In the Byzantine Tradition, we still use the most ancient designation to refer to the Feast of Christ’s Resurrection, Pascha. Pascha is simply the Aramaic form of ha Pesakh, Hebrew for the Passover. Aramaic was the language used by Jews in Israel during the New Testament period, while Hebrew was the liturgical language reserved for prayer. Pascha would have been the word used by the Lord Jesus, the holy Theotokos, the illustrious Apostles, and their contemporaries. Thus, when we refer to Pascha or Pasch, linguistically we retain the theological connection between Christ’s Easter Resurrection and the Passover. In Ukrainian, there is the wonderful practice of referring to Easter as Velykden which means, quite simply, the Great Day.
Passover is a celebration and anamnesis of God’s liberation of the Jews from slavery, delivering of Israel from the plagues, and protection through the Red Sea. Ancient Israel’s passing over from death to life, from slavery to freedom, is the antitype and a historical instance recapitulated in Christ’s passing over from death to everlasting life, of His liberation of sinners from death and the redeemed from Hades.
Nadhrobne: The Service at the Tomb
The Paschal service on Easter morning begins with nadhrobne, the service at the tomb. The faithful arrive early in the morning and enter the temple as if entering the tomb. All is dark, lit only by candles.
The tomb consists of the icon of the burial (in Ukrainian, the plashchenytsia) laid upon a bier-shaped stand that is set in the middle of the sanctuary. On the plashchenytsia is placed the Book of the Gospels. As the faithful arrive and await the Pascha, quietly but intense with anticipation, they arrive to the continuous reading of the Acts of the Apostles, begun after the Vigil Service of St. Basil on Saturday evening.
Again we sing the Irmoi from the canon of Jerusalem Matins, especially that of the ninth ode where from the depths of Hades, from beyond death and the grave, Jesus answers his mother’s lamentations with those haunting words of consolation:
Do not lament me O Mother, seeing me in the tomb,
the Son conceived in the womb without seed,
for I shall arise and be glorified with eternal glory as God
I shall exalt all those who magnify you in faith and in love.
With the singing of this hymn, the priest takes up the plashchenytsia and bears it into the altar, placing it upon the Holy Table, then all lights are extinguished.
All candles are put out.
All lamps are blown out.
We wait in utter darkness
The Rite of Holy Light
From the depth of utter darkness and deepest night, Light suddenly appears, brought out from the Altar by the Priest vested all in white. The Holy Doors of the Iconostas are thrown open! The deacon doors, likewise, thrown open! These will be left open throughout the Paschal celebration and throughout Bright Week (even when there are no Divine Services going on.)
The faithful rush forward to receive the Holy Light of Pascha, symbol of the Resurrection of the Messiah of God. “Come, O ye faithful, take light from the Light that never fades. And glorify the Christ who is Risen from the dead.” (Tone 5)
This Holy Light is passed on from the altar to all the faithful until the entire church is filled, each person radiant in Paschal Light.
The Procession of the Myrrh-bearing Women
With candles lit, the clergy lead the faithful in procession, three times around the church building. We symbolically follow in the footsteps of the myrrh-bearing women who, despite all and in defiance of danger, death, and despair, went out in search of Jesus’ body. As the Holy Scriptures recount:
When the Sabbath was over, Mary of Magdala, Mary the mother of James, and Salome, bought spices with which to go and anoint Him. And very early the morning on the first day of the week, they went to the Tomb, just as the sun was rising. They said to one another, ‘Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the Tomb?” (Mark 16:1-3)
We emerge from the interior of the Church into the darkness of the night. We follow the lantern holding the Holy Light held high by a server. Behind him comes the Cross and the other processional icons of the parish. Then proceed the clergy holding the icon of the Resurrection and the Gospel.
As we walk, we sing continuously the refrain: “Angels in heaven, O Christ our Saviour, sing of your Resurrection, enable us here on earth, to glorify you with a pure heart.” The bells begin the ring. With increasing intensity, they ring continuously during the threefold procession. “Christ has released the world from it’s ancient bondage and its former terrors, and the whole Church rejoices triumphantly in His victory over darkness and death.”(Archbishop Kallistos of Diokleia)
At the Hypakoe of Resurrection Matins we sing the Hymn of the Myrrhbearers:
Before the dawn, Mary and the women came
and found the stone rolled away from the Tomb.
They heard the angelic voice: “Why do you seek among the dead as a man
the One who is everlasting Light? Behold, the clothes in the grave.
Go, and proclaim to the world: that the Lord is Risen.
He has slain death, as he is the Son of God, saving the human race.”
Likewise is chanted the Ikos verse of the Kondak:
Before the dawn–as urgently as if in daylight–the women came with their spices
to the Tomb, looking for Him who existed before the sun was even created.
That very Sun had come to set in a grave! They cried to each other,
“Bring your fragrant ointments, friends, and let us anoint that life-giving body which has been laid in a tomb. His is the body which raises the fallen Adam.
Let us go! Let us hurry like the Magi; let us fall before Him in adoration.
Let us offer myrrh to Him as He lays there wrapped, not in swaddling clothes,
but in a shroud. Let us shed our tears and cry to Him:
Rise up, O Lord, give Resurrection to the fallen!”
At the Royal Doors as at the Entrance to the Tomb
After the Procession of Triumph, we arrive at the Royal Doors, the central front doors into the church where the procession stops, just as the myrrh-bearing women stopped at the entrance of the tomb. There they were met by angels who proclaimed to them Christ’s resurrection. So too, here, the priest first proclaims, “Christ is Risen!” “Khrystos Voskres!” The faithful respond, “Indeed, He is Risen!” “Vo istynu Voskres!”
Now the priest intones the Paschal tropar, the principal hymn of Easter:
“Christ is Risen from the Dead, trampling death by death.
And on those in the Tombs bestowing Life!”
In between the Paschal Tropars, the Priest sings the Paschal versicles (Psalm 68):
Let God Arise. Let His enemies be scattered. And let those who hate Him flee before His face. As smoke vanishes, so let them vanish. As wax melts before the fire, So let the wicked perish in the presence of God, but the righteous rejoice. This is the day that the LORD has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it. Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit. Now and ever, and for ages of ages. Amen!
By appearing in Hell, Christ broke down the doors of Hell and shattered its gates, liberating its captives. Likewise, in symbolic fashion, the priest at this moment strides up to the Royal Doors, which stand closed and locked. He hammers the Royal Doors in three resounding blows with his hand cross! The Royal Doors are thrown open wide and the faithful enter triumphantly into the temple, now brilliant with each candle and lamp radiantly lit and the all of the doors of the iconostas opened for this Feast of Feasts. It is just as the Just were lead triumphantly by Christ from death into eternal life and just as Israel passed over from death into life, through the Plagues and the Red Sea. We, too, pass over from death to life. Christ is Risen!
We enter into the church, now brilliant with light, just as the tomb was made brilliant with the angel who announced the Resurrection to the women. The deacon begins with the Great Litany of the Resurrection:
That the Lord Jesus Christ, our Saviour, may grant us triumph and victory over the temptations of our visible and invisible enemies…
That we may crush beneath our feet the Prince of Darkness and his powers…
That He may raise us with Him and make us rise from the tomb of our sins and offences…
That He may fill us with the joy and happiness of his holy Resurrection…
That we may merit the grace of entering into the chamber of his divine wedding feast and rejoice beyond limit, together with His heavenly attendants and the host of Saints glorified through Him in the Church Triumphant in heaven…
Then entire congregation sings the Paschal Canon of St. John of Damascus. It is composed of a series of hymns, known as odes, which correspond to the nine Biblical canticles, and which interpret them as they pertain to the Resurrection of the Christ. Each ode is made up of an irmos (the principal thematic hymn which establishes both the metre and the melody of the ode). The irmos is followed by several troparia (verses). Each ode is concluded by a final katavasia hymn. Katavasia means the descent. Members from both the north and south kliros (in the Latin Church, this would be akin to something like the scholas of the 2 side chancels) literally descend into the centre of the sanctuary. There they form a single united choir to sing together the katavasia.
During each ode, the deacon leads one of the priests to incense the church and daithful. During the incensation, the priest loudly proclaims, “Christ is Risen!” over and over again. The faithful incessantlyrespond in kind: “Indeed He is Risen!” During the 9th ode, the deacon alone does the incensation and proclaims, “Christ is Risen!” Between the odes, the Little Litany is taken, each being concluded with the appointed Resurrectional ecphonesis.
The Paschal Canon of St. John of Damascus (selections)
O, day of Resurrection! Let us beam with festive joy! This indeed is the Lord’s own Passover, for from death to life, from earth to heaven, Christ has led us, as we shout the victory hymn: “Christ is Risen from the Dead!”
As we gaze upon our dazzling Christ: Behold his Rising – a brilliant flash of light divine! Let all Creation dance in celebration! For Christ has risen: Christ our lasting joy!
Yesterday, my Christ, they buried me with You; Today I rise with You! Yesterday Your partner in death was I; tomorrow, O my Saviour, let me share the glory of your realm!
Hell’s captives saw Your endless loving kindness; they fled with joy to You their Light; Look, behold our Christ triumphant who burst the tomb with glory!
Devoted women followed after You bearing fragrant spices to anoint You; and though they mourned You first with many tears, their gloom was turned to joy in finding You their living God!
They spread the News to all Your friends, O Christ, the joy and gladness of the Mystic Pasch!
Our feast today is death’s own death! Hell is shattered! A new and lasting life begins!
The Paschal Service of Morning Praise
Following Matins, we celebrate what in the Latin Church is termed lauds–the Paschal Service of Morning Praise. The Psalms of Praise appointed for Sundays are Psalms 148, 149, and 150. The Psalm verses are interwoven with the Resurrection Stikhera hymns, such as:
Today a sacred Passover is revealed to us. A new and holy Pascha. A mystical Pascha. Pascha which is Christ the Redeemer. The Great Pascha. A Pascha which has opened for us the gates of Paradise. A Pascha which sanctifies the faithful.
Pascha of beauty! The Pascha of the Lord! Pascha! Pascha ransom from affliction.
Pascha, let us embrace each other joyously.
Let us call brothers even those that hate us and forgive all by the Resurrection!
The Kiss of Peace
After the Service of Morning Praise, the Kiss of Peace of exchanged with great solemnity and joy on this, the Great Day. During the Paschal season, instead of the usual formula used for the Kiss of Peace (“Christ is amongst us!” “He is and He will be!”), we use the Paschal greeting: “Christ is Risen!” “Indeed He is Risen!”
The Paschal Sermon of St. John Chrysostom (excerpts)
…Come, then! Let us all enter into the joy of the Lord! You the first and you the last, receive alike your reward. You rich and you poor, dance together. You with self-control and you who are weak, celebrate this day. You who have kept fast and you who have not, rejoice today. The table is richly laden: enjoy its royal banquet. The calf is fatted, let no one leave hungry.
Let no one mourn their poverty, for the universal Kingdom has been revealed. Let no one weep because they have fallen again and again; for forgiveness has risen from the grave.
Let no one fear death, for the death of our Saviour has set us free. He has destroyed it be enduring it. He has sacked Hell by going into it.
Hell is angered because it has been frustrated. Hell is angered because it has been mocked. Hell is angered because it has been reduced to nothing. Hell is angered because it is now imprisoned. He seized a body, but instead it discovered God. It seized earth and behold, it encountered heaven! It seized what it saw and was overcome by what it did not see! O death, where is thy sting? O Hell, where is thy victory?
Christ is Risen and Hell is annihilated! Christ is Risen and the evil ones are cast down. Christ is Risen and life is liberated! Christ is Risen and the tomb is emptied of the dead: for Christ being Risen from the dead, has become the leader and Reviver of those who have fallen asleep. To Him be glory and power forever and unto the ages of ages. Amen!
The Divine Liturgy of Pascha
After the Sermon of St. John Chrysostom, we begin the Divine Liturgy at the trisagion (the beginning of the Liturgy of the Word), where we festally sing: “All you who have been baptized in Christ have put on Christ. Alleluia!”
This Baptismal Hymn replaces the trisagion on great feast days because such feast days were the occasion of holding baptisms. It is not uncommon to hear this trisagion sung in multiple languages depending on the people in the parish. After the Paschal prokimen Psalm is sung, the reader intones the Epistle reading.
In my earlier work, Theophilus, I dealt with everything Jesus had done and taught from the beginning until the day he gave his instructions to the Apostles… and was taken up to heaven. He had shown himself alive to them after his Passion by many demonstrations: for 40 days he had continued to appear to them and tell them about the Kingdom of God…” (Acts 1:1-8 )
The New Testament cycle of readings begins on Pascha with the reading of Acts of the Apostles. This is the source of the nomenclature of the New Testament reading in the Byzantine Tradition being called the Apostle Reading or the Apostolic Reading. It is chanted from the midst of the congregation, in the center of the sanctuary, facing the East.
The Gospel is then proclaimed. The Paschal Gospel is always John 1:1-17. This is the Johannine Prologue, which is the New Testament’s equivalent of the Genesis creation account: “In the Beginning…” In the Slavic usage, it is common to read the Gospel in as many languages as time and clerical ability will allow. We proclaim on this day in every tongue and to every people that Christ is Risen!
The purpose of this material is to be descriptive in respective to the issues it addresses. While the material is accurate, it is not definitive. Neither is it legalistic in its intent not does it pretend to be normative. It is shared in response to the queries posed to the author in regards to the church’s ancient traditions. All people should seek out and defer in humility to the guidance of their priest, bishop, and Church.