Saturday, April 30, 2011

Visiting Orthodox Pascha

Ever since I read Frederica Matthews Greene's account of the Orthodox Pascha (Easter) service, I've been intrigued. Earlier this year I visited my first Orthodox service in English, and since I rather like the church and it's close by, I talked Isaac into visiting with me for the Pascha service. He almost backed out last minute since the service starts at 11:30 pm on Saturday night before Easter, but in the end we went with Judah and our house-mate Steph.
I wanted to see Pascha because it's so unique. Holy week is filled with services and ancient liturgy and everything that we saw was a mystery to us and the chanting was soft enough that it was hard to make out the words in the packed church. It took my own research afterwards to understand what I'd see. I think I might have this right... but I may have some details confused.

So... on Friday an "epitaphion" or burial shroud that is (I think) either embroidered with the image of Christ and/or an icon of Christ is brought out and placed in "the grave". This whole set up is brought in a solemn burial procession around the church.  This is of course in a service filled with liturgy. I've been to "Dark Friday" service at a Lutheran church and it is powerful and moving, but I haven't been to the Orthodox Friday service. I've pulled photos from a local orthodox photographer's public flikr account - they are all linked directly to his account and you can see more by clicking on any of them. However, you can see the photos of the church we were at by looking at the slideshow here. My husband is actually in the background of one of the pictures.

Great & Holy Friday 2010

On Holy Saturday they meet, there are baptisms, liturgy, etc. There is an all-night vigil, which is what was ending when we walked in. A back corner of the church was littered with sleeping bags and children and mothers keeping the fray in check. I absolutely love that the whole family is involved in the celebration.

Shortly before Midnight, the Orthodox community (and some "adventurers" like us) pack out the church for the most important celebration of the whole year. Keep in mind that they've been fasting (essentially a vegan diet) for 40 days, and fasting with nothing to eat this whole day. The Church is darkened and a "Resurrection Nocturn" is chanted. It's all symbolic of that day of hopelessness, when Christ was in the grave and all was dark. When the Nocturn was finished, the church was silent and dark as we waited for midnight, when the priest came out from the alter with a lit candle symbolizing the light of the Risen Christ.

Pascha has begun.

That candle lights other candles until light fills the church, and the icon/burial thingy is brought in a procession of light with the entire congregation walking around the church three times, chanting as they go.  In our case it was crazy windy and all the candles were out by the time the procession ended.

They stop at the door and sing a triumphant Paschal hymn, of which we could make out the repeated, "Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life."

At that point we headed home because we had our own church to attend in a few hours and we have a little alarm clock who keeps us up on his schedule, and we didn't want to keep him out too long. However, the congregation re-entered the church and sang the Paschal Canon. This is a joyous celebration - the clergy's clothes are bright, the candles still lit, and the songs are celebratory. When the liturgy is finished they break fast and head to the Pascal Banquet. While we were there people were bringing in bags of food and setting them aside for the feast.


I was struck by many things. I wondered how many of the congregation were Russian, how many were converts, and how many attend only on Pascha. I wondered how in the world those Russian women wear three-inch heels and stand for hours!

And, as always, I wonder at both the beauty of the ancient liturgy and wonder how often it is ignored because it is so normal to the Orthodox. The liturgy that was being chanted while I was there was supposedly written by St. John of Damascus, who was born in 674 AD. This bit struck me:

He Who redeemed the Children from the furnace, and became man and suffered as mortal, and through suffering clothed mortality with the beauty of incorruption, is the only blessed and most glorious God of our fathers.
Christ is risen from the dead!
We celebrate the death of death, the annihilation of hell, the beginning of another eternal life. And in ecstasy we hymn the Cause, the only blessed and most glorious God of our fathers.
Christ is risen from the dead!

It's all completely different than my mega-church. That's why I love, it actually. I like experiencing both at once, they remind me of different things, but both preach the gospel and bring me to tears.


Nicholas said...

How wonderful! I experienced my first Orthodox Pascha this year, as well. I hope you will return for Pentecost Sunday.

BTW: The Liturgy was probably St. John Chrysostom's, not St. John of Damascus. It is a revised version of the Divine Liturgy of St. Basil, which is a revised version of the Greek version of the Divine Liturgy of St. James the brother of the Lord.

Kacie said...

Well, on Orthodox wiki it said that the liturgy that is sung just after reentering the church is St. John of Damascus, with the paschal troparion? Not sure where the troparion is from. It's all interwoven anyways, so I'm not sure which part is Chrysostom and what's from somewhere else!