Monday, May 23, 2011

Pascha – Eastern Orthodox Easter is a Celebration Extraordinaire

Everyone should experience Pascha. Even if you’re not Orthodox. Even if you’re not Christian. Even if you don’t care anything about religion. Pascha is beautiful.

Orthodox Lent

Lent precedes Pascha, of course. Lent is a time for introspection and repentance. It’s no accident that it starts with Forgiveness Vespers, a beautiful service in which we ask forgiveness of every member of the congregation Lent is also a time of fasting (that means being totally vegan for the faithful), and solemn services with prostrations. We repeat the prayer of St. Ephrem:

O Lord and Master of my life
Take from me the spirit of sloth
lust of power
and idle talk.
But give rather the spirit of chastity,
and love to thy servant.
Yea, O Lord and King
grant me to see my own errors
and not to judge my brother;
for Thou art blessed unto the ages of ages.

We also sing this beautiful prayer:

Let my prayer arise in thy sight as incense and let the lifting up of my hands be an evening sacrifice.
Holy Week Starts with Palm Sunday

Palm Sunday features a procession around the church with palm branches. I love processions. Our church is on a busy street, and it’s funny to see the reactions of drivers during a procession.
During Holy week there are services every morning and every evening, and some of them are very long. Remember, Orthodox traditionally stand for their services, though there are pews for those who can’t stand the entire time.

Good Friday Burial Vespers

On Good Friday (which we call Holy Friday) we have another procession, this time with a cloth painted with an icon of Christ’s body taken from the cross. We sing a beautiful, haunting melody:

Noble Joseph
Taking down Thy most pure body from the tree
Wrapped it in fine linen and sweet spices
And laid it in a new tomb.

We lay the cloth, which represents the shroud of Christ on a frame decorated with flowers.

Holy Saturday

Holy Saturday is an amazing day. Traditionally, the church reserves that day for baptisms and chrismations. Chrismation means anointing with oil, or holy chrism, and is the final step in becoming fully Orthodox. This year eight people (including my husband and myself) were chrismated, and we were the first to receive the eucharist in the service that followed.

Orthodox Pascha!

And then comes the great Pascha service. The service starts at about 9 p.m. with the chanting of the book of Acts, but most people come in at about 11 p.m. That’s right – p.m., as in evening. We start with prayers and the lighting of candles. Then, just before midnight, we begin a solemn candlelight procession. Using the same tune as we did for “Noble Joseph,” we sing:

Thy resurrection O Christ our Savior,
the angels in heavens sing.
Enable us on earth
to glorify thee in purity of heart.

This year, as we were processing, a passerby paused, removed his hat, and waited while we finished. It was very touching.

Once we’ve processed around the church, we begin to sing those glorious words of resurrection:

Christ is risen from the dead,
trampling down death by death,
and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.

Then the priest bangs on the door with a cross, and then the doors are open wide. Light streams out, bells ring, and we continue singing as we enter the church.

What follows is a joyous celebration of music! The priests shout “Christ is risen!” and we reply, “Indeed He is risen.” We repeat this in several languages.

Following the praise service comes another liturgy and then—at about 2 a.m—we go downstairs to a big feast. It’s time to partake of everything we’ve been fasting from – so there’s plenty of meat, cheese and even wine. We finally get home about 4:30 a.m.

But that's not the end of the celebration. There's agape vespers the next day. (This year we celebrated with the Greek Orthodox Church, which included another feast. And then we keep on celebrating. For the next seven weeks (until Pentecost), we greet each other with "Christ is risen" "Indeed He is risen!" and continue to sing the joyous songs of Pascha.

Here is a video of our church’s celebration:

And just to show you how Pascha is celebrated in other countries, here is a video of a celebration in Ghana: