By Igumen Gregory (Valentine)
Recently I was asked this question: "Why do we use the word 'pascha' to describe this present feast of the church? What does it mean and why is it so important to us Orthodox Christians?" Let me address the answer now so that all can hear and reflect upon the richness of this feast.
The New Testament teaches us that the final three days, culminating in the resurrection of Jesus, which Pascha celebrates, is the foundation of the Christian Faith. The resurrection established Jesus as the powerful Son of God and is cited as proof that God will judge the world in righteousness. But it was necessary that Christ should undergo the events of Great Friday and remain in the tomb on Holy Saturday in order for God to give Christians "a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead". Christians, through faith in the working of God are spiritually resurrected with Jesus so that they may walk in a new way of life. But like Christ we too must endure difficulties, illnesses and crosses in order to die with Christ that we might live with Christ.
Pascha, which is the Greek form of the Hebrew word Pesach or Passover, is linked to the Passover and Exodus from Egypt as recorded in the Old Testament and recounted in ritual read at the Seder Meal. In the New Testament the Mystical Supper, held on Thursday evening, and the Crucifixion of Christ that preceded the Resurrection are re-presented liturgically at the Divine Liturgy. Passover is for both the Jewish people and for the Christians, then a series of events stretching over a period of time, which find fulfillment in a remarkable conclusion. For the Jews it was the forty year wandering in the desert, finally arriving at the Promised Land of Canaan and ritually celebrated for 8 days. For Christians we begin our preparation during the 40 days of the Great Lent, which then flows into the mixture of joy and immense sorrow of the Holy and Great Week. The Paschal Feast itself reaches its high point in the Resurrection Services, and has an extended celebration for 50 days, culminating in the Ascension of Christ into heaven and His subsequent sending of the All Holy Spirit from His Father in the form of fiery tongues upon His Holy Apostles and the entire new creation, the Holy Orthodox Church. The final days of the Paschal season is celebrated on Pentecost, (Greek for 50) Sunday, also called Troitsa or Sunday of the Trinity.
Both Christians and Jews observe events which are celebrated in a ritualized meal that seeks to express in time that which is timeless, doing so in order to recall the care of God for His People. According to the New Testament, Jesus gave the pre-Passover meal a new meaning, as he prepared himself and his disciples for his death by a special meal in the upper room during the Mystical Supper. He gave the sanctified loaf of bread and cup of wine as His Body soon to be sacrificed and His Blood soon to be shed. St. Paul states, "Get rid of the old yeast that you may be a new batch without yeast--as you really are. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed"; this quote refers to the Passover requirement to have no yeast in the house and to the allegory of Jesus as the paschal lamb. One interpretation in the Gospel of John is that Jesus, as the Passover lamb, was crucified at roughly the same time as the Passover lambs were being slain in the temple, on the afternoon of the 14th of Nisan, roughly equivalent to early to mid April in our calendar. The scriptural instructions specify that the lamb is to be slain "between the two evenings", that is, at twilight. Christ was taken down from the cross some time after 3 PM on that Great Friday.
Unlike the Old Testament Passover, which is celebrated annually, our Paschal Feast is to be done again and again in His Memory, which we do at every Divine Liturgy. Once a year we give the Feast a special emphasis during Holy Week and the Bright Resurrection. This is, par excellence, the Great Paschal Mystery. The high point occurs at the Holy Saturday Liturgy, the event in which often catechumens receive their final instruction and then are admitted into the Church through the Rites of Christian Initiation, which include Baptism, Chrismation, and Holy Communion. Carried out in the context of this service, in a most dramatic sense they do mystically die and then rise with Christ. I have experienced the joy of this Holy Saturday Initiation Rite a number of times during my years as a priest. What a blessing it has been!
Perhaps the most notable reason why few contemporary Orthodox Christians are really able to make the connection to the Passover of the Old Testament, is because they seldom, if ever, have attended the Holy Saturday Divine Liturgy. If one were to attend that Liturgy one would hear 15 lessons from the Old Testament that prefigure Christ in the lives of various persons and in the events of the first passover before the Jewish people were delivered from Egypt under the leadership of Moses, who is a prefigurement of Christ the Liberator. It is preeminently in this Liturgical Rite that the passover is so clearly and richly presented. It takes about one hour to read and listen to these lessons, which then lead into the epistle of St. Paul who declares Christ to be our new Passover, followed by the reading of the Gospel of St. Matthew which announces Christ’s Resurrection from the dead, coupled to the Eucharistic Sacrifice, our new Pascha in deed. The combination of all these lessons, while admittedly lengthy, nevertheless, is so worth while for our deeper understanding of the Paschal Mystery, as we recount its unfolding for the Jews in one way, and for us in another and more perfect Way. The Fathers tell us that the New Testament is hidden within the Old Testament, and the Old Testament is fulfilled in the New. Hence the Orthodox Church maintains a point of contact with the Old Testament community in terms of the Scriptures that we read along with the Gospels, Epistles, Acts of the Apostles, and the Book of Revelation, which together form the New Testament.
But as was stated earlier, we are not limited to just this time in our liturgical calendar. In a real sense, Pascha is observed by Orthodox Christians whenever we gather to celebrate the Divine Liturgy, and, in deed, in every major Sacrament of the Church. What a great blessing we have received as a Gift from our Risen Lord!
Today we remember the Holy Myrrh bearers, this being the 3rd Sunday of Pascha. Let us now unite ourselves today with these women and men who were with Christ during His final hours on the first Great Friday, and who were then rewarded by being among the first to greet the Risen Lord. They sought a dead body to anoint but encountered the Risen Lord Jesus. In the Paschal Canon we sing during Matins of Pascha: "Why do you seek the living among the dead, why do you seek the Incorrupt amid corruption? Go, tell His apostles that He is Risen as He foretold." May we too do the same today as we proclaim:
CHRIST IS RISEN! INDEED, HE IS RISEN!