CHRIST IS RISEN!
It is the theme of the week, “Bright Week” for us Orthodox Christians who struggled and floated through Holy Week while practically living at church. In the ten days starting with Lazarus Saturday and rolling us along through Bright Monday, we had 19 unique services at my parish, including several that were 2-3 hours long. No one participates in all of them, but some people come very close.
Because of frequent changes in the last year as to who can and may sing and chant at which of our services, it fell out that during this Lent and especially Holy Week I had more chanting duties than ever, and all of that reading of Psalms and other prayers contributed to my joy — and fatigue! What time I wasn’t in church in the last twelve days, I gravitated to my bed, or accomplished minimal garden duties.
The service of Matins of Holy Friday, on Thursday evening, is a highlight of the week. Twelve separate Gospel passages are read, seemingly everything written about Christ’s passion. We stand holding candles, and most people sit down after each of the twelve readings for the prayers and hymns that set apart the Gospel passages. The first reading is more than four chapters long: John 13:31 – 18:1. Every year is a little different for me — I’m sure it’s like that for everyone — but whether you are distracted a lot or hardly at all, there is a blessing in just being there in body, and in hearing so many words of Good News, Christ’s willing self-sacrifice for us.
By Friday afternoon we have had three services by which to enter in to the Crucifixion. On Friday evening the services of Holy Saturday begin; Saturday afternoon is the radiant commemoration of Christ’s descent into Hades to free the faithful of the Old Covenant, and His victory over death. The choir leads us in singing “Arise O God; Judge the earth, for Thou shalt have an inheritance among all the nations,” while all over the church people switch out the purple cloths for white. The Old Testament story of Jonah three days in the belly of the whale is read at this service, because Jonah is seen in the Church as a type of Christ Who was three days in the tomb. It’s just one of fifteen Old Testament readings that are interspersed with two long and exultant hymns.
Afterward we go home to rest and eat a little, before returning a few hours later for the culmination of Great Lent and Holy Week, the celebration of the Holy and Glorious Resurrection of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Parishioners have been taking turns reading the Acts of the Apostles continuously since the end of the afternoon service, and do so right up until the beginning of the Pascha services just before midnight. Then all the lights in the church are turned off, and at midnight:
The Light of Christ’s Resurrection “breaks through” when the priest takes the vigil light from the altar and gives it to the faithful, while singing: “Come receive the light, that is never overtaken by night, and glorify Christ, Who is risen from the dead.”
From there the people process out of the church building, where the Gospel account of the empty tomb is read; verses from Psalm 68 are sung — “Let God arise, let his enemies be scattered; let those who hate him flee from before his face!”; and the famous Paschal hymn is joyously chanted by all: “Christ is risen from the dead, by death trampling down upon death, and to those in the tombs He has granted life.” In this way the Church announces to the entire world the glorious news of the Resurrection. The Festal Midnight Liturgy of Easter is celebrated and the faithful partake of the Eucharist in the “Light of the Resurrection.”
The spiritual striving of the Lenten season and the blessed travel through Holy Week has been accomplished, and thus the Joy of the Resurrection is inexplicably palpable for all who have participated in this grace-filled journey.
We missed so much of this experience last year! It doesn’t break neatly into parts, a couple of which can be torn out of the whole and doled out over the Internet on a screen. But our deprivations made us all the more jubilant and grateful this year for our traditional over-the-top way of celebrating. The Death of Death is surely a reality we want to know in our hearts and lives. Somehow all of these Lenten and Holy Week labors empty us and humble us in mysterious ways to make us able to receive the grace of divine Life that is poured out at Pascha.
I stayed to break the fast with a few others afterward, with cheeses and meat, wine and chocolate, and didn’t get home until 4:00 a.m. Then we were back for Paschal Vespers at 1:00 — such a bright service! We couldn’t have our usual big barbecue this year but a few families stayed to picnic and visit all afternoon, and their children had an egg hunt.
Our bishop was with us on Bright Monday for Divine Liturgy, plus friends and deacons from a “sister parish” nearby. It was interesting how I began that hour of worship with so much verve, but about fifteen minutes in felt the weight of the residual exhaustion pulling me into a chair, where I tried to keep my mind awake, please God, for just a few more minutes!
At the end of Bright Monday’s service several of our men singers treated us, in English, to this Georgian Paschal hymn that has become one of my favorites. It must be getting more popular among the Orthodox worldwide, if the number of YouTube videos compared to last year is any indication. I found so many good versions, from cathedral to country folk to quarantine virtual choir, I am going to share several with you, in English and in Georgian.
IN TRUTH HE IS RISEN!