Easter in May? Orthodox Pascha is Worth Waiting For

By PHILIP LeMASTERS

Eastern Orthodox Christians may have hesitated a bit this year on April 5 when friends asked, “How was your Easter?”   The day before we had observed the third Sunday of Lent, not the Lord’s resurrection. Though Orthodox agree with Catholics and Protestants that Easter is on the first Sunday following the first full moon after the vernal equinox, which is set for these purposes at March 21, things quickly get complicated after that.

Philip LeMasters

The Orthodox Church uses the Julian calendar for dates related to Pascha (the most common Orthodox term for the celebration of Christ’s resurrection), which means that March 21 becomes April 3. As well, the ecclesiastical full moon is determined not by modern astronomy, but by lunar cycles that differ from those used by the Western churches.  While Orthodox Pascha is often a week or two later than Western Easter, the difference can be up to five weeks. This year, we will celebrate Christ’s resurrection on May 2, four weeks after Catholics and Protestants.  

The word “Pascha” means “Passover,” which conveys that the risen Christ is our Passover from death to life. Of course, the crucifixion and resurrection occurred in the context of the Jewish Passover. The Orthodox Church views Pascha as the feast of feasts, the high point of the liturgical year that manifests the most fundamental proclamation of the Christian faith: “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!” 

As in Orthodox churches around the world, parishioners at Saint Luke gather late at night in a pitch-black church to await the good news that “Christ is risen!” After processing outside with lit candles, they return to find the church brilliantly illumined and decked out in white. The celebration then continues for at least a couple of hours as congregants sing the joy of the Lord’s victory over death, receive the Eucharist, and exchange the joyful greeting “Christ is risen! Indeed, He is risen!”

When not in a pandemic, the celebration continues with rich food and celebratory beverages in the parish hall. This is the only night of the year when I may not get home until 3 a.m. Thankfully, the next service of the day is at noon and is brief, at least by Orthodox standards. After that, we have another festive meal and turn in early. After several weeks of intensified spiritual disciplines, including austere fasting, we celebrate the joyful season of Pascha with gusto for forty days.   

For Orthodox Christians, Pascha is neither simply an historical remembrance nor a seasonal ritual. It is truly an entrance into the kingdom of heaven and the fulfillment of the human person in God’s image and likeness. Humanity’s slavery to the fear of death, which is the wages of sin, is at the root of our common corruption and misery in the world as we know it. Jesus Christ took the consequences of sin upon Himself, entering fully into death through the cross in order to set us free.  Death could not contain Him, however, for He is not merely human, but also divine. When Christ rose victoriously over death on the third day, He brought all the dead up with Him from Sheol (or Hades, the shadowy place of the dead) into the presence of God. 

The point is not that the Son paid a debt or ransom or somehow satisfied the honor or justice of the Father, but that out of love for suffering humanity, He offered Himself fully in order to make us participants in the eternal life for which He created us in the first place. Eastern Orthodox Christianity has no theory of the atonement, for our liberation from slavery to sin and death is a mystery beyond precise rational definition. The proclamation “Christ is risen!  Indeed, He is risen!” gets to the very heart of how it is possible for people to become participants in eternal life and “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4). Pascha is the great feast of our salvation and well worth waiting for, even until May. 

Father Philip LeMasters is the pastor of Saint Luke Orthodox Christian Church, Abilene, TX.  The parish’s website is www.stlukeorthodox.net. The schedule of services for Holy Week and Pascha is available there.  He also serves as Professor of Religion at McMurry University.  He posts his weekly homilies at https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/easternchristianinsights.

Following is a schedule of Holy Week and Pascha services at St. Luke Orthodox Church, 501 Sunset Drive. Services will be held in-person and will be livestreamed at https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCP7KFlgkXZoDfIpgS3KKp4Q.

“We ask that those attending services in-person wear masks and practice social distancing,” LeMasters said.

Holy Week at St. Luke Orthodox Christian Church

April 23:  Little Compline with Canon for St. Lazarus, 6 p.m.

April 24:  Divine Liturgy for St. Lazarus, 9 a.m.; 5:30 p.m., Great Vespers for Palm Sunday

Apri l 25: Palm Sunday: 9:40 a.m., Hours; 10 a.m., Divine Liturgy; 6 p.m., Bridegroom Matins

April 26: Holy Monday: 6 p.m., Bridegroom Matins 

April 27:  Holy Tuesday: 6 p.m., Bridegroom Matins 

April 28:  Holy Wednesday: 6 p.m., Holy Unction

April 29: Holy Thursday, 6 p.m., Service of the Twelve Passion Gospels 

April 30:  Holy Friday: 10 a.m., Royal Hours; 3:30 p.m., Great Vespers of Taking Down from the Cross; 6 p.m., Lamentations at the Tomb

May 1: Holy Saturday: 10 a.m., Vesperal Divine Liturgy

10 p.m.:  Paschal Matins and Divine Liturgy

May 2:  Pascha: Noon, Agape Vespers

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