countries such as Russia or Greece, where they are born into the faith), toys are set aside for the children. The room where the agape (love feast) will take place after the service is decorated with flowers, rainbow-coloured and white ribbons, and the many baskets, usually by the women.
Inside the sanctuary, which is adorned in black draperies to mourn Christ, white flowers, linens and silks are carefully stowed in the altar. Just before midnight, the priest or bishop emerges from the altar with the Light of Christ (a Paschal candle), and one by one, wicks are lit until every adult and every child old enough is carrying a lit candle. Led by the main clergy, the faithful go outside in procession, and the sub-deacons will stay behind to quickly switch the décor from black to white. The priest or bishop who heads the Church will lead the faithful around the Church three times, before returning to knock on the doors, which the sub-deacon opens when the priest calls out:
“Lift up your heads, O you gates; and be lifted up, you everlasting doors; and the King of Glory shall come in.”
The clergy and faithful re-enter the Church which is now adorned in white and lilies and luminous with light, singing the Paschal Troparian at the top of their lungs:
“Christ is risen from the dead,
trampling down death by death,
and upon those in the tombs
The Paschal liturgy commences and Holy Communion—withheld for forty days and nights—is given. The priest reads from a text inviting all the faithful, whether or not they have fasted, to partake of the Body and Blood of Christ, for it is Pascha, and He is Risen, and none shall be turned away on this glorious night.
After the liturgy comes the feast and most of the faithful stay at the Church till 3 or 4 a.m. before returning home, to rest until a brief afternoon service on Pascha Sunday. The joy felt in the air during these services is contagious to all who partake of them.
For forty days after Pascha until Ascension, the faithful will sing “Christ is risen” (Paschal Troparian) several times a day, and every service will feature the Paschal hymns. Pascha is the highlight of the Orthodox year and the Feast of Feasts, the most significant of all the services, surpassing even the Nativity. It is the promise of the Resurrection and Eternal Life, the knowledge and reassurance that death has been defeated and that one day, Christ will return as He has promised and Everlasting Peace and joy shall reign in His Kingdom forevermore.
The Paschal service is one that should be experienced by all Christians at least once in their lifetime. As the hymn goes, it is “A Pascha of beauty, a great Pascha, a Pascha which is Christ the Redeemer, a Pascha worthy of all honour, the Pascha of the Lord.”