Celebrating Pascha

The Queen and Lady of Days

Pascha, Easter, the Great and Holy Feast of the Life-giving Resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ – whatever you want to call it, it is by far the most important day of the year for Orthodox Christians. It’s like Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s, and Fourth of July all rolled into one glorious day. There will be lots of food. There will be music and dancing. Depending on where you live, there may be fireworks. What there won’t be much of is sleep.

But who needs sleep when it’s Pascha?

In the Orthodox Church, we have twelve Great Feasts – Christmas, Theophany, Transfiguration, and so on. And then there’s Pascha. It isn’t one of the Great Feasts. It stands alone, outside any list, and outside of time.

In the Paschal canon, we sing, “It is the Day of Resurrection! Let us be radiant, O people! Pascha! The Pascha of the Lord!” We call Pascha, “the chosen and Holy Day, the first of Sabbaths, the Queen and Lady of Days, the Feast of Feasts, and Holy Day of Holy Days.”

Yeah, we can get a little over-the-top in our poetry. But we love Pascha so much!

Why all the excitement?

We’re excited, because we’re celebrating the best news anyone ever got: Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life! We’ll sing that about a bajillion times before the celebration is over.

And we’ve been waiting for it to come. Before we get to Pascha, we have three weeks to prepare for Lent. Then we have 40 days of Lent to prepare for Pascha. And then we still have Holy Week!

And finally, at long last, we get to Pascha. But we do it differently than most anyone else. We don’t have a sunrise service. We hold our Paschal liturgy in the middle of the night.

If you’re not an Orthodox Christian, you might wonder why. As with so many of life’s interesting questions, there’s a simple answer, and a complicated answer.

The simple answer

The simple answer is that the Resurrection occurred in the middle of the night. Of course, no one knew it had happened until Mary Magdalene and the other women disciples arrived at the tomb that Sunday morning and discovered that it was empty. But we know it happened! So why should we wait? At the very first moment of Pascha, at the very beginning of the day of the Resurrection, we begin the celebration!

Time turned upside down

The simple answer is true enough. But it’s not the whole story. We know it’s not the whole story, and it can’t be the whole story, because, in the Orthodox Church, the day doesn’t start at midnight. As with the Jewish calendar, on our calendar, the day starts at sunset.

The first service of any day is Vespers, which is the service held at or near sunset. So Pascha, and the celebration of the Resurrection, has to begin with Vespers.

But as the sun sets on Holy Saturday, the church is empty. A Vesperal Liturgy was celebrated on Saturday morning, or, in some parishes, in the early afternoon.

That’s one of the liturgical characteristics of Holy Week – things get a bit weird. The days are turned upside down. We celebrate Vespers in the morning and Matins at night.

Chronos and kairos

There’s a reason for that: In Greek, there were two kinds of time, chronos and kairos. Chronos is regular clock-and-calendar time. It’s time that is measured in minutes, hours, days and years. Kairos is different. It’s the time outside of time, the time in which God acts. In Holy Week, chronos and kairos seem to be at war with each other.

We’re walking outside of time, remembering our Lord’s Passion, which occurred, not just in chronos time, but also before anything, even time itself, was created. It occurred in kairos time, and we join Him there.

And so the first Paschal liturgy is held early in the day on Holy Saturday. During the service, the cloths on the altar and on icon stands are changed from dark to white, and the priests change into white vestments. Bay leaves, a sign of God’s victory, are scattered around the Church. Holy Week is well and truly over. We see the light beginning to shine forth. But still we wait.

On that Sabbath when the Lord slept in the tomb, everyone alive thought that he was dead. We know he’s alive. And yet we wait with the women disciples. As they watched the sun go down, they didn’t know what we know. We know, but we wait with them, remembering the Sabbath when Christ’s body rested.

Sunrise in the middle of the night

Shortly before midnight, we return to the Church for the midnight office. For a moment, chronos and kairos seem to match up. But time is still out of alignment. The moment the midnight office ends, Matins, the sunrise service, begins. So, in a sense, we do celebrate the Resurrection at sunrise. But it’s sunrise, kairos time. The sun no longer rules. Rather, it is the Son who shines forth from the tomb, granting life to the world! Christ is risen!

Buy the Book: Catherine’s Pascha

Catherine doesn’t like vegetables. She doesn’t like naps. She doesn’t like it when her mom combs her hair. She loves hot dogs, chocolate cake, and her best friend, Elizabeth. Most of all, she loves Pascha! Pascha, the Orthodox Christian Easter, is celebrated in the middle of the night, with processions and candles and bells and singing. And Catherine insists that she’s not a bit sleepy.

Celebrate the joy of Pascha through the magic of a book: Catherine’s Pascha.

Charlotte Riggle    Sharing faith, hope, and picture books with Orthodox Christian families and parents of kids with special needs.

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