Pascha is the feast of feasts of the Christian year - the commemoration of the glorious Resurrection of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ. It is the center of the commemorations of the principal events in our salvation that began with the Annunciation and the Nativity of Christ, and will culminate in the descent of the Holy Spirit which is commemorated at Pentecost, inaugurating a period of salvation history that continues to the present day.
The word "Pascha" is the Greek form of the word "Passover", and similar names are used in many languages. The corresponding English word, Easter, is somewhat obscure in origin, but seems to come from the name of a pre-Christian spring deity. Regardless, the feast itself is quintessentially Christian, and celebrated by all the apostolic churches, of every rite.
At Pascha, we not only celebrate the Lord's resurrection, but experience its revitalizing effects in our own lives. During the preparatory Great Fast and the days of Great and Holy Week, we heard of the mighty works of God which were performed as part of his plan to undo the effects of the sin of our first parents, and our own disobedience. Now, at Pascha, we recall the glorious fulfilment of that plan, the Resurrection of the Lord, and we rejoice and celebrate. As Saint Paul said: "Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us; therefore let us keep the feast."
Throughout human history, the specter of death haunted human lives. Our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ, "coming to seek what was lost", assumed a human nature, and a body which could suffer and die. After his three years of ministry, he was betrayed by one of his disciples, and put to death by the leaders of his own people. As the "suffering servant" foretold by the prophet Isaiah, he would suffer to wash away the sins of the people; as the Paschal lamb, his blood would mark those whom God's anger would "pass over", and who would be led through the Red Sea of worldly trials into an eternal land of promise.
While his dead body rested in a borrowed tomb, our Lord went to Hades to free all those who had been imprisoned there since the beginning of the human race. And on the night of Holy Saturday - the "third day" in the tomb, according to Jewish reckoning - his body was raised to life, a new life which was freed from the defects of our fallen human nature, and the same life that will one day be the life of the redeemed in heaven.
This physical resurrection, spoken of obscurely by the prophets of the Old Testament, was demonstrated to his apostles, who after his Ascension, would receive the Holy Spirit and preach this Resurrection to the whole world. But it is clear that the Resurrection of Christ is the essential fact of Christian teaching.
The date of Pascha
The Resurrection took place on "the first day of the week" - that is, the day after the Sabbath (Saturday). Thus, Pascha is celebrated on Sunday. (In the early centuries of the Church, some Christians kept the feast on the same day, 14 Nisan, of the Jewish calendar, whether on a Sunday or not. But eventually, the many symbolisms of Sunday led to the adoption of a Paschal date defined as "the first Sunday following the first full moon after the first day of Spring" (the first day of Spring being the vernal equinox, around March 21.)
So Pascha is kept:
- on the first day of the week: the day of Creation; the day of the Resurrection; and the same day on which the Holy Spirit descended on the apostles
- a day which also represents the "eight day" - the eternal Day of the Lord which follows and completes the many repetitions of the week of seven days.
- in the Springtime, and in relationship to an "idealized" date of the Jewish passover.
In fact, early Church councils decided not to depend on the Jewish calendar, a lunar calendar set by rabbinic authorities, but on this fixed Christian calculation instead. Calendar were eventually developed which could determine, in advance, the date of Pascha on any year.
The so-called Julian calendar (connected with the Roman Emperor Julius Caesar, and used throughout the Christian world) proved to have problems with the calculation of leap years, and these problems were resolved in the 16th century by the calender reform of Pope Gregory. But many Eastern European countries continued to use the Julian calendar for ecclesiastical reckoning even after they adopted the Gregorian calendar for secular dating. The gap (currently 13 days) between the Julian and Gregorian calendars caused an even greater divergence in the calculation of Pascha, and as a result, the date of Pascha as computed by the Gregorian calendar (used by the Roman Catholic Church, and some Eastern Catholic Churches) and the date as computed according to the Julian calendar (used by most Orthodox Churches and some Eastern Catholic Churches) can differ by as much as five weeks.
The services of Pascha
The services from Pascha through the feasts of Pentecost and All Saints', are found in the liturgical book called the Pentecostarion. This book takes up where the Triodion, the liturgical book for the Great Fast, left off - at midnight on Holy Saturday. All the services of the day of Pascha, and the week that follows, are characterized by their comparative shortness and simplicity, and by the great joy with which they are sung. Hymns and prayers which at other times are chanted or recited, are now sung with great solemnity and exaltation.
The service of Matins for the feast of Pascha is celebrated during the night of Holy Saturday (the Typikon prescribes an idea start for the service at midnight), or early on Sunday morning. At the service, a procession makes its way from the darkened church, to the church's front doors, where the priest and people sing the troparion of Pascha for the first time:
Christ is risen from the dead!
By death he trampled death
and to those in the tombs he granted life!
The faithful enter the church, now brilliantly lit, and sing the Paschal Canon - a hymn of praise, joy, and exultation in the Lord's Resurrection. The Old Testament types and symbols of the Lord's suffering, death, and Resurrection are recounted once more, but now in the new consciousness of the reality of the Resurrection. Over and over, the refrain "Christ is risen!" is exclaimed by the priest and people. See Paschal Matins.
The Divine Liturgy of Pascha
It is in the Eucharistic Liturgy, and Holy Communion, that we will "keep the feast". The eucharistic Divine Liturgy of Pascha may be celebrated immediately after Paschal Matins, or in the morning on Sunday, depending on local custom. Many of the ordinary hymns and responses of the Divine Liturgy are replaced with the Paschal troparion - "Christ is risen from the dead..." - and this pattern will be followed for a total of seven days. See Divine Liturgy of Pascha.
The Paschal Hours
On Pascha and during the week that follows, the Hours of daily liturgical prayer are celebrated using the same, short form at each hour, made up almost entirely of hymns in honor of the Resurrection. See Paschal Hours.
Vespers on the Feast of Pascha
On the evening or (more commonly) the afternoon of Pascha, Vespers is celebrated with special solemnity, and may incorporate a procession or my followed by a communal meal.
Blessing of Paschal foods
In human culture, celebration is closely connected with feasting, and feasting with food.
- At the end of the Divine Liturgy on the Sunday of Pascha, a special loaf of leavened bread, called the Artos, is blessed in church by the priest. This loaf represents the risen Christ, and is kept at the tetrapod (the small table in the middle of the church) throughout Bright Week, then divided and shared with the faithful on Thomas Sunday.
- After the Divine Liturgy of Pascha (and sometimes after other services on this day), the faithful bring baskets of food to be blessed. The foods are often the same foods from which the people have fasted during Lent and Holy Week, and they are often associated symbolically with feasting, or with the risen Lord (e.g. eggs which represent new life, or salt which stands for the savor which Christ's disciples will bring to the world.)
Bright Week and the Paschal Season
The six days which follow Pascha, called Bright Week, constitute a continuation of the feast; on each day, we celebrate the Paschal services of Matins, Divine Liturgy, Hours and Vespers, with only small modifications. In a sense, the feast of the Lord's Resurrection is celebrated, without interruption, for seven days. See Bright Week.
For a total of 40 days, we continue to sing the Paschal troparion at every service; the Hymn of the Resurrection is sung every day at Matins, and the hymns of Pascha are inserted into many of the services, alongside the hymns of the day, ending on the 40th day, the Leave-taking of Pascha. See Paschal Season.
The feasts of the Ascension, Pentecost, and the Sunday of All Saints commemorate the completion of our Lord's ministry on earth, and the founding of the Church. With the Sunday of All Saints, we come to the end of the time of the Pentecostarion, and enter the time of the Sundays after Pentecost.
- Resurrection Services according to the Ruthenian Tradition. Byzantine Leaflet Series, No. 33. (Pittsburgh: Byzantine Seminary Press, March 1985).
- Byzantine Easter Traditions: The Blessing of Easter Foods. Byzantine Leaflet Series, No. 2. (Pittsburgh: Byzantine Seminary Press, April 1976).
- Father Basil Shereghy. The Liturgical Year of the Byzantine-Slavonic Rite.
(Pittsburgh, PA: Byzantine Seminary Press, 1968.)
- A Monk of the Eastern Church (Father Lev Gilet). The Year of Grace of the Lord.
(Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2001.)