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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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The text of the Holy Saturday Matins is deeply moving and poetic, with very dramatic hymns. It is performed late at 6 a.m. Saturday.

An English translation is provided here, kindly translated by nuns of The Community of Holy Myrrhbearers in  New York.

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On the Wednesday evening of Holy Week, a Liturgy is held at the conclusion of which all the baptised Orthodox Christians in the congregation are anointed with oil, to heal their spiritual and physical ills.

Holy Unction is considered one of the seven sacraments, the others of which are baptism, marriage, chrismation, eucharist, confession, and ordination.

The practice follows Apostolic Tradition, mentioned in the New Testament “…let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven” (James 5:14-15).

The full service is composed of psalms from the Old Testament, hymns of direct supplication to God, and prayers to the saints to intercede for the petitioner. In addition, there are seven readings from the Gospels preceded by seven other New Testament writings, notably the epistlesof Saint Paul and Saint James. After each set of scriptural readings, a prayer is offered on behalf of the penitent by the priestasking for forgiveness and the sanctification of the oil. Traditionally, the service is celebrated by seven priests, but where fewer than seven priests are available (which is often the case), it will be served by at least one.

At the end of the service, the priestputs holy oil on the forehead, eyes, ears, nostrils, lips, chest, and hands of the parishioners in the form of the cross and blesses the recipient.

(From Orthodoxwiki.org)

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If planning a visit to an Orthodox Church for the Paschal Matins on Saturday night, you will hear the hymn “Christ is Risen” (Krist’e Aghsdga) repeated many times throughout the service.

The lyrics, dating back to the earliest days of the church, are:

Krist’e aghsdga mk’vdretit
Sik’vdilita sik’vdilisa
Damtrugunveli da saplavebis shinata
Tskhovrebis minbich’ebeli

In English, the translation is:

Christ is risen, and by dying conquers death.
We need no longer fear the grave. He is the giver of life.

It should be noted that the tense for the hymn is in the present tense; the Resurrection is not just remembered or commemorated in the Orthodox Church, but relived as a current event, with the hand of God reaching through time and space to ensure that the faithful will experience the event just as if they were at the empty tomb on the first Easter morning. The tune is presented here, so feel free to learn the lyrics and sing along on Saturday night. You will hear people singing the hymn on the street for all of Bright Week following Pascha (Easter).

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Today marks the beginning of Holy Week, with the Palm Sunday Matins performed on Saturday night and Palm Sunday Vespers performed on Sunday morning.

Matins is usually the morning service and Vespers the evening service. During Holy Week, the order of these key daily services is reversed and Matins is celebrated the night before the event. The Vespers services are celebrated the following morning. Churches following the Byzantine Rite such as Georgia and Greece follow this custom, although the Slav churches do not.

Reversing the order of the services creates a sensation of the world being in crisis, with events upside-down, and time and space collapsing in upon itself, prompted by the passion our Lord endured for our salvation.

Palm Sunday of course celebrates the triumphal entry of Christ into Jerusalem, a day after he had resurrected his dear friend Lazarus in Bethany. The news of this miracle had preceded him and enthusiastic crowds assembled to greet him, waving palm fronds. The Troparion for Palm Sunday is:

By raising Lazarus from the dead before Your passion,
You did confirm the universal Resurrection, O Christ God!
Like the children with the palms of victory,
We cry out to You, O Vanquisher of death;
Hosanna in the Highest!
Blessed is He that comes in the Name of the Lord!!

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