Easter is when life vanquishes death

Fr. Barnabas Powell relates to those who have not experienced Orthodox Holy Week and Pascha the essence of those holy days.

Photo: Victor Korniushin / Pravoslavie.ru Photo: Victor Korniushin / Pravoslavie.ru
    

For Orthodox Christians around the world, tonight is the most important of the year. This is Pascha, the feast of feasts and holy day of holy days -- the celebration of Christ's resurrection.

Western Easter has passed. But for Orthodox Christians who follow an older calendar, last Sunday was Palm Sunday -- the beginning of a Holy Week filled with services that took us through the final days of Christ's ministry.

On Sunday, Monday and Tuesday evenings, he shared his final teachings with us. On Wednesday, one of us betrayed him. On Thursday, he revealed himself as the Passover lamb, sacrificed to deliver us from the Egypt of sin and its Pharaoh, the Devil.

But that very night, we nailed him to a cross -- nailing a wooden icon of his body to a cross in the midst of the church. There he hung as prayers were offered through Friday afternoon, when he was taken down and that icon replaced with a cloth one of his body lying in the tomb.

Friday night, we sang his funeral service and carried his shroud in a procession around the church, where all bent to pass beneath it as we re-entered, signaling our dying with him. We kept watch before his tomb, reading Psalms until the rising of the sun.

Now, Christ lies still in that tomb, resting to fulfill the Sabbath. And this afternoon, we'll return for a Liturgy that inaugurates a transition from darkness to light, as dark vestments are changed to white.

But tonight brings the main event. When I arrive at church around 10 p.m, no lights will be on or candles lit. All will be shrouded in darkness. Feeling my way, I'll vest and prepare the Eucharistic elements.

As the midnight office begins, I'll make out the dim silhouettes of faithful gathered around the tomb, as I cense the burial shroud. Suddenly, I'll lift up that shroud and bear it into the altar. The tomb is empty. Life has vanquished death.

I'll come from the altar again, now bearing the light that could not be overtaken by night. One by one, the faithful approach to light their candles from mine, and we begin a procession around the church, singing hymns of resurrection.

On the front porch, I'll proclaim that event emphatically, shouting, "Christ is risen!" to which the faithful respond, "Indeed, He is risen!" The resurrection services have truly begun -- and will last until three in the morning.

Afterward, we'll share a meal of the first meat and dairy products we've eaten in more than a month. This will be a marvelous feast, but the true and filling feast will be the feast of faith -- which never grows stale, and never runs out.

As we leave, the sun's first rays and singing of the birds will proclaim it, too -- that Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.

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