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11. The Feast of Pascha.


The word Pascha means "passover" or "deliverance" in Hebrew. The Jews, in celebrating the Old Testament passover, commemorated the liberation of their forebears from Egyptian slavery. Christians, on the other hand, in celebrating the New Testament Pascha, celebrate the deliverance through Jesus Christ of the entire human race from slavery to the Devil and His granting to us life and eternal blessedness. Due to the blessings which we have received through the Resurrection of Christ, Pascha is the feast of feasts and the triumph of triumphs, and therefore its divine services are distinguished by magnificence and an exceptionally solemn rejoicing.

Long before midnight the faithful in bright and festal clothing stream into the churches and reverently await the approaching Paschal Festival. The clergy are vested in their brightest garments. Prior to the actual moment of midnight, festive bells peal out the announcement of the coming of the great moment of the light-bearing Feast of the Resurrection of Christ. The entire clergy with crosses, candles and incense come out of the Altar and together with the people, like the Myrrhbear-ers who went very early to the tomb, circle the church and chant, "Thy Resurrection, O Christ Saviour, the angels hymn in the heavens; vouchsafe also us on earth with pure hearts to glorify Thee." During this procession, from the heights of the bell tower, as if from Heaven, there pours forth the Paschal peal. All those who have come to pray walk with lit candles, thus expressing their joy of soul in the radiant feast.

The procession pauses at the closed western doors of the church, as if at the opening to the Tomb of Christ. Here the highest ranking priest, like the angel who proclaimed the Resurrection of Christ to the Myrrhbearers at the tomb, is the first to proclaim the joyous verse, "Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and on those in the tombs bestowing life." This verse is thrice repeated by the clergy and the choir.

Then the presiding clergyman proclaims the verses of the ancient prophecy of the holy King David, "Let God arise and let His enemies be scattered...," and all respond in answer to each verse of the psalm with, "Christ is risen from the dead...."

The doors are opened, and the congregation, as once did the Myrrhbearers and the Apostles, enters into the church, resplendent with the light of candles and lamps, and chants joyously, "Christ is risen from the dead...!"

The Resurrection Matins consist primarily of the Paschal canon of St. John of Damascus. Each ode of this canon concludes with the victorious hymn, "Christ is risen from the dead." During the chanting of the canon each of the clergy in turn, holding the cross with candles and preceded by candle-bearers, go around the entire church censing the risen!" The faithful all respond loudly, "Truly He is risen!" The repeated procession of the clergy from the Altar commemorates the appearances of the Lord to His disciples after the Resurrection.

After chanting the hymn "Ölet us embrace one another. Let us say Brethren, even to them that hate us; let us forgive all things on the Resurrection...," all the faithful begin to greet each other saying, "Christ is risen!," and replying, "Truly He is risen!" They seal this greeting with a kiss and exchange Paschal eggs which serve as a meaningful symbol of the resurrection from the grave, the resurrection of life from its very depths through the power of omnipotent God.

Then the homily of St. John Chrysostom is read which begins with the words, "If any be devout and God-loving, let him enjoy this fair and radiant triumph..." St. John summons all to joy, "Ye rich and ye poor, with one another exult. Ye sober and ye slothful, honor the day. Ye that have kept the fast and ye that have not, be glad today...

"Let no one weep for his transgressions, for forgiveness hath dawned from the tomb. Let no one fear death, for the death of the Saviour hath set us free..."

And finally he solemnly proclaims the eternal victory of Christ over death and hell, "O death, where is thy sting? O hades, where is thy victory? Christ is risen and thou art overthrown. Christ is risen and the demons are fallen. Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice. Christ is risen, and life flourisheth. Christ is risen, and there is none dead in the tombs (for death is not a permanent end now, but only a temporary condition), for Christ being risen from the dead, is become the first-fruits of them that have fallen asleep. To Him be glory and dominion unto the ages of ages. Amen."

Immediately following Matins, the Hours and Liturgy are celebrated with all the doors to the Altar open. They were opened at the beginning of Matins and will not be closed throughout the entire week as a sign that Jesus Christ has opened the gates to the Heavenly Kingdom forever. At the Liturgy the first section from the Gospel of St. John the Theologian is read, which begins with the words, In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God..., which is a description of the divinity of our Redeemer. If the Liturgy is concele-brated by many priests, then the Gospel is read in several languages as a sign that the "proclamation" concerning the Lord "went forth" unto all the people on earth.

Before the conclusion of the Liturgy the blessing of the Paschal bread, the Artos, is performed. It is distributed to the faithful on Bright Saturday following Liturgy, as a Paschal blessing.

Immediately after the Paschal Liturgy, and sometimes between Matins and the Liturgy, the Paschal bread, cheese, eggs and meat for the Paschal meals of the faithful are blessed.

After each Liturgy of Bright Week the Cross of Christ, accompanied by the ringing of bells, is carried in triumph around the church. Indeed, all during the week bells are rung as often as possible. It all serves to express the joy of the faithful and to celebrate the victory of Jesus Christ over death and hell. To emphasize this joy the Holy Fathers instituted the rule that kneeling and prostrations are forbidden in church from the first day of Pascha until the Vespers on Pentecost.

The presiding priest celebrates Vespers on the first day of Pascha in his best vestments. After the Vespers entry with the Gospel, the Gospel passage is read which describes the appearance of Jesus Christ to the Apostles on the evening of the first day of His resurrection from the dead (John 29:19-25).

On the first Tuesday after Bright Week, in order to share the joy of the Resurrection of Christ with the reposed and in the hope of the universal resurrection, the Church holds a special remembrance of the dead. After the Liturgy a general Service of Remembrance and Intercession, or Pannykhida, is said, and following a custom of the early Church, the faithful visit the graves of their relatives on this day.

Paschal chanting is used in the church until the feast of the Ascension of the Lord, which is celebrated on the fortieth day after Pascha.

The Feast of Pentecost: The Day of the Holy Trinity.

The Feast of the Holy Trinity is termed Pentecost because the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles occurred on the fiftieth day after the Resurrection of Christ. The feast of the Christian Pentecost includes two celebrations, one in honor of the All-holy Trinity and the other in honor of the All-holy Spirit, which visibly descended upon the Apostles and sealed the new eternal testament of God with mankind.

The first day of Pentecost, always a Sunday, the Church dedicates primarily to the glory of the All-holy Trinity; hence this day is popularly known as Trinity Day. The second day is dedicated to the glory of the All-holy Spirit, and therefore it is known as Spirit Day.

In celebrating the Holy Spirit the Church begins with the usual Vespers service on Trinity Day. During this service three compunction-ate prayers written by St. Basil the Great are read while the entire congregation kneels. In them we confess our sins before the Heavenly Father and, for the sake of the great sacrifice of His Son, we implore mercy. We also ask the Lord Jesus Christ to grant us the Divine Spirit, unto the enlightenment and confirmation of our souls. Finally, we pray for our deceased fathers and brethren, that the Lord might grant them repose in a place of light and refreshment.

It is customary on this feast day to adorn the church building and oneís home with tree branches and flowers and to stand in church holding flowers. This adornment of home and church with living plants is both a confession of the vivifying power of the life-creating Spirit and a dutiful consecration to Him of the first fruits of spring.

Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross of the Lord.

The divine services of this day differ from others in that at the end of the Great Doxology at the All-night Vigil, as the Trisagion is being chanted, the presiding priest takes the Holy Cross, adorned with flowers, from the Altar Table and lifts it over his head. Preceded by candles, he goes out of the Altar through the north door. He stands before the Royal Gates and from there, with the exclamation, "Wisdom, let us attend!" carries the Cross to the center of the church and places it upon an analogion.

The troparion to the Cross, "Save, O Lord, Thy people...," is chanted while the priest, together with the deacon, completes a threefold censing of the Cross. Then all those serving venerate the Cross with three prostrations while the verse, "Before Thy Cross, we bow down, O Master, and Thy Holy Resurrection we glorify!" is chanted. The faithful then come forward, make prostrations, and kiss the Cross. During this veneration the choir chants verses explaining and honoring the Crucifixion of Christ.

At the Liturgy the Trisagion is replaced with the hymn, "Before Thy Cross...," and St. Paulís Epistle concerning the Cross, which for those spiritually perishing is foolishness, but for those being saved is the power of God, is read. The Gospel of the day discusses the Crucifixion of Christ. Due to the commemoration of the sufferings and death of the Lord, this day is appointed to be kept as a strict fast.

This feast commemorates the finding of the Precious and Life-giving Cross of the Lord by the Equal-of-the-Apostles, Empress Helen (326 A.D.). From the seventh century this day was also considered the commemoration of the return of the Life-giving Cross from the Persians by the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius (629 A.D.). At both the finding and the return of the Cross, the Patriarch of Constantinople, in order to give the faithful gathered to celebrate the event an opportunity to see the hallowed object, raised the Cross aloft and turned it to all four directions, during which the congregation reverently prostrated themselves crying out, "Lord, have mercy."

Feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord.

The divine services of this feast are special in that at the end of the Liturgy grapes and fruit, which have been brought to the church by the faithful, are blessed.

This feast is selected for the blessing of fruit because in Jerusalem, from whence our typicon is derived, grapes ripen at this time and thus they are especially set out to be blessed. The church, by blessing the fruit, teaches us that all things in a holy community must be consecrated to God as His creation.

Feast of the Nativity of Christ.

The Christian Church annually celebrates the great event of the Nativity of Christ on the twenty-fifth of December (O.S.). In order to more worthily celebrate, the faithful prepare with a forty-day fast called the Nativity or Philipís fast, lasting from the fifteenth of November until the twenty-fourth of December. The eve of the feast is kept with an especially strict fast. Special food is set out only at the end of the day, consisting mainly of boiled wheat with honey or other lenten dishes, depending on the custom.

On the eve of the feast, if it does not occur on a Saturday or Sunday, the Royal Hours are served, and around noon the Liturgy of St. Basil the Great with Vespers. On the feast day itself, the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom is celebrated.

The Hours which are served on the eve of the Nativity of Christ are distinguished by the fact that Old Testament readings are included as well as readings from the Epistle and Gospel. Therefore, to distinguish them from the usual services of the Hours they are termed Royal Hours. This designation also refers to the custom in the Byzantine Empire of the Emperor being present for them.

After the Liturgy a candle is placed in the center of the church behind the icon of the feast, and the clergy chant the troparion of the feast, "Thy Nativity, O Christ our God, hath shined upon the world the light of knowledge; for thereby they that worshipped the stars were taught by a star to worship Thee, the Sun of Righteousness, and to know Thee, the Dayspring from on high. O Lord, glory be to Thee."Yhis is followed by the kontakion of the feast: "Today the Virgin giveth birth to Him Who is transcendent in essence; and the earth offer-eth a cave to Him Who is unapproachable. Angels with shepherds give glory; with a star the Magi do journey; for our sake a young Child is born, Who is pre-eternal God."

If the eve falls on a Saturday or Sunday, the Royal Hours are read on Friday. On the eve itself the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom is served, followed by Vespers. The glorification of Christ occurs after Vespers. The fast, which is required by the Typicon, is waived in this instance so that after the Liturgy, before the evening, one is permitted to eat a small amount of bread.

The All-night Vigil begins with Great Compline in which the triumphant hymn of Isaiah is chanted, "God is with us, understand, O ye nations and submit yourselves, for God is with us!" The frequent repetition of "God is with us!" expresses the spiritual joy of the faithful who recognize the presence of God-Emmanuel among them. The content of the remainder of the service can be expressed by the initial irmos from the Matins Canon, "Christ is born, give ye glory; Christ from Heaven, meet ye Him; Christ is on the earth be ye exalted. Sing unto the Lord all the earth, and in gladness sing praises, O people, for He is glorified."

Feast of the Baptism of the Lord.

This feast is also called Theophany because on this day the Most-holy Trinity, and in particular the divinity of the Saviour, Who now solemnly begins His saving service, is manifest.

The feast of the Baptism of the Lord is celebrated in much the same manner as the feast of the Nativity of Christ. On the eve of the feast the Royal Hours, the Liturgy of St. Basil the Great, and an All-night Vigil, beginning with Great Compline are served. The distinguishing feature of this feast is the blessing of water which is performed twice, and termed the Great Blessing of Water, to distinguish it from the Lesser Blessing, which may be performed at any time in the Church year.

The first blessing occurs on the eve of the feast in the church, and the second, on the day of the feast, in the open air near a river, lake or well. In ancient times the first blessing was celebrated for the baptism of catechumens and only later was joined with the commemoration of the Baptism of the Lord. The second probably originated from the ancient practice of Jerusalem Christians who, on the day of the Theo-phany, would go to the Jordan River and there commemorate the Baptism of the Saviour. Therefore, we still term the procession with the Cross on Theophany the "Procession to the Jordan."

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