Easter celebrations for this year are now past. I started the week observing Palm Sunday at Holy Cross Orthodox Church in Yakima, Washington. I was truly treated as a guest. The week ended with Pascha (pah-ska) services early Sunday morning. Attending similar services at Holy Transformation Greek Orthodox Church and St. John Orthodox Cathedral, I sought to witness the joy experienced by those of the Orthodox faith at this peak experience of their church year. (Unfortunately, timing precluded my attending an Orthodox Church of America (formerly Russian Orthodox) service.)
I believe Orthodox Lenten practices, termed Great Lent, are more intense than most of their counterparts in Western Christianity. Adherence to feasting and fasting is markedly different than in Catholicism and other Lent-observing traditions in Western Christianity.
Fasting, prescribed during the Orthodox church year, is most obvious during Great Lent. Originating early in the Christian church, fasting continued practices the Jews had previously followed.
In the Orthodox tradition, fasting means not eating certain foods, during specific days, or periods. Abstaining from other practices, such as marital relations or entertainment, may also be an implicit part of fasts. The focus is on clearing the mind and drawing closer to God, a practice rooted in antiquity. During the first week of Great Lent total fasting is observed weekly, Monday through Wednesday.
“From the second through the sixth weeks of Lent, the general rules for fasting are practiced,” explains the website of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America. “Meat, animal products (cheese, milk, butter, eggs, lard), fish (meaning fish with backbones), olive oil and wine (all alcoholic drinks) are not consumed during the weekdays of Great Lent. Octopus and shell-fish are allowed, as is vegetable oil. On weekends, olive oil and wine are permitted.” According to the Orthodox Church in America, “The Great Feasts (major feasts) of the Orthodox Church are the major celebrations throughout the liturgical year. While various saints and events are celebrated with significance on the local level, the entire Church celebrates together thirteen feasts above all the rest, Pascha and the Twelve Great Feasts.” (The term “feasts” here designates major celebrations during the church year, not a meal.)
Holy Transfiguration Greek Orthodox Church was the site of my first Pascha. At 11:30 p.m. Saturday, I found the Vigil of Holy and Great Pascha underway with prayers and singing. Around midnight the Orthros of the Resurrection began in darkness. A candle flame, lit by the Rev. Vasili Hillhouse, went from person to person until the entire congregation held lit candles. Clergy, celebrants, and congregation processed outside with banners, icons, candles, and the Gospel, and gathered in the courtyard. After the Gospel reading and singing, Hillhouse pounded on the church door with a mallet demanding entrance. A shouted conversation, based on Psalm 24 took place with a challenging interlocutor inside asking, “Who is the King of Glory.” Vasili responded with “The Lord, strong and mighty.” At St. John Orthodox, the service started at 4 a.m. We proceeded out of the church around 4:15 a.m. led by the Rev. Marc Dunaway who passed the flame for all candles. Instead of gathering in front of the cathedral, all proceeded around the church, returning to stand in front of the now closed doors. Similar singing and readings occurred except Dunaway pounded on the church door with a heavy brass cross. He too had a similar dialogue with an interlocutor inside before we were admitted back into the church.
Once back in the church the service continued with the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, including a reading of his famous homilyduring which all stand. Both services, replete with choirs and cantors interspersing choral and congregational music with the spoken liturgy, lasted several hours. The music was beautiful, and shouts of “Christ is Risen,” “He is risen indeed,” echoed joyfully through both churches. At Holy Transfiguration, Hillhouse handed out the traditional red eggs at the conclusion of the Eucharist. At St. John, Dunaway generously blessed participants and Pascha baskets with splashes of holy water at the conclusion of the service.
Newfound friends, Chris and Allison Lineer asked me to sit with them during the St. John service, allowing me to ask questions as I followed the liturgy with liturgy guides. Several other new friends, John and Lesa Morrison, invited me to a post-Pascha breakfast at their nearby home along with three other younger friends. I was introduced to tasty Pascha foods like kulich, traditional Russian bread, spread with Pascha cheese, hot-cross buns, red eggs and other breakfast fare. We sang the Resurrection troparion, a hymn of the day with words relating to the church calendar day it’s sung upon, before the blessing over the food before eating.
For the Orthodox, the week after Pascha is called Bright Week. Reflecting on Bright Week, Lesa Morrison said, “Bright week means to me: a special week of intense enjoyment of the gift of the Resurrection. It seems to stay more in the forefront of my mind during this week than at other times. Bright Monday always literally and figuratively seems brighter than any other day of the year. It truly seems the sun shines brighter during this week. It is also a time of peace and rest after all the intenseness of Lent, Holy Week, and all the services/celebrations of Pascha.”
“After the exuberant blowout festivity of Pascha, it really is impossible to just shut it off and plunk back into ‘the World’ mode,” John Morrison said. “The cognitive and emotional dissonance would simply be too great. My human weakness will eventually prevail and Satan will continue with his campaign of ceaseless distraction. But at least in Bright Week and the remainder of the Paschal season, the veil between our dark world and the bright realm of heaven seems thinner, and the ‘great cloud of witnesses’ more closely felt.”
By the time I got home Sunday morning, I’d been awake 26 hours and attended two Pascha services. But, exhausted as I was, I too felt the joy and meaning of Pascha, and still feel it. Pascha is truly a memorable and important time of year joyfully celebrated by Orthodox Christians genuine in their beliefs.
More Pascha links, references, and music are posted on my website, churchvisits.com.