One of the special things about living in Wichita is that it is the center of Orthodox Christianity for the midwest. The Antiochene-Orthodox Bishop Basil who resides with the Cathedral of St. George is located here in the middle of Kansas.
For several years now I have wanted to attend the Orthodox worship service called Pascha which is the Orthodox celebration of Easter, the feast of the Resurrection. Several friends over the years have invited me to Pascha but because of commitments to my church I have been unable to attend until now. Here are a few observations:
Orthodox Worship requires endurance. The Pascha service begins at 11 PM and lasts approximately three hours. Many of us are used to worship services that last approximately an hour or hour and a half. When my kids stand with me in our worship service they sometimes complain that their legs are tired and they ask to sit down. This after only 10 minutes! Out of the three hours of worship we sat down for about 10 min! The Orthodox are the “iron-men” of worship.
Orthodox Worship is multi-sensory. The sounds, the smells, the sights are all so out of the ordinary that one can’t help but realize that they are in a special, if not sacred space. The choir leading worship, which was located to the left of the altar area, sang beautifully in English, Greek and Arabic. Worship is dramatic at Pascha. When you enter the sanctuary it is in almost complete darkness. The only lights are the flashlights of the ushers helping you to your seat. Suddenly, small candles begin to appear as the liturgy begins. Then, after a time of prayer and worship, candles are lit throughout the sanctuary and these words are shouted by the priests:
Christ is risen! – Christos Anesti! – Al Maseeh Qam! – Christos Voskrese!
In the light and warmth of the candles the congregation then responds:
Indeed He is risen! – Alithos Anesti! – Haqqan Qam! – Voistinu Voskrese!
The season leading up to Pascha is a multi-sensory experience that includes prayer, worship and fasting. For forty days previous to this night the congregation undergoes a fast from all rich foods such as meat, eggs, cheese, oil and wine. Like Lent in the western church the idea of the fast is to prepare the believer to have a proper experience of God’s grace through a celebration of Jesus’ Resurrection.
This theme of multi-sensory worship includes not only sights, smells, and sounds but also taste. For those who are a part of the Orthodox church they are invited to share in communion toward the end of the service. At the end of the service red easter eggs are brought out in large baskets for everyone to enjoy. The fast has been broken.
Pascha is not just a worship service but a feast. After nearly three hours of worship everyone leaves the sanctuary, proceeds down the hall to enjoy a large and indulgent breakfast. Many people bring their favorite wines and desserts to enjoy. It is a celebration. Everyone is laughing, enjoying one another’s presence and sharing the words: Christ is risen! – Indeed He is risen! It is the middle of the night and the very old, along with babes in arms, are enjoying the festivities and the presence of their fellow believers. By the way, it is after 2 AM.
Pascha is about grace. Let me explain this last part. One of the many critiques that Protestants have had of both the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches is our perception that each religion is focused upon a doctrine of works righteousness. I am no expert in either tradition but I’ll let the Paschal sermon of St. John Chrysostom, read every year, speak for itself. Chrysostom (4th Century AD) means “golden-throat” and he was one of the greatest preachers the church has known. These words are proclaimed to everyone at the Pascha:
If any man be devout and loveth God, let him enjoy this fair and radiant triumphal feast! If any man be a wise servant, let him rejoicing enter into the joy of his Lord.
If any have laboured long in fasting, let him how receive his recompense. If any have wrought from the first hour, let him today receive his just reward. If any have come at the third hour, let him with thankfulness keep the feast. If any have arrived at the sixth hour, let him have no misgivings; Because he shall in nowise be deprived therefore. If any have delayed until the ninth hour, let him draw near, fearing nothing. And if any have tarried even until the eleventh hour, let him, also, be not alarmed at his tardiness.
For the Lord, who is jealous of his honour, will accept the last even as the first. He giveth rest unto him who cometh at the eleventh hour, even as unto him who hath wrought from the first hour.
Indeed, how amazing! God’s grace reaching out to everyone regardless of their position, pride or place. This invitation to receive from God is then physically expressed with food and the extension for friendship. It is only right to end with Chrysostom again:
Let no one fear death, for the death of our Saviour has set us free. he destroyed death by enduring it. Hades is angered because it has been mocked. It seized a Body, and lo, it discovered God. O Hades, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting? Christ is risen, and you are abolished.