CHRIST — THE NEW PASSOVER
by Valentina Zander
Holy Pascha — The Midnight Service
Since the very dawn of Christianity, the faithful have spent Easter night in church. According to the historian Eusebius, the Emperor Constantine the Great turned this holy night into exultant day, high pillars were lit all over the city, like fiery votive lamps so that this mysterious night became brighter than the brightest day.
At 8 o’clock in the evening in front of the tomb the reading of the Acts of the Apostles begins. These Acts celebrate the new life, the life of the Church redeemed by the Blood of Christ.
At half-past eleven the choir starts to sing the Canon of Great Saturday “The Children of the Saved”, but now these mysterious words sound quite different. No longer is there sorrow, the soul catches in them the joyful approach of the Resurrection. During the midnight service the shroud, the image of the dead Christ, is carried into the sanctuary and put on the altar where it stays until the feast of the Ascension — in token of our Risen Saviour’s forty days’ sojourn on earth.
Easter Matins begins at midnight with a solemn procession around the church. The clergy “vested in their brightest array” with cross, Gospel, icons and banners, surrounded by a crowd with lighted candles, to a joyful peal of bells, go out of the church, as if to meet the approaching Saviour, singing: “Angels in heaven sing the praises of Thy Resurrection O Christ our Saviour. Vouchsafe that we too on earth may from pure hearts give Thee glory”. The angelic song is already heard in heaven, but the faithful are still processing in the darkness of night; their hearts, however, are already beating with excitement in anticipation of the joy of the Resurrection that illumines all. When it has gone around the church, the procession stops in front of the locked doors, as if at the entrance to the tomb of the Lord. And now the joyful news rings out: “Christ is Risen from the dead; He has trampled down death by death and given life to those in the tomb”. The doors are opened and all the holy assembly solemnly enter the church, now bright with lights. The singing of the Easter Canon begins. According to the interpretation of the Synaxation (a summing up of the service in a short reading appointed after the sixth canticle of the Canon) the word Pascha (Passover) means a passing over, from not being to being, from hell to heaven, from death and corruption to immortality, which is the original and natural state of man. The canon starts with the glorification of Easter as the passing over of human life to its original source — immortality and eternal life.
Canticle 1. Irmos
“It is the day of Resurrection, O people, let us be enlightened. It is the Passover, the Lord’s Passover”. (That is the Passover into another state of being). “For, from death to life, and from earth to heaven Christ our God hath brought us over, singing the hymn of victory”.
Refrain: Christ is risen from the dead.
Let us purify our senses and we shall see Christ radiant in the light of the Resurrection that no man can approach and we shall clearly hear Him say “Rejoice!” as we sing a triumphal song. Let the heavens rejoice worthily and let the earth be glad and let all the world, visible and invisible, keep feast for Christ has risen, everlasting joy.
Canticle 3. Oh come let us drink the new drink …
Now all things are filled with light, heaven, and all things beneath the earth. Then let all creation keep festival for Christ’s arising, in which it is established. Yesterday, O Christ, with Thee I was entombed. Today, with Thee arising, I arise. Yesterday I was crucified with Thee: glorify me together with Thyself, O Saviour, in Thy kingdom.
Canticle 4. Irmos
May Habakkuk who spoke inspired by God, stand with us upon the divine watch and show us the angel bringing light and saying: “Today is the salvation of the world for Christ, being Almighty, is risen’’.
(Oppressed by the thought of the triumph of evil, the prophet Habakkuk intently awaited word from God of the triumph of righteousness and the salvation of the world). Christ came as the male child that opens the Virgin’s womb. As true God He is all perfect, undefiled, free from stain of sin. Only as the undefiled Lamb could He become our Passover, our salvation from corruption and death.
Canticle 5. Irmos
Let us awake at early dawn and offer the Master a song instead of balm and we shall behold Christ the Sun of righteousness, Who makes life rise and shine for all. Those who after death were submerged in spiritual gloom and torment and were “held by the bands of hell”, seeing measureless mercy in His Resurrection, hastened “with joyful feet” to the light. There is life beyond the grave — that is the essence of the paschal triumph. Christ raised those who had died before His coming, but who hoped for it. He raised also the dead who believed in Him after His coming, as He will raise those who die now and in future ages. For all of them, for all of us, the waiting after death for His second glorious coming is but a three-day sojourn in the grave, after the example and image of Christ Himself. Orthodox people, during Eastertide, bring these joyful tidings to the graves of their dead. Christ emerges from the tomb as a Bridegroom. Let us approach Him with lamps in our hands and celebrate God’s saving Passover together with the rejoicing angelic host.
Canticle 6. Irmos
Thou hast gone down, O Christ, into the lower parts of the earth and hast broken the eternal bonds that bound the captives and as Jonas, from the whale after three days, Thou hast risen from the tomb.
“Though Thou has descended into the tomb, O Immortal One, yet hast Thou destroyed the power of Hell, and hast risen again as conqueror, O Christ our God, announcing unto the myrrh-bearing women: Rejoice! and giving peace unto Thine Apostles and bestowing Resurrection upon the fallen”.
From the mystical heights of contemplation the kontakion again leads us to the historic events of the Resurrection, and the ikos that follows it tells us of the emotions of the holy myrrh-bearing women, hurrying to anoint the body of Him, at once life-bearing and buried, Who had raised Adam, but Himself lay in the tomb. Like the Magi they hurried to worship Christ, not in swaddling clothes, but wrapped in a winding sheet. Their lament is changed by the joyful vision of the Angel proclaiming the Resurrection to them the resurrection hymn which is repeated at every Sunday Matins is then sung: “As we behold the Resurrection of Christ, let us worship the Holy Lord Jesus, Who alone is without sin. O Christ, we venerate Thy Cross, and we praise in song and glorify Thy holy Resurrection. For Thou art our God: we know no other save Thee. Upon Thy Name do we call. Come, all ye faithful, and venerate the Holy Resurrection of Christ. For Joy came to the whole world through the Cross. At all times blessing the Lord, we sing the praises of the Resurrection. For, having endured crucifixion, He has destroyed death by death”.
Canticle 7. Troparion
We celebrate the death of death, the harrowing of hell, the beginning of another and an eternal life and, dancing with joy we sing the praises of the Author thereof; He, the only God of our fathers, Who is blessed and exceeding glorious.
The eighth canticle reminds us that the paschal joy is the joy of the Eucharist given by Christ to the whole world.
Come, let us partake of the Vine’s new fruit, of joy divine, in the glorious day of the Resurrection and Kingdom of Christ, singing to Him as God forever. Lift up thine eyes, O Sion (a salutation to the Church of the New Covenant) round about and see; for, lo! thy children come to thee, as luminaries lit by God, from the west and from the north, from the sea and from the east, in thee blessing Christ forever.
The eighth canticle ends with the glorification of the Holy Trinity.
In the usual Matins the Magnificat comes after the eighth canticle. Here it is replaced by a special paschal refrain magnifying the suffering, buried and risen Christ and by the touching hymn of the Angel to her who bore Christ: “The Angel cried to her, who is full of grace: ‘Rejoice, O pure Virgin and again I say, Rejoice! On the third day, Thy son is risen from the tomb and He has raised up the dead. Be glad, O ye people”.
The Mother of God is the New Jerusalem, the Sion of the New Covenant, the glory of the Church and the irmos of the ninth canticle unites her image with that of the glorified Church of Christ.
“Shine, shine O new Jerusalem, for the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee. Sing, dance and rejoice, O Sion, and Thou, O pure Mother of God take Thy delight in the Resurrection of Thy Son.” In the troparia of the ninth canticle the paschal exultation reaches its highest intensity. The soul is full to the brim, like a cup, and can no longer find words to express its blessedness.
O divine, O dear, O sweetest voice of Thine, O Christ.
O Christ, Thou great, most sacred Passover, Wisdom, and Word, and Power of God! Grant us more perfectly to partake of Thee in Thy Kingdom’s day that hath no evening.
The following exapostilarion again tells us in clear-cut and powerful words of the unity of the Passover of the Cross and the Passover of the Resurrection.
Asleep in flesh as mortal, O King and Lord, Thou didst arise on the third day, and raise Adam from corruption and abolish death, O Passover of immortality, Salvation of the world.
At the end of Matins the solemn paschal sticheras are sung.
Sticheras of the Resurrection.
Verse: Let God arise, and let his enemies be scattered.
Today the sacred Easter is made manifest to us, the new and holy Passover, the mystic Passover, the all-honourable Passover, the Passover which is Christ the Redeemer, the spotless Passover, the mighty Passover, the Passover of the faithful, the Passover that openeth unto us the gates of Paradise, the Passover that illumineth all the faithful.
Verse: Like as the smoke vanisheth, so shalt Thou drive them away.
Come from the vision, O ye women, heralds of good tidings and say unto Sion: Receive from us the glad tidings of the joy of the Resurrection of Christ. Take delight, leap for joy and rejoice, O Jerusalem, at beholding Christ the King, like a bridegroom coming forth from the tomb.
Verse: So let the ungodly perish at the presence of God, but let the righteous be glad.
The myrrh-bearing women going very early in the morning to the tomb of the Giver of Life, saw an Angel sitting on the stone, who spake to them and said, Why seek ye the Living among the dead? Why seek ye the Incorruptible in the place of corruption? Go, and tell these things to His Disciples.
Verse: This is the day which the Lord hath made: we will rejoice and be glad in it.
Easter the beautiful Easter, the Easter of the Lord. Easter full of exceeding majesty hath risen and shines for us: Easter: Let us embrace one another in joy! Easter, deliverance from sorrow, for today Christ, shining from the tomb as from a bridal chamber, hath filled the women with joy by saying: proclaim this to the Apostles.
Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, now, and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.
It is the day of Resurrection, let us shine with the light of the feast, and embrace one another. Let us say, Brothers, even to them that hate us. Let us forgive everything in the Resurrection, and let us cry aloud: Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down Death by death, and to those in the tomb he has given life.
After the last stichera, the ceremony of greeting each other with three kisses, of which the Pentecostarion (which contains the services from Easter Week to Pentecost) says: “We go on singing ‘Christ is Risen’ while the brethren are kissing each other.”
The custom of greeting each other with a fraternal kiss is very ancient. In the early Church it was observed at every Liturgy, but of this there now remains only the fraternal embrace of the clergy at each Liturgy before the beginning of the Eucharistic Canon. Then the clergy greet each other with the words: “Christ is in the midst of us. He is and shall be”.
During Easter Matins, the faithful first greet the clergy and then each other, each time using the paschal greeting “Christ is Risen” “He is risen indeed” and kissing each other three times. The words “Christ is Risen, He is Risen indeed” never cease to be heard during the whole of Easter Matins. Between the canticle of the canon the clergy cense the worshippers, joyfully uttering the paschal greeting. “He is Risen indeed” thunder hundreds of voices in response and these joyful exclamations of the congregation mingle with the exultant singing of the choir.
The Easter Liturgy
At the Easter Liturgy the Hours are replaced by the joyful singing of sticheras chosen from the Easter Canon. There is absolutely no reading, everything is sung. The Royal Doors and the north and south doors into the sanctuary remain open all the time to mark the fact that heaven is now open to us. The Royal Doors are not shut until after the Liturgy on the Saturday of Easter week. The Easter Liturgy is celebrated according to the rite of St. John Chrysostom, it is impregnated with the joy of the Resurrection to which fact the frequent repetition of the Easter troparion and other Paschal hymns beats witness. Instead of the trisagion, “For as many of you as have been baptized unto Christ, have put on Christ,” is again sung, but here the putting on of Christ no longer only means being crucified with Him, but also rising with Him, in accordance with the verse of the canon:
“Yesterday, O Christ, was I buried with Thee, and today I rise again with Thy rising.” Instead of the reading of an Epistle the first chapter of the Acts of the Apostles is read, narrating the appearance of the Saviour to His disciples at the Resurrection, and His commandment not to leave Jerusalem but to await the descent of the Spirit (the Comforter) that He had promised.
The reading of the Gospel again transports us to eternity. It may seem strange that the Gospel of the Paschal Liturgy does not speak to us of the Resurrection. In point of fact, the first chapter of St. John’s Gospel, which is read, is the highest revelation of the truth which is the foundation of the whole Gospel history. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” Jesus Christ, Who suffered and was buried by us in the form of a servant and rose in glory as God, is the second person of the Holy Trinity, the Word existing from the beginning, eternally abiding in the bosom of the Father. “In Him was life; and the life was the light of men.” “And the Word was made 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 … And of his fullness have all we received, and grace for grace,” (Jn. 1:1-17). In these words, the highest dogmatic revelation of the Incarnation is found. This Gospel is usually read in various languages as a mark of the universality of Christianity.
The Liturgy proceeds in joy and lightness of spirit. The cherubic hymn has a new flavour because the Angels glorifying the King of Kings have now come down to earth to bring the good news of His Resurrection. The words of the Creed “and suffered, and was buried, and the third day rose again according to the Scriptures” have a new ring. With a new emotion to give “thanks unto the Lord” realizing in a new way that the very word Eucharist means Thanksgiving.
From apostolic times it has been customary for Christians to hallow this night by receiving the Holy Gifts, for the Paschal joy is the joy of the Eucharist.
The Paschal Liturgy ends with an exultant “Christ is Risen,” with which the choir answers every exclamation of the priest. This joy is unbounded, this universal exultation is already a foreshadowing of the coming Kingdom of Glory described in the Revelation of St. John the Divine (Rev. 19:6-8) “And I heard as it were the voice of a great multitude, and as the voice of many waters, and as the voice of mighty thunderings, saying, Alleluia: for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth. Let us be glad and rejoice, and give honour to Him: for the marriage of the Lamb is come, and His wife hath made herself ready. And to her was granted that she should be arrayed in fine linen, clean and white.” The wife and the bride of the Lamb is the Church of Christ, who having adorned Herself with all Her treasury of joy and beauty, now celebrates and rejoices and calls all to come to the radiant celebration of Love. “And the Spirit and the bride say, Come. And let him that heareth say, Come. And let him that is athirst, come. And whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely,” (Rev. 22:17). This water of life is Christ — the new Passover, the Living Sacrifice, the Lamb of God Who taketh away the sins of the world.
Christ — The New Passover by Valentina Zander was translated by Anna Garrett and Pegeen O'Flaherty. This article was printed with permission from the Russian Orthodox Diocese of Sourozh of London, England.
From Word Magazine
Publication of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America