Beloved Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
Our observance of the Great Fast continues to lead us on the path that leads to our
celebration of the Great and Holy Pascha of Christ. In the days and weeks ahead,
we will join together in prayer – especially during Holy Week – and will receive
from the richness of our liturgical heritage as Orthodox Christians.
It is my hope and prayer that, through our common observance of Holy Week and Pascha,
each one of us as, both individuals and as members of the Church, will enter more
fully, with greater understanding and with greater appreciation into the week that
celebrates what we already live every day of the year, that which transforms our
lives: the mystery of our salvation through the Passion, Death, and Resurrection
of Jesus Christ.
Already looking ahead, I ask you to think of the great moment of the proclamation
of the Resurrection. Having processed around the church in the darkness of the night,
holding lighted candles in our hands, we will arrive at the moment we have waited
for a prepared for throughout the season of Great Lent. Standing at the closed doors
of the church, filled with anticipation, we are ready to proclaim the central news
of the Gospel—the Good News that Christ is risen. At that moment the Paschal service
begins with praise of the All- Holy Trinity “Glory to the Holy, Undivided, and Life-creating
Trinity,” and then the assembled Church sings the great and bold proclamation of
the Feast: Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon
those in the tombs bestowing life!
The joy of this moment is still made even greater for those who have observed the
Fast and those who have walked with Christ through His last saving days and accompanied
Him on His own salvific pilgrimage. Those who have participated in the life and
worship of the Church throughout the Great Forty Days, those who have kept the fast,
those who have sacrificed for the sake of others and reached out in love and charity
to those in need, those who have entered into prayer and deepened their relationship
with Christ through prayer—all these experience the joy in a real, tangible way.
However, we do not become proud in what we have accomplished and we not “hold it
over the heads” of those who have come late to the feast—as St John Chrysostom says
in his Paschal Homily, even those who arrive to the feast at the twelfth hour are
welcomed and given a place at the festal table of Pascha.
As I do every year, I again ask you to plan your work, school, and family schedules
around the Holy Week and Pascha Liturgies and Services. Your participation, and
the sacrifices you make to be present and participate in these celebrations, will
be richly rewarded.
With love in the Lord,
Great and Holy Saturday
Great and Holy Saturday is the day on which Christ reposed in the tomb. The Church
calls this day the Blessed Sabbath.
“The great Moses mystically foreshadowed this day when he said:
God blessed the seventh
This is the blessed Sabbath
This is the day of rest,
on which the only-begotten
Son of God rested from all His works....”
(Vesperal Liturgy of Holy Saturday)
By using this title the Church links Holy Saturday with the creative act of God.
In the initial account of creation as found in the Book of Genesis, God made man
in His own image and likeness. To be truly himself, man was to live in constant communion
with the source and dynamic power of that image: God. Man fell from God. Now Christ,
the Son of God through whom all things were created, has come to restore man to communion
with God. He thereby completes creation. All things are again as they should be.
His mission is consummated. On the Blessed Sabbath He rests from all His works.
Holy Saturday is a neglected day in parish life. Few people attend the Services.
Popular piety usually reduces Holy Week to one day—Holy Friday. This day is quickly
replaced by another—Easter Sunday. Christ is dead and then suddenly alive. Great
sorrow is suddenly replaced by great joy. In such a scheme Holy Saturday is lost.
In the understanding of the Church, sorrow is not replaced by joy; it is transformed
into joy. This distinction indicates that it is precisely within death that Christ
continues to effect triumph.
TRAMPLING DOWN DEATH BY DEATH
We sing that Christ is “...trampling down death by death” in the troparion of Easter.
This phrase gives great meaning to Holy Saturday. Christ’s repose in the tomb is
an “active” repose. He comes in search of His fallen friend, Adam, who represents
all men. Not finding him on earth, he descends to the realm of death, known as Hades
in the Old Testament. There He finds him and brings him life once again. This is
the victory: the dead are given life. The tomb is no longer a forsaken, lifeless
place. By His death Christ tramples down death by death.
THE ICON OF THE DESCENT INTO HADES
The traditional icon used by the Church on the feast of Easter is an icon of Holy
Saturday: the descent of Christ into Hades. It is a painting of theology, for no
one has ever seen this event. It depicts Christ, radiant in hues of white and blue,
standing on the shattered gates of Hades. With arms outstretched He is joining hands
with Adam and all the other Old Testament righteous whom He has found there. He leads
them from the kingdom of death. By His death He tramples death.
“Today Hades cries out groaning:
I should not have accepted the Man born of Mary.
came and destroyed my power.
He shattered the gates of brass.
As God, He raised the
souls I had held captive.
Glory to Thy cross and resurrection, O Lord!”
of Holy Saturday)
THE VESPERAL LITURGY
The Vespers of Holy Saturday inaugurates the Paschal celebration, for the liturgical
cycle of the day always begins in the evening. In the past, this service constituted
the first part of the great Paschal vigil during which the catechumens were baptized
in the “baptisterion” and led in procession back into the church for participation
in their first Divine Liturgy, the Paschal Eucharist. Later, with the number of catechumens
increasing, the first baptismal part of the Paschal celebration was disconnected
from the liturgy of the Paschal night and formed our pre-paschal service: Vespers
and the Liturgy of St Basil the Great which follows it. It still keeps the marks
of the early celebration of Pascha as baptismal feast and that of Baptism as Paschal
sacrament (death and resurrection with Jesus Christ—Romans 6).
On “Lord I Call” the Saturday Resurrectional stichiras of Tone 1 are sung, followed
by the the special stichiras of Holy Saturday, which stress the death of Christ as
descent into Hades, the region of death, for its destruction. But the pivotal point
of the service occurs after the Entrance, when fifteen lessons from the Old Testament
are read, all centered on the promise of the Resurrection, all glorifying the ultimate
Victory of God, prophesied in the victorious Song of Moses after the crossing of
the Red Sea (“Let us sing to the Lord, for gloriously has He been glorified”), the
salvation of Jonah, and that of the three youths in the furnace.
Then the epistle is read, the same epistle that is still read at Baptism (Romans
6:3-11), in which Christ’s death and resurrection become the source of the death
in us of the “old man,” the resurrection of the new, whose life is in the Risen Lord.
During the special verses sung after the epistle, “Arise, O God, and judge the earth,”
the dark lenten vestments are put aside and the clergy vest in the bright white ones,
so that when the celebrant appears with the Gospel the light of Resurrection is truly
made visible in us, the “Rejoice” with which the Risen Christ greeted the women at
the grave is experienced as being directed at us.
The Liturgy of St Basil continues in this white and joyful light, revealing the Tomb
of Christ as the Life-giving Tomb, introducing us into the ultimate reality of Christ’s
Resurrection, communicating His life to us, the children of fallen Adam.
One can and must say that of all services of the Church that are inspiring, meaningful,
revealing, this one: the Vespers and Liturgy of St Basil the Great and Holy Saturday
is truly the liturgical climax of the Church. If one opens one’s heart and mind to
it and accepts its meaning and its light, the very truth of Orthodoxy is given by
it, the taste and the joy of that new life which shines forth from the grave.
Rev. Alexander Schmemann
HOLY PASCHA: The Resurrection of Our Lord
Enjoy ye all the feast of faith; receive ye all the riches of loving-kindness.
of St John Chrysostom, read at Paschal Matins)
The resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is the center of the Christian faith.
St 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! St 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, 0 Christ.
Today I arise with Thee in Thy resurrection.
I was crucified with Thee:
Glorify me with Thee, 0 Savior, in Thy kingdom (Ode 3,
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, 0 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,
0 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 St 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
Let us call “brothers” even those who hate us,
And forgive all by the resurrection.
The sermon of St 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.
0 Christ, great and most holy Pascha.
0 Wisdom, Word and Power of God,
grant that we
may more perfectly partake of Thee in the never-ending day of Thy kingdom
Ode, Paschal Canon).
The V. Rev. Paul Lazor
New York, 1977