PASCHA: FESTIVITIES AND SYMBOLS
by Nick Brown
Christ is Risen! Pascha 2000 has finally arrived- the celebration of the Feast of Feasts. Friends and families come together to partake of the Paschal meal to commemorate the pinnacle of Christ’s ministry of salvation in the world- His Resurrection. The Paschal Light burns brightly in our homes; the same Light that burst through the doors of the iconostasis at midnight in the resurrection service. This is the symbol of the True Light, Who is Christ, who burst through the doors of Hades to carry those who were dead into paradise. This is the same True Light Who burst from the tomb at that first Pascha of the New Covenant about 2000 years ago.
Spare a thought at Pascha
Speaking as one who is the only Orthodox Christian in my family, I never find it hard to celebrate with others at this time of the year thanks to God and to the invitations of good Christian friends who open their hearts and homes for me to partake of the Paschal meal together. However, spare a thought for others like me in this world, who don’t have an Orthodox Christian family and still have nowhere to celebrate. Think of those whose families are divided by members who have left the Body of Christ, adhere to a schismatic or heretical denomination, and thereby choose not to celebrate Christ’s Resurrection with the same joyous festivities as the rest of the Orthodox world, or even at the same time as their Orthodox family members. Think of those family members who are only Orthodox in name, don’t really care for religious celebrations, and think of Pascha as merely an ethnic holiday for indulging in food. Think of those in our community who celebrate on their own because they have lost their family in one way or another, or because their family resides in a distant country. It is to these people that we should be opening our hearts and homes to. It is to these people that we should be witnessing to in the celebration of the resurrected Christ. It is to these people that we should be witnessing, particularly at the celebration of Pascha- to the catholicity or universality of Orthodox Christianity.
At the feast of Pascha, from the great Cathedral churches in Russia, to the small village chapels in Greece, to the makeshift hut-like churches in Madagascar — we come together as a worldwide family that shares in the common true faith, to share in the joy of the resurrected Christ.
Two Paschal symbols
The symbols and customs of our Church provide a rich source of education as to the truths of our faith. Two such symbols that are utilised at the resurrection of Christ ironically owe their origins to pre-Christian pagan festivities, which were transformed and taken up by Christians worldwide and included in the festivities of Pascha. Secular society will often dwell on the pre-Christian origins of symbols and festivals especially around the periods of Christmas and Pascha, as if we still have a dark past existing within our faith. Little do they realise that these pagan symbols and feasts, to the Christian, are actually a blessing in disguise, and are ways and means of celebrating the truths of the One true God. It should also be pointed out here that we should refrain from referring to Pascha as ‘Easter.’ There are no Christian connotations in the name as it derives from the name of an ancient pagan fertility goddess. The proper name that the Christian should apply at this time of year is Pascha, which is the Greek form of the name for the Jewish Passover. The Jewish Passover was celebrated as the release of the Hebrews from the bonds of slavery in Egypt. By Divine providence, the themes of bondage and slavery have taken on a new spiritual meaning in the light of Christ’s resurrection. Now Christ is the one who has released the whole of humanity, past present and future, from the bond and slavery of death and sin, and has allowed for us to enter the promised land; the Heavenly Kingdom.
Now let us take a closer look at two symbols associated with Pascha. Firstly, the Easter egg, or more specifically the hardboiled red eggs that we crack with each other at the Paschal meal. This egg is rich in symbolism and has great meaning in relation to Christ’s resurrection. The red colouring stands for the blood that was shed for us on the cross. The outer casing of the shell represents the tomb that Christ was interred into after being taken down from the cross. When we crack the eggs with each other to reveal the insides, we are in effect recreating the event of Christ rising from the tomb, just as a newborn chick is released from the confines of the eggshell when it receives its new life. This is the other important meaning; new Life. Just as a chick has new life when it escapes from the egg, so too we have new life through Christ’s release from the tomb. Prior to Christ’s resurrection, death, sin, and the Old Covenant law restricted humanity. Now that Christ is risen, death and Hades (the abode of the dead before Christ’s resurrection) and even the Old Covenant law no longer have us in their grip. Cracking the eggs with one another not only confesses the truth of Christ’s resurrection, the act is also a confession of our belief that death is defeated. And that we too have risen with Christ from the confines of death and the law that we too will physically rise when Christ returns again in glory. It also shows our release from sin by living the new life in Christ, by living according to His teachings- His example- if we choose to do so.
The second symbol that I will mention here is one that at first seems to be a purely pagan symbol, and something that we are bombarded with at Pascha by the commercial secular world. I’m talking about the symbol of the rabbit or ‘easter-bunny.’ While the rabbit was used as a fertility symbol in ancient cultures (due to their well-known breeding capabilities), for the ancient pagan Romans the rabbit also had another meaning- that of sacrifice and salvation. The Romans believed that if a predator threatened a warren of rabbits, one solitary rabbit would surface from the burrow to offer itself as a sacrifice to appease the predator in an act that would save the other rabbits within the warren. Hence, when this symbol is viewed in the light of Christianity and Christ’s resurrection. We are reminded that death was the predator that preyed on humanity, and that Christ through own death on the cross was able to not only save us, but He was also able to kill death itself!
What is expected of us?
So what is expected of us now that Lent has passed, and Pascha is here? The answer is to keep Lent and Pascha all throughout the year. What I mean by this is that its possible to practice the repentance, prayerfulness, and fasting of Lent, as well as the joy of the Resurrection of Christ every week! Try and make your Wednesdays and Fridays (the two days of the week designated as fasting days unless it is a fast-free week) as two ‘mini-lents’ Continue for those two days of the week in your fast. Continue in your prayer. Continue in your Scripture reading. Continue in your works of charity for the poor and needy. And then when each Sunday comes, treat it as a ‘mini-Pascha.’ Every Sunday the Church provides us with hymns and prayers on the theme of the Resurrection of Christ to put us in a joyous mood for the Sabbath. You can celebrate the Risen Christ every Sunday of the year. Get together with family, friends, acquaintances, strangers, anyone, and rejoice in the risen Christ. Share a meal together. Make Sunday a special day. Why relegate festive joy in Christ’s Resurrection to only one day of the year? To all I wish a blessed paschal season, and through the saving grace of the risen Christ may we all proceed closer to our goal: to abide eternally with the author of life. Amen.
Greek Orthodox Church of Saint George, Brisbane QLD