HOLY PASCHA: The Resurrection of Our Lord
Commemorated on April 16
Enjoy ye all the feast of faith; receive ye all the riches of loving-kindness.
(Sermon of Saint John Chrysostom, read at Paschal Matins)
The resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is the center of the Christian faith.
Saint Paul says that if Christ is not raised from the dead, then our preaching and
faith are in vain (I Cor. 15:14). Indeed, without the resurrection there would be
no Christian preaching or faith. The disciples of Christ would have remained the
broken and hopeless band which the Gospel of John describes as being in hiding behind
locked doors for fear of the Jews. They went nowhere and preached nothing until they
met the risen Christ, the doors being shut (John 20: 19). Then they touched the wounds
of the nails and the spear; they ate and drank with Him. The resurrection became
the basis of everything they said and did (Acts 2-4): “. . . for a spirit has not
flesh and bones as you see that I have” (Luke 24:39).
The resurrection reveals Jesus of Nazareth as not only the expected Messiah of Israel,
but as the King and Lord of a new Jerusalem: a new heaven and a new earth.
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth. . . the holy city, new Jerusalem. And I
heard a great voice from the throne saying “Behold, the dwelling place of God is
with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people. . . He will wipe
away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there
be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away
In His death and resurrection, Christ defeats the last enemy, death, and thereby
fulfills the mandate of His Father to subject all things under His feet (I Cor. 15:24-26).
Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might
and honor and glory and blessing (Rev. 5: 12)
THE FEAST OF FEASTS
The Christian faith is celebrated in the liturgy of the Church. True celebration
is always a living participation. It is not a mere attendance at services. It is
communion in the power of the event being celebrated. It is God’s free gift of joy
given to spiritual men as a reward for their self-denial. It is the fulfillment of
spiritual and physical effort and preparation. The resurrection of Christ, being
the center of the Christian faith, is the basis of the Church’s liturgical life and
the true model for all celebration. This is the chosen and holy day, first of sabbaths,
king and lord of days, the feast of feasts, holy day of holy days. On this day we
bless Christ forevermore (Irmos 8, Paschal Canon).
Twelve weeks of preparation precede the “feast of feasts.” A long journey which includes
five prelenten Sundays, six weeks of Great Lent and finally Holy Week is made. The
journey moves from the self-willed exile of the prodigal son to the grace-filled
entrance into the new Jerusalem, coming down as a bride beautifully adorned for her
husband (Rev. 21:2) Repentance, forgiveness, reconciliation, prayer, fasting, almsgiving,
and study are the means by which this long journey is made.
Focusing on the veneration of the Cross at its midpoint, the lenten voyage itself
reveals that the joy of the resurrection is achieved only through the Cross. “Through
the cross joy has come into all the world,” we sing in one paschal hymn. And in the
paschal troparion, we repeat again and again that Christ has trampled down death—by
death! Saint Paul writes that the name of Jesus is exalted above every name because
He first emptied Himself, taking on the lowly form of a servant and being obedient
even to death on the Cross (Phil. 2:5-11). The road to the celebration of the resurrection
is the self-emptying crucifixion of Lent. Pascha is the passover from death to life.
Yesterday I was buried with Thee, O Christ.
Today I arise with Thee in Thy resurrection.
Yesterday I was crucified with Thee:
Glorify me with Thee, O Savior, in Thy kingdom (Ode 3, Paschal Canon).
The divine services of the night of Pascha commence near midnight of Holy Saturday.
At the Ninth Ode of the Canon of Nocturn, the priest, already vested in his brightest
robes, removes the Holy Shroud from the tomb and carries it to the altar table, where
it remains until the leave-taking of Pascha. The faithful stand in darkness. Then,
one by one, they light their candles from the candle held by the priest and form
a great procession out of the church. Choir, servers, priest and people, led by the
bearers of the cross, banners, icons and Gospel book, circle the church. The bells
are rung incessantly and the angelic hymn of the resurrection is chanted.
The procession comes to a stop before the principal doors of the church. Before the
closed doors the priest and the people sing the troparion of Pascha, “Christ is risen
from the dead...”, many times. Even before entenng the church the priest and people
exchange the paschal greeting: “Christ is risen! Indeed He is risen!” This segment
of the paschal services is extremely important. It preserves in the expenence of
the Church the primitive accounts of the resurrection of Christ as recorded in the
Gospels. The angel rolled away the stone from the tomb not to let a biologically
revived but physically entrapped Christ walk out, but to reveal that “He is not here;
for He has risen, as He said” (Matt. 28:6).
In the paschal canon we sing:
Thou didst arise, O Christ, and yet the tomb remained sealed, as at Thy birth the
Virgin’s womb remained unharmed; and Thou has opened for us the gates of paradise
Finally, the procession of light and song in the darkness of night, and the thunderous
proclamation that, indeed, Christ is risen, fulfill the words of the Evangelist John:
“The light shines in darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5).
The doors are opened and the faithful re-enter. The church is bathed in light and
adorned with flowers. It is the heavenly bride and the symbol of the empty tomb:
Bearing life and more fruitful than paradise
Brighter than any royal chamber,
Thy tomb, O Christ, is the fountain or our resurrection (Paschal Hours).
Matins commences immediately. The risen Christ is glorified in the singing of the
beautiful canon of Saint John of Damascus. The paschal greeting is repeatedly exchanged.
Near the end of Matins the paschal verses are sung. They relate the entire narrative
of the Lord’s resurrection. They conclude with the words calling us to actualize
among each other the forgiveness freely given to all by God:
This is the day of resurrection.
Let us be illumined by the feast.
Let us embrace each other.
Let us call “brothers” even those who hate us,
And forgive all by the resurrection. . .
The sermon of Saint John Chrysostom is then read by the celebrant. The sermon was
originally composed as a baptismal instruction. It is retained by the Church in the
paschal services because everything about the night of Pascha recalls the Sacrament
of Baptism: the language and general terminology of the liturgical texts, the specific
hymns, the vestment color, the use of candles and the great procession itself. Now
the sermon invites us to a great reaffirmation of our baptism: to union with Christ
in the receiving of Holy Communion.
If any man is devout and loves God, let him enjoy this fair and radiant triumphal
feast. . . the table is fully laden; feast you all sumptuously. . . the calf is fatted,
let no one go hungry away. . .
THE DIVINE LITURGY
The sermon announces the imminent beginning of the Divine Liturgy. The altar table
is fully laden with the divine food: the Body and Blood of the risen and glorified
Christ. No one is to go away hungry. The service books are very specific in saying
that only he who partakes of the Body and Blood of Christ eats the true Pascha. The
Divine Liturgy, therefore, normally follows immediately after paschal Matins. Foods
from which the faithful have been asked to abstain during the lenten journey are
blessed and eaten only after the Divine Liturgy.
THE DAY WITHOUT EVENING
Pascha is the inauguration of a new age. It reveals the mystery of the eighth day.
It is our taste, in this age, of the new and unending day of the Kingdom of God.
Something of this new and unending day is conveyed to us in the length of the paschal
services, in the repetition of the paschal order for all the services of Bright Week,
and in the special paschal features retained in the services for the forty days until
Ascension. Forty days are, as it were, treated as one day. Together they comprise
the symbol of the new time in which the Church lives and toward which she ever draws
the faithful, from one degree of glory to another.
O Christ, great and most holy Pascha.
O Wisdom, Word and Power of God,
grant that we may more perfectly partake of Thee in the never-ending day of Thy kingdom
(Ninth Ode, Paschal Canon).
The V. Rev. Paul Lazor
New York, 1977