Saturday night at midnight we celebrate the great feast of Pascha. After the drama and anguish of reliving Christ’s crucifixion, death and descent into Hell, we await His resurrection with great anticipation.
Orthodox Christians refer to the Feast of Christ’s Resurrection as Pascha (Pasqa in Georgian), with the word derived from the Hebrew “Pascha” meaning Passover. “Easter” is a Germanic word referring to the month in the pagan calender which Pascha was celebrated in the early days of Christianity in northern Europe. It is not incorrect to use the term Easter, but it is usually preferred to use the term Pascha and it eases communication with other Christians throughout the region.
Churches are extraordinarily packed for this event so one needs to arrive at least 90 minutes early to be able to enter the church. Entering around 9 or 9.30 pm is recommended.
The Paschal services are combined end-to-end, with the services running continuously until dawn. Upon entry to the church, you will see the Epitaphios entombed on its table in the centre of the church, surrounded by flowers. The faithful venerate the Epitaphios and await the beginning of the Midnight Office, a service of psalms and odes that reflect upon the meaning of Christ’s death and His Harrowing of Hell.
The Midnight Office culminates with the Epitaphios being moved to the altar by the priest, where it will stay for the forty days until the Feast of the Ascension. The lights are extinguished and, in less crowded circumstances, the congregation will withdraw outside the church with candles. In Georgia’s very crowded cathedrals this is not possible so instead the clergy withdraw outside the church. The whole church is then likened to a tomb, with the faithful waiting outside for the Resurrection and the doors locked.
The clergy will proceed around the church, bearing banners and chanting, and upon reaching the doors of the “tomb”, the Paschal Troparion “Krist’e Aghsdga” is triumphantly sung for the first time.
Christ is risen from the Dead!
Trampling down death by death,
and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!
The triumphant psalm 67 “Let God Arise” is chanted by the priest, with the Paschal Troparion repeated many times.
- Let God arise, let his enemies be scattered; let those who hate him flee from before his face!
- As smoke vanishes, so let them vanish; as wax melts before the fire,
- So the sinners will perish before the face of God; but let the righteous be glad.
- This is the day which the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it!
The doors are opened and the faithful re-enter. The church is brightly lit and symbolic of the empty tomb. The Easter icon replaces the tomb in which the Epitaphios was laid, showing Christ destroying the gates of hell and freeing Adam and Eve from the captivity of death.
The priests will declare: “Krist’e Aghsdga!! (Christ is Risen!!)” , to which the congregation joyfully respond “Cheshmaritad Aghsdga!! (Indeed He is Risen!!). It is not uncommon for the priest to also make this declaration in Greek (Christos Anesti!/Aleithos Anesti!) and Slavonic (Hristos Voskrese!!/Voistuna voskrese!!), with the congregation responding accordingly.
The Paschal Canon of Saint John of Damascus is chanted, with the Paschal Troparion as the constantly recurring refrain. Matins ends with the Paschal stichera:
- O day of resurrection! Let us beam with God’s own pride! Let everyone embrace in joy! Let us warmly greet those we meet and treat them all like brothers, even those who hate us! Let all the earth resound with this song: Christ is risen from the dead, conquering death by death, and on those in the grave bestowing life!
Next, the Paschal Hours are also sung. At the conclusion, the priest proclaims the famous Paschal Homily of St. John Chrysostom.
The Paschal Divine Liturgy begins with the singing once more of the Paschal Troparion with the verses of Psalm 67 . The antiphons of the liturgy are special psalm verses that praise and glorify the salvation of God. Again, the troparion Krist’e Aghsdga is repeated over and over again.
The readings take the faithful back again to the beginning, and announces God’s creation and re-creation of the world through the living Word of God, his Son Jesus Christ. The epistle reading is the first nine verses of the Acts of the Apostles. The gospel reading is the first seventeen verses of the Gospel of Saint John (“In the beginning was the Word”) . The Liturgy of St John Chrysostom continues as usual, and all Orthodox Christians who have made confession will take Holy Communion. For some older people, Pascha may be the only day of the year they take Communion.
Day without evening
To the Orthodox, the celebration of Pascha reveals the mystery of the eighth day. It is not merely an historical reenactment of the event of Christ’s Resurrection. It is a way to experience the new creation of the world, a taste of the new and unending day of the Kingdom of God.
This new day is conveyed to the faithful in the length of the paschal services, in the repetition of the paschal order for all the services of Bright Week (the week following Pascha), and in the special paschal features retained in the services for the forty days until Ascension. Forty days are, as it were, treated as one day.