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We have referred to Saint John Chrysostom many times in this blog. His homilies are as fresh today as when he first uttered them in Constantinople in the late 4th century, and his keen understanding of human nature remains relevant. Saint John Chrysostom has a special place in the hearts of Georgian Christians, as he was deposed by the Roman Empress and exiled to Colchis, where he died in the town of Pitsunda in Abkhazeti. His relics were a site of pilgrimage for many years until relocated to Constantinople.

At the end of the Paschal Matins service on Saturday night, his homily is read out throughout the world to the congregation by the priest, in Greek, Slavonic, Arabic, Georgian, Romanian or whatever vernacular language the bishop may feel appropriate. The homily has a victorious tone which reflects the Orthodox concept of Christ, as a victorious Warrior-King who has battled the Devil and won, broken down the gates of Hell and liberated the souls of the dead to be reunited with their Father. There is no “Gentle Jesus Meek and Mild” concept of Jesus in the Orthodox Church; he is Almighty God, existing before all ages, Lord of the Universe and Conqueror of Death, and the homily reflects this concept very ably.

The homily is particularly poignant for recent converts, as Saint John Chrysostom declares that even those who have joined the Church at the very last hour, late in life or after a dissolute existence, may share in the the redemption granted by Christ’s Resurrection, on equal terms with those who have been faithful Christians since the cradle.

The Greek word “Hades” in Christian usage, represents Hell; the state in which the souls of those who have rejected Christ await their Final Judgement in sorrow, far from God. Until Christ’s entry into the Underworld and his conquest of Death, the souls of all people, good and bad, lived in this state of sorrow. His defeat of the Devil liberated the souls of the righteous to exist in joyful close proximity with God, awaiting the final Resurrection of the Dead.

Note again that Christ’s Resurrection is described in the present tense rather than past tense; the congregation are not commemorating a distant past event but living through a current miracle.

THE PASCHAL HOMILY
If anyone is devout and a lover of God, let him enjoy this beautiful and radiant festival.
If anyone is a wise servant, let him, rejoicing, enter into the joy of his Lord.
If anyone has wearied himself in fasting, let him now receive his recompense.
If anyone has labored from the first hour, let him today receive his just reward.
If anyone has come at the third hour, with thanksgiving let him keep the feast.
If anyone has arrived at the sixth hour, let him have no misgivings; for he shall suffer no loss.
If anyone has delayed until the ninth hour, let him draw near without hesitation.
If anyone has arrived even at the eleventh hour, let him not fear on account of his delay. For the Master is gracious and receives the last, even as the first; he gives rest to him that comes at the eleventh hour, just as to him who has labored from the first. He has mercy upon the last and cares for the first; to the one he gives, and to the other he is gracious. He both honors the work and praises the intention.
Enter all of you, therefore, into the joy of our Lord, and, whether first or last, receive your reward.
O rich and poor, one with another, dance for joy!
O you ascetics and you negligent, celebrate the day!
You that have fasted and you that have disregarded the fast, rejoice today!
The table is rich-laden; feast royally, all of you!
The calf is fatted; let no one go forth hungry!
Let all partake of the feast of faith. Let all receive the riches of goodness.
Let no one lament his poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed.
Let no one mourn his transgressions, for pardon has dawned from the grave.
Let no one fear death, for the Saviour’s death has set us free.
He that was taken by Death has annihilated it!
He descended into Hades and took Hades captive!
He embittered it when it tasted his flesh!
And anticipating this Isaiah exclaimed, “Hades was embittered when it encountered thee in the lower regions.”
It was embittered, for it was abolished!
It was embittered, for it was mocked!
It was embittered, for it was purged!
It was embittered, for it was despoiled!
It was embittered, for it was bound in chains!
It took a body and, face to face, met God!
It took earth and encountered heaven!
It took what it saw but crumbled before what it had not seen!
“O Death, where is thy sting? O Hades, where is thy victory?”
Christ is risen, and you are overthrown!
Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen!
Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice!
Christ is risen, and life reigns!
Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in a tomb!
For Christ, being raised from the dead, has become the First-fruits of them that slept.
To him be glory and might unto ages of ages. Amen.

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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.

Pascha at Sameba (Holy Trinity) Cathedral, Tbilisi

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.

Side chapel at Sioni Cathedral, Tbilisi

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.

(from Orthodoxwiki.com)

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