Sunday, April 24, 2011

Divine Liturgy of Holy Pascha -- a/k/a "Come and See, part II"

Wow.  Just wow.  Demonstrative pictures are included in this post, but as with the previous post, there is no way at all to describe the Divine Liturgy of Holy Pascha to someone who has never seen one.  It's funny, because it is in a lot of ways the same observation we've had about the Orthodox Church all along, just writ a bit larger.  Pascha is a lot like the first Lutheran Easter we ever celebrated, only different.  Different in scope and different in style, but at the same time very similar.  What follows is our explanation, but by all means -- come and see!  Words do not describe this.  You have to experience it.  You'll just have to wait until next year (the good news is those of you who are not Orthodox can come to "Orthodox Easter" next year with a clean conscience -- it will be a different week from "Western Easter").

We began attending our first Lutheran parish during the Epiphany in 2001.  We got Ash Wednesday, Lent, Holy Week and the first half of the Easter Vigil out of the way before we were confirmed.  I can say that what struck us then was the rhythm of the Church year, how we went from kind of cruising along easily during Epiphany, to being very somber and quiet and dark during Lent, to turning everything up full volume for Easter.  The Lutheran Church had a sense of keeping things in their proper perspective.  Great Lent, Holy Week and Holy Pascha in the Orthodox Church is like that.  Only different.

In Orthodoxy, Great Lent is treated as a time of quiet and dark reflection as well.  But Sundays during Lent are not considered part of Lent, though they are not yet Pascha either.  The fast isn't lifted for the weekend services, but the darkness, prostrations and typical mourning, penitential feel are removed.  And yet, there is still a sense of anticipation.  The biggest difference is Holy Week itself.  In Orthodoxy, Holy Week is a time of mourning, lamentation, knowledge of one's own sin, repentance, etc.  But there is also a prefigurement -- Palm Sunday is always preceded by and in remembrance of Lazarus Saturday (if I'm not mistaken, Lutherans have the story of Lazarus earlier in Lent).  We have in Lazarus a picture of what is coming at Pascha.  So Holy Week doesn't have the sense of foreboding it does in the Western liturgy, though it is certainly penitential and somber.  Christ's death during Holy Week in the Orthodox Church is already prefigured by the preceding resurrection of Lazarus, so we have a bit more of a sense of what is coming than was our experience in the Western liturgy.

Pascha itself is very much like a good Lutheran Easter mass, only different.  One thing we loved about Easter in the Lutheran Church is that on Good Friday, we left the Church in total darkness, with the altar stripped and the crosses veiled -- a reminder that Christ was in the tomb.  Yet we were left with a reminder that the tomb had been rent -- the "strepitus," which was a loud noise at the very end of the Liturgy.  On Holy Saturday evening, when we celebrated the Easter Vigil (which like Holy Pascha is quite a bit longer than a normal Lutheran mass), the entire parish began inside the same room, lights darkened, and candles were lit from the Paschal candle.  Then, the congregation processed outside the Church with lit candles (I think I'm remembering this correctly -- it's been over 5 years since we had this particular service).  Then the entire congregation processed back inside loudly singing a resurrection hymn -- "Jesus Christ is Risen Today" is the one that sticks out to me as I remember this.  As the congregation moved into the nave, the lights were brought up to announce the resurrection.  It was utterly beautiful and extremely powerful. 

In the Orthodox Church, on the evening of Holy Saturday as we begin the Paschal celebration, we begin inside the nave with the Rush Service followed by the Resurrection Service.  At the beginning of the Resurrection Service, the lights are all off and the parish candles which usually illumine the nave even during Great Lent remaining unlit.  Then the priest comes to the ambon holding a lit Paschal candle and announces "come ye, take light from the Light, that is never overtaken by night.  Come, glorify the Christ, risen from the dead."  Each lights his candle from the Paschal candle and spreads the light around the room until the entire parish is lit only by the vast array of candles.  The entire congregation then processes outside and around the Church grounds, ending at the parish doors.  The Gospel is read at the door of the parish, which is unlit and dark, and then following the Gospel reading, the priest knocks on the door of the parish saying "lift up your gates, O ye princes, and be ye lifted up, ye everlasting gates, and the King of glory shall enter in."  The reply comes from inside, "Who is the King of glory," at which the priest says "the Lord strong and mighty, the Lord, mighty in war."  This continues three times until the third time, when the priest responds "the Lord of hosts, he is the King of glory," and the doors to the parish are opened and light comes pouring out.  The choir follows the priest in singing "Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death and upon those in the tomb bestowing life!"  When the congregation reaches the inside of the nave, all of the lights are on, candles lit and the parish is very much "alive."  If Great Lent is the Church at a quiet, elevator volume, Pascha is the Church on full blast.

After this, Orthros continues, and then the Divine Liturgy begins.  Not much is different about it from a typical Orthodox Liturgy.  Except it is SOOOO different.  The tone of the service, the feel of the Liturgy -- everything is louder, brighter, happier, bouncier.  Not that Great Lent is sad, or depressing -- it's not.  In fact, Great Lent is extremely hopeful.  But Pascha is something else entirely.  It's the Church without benefit of a volume knob.  But it's not noise -- it's joy!

Two things were confirmed for us as we sat in Church for Holy Pascha.  First, this is what we've been missing -- we did in fact find in this parish essentially that which we first found 10 years ago in another communion, in another state.  Second, we were right to become Orthodox.  It's like the Lutheran Church we were raised in.  Only different.  I looked at my wife during the early part of the Divine Liturgy, and she just smiled and nodded.  We're home.

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