Saturday, April 26, 2008

In the Last Hours Before Pascha

Resurrection Icon

A few hours from now, I will serve my 14th celebration of the Resurrection of Our Lord, God and Saviour Jesus Christ as an Orthodox clergyman.

The first four of those celebrations was a deacon, the last nine, and this evening's, as a priest. One year, my last year as a deacon as it happened, I actually served two Pascha liturgies—after distrubtuing Holy Communion in one parish, I throw off my vestments, jumped into the car, and was driven to a second parish that also need my help that Sunday.

For the next six celebration of the Lord's Pascha I served as a mission priest. And it was during Holy Week of that proceeded the last of those celebration that my little mission parish collapsed for reasons that are still not clear to me.

But this year, thank, I am looking to the celebration of the Anastasis without anxiety, without the dread that has until this year been my companion in years gone by. The music is different, the rubrics for the service (always a challenge in the Orthodox Church) are mostly the same as what I'm familiar with, except of course where they are different. As for the music—well, I don't know the music the community sings—and I will have to struggle to remember to sing in English (instead of my usual, and rather bad, liturgical Greek).

This evening at Liturgy we'll hear again the words that St Luke uses to begin the Acts of the Apostles:

The former account I made, O Theophilus, of all that Jesus began both to do and teach, until the day in which He was taken up, after He through the Holy Spirit had given commandments to the apostles whom He had chosen, to whom He also presented Himself alive after His suffering by many infallible proofs, being seen by them during forty days and speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God. And being assembled together with them, He commanded them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the Promise of the Father, "which," He said, "you have heard from Me; for John truly baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now. Therefore, when they had come together, they asked Him, saying, "Lord, will You at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?" And He said to them, "It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has put in His own authority. But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth (1.1-8).

And then, immediately following the reading from Acts, the Prologue from the Gospel of St John:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. This man came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all through him might believe. He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light. That was the true Light which gives light to every man coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him. He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him. But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth. John bore witness of Him and cried out, saying, "This was He of whom I said, 'He who comes after me is preferred before me, for He was before me.' " And of His fullness we have all received, and grace for grace. For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ (1.1-17).

Thinking about my past, anxious celebrations, I realize that while I was quite taken by the majesty, the cosmological and the eschatological grandeur of Pascha, I lost sight of the homey, the common, ordinary and familiar face, of the celebration. How easily I allowed the weight of Pascha to overwhelm the lightness and joy of the feast.

What, after all, does it matter if the cosmos is redeemed and I lose sight of the human face of that redemption? Christ is Risen, not for angels, but for humanity. He triumphs over death for no other reason than His love for humanity. He contests with death out of His love for my neighbor and yours. It is for your sake and mine that He lay three days in the tomb and descended into Hell.

Lose sight of the human reason for Pascha, and you lose sight of the very story that St Luke offers as the second chapter to the Gospel. If we lose sight of the human reason, the human face of Pascha and how can we stand in the Presence of the Risen Christ with anything other than anxiety and worse, the sick dread that has been so often my companion on past Pascha?

The great and surpassing joy of Pascha is that Christ's resurrection embraces not some abstraction called "humanity," but rather the lives of the ordinary men and women we meet, I meet, everyday. If I cannot see with joy the faces of these people, how can I hope to see Divine Joy in the icons and music of Holy Pascha? To borrow from the Paschal Sermon of St John Chrysostom—that like every other Orthodox priest I will read tonight:

Wherefore, enter ye all into the joy of your Lord;

Receive your reward,

Both the first, and likewise the second.

You rich and poor together, hold high festival!

You sober and you heedless, honour the day!

Rejoice today, both you who have fasted

And you who have disregarded the fast.

The table is full-laden; feast ye all sumptuously.

The calf is fatted; let no one go hungry away.

Enjoy ye all the feast of faith:

Receive ye all the riches of loving-kindness.


Christ is risen, and Death is overthrown!

Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen!

Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice!

Christ is risen, and life reigns!

Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave.

For Christ, being risen from the dead,

Is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.

Christ is Risen! Indeed He is Risen!

In the Risen Lord Jesus Christ,

+Fr Gregory