Pascha, the Feast of Feasts!


Pascha, the Feast of Feasts!

“Enjoy ye all the feast of faith; receive ye all the riches of loving-kindness.”
(From the Paschal Sermon of St John Chrysostom, read at Paschal Matins)

Orthodox Easter, called Pascha (The Greek term for the Hebrew ‘Pesach’, meaning Passover) is the Feast of Feasts, since it is by far the most liturgically and theologically important Orthodox celebration of the year. For all Christians, the Lord’s Resurrection is the most sacred of days, but among Eastern Christians the feast is observed with a special solemnity and then great rejoicing.

In part, our rejoicing is due to the fact that Pascha is also uniquely a culinary delight for us. While many Protestants and Roman Catholics may choose to fast, prolonged periods of fasting are no longer the norm in the praxis, or normative and guiding practice, in these Western Christian traditions. All Orthodox Christians in good medical health are expected to adhere to an ancient fasting discipline throughout the year, handed down for centuries in the inner discipline of the Church. This includes abstaining from meat on Wednesdays and Fridays in remembrance of Jesus’ betrayal by Judas and His crucifixion, although following the Lord’s Resurrection we do not fast at all for a set period, and so the Paschal season for us is one of spiritual, and literal, feasting and rejoicing!

This is because Orthodox Christians keep an especially rigorous fast during the lengthy ascetic period of Great Lent, the 47 days preceding Pascha. During this time, we abstain from all meat, fish, olive oil and dairy products as a means to help us grow spiritually. We essentially go vegan for this time period. Not intended to serve as legalistic rules, the fasting guidelines for each person will differ slightly depending on the advice of one’s spiritual mentor, but among those Orthodox Christians who are not in grave or terminal illness or pregnancy (under these conditions any fasting is strictly forbidden) generally most observant Orthodox Christians will follow the fasting guidelines closely. Thus, Pascha is doubly joyous for us because our strict fasting gives way to a culinary feast without any restrictions in diet!

In the Russian tradition, decorated kulich – tall, cylindrical loaves of sweet bread baked with raisins and poppy seeds – are rich in taste and theological symbolism. Marked with ‘XB’, the Cyrillic initials for ‘Christ is Risen’, along with Orthodox crosses, their very decoration and height call to mind the Resurrection.

Made with the rich dairy from which we abstain during Great Lent, these are baked during Holy Week and blessed and consumed immediately after the midnight Paschal liturgy. They are cut horizontally, and paskha (a rich, sweet cream formed into a pyramid, made with cottage and ricotta cheese) spread on them.

I took the above image around 5am this morning in the parish hall after the Paschal Divine Liturgy at the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of St John the Baptist, the parish I attend here in Washington.

Christ is Risen! Truly He is Risen!


Christ is Risen! Truly He is Risen!

“Christ is Risen from the dead, trampling down Death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!”

“Хрїстосъ воскресе изъ мертвыхъ,
Смертїю смерть поправъ,
И сѹщымъ во гробѣхъ
животъ даровавъ!”

“Χριστὸς ἀνέστη ἐκ νεκρῶν, θανάτῳ θάνατον πατήσας, καὶ τοῖς ἐν τοῖς μνήμασι, ζωὴν χαρισάμενος!”

May these words resound in our ears today and throughout the blessed Paschal season!

Christ is Risen! Христосъ воскресе! Χριστός Ανέστη! Hristos a înviat! Христос васкрсе! ქრისტე აღსდგა! المسيح قام! ¡Cristo ha resucitado! Christus resurrexit!

On my apartment balcony after I returned home from the midnight Paschal Matins and Divine Liturgy at St John's! Christ is Risen!

On my apartment balcony after I returned home from the midnight Paschal Matins and Divine Liturgy at St John’s! Christ is Risen!

May all celebrating the Lord’s resurrection have a joyful and holy Pascha!


This beautiful sermon by the author of the principal Divine Liturgy service of the Church, St John Chrysostom, honours the Resurrection of Christ. St John calls all to “enjoy this fair and radiant triumphal feast”, “honour the day” and “receive all the riches of loving-kindness.” His sermon is chanted in every Orthodox church throughout the world at the end of the midnight Paschal orthros (matins) service.

A beloved Paschal hymn


This beautiful Theotokion (hymn to the Theotokos, the “God-bearer”) honours the ancient Orthodox tradition that an angel visited the Virgin Mary to inform her of her Son’s Resurrection before he appeared to the other women disciples at Christ’s tomb.

Here is a link to the choir of St Barnabas Orthodox Church singing the hymn at a 2010 wedding liturgy in Costa Mesa, California.

The angel cried to the Lady full of grace:
Rejoice, rejoice, O pure Virgin!
Again, I say: rejoice! Your Son is risen
from His three days in the tomb.
With Himself He has raised all the dead.
Rejoice, rejoice, O ye people!
Shine, shine! Shine, O new Jerusalem!
The glory of the Lord has shown on you.
Exult now, exult, and be glad, O Zion!
Be radiant, O pure Theotokos, in the Resurrection,
the Resurrection of your Son!

A joyous Pascha to all!


From the Paschal Stichera:

“Today a sacred Pascha is revealed to us! A new and holy Pascha! A mystical Pascha! A Pascha worthy of veneration, a Pascha which is Christ the Redeemer! A blameless Pascha, a great Pascha, a Pascha of the faithful, a Pascha which has opened to us the gates of Paradise! A Pascha which sanctifies all the faithful!”

This video was recorded at the Paschal Vespers at Holy Trinity Orthodox Church in East Meadow, New York on Easter Sunday, April 24, 2011.

Dear Readers

“Blessed is the soul that knows her Creator and has grown to love Him, for she has found perfect rest in Him. The Lord bids us love Him with all our hearts and all our souls—but how is it possible to love Him Whom we have never seen, and how may we learn this love? The Lord is made known by His effect on the soul. When the Lord has visited her, the soul knows that a dear Guest has come and gone, and she yearns for Him and seeks Him with tears: ‘Where art Thou, my Light, where art Thou, my Joy? Thy trace is fragrant in my soul but Thou art not there and my soul yearns for Thee, and my heart aches and is sad, and nothing rejoices me because I have grieved my Lord and He hath hidden Himself from my sight.’” – St Silouan.
~   ~   ~
Christ is with us! Wherever you are in the world, if you are observing the solemn liturgies of Holy Week, or if you have forgotten to attend them, were too busy, or are not yet Orthodox, I hope you are well! This Holy Week, my first as an Orthodox Christian, I have been thinking of my fellow Orthodox, especially those newly illumined in the Faith, like me, and also the catechumens preparing for their chrismations at Pascha. Yesterday’s service of the Anointing was absolutely remarkable, and the anointing at the end reminded me very much of my chrismation.
In these holy days, when God’s grace fills the hearts of all of us who are partaking in the beauty and majesty of the Holy Week services, I think constantly of my family members, both Catholics and lapsed Catholics, and how I so wish they could be a part of the fullness of this Faith, experiencing the incomparable richness and profound depth of our observance of Holy Week leading up to the Passion Gospels of Holy Thursday. In the Liturgy of St Basil’s Mystical Supper this morning, the Church remembered her Bridegroom Christ’s institution of the Eucharist at the Last Super two thousand years ago in Jerusalem.
The twelve Gospels of the Passion of our Lord which we heard tonight recall in vividly transportive and soul-stirring detail the dramatic final hours of Jesus’ earthly life as a Man: His betrayal by Judas for thirty pieces of silver, His trial and humiliation, Simon Peter’s denial of Him three times, the chief priest and the blood-minded crowd’s mockery and hatred for Him, Whom they would not know or believe, and His Crucifixion whereby, by submitting to death on the Cross, He opened the possibility of eternal life to all who believe in Him.
I’ve just returned to my flat from the chanting of the 12 Gospels of the Passion at St Andrew’s church here in Edinburgh. Holy Thursday is always profoundly moving for me, in part because it was two years ago at the Holy Thursday Liturgy at St Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Washington that I first experienced Orthodox worship and liturgical life. Since that day, my life has truly never been the same!
Tonight I was more conscious than ever before of the words of the fifteenth antiphon of the Matins service for Great and Holy Friday. Here the Orthodox Church in America’s late Archbishop +Job (d. 2009, Memory Eternal!) sings the beautiful antiphon:
Today He who hung the earth upon the waters is hung on the tree, 
The King of the angels is decked with a crown of thorns. 
He who wraps the heavens in clouds is wrapped in the purple of mockery.
He who freed Adam in the Jordan is slapped on the face.
The Bridegroom of the Church is affixed to the Cross with nails.
The Son of the Virgin is pierced by a spear.
We worship Thy passion, O Christ. . . 
Show us also Thy glorious Resurrection.”
The services of Holy Week so far has been so ethereal, so other-worldly, unlike anything I’ve ever experienced! In the kathisma chants tonight between the Gospel readings, I was struck by the enormity of the cosmic shift presented in the words of the Church’s fifteenth antiphon of the Matins for Holy Friday, which St. Andrew’s parish here chanted on Thursday night. As we all stepped forward to venerate the icon of Christ hanging on the Cross, I recalled the words of St. Paul in Romans 8:21-22:
“The creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now.”
How the Crucifixion altered the cosmos, all of creation, I cannot hope to rationally understand, but only contemplate in wonder! What an earth-shattering contrast, what a horrifically awe-inspiring sight it must have been for those who believed in Christ as the Son of God and God Incarnate- His disciples, male and female, and His mother – to behold Jesus allowing Himself to be put to death on the Cross! That the God who created the heavens and the earth let Himself be nailed upon the Cross, that the God who led the Hebrews out of Egypt in the Exodus and protected them as His people is mocked, abused and condemned by the very chief priests of Israel and a Jerusalem mob! What an extraordinary, horrifying, fearfully awesome thing!
As we wait for the risen Lord, beseeching that He “show us also Thy glorious Resurrection”, I hope you know, wherever you might be, that right now, there are thousands of holy people, nuns and monks, priests and bishops praying ceaselessly for you. Every Orthodox Christian prays for you in the antiphons of the Liturgy- whether these people are your brothers and sisters in faith, or strangers unknown to you, they still pray for you. The saints pray continually for us. As St Silouan reminds us,
“The Saints grieve to see people living on earth and not knowing that if they were to love one another the world would know freedom from sin; and where sin is absent there is joy and gladness of the Holy Spirit. The Saints in heaven though the Holy Spirit behold the glory of God and the beauty of the Lord’s countenance. But in this same Holy Spirit they see our lives too, and our deeds. They know our sorrows and hear our burning prayers. When they were living on earth they learned of the love of God from the Holy Spirit; and he who knows love on earth takes it with him into eternal life, where love grows and becomes perfect. The souls of the Saints know the Lord and His goodness toward man, wherefore their spirits burn with love for the peoples. They were chosen by the Holy Spirit to pray for the whole world.” 
If you are not yet Orthodox, I earnestly hope you will seek out the fullness of the original Faith, a fullness which, in all my own searching, I have never experienced anywhere else, in any other faith tradition or community. I know many wonderful men and women living in the Roman Catholic faith in which I was raised, and I met many people in the different churches, synagogues and mosques I have visited who truly love God. But truly there is nothing like the Church’s liturgical worship and its Orthodox Faith.
The prayers of holy men and women especially are jewels to be valued above any other earthly thing (See James 5:16). These saints, living on earth and those now departed, alive in Christ, love each of you, Orthodox or not. Christian or not, believer or not. As St Silouan reminds us,
“The Holy Spirit is love; and the souls of all the holy who dwell in heaven overflow with this love. And on earth this same Holy Spirit is in the souls of those who love God. All heaven beholds the earth in the Holy Spirit, and hears our prayers and carries them to God.”
Wherever you are, I hope you have a joyous Pascha! If you are not Orthodox but want to experience the indescribable beauty and other-worldly mystical transcendence which the Orthodox liturgy alone offers, do not delay: visit your nearest Orthodox church and attend the Paschal Liturgy, the feast of feasts, the miracle of miracles! This time of year, more than ever, you will behold people exuding a quiet radiance, an inner joy which comes from participating in the full richness and mystery of this ancient Faith, the reservoir and the jewel of the timeless Church.
~   ~   ~

“There are some who believe that the Lord suffered death for love of man, but because they do not attain to this love in their own souls, it seems to them that it is an old story of bygone days. But when the soul knows the love of God by the Holy Spirit she feels without a shadow of doubt that the Lord is our Father, the closest, the best and dearest of fathers, and there is no greater happiness than to love God with all our hearts, with all our souls, and with all our minds, according to the Lord’s commandment, and our neighbor as ourselves.” -St Silouan.