Fr. Evan Armatas: Welcome again to Orthodoxy Live, the live call-in show about the Orthodox faith, her teachings and traditions. You’re listening to a special program, a second recording on Holy Week or Great Week with Fr. Evan, the host of Orthodoxy Live here on Ancient Faith, and I’m joined once again by the president and CEO of Ancient Faith Ministries, John Maddex. John, welcome again to Orthodoxy Live.
Mr. John Maddex: Thank you, Fr. Evan. We had a great time talking about the first part of Holy Week, so I’m really looking forward to this program as we think about the actual Passion of Christ.
Fr. Evan: It’s interesting because when I began to look at my resources for this week and consider putting together a special, I thought, “Boy, how are we ever going to get this into one hour?”
Mr. Maddex: And we didn’t. [Laughter]
Fr. Evan: Well, we had good intentions…
Mr. Maddex: We did, yeah.
Fr. Evan: ...but you know what they say about that.
Mr. Maddex: Yeah, but so much, so much good stuff. I’m glad that we took the time.
Fr. Evan: Yeah, there really is so much here, and I love the recommendation you gave in the previous program about acquiring the texts of the services for yourself. I don’t know… Many churches now do provide a service book with the texts, and that was true of the parish I grew up in, but nevertheless I remember my parents buying each of us our own Holy Week book so that we could have it as a prayer book of devotion. I think the recommendation you gave is wonderful. There’s so many wonderful hymns and prayers within Holy Week that we can be reading throughout the year that it’s worth having our own copy.
Mr. Maddex: It is, and even if you can’t find it—and we’ll provide a link where these are available—but even if you can’t get that, so much of this is now available online.
Fr. Evan: Yeah, the internet has changed everything.
Mr. Maddex: Exactly.
Fr. Evan: I was commenting recently to a parishioner of mine who is older, like myself—I’m not old, but I’m old enough that I remember a time without the internet, and I certainly went to school in a time when the internet was not part of our reality—and he said, “The internet has rendered my purchase of many books useless.”
Mr. Maddex: And as a publisher I didn’t exactly want to hear that.
Fr. Evan: Well, I have to say that it’s interesting because certain texts, whether they’re available online or not, I still purchase them, because having them… It’s not the same, sitting in front of your vigil lamp in the middle of the night, praying before the icon of the Lord, with [an] iPad.
Mr. Maddex: Well, yeah. To say nothing of standing in a service with candlelit… and following along in the text in a book is one thing, but with your iPad light shining up in your eyes is quite something else.
Fr. Evan: Quite different, yeah, and I think some of these texts, especially the way that they are published renders them so beautiful in a physical form.
So we’re going to try here to take the second part of the week. In our previous program on Holy Week we got ourselves through Wednesday, and we’d already encountered some differences between different traditions. I think you had some questions yourself as to: “Boy, what is it that my parish does?” and if you’ve gone to more than one church or one jurisdiction you may be confused because you’ve seen different things.
Mr. Maddex: Right, yeah, and I kind of forget: “Now where was I when we did that one?”
Fr. Evan: Right, and that’s okay. Again, I reiterate the point that having some difference and some distinctive characteristics to a community is Orthodox. There’s nothing wrong with that.
Mr. Maddex: That’s right.
Fr. Evan: There are certain things, obviously, that the Church doesn’t bend on. We do the services and we pray the same prayers, but how it’s conducted, how it’s sung, the movements—they vary a bit, and that’s okay. Then, of course, we can’t process at my church very easily outside, so we have to modify things. Some churches were not built as Orthodox churches, so the insides of the church don’t work well with some of the ways that we worship as Orthodox, so some parishes modify that way. Again, these are all okay. This is what happens in a universal Church.
Mr. Maddex: You do what you can with what you have.
Fr. Evan: Yeah, and certainly our God is gracious enough and not scrupulous with us, and he honors the intent and the heart more than he honors the exterior expression.
Mr. Maddex: That’s for sure. It’s a good thing.
Fr. Evan: Yeah, it’s a good thing. So we concluded with sort of Holy Wednesday, Great Wednesday, and some of the services and themes that accompanied it, and I mentioned in the previous podcast if people haven’t yet listened to it that the Church orders herself using the synoptic gospels for the beginning of the week, but the gospel of John really seems to take over moving into the second half of the week.
Mr. Maddex: Holy Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Pascha.
Fr. Evan: Yeah. And we also mentioned that for some jurisdictions there’s also the oddity of when and how these services are celebrated. In other words, we’ve transposed many of the services a half a day back so that we’re off in the daily cycle, the daily cycle of prayer by half a day, but we’re also off in the historical reality. So, for example, in my parish on Thursday evening, in the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese, we celebrate the Matins of Friday morning, which is the readings of the twelve gospels. This is the service of Christ’s crucifixion. Well, that’s kind of confusing, because Christ is crucified on a Friday, isn’t he?
Mr. Maddex: Yeah, but when I saw that, and I think that’s true in OCA and Antiochian parishes as well, when I saw that I thought, “Well, yeah, the evening and the morning are the first day, so that’s considered the next day when you get to the evening service.”
Fr. Evan: Yeah, there’s a lot of things at play here when you consider Orthodox worship and the way that the Church views time and space. Quite different [from] how we as Westerners would view it, but I think it’s important at least for the chronology that we’re about to enter to remind our listeners that we’re going to follow John, and John does something quite profound in his gospel. He describes the Lord’s crucifixion at the time in which Jews would have brought their lambs to the temple to be slaughtered, and this was a big thing. It’s an industry in the scope and scale in the ancient world that would have been staggering.
You have pilgrims from all over the Diaspora, pious Jews who have arrived into Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. We mentioned in an earlier program that this is really the framework for the Christian celebration of Pascha. And they would have brought their spotless lambs to the temple, and the temple was a complex. We maybe don’t understand the scope and size and just how massive [it was]. It was not only a religious center, but it was an economic center, it was a social center, it was a vast and complicated industry, if you will.
Mr. Maddex: And just think of it from a practical standpoint: all of these animals brought in for slaughter. I mean, it had to be a bloody place.
Fr. Evan: Yeah, and there’s some wonderful books out about the temple and its structure. And there was, obviously, for this rite, the Jews had constructed special pits for the draining of the blood, the hanging of the lambs, so this was something done on a massive scale, but nevertheless, think of the commotion that accompanies the slaughter of so many animals and, as you said, the blood. And it’s during this that John has the Lord going up onto the cross.
So on Friday he’s crucified, and on Saturday he is in the tomb, on the Sabbath, and then on Sunday he is rising from the dead. So this chronology that John presents is the chronology the Church uses and follows during this part of Great Week. Let’s get into the services, John, and some of their meaning and what’s going on.
Mr. Maddex: Okay, Holy Thursday.
Fr. Evan: So Holy Thursday, in the morning or, in some parishes, this is going to be done, if their jurisdiction is following a different time order for the services… there’s a service for the Mystical Supper. It’s a vesperal Liturgy; that means it’s a Liturgy set within the context of the vespers, which is a service that comes about at the time of the sunset. And this Liturgy is an opportunity for us as Christians to give primary and special attention to the mystery of the Eucharist. We consider in the hymns and in the readings and in the service itself the place and meaning of the Eucharist within the life and ministry of Jesus Christ.
It’s a powerful thing to consider that as the Lord makes his way through his ministry and eventually, after three years, he enters triumphantly into Jerusalem, he himself earnestly desired to eat this last Passover meal with his disciples. And this was a meal that Jews shared, the Passover meal. It’s still a meal that many Jews continue to celebrate. But in this specific Passover meal with his disciples, Jesus does something different in the upper room. He takes bread and he takes wine, and he offers a traditional blessing, but something more. He transmits into this service a reality that would have been unexpected, I think, to the disciples, and it becomes such a powerful experience for them that it’s something they continued to live out after our Lord is taken away from them.
It is connected in some ways with the theme of the Bridegroom in the part of the week that we just passed. If you think about the earliest fasting of Christians, it was a fast that was instituted because the Bridegroom had now become absent. Do you remember that passage where the Lord is challenged? “How come your disciples don’t fast?” And he says, “Well, how can they?”
Mr. Maddex: You don’t do that when the Bridegroom is with you.
Fr. Evan: Right, it’s just like us saying, “How come when you go to a wedding you guys eat cake and dance?” Well, you’re at the feast! That’s what you do.
Mr. Maddex: Exactly.
Fr. Evan: But what if the Bridegroom was taken away? Would you fast? And the Lord says, “In that day, my disciples will fast.” And when is that fast broken? Well, the fast is broken in the reception of the Bridegroom, in the Eucharist. So Christians fast right before the Eucharistic assembly, and then they break the fast by eating the Body and Blood of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in the Bread and the Wine.
So we take a special service, and we consider this institution of the Eucharist by Christ and its centrality to the sacramental life, the liturgical life. It’s the great mystery of grace and in a sense all of the mysteries of the Church—weddings, baptisms, even ordinations—everything is connceted to this central sacrament and mystery.
Mr. Maddex: “Eating, O Master, with thy disciples, thou hast mystically revealed thy holy death which delivers us from corruption who honor thy sacred passion.”
Fr. Evan: The hymns from this service are so powerful. They take the different realities that we encounter in the synoptics and in John. And I would tell our readers, if you look at the central reading of that Liturgy, it really looks at John 6, and I would say: Listeners, go back and read John 6. It’s quite obvious what the Lord is saying there and how it’s a challenge to the Jews. And that would have been on the minds of these Jewish disciples. They were there when Jesus said, “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in him, and I will raise him up at the last day.” And they would have thought, probably like the Jews who were listening, “How is this man going to give us his flesh to eat?” And the Lord, answering: “My flesh is food indeed.” And he’s not being symbolic. The Jews who were hearing that had a hard time!
Mr. Maddex: And if he was being symbolic, it wouldn’t be such a mystery.
Fr. Evan: No, no, and you wouldn’t have verse 66 of John’s gospel, which basically says, “From that time, many of his disciples went back and walked with him no more.”
Mr. Maddex: It was scandalous.
Fr. Evan: Yeah, it was scandalous, and yet this is the mystery in the center of John’s gospel that is now, not acted out, but realized. In the synoptics, Jesus says, “I’ve longed to eat this with you,” and how “I will not eat it with you again until I eat it with you anew in my Father’s kingdom.” What? So it wasn’t a single act in time. It wasn’t as we’ve come to call it in the West, “The Last Supper.” No, it wasn’t a Last Supper. We eat this Supper all the time. This is the Supper of the kingdom. This is the Mystical Supper. This is the Supper of the kingdom, the banquet that we go to. The bridal feast involves a meal.
We see this in the Old Testament, don’t we? When Melchizedek meets up, what do they do? They bring out bread and wine, that priest without beginning or end in the Old Testament, who is Christ preincarnate. The meal is something that the Lord looks forward to sharing, but also anticipates sharing in the resurrected reality, so that’s the story of Luke going from Jerusalem to Emmaus with Cleopas. On the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus and they meet the risen Lord, and what does he do at the end of his encounter with them? He takes out the bread, he blesses and breaks it, and vanishes, because the knowing of the Lord, the risen Lord, comes through the mystery of the Eucharist.
So the Church realizes that if we’re going to really understand the celebration of our Lord’s death and resurrection, his pouring out of his blood and life for the salvation of the world and of his resurrection, we have to consider the Eucharist, because this is part of the story and the central mystery of it. So we can say in this Eucharist we feed on the risen Body and Blood of Christ. This is why the Church uses leavened bread, and this is why the Church adds hot water to the wine. And this life-sustaining act is for us a means of participating in the heavenly banquet now. How does the Liturgy begin? “Blessed is the kingdom of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”
It’s an interesting thing that in the Liturgy, time kind of goes away, John, and we’re already in the Resurrection. We’re already in the bridal feast.
Mr. Maddex: It’s beautiful.
Fr. Evan: Yeah, we’re already with the reality of the risen Lord. This is how the risen Lord is known to his community.
Not only all of these things, but it is also a means in which God reconciles himself to man. God uses this great mystery and provides man a means of entering into his presence. How is God going to get us into his presence? He does it through this meal, and he washes man clean. Here the imagery of Isaiah is important. Isaiah’s sitting there in the temple in Isaiah 6, and he’s seeing God act, and he’s going, “Oh my gosh, God’s looking for a messenger. What am I going to do? I’m a man of unclean lips. I can’t be in the presence of the Lord! Uh-oh. What am I going to do?” And then he makes a fatal error. He says, “Here I am, God!” [Laughter] “I’ll go!”
Mr. Maddex: And he gets a hot coal…
Fr. Evan: He gets a hot coal, which all the Fathers of the Church see as a prefigurement of the Eucharist. He gets a hot coal. God cleanses him. God says, “I’ll take care of this. You’re a man of unclean lips: I’ll put this in your mouth, and it will cleanse you and make you clean.” So God washes us with himself. He cleanses us.
It’s interesting, too, because in the garden of Eden, when Adam and Eve fall away from God they go and hide, and God shows up and he says, “Where are you?” And then here in Isaiah 6, God’s in his council and Isaiah steps forward, and then what do we have to do when we attend a Divine Liturgy? We have to step forward. We have to go up to the altar of God. And we have to utter the words of the thief on the cross: “Remember me, Lord, when thou comest into thy kingdom.”
Man, only the Lord himself could have really inspired the Church to assemble these divine services and use the biblical imagery and ideas in such a profound and intricate way. Man couldn’t have thought of this. But, John, the last notes that I would say is that the Eucharist reminds us that the salvation of man is not merely a human endeavor. Through the Eucharist we receive—note the word “receive”—we receive Christ. And it is for man his means of participating in the Cross and the Resurrection. It’s his means of participating in the entire redemptive work, the entire economy of God. We do that in all the sacraments. We do that in the mystery of baptism. We participate in the death and resurrection. And we especially do it here in the Eucharist.
One other thought here, John, is that in this service the Church sanctifies—we ask the Holy Spirit to come and sanctify—a reserve host so that on the paten during this Liturgy there are two lambs, that is, the little section that is excised from the oblation bread with the initials ICXC NIKA—“Jesus Christ is victorious.” This lamb—there’s two of them—one will be served to the faithful during the Liturgy; the other will be set aside and placed in the tabernacle that’s on the altar so that there’s always a reserved portion of the risen Body and Blood of Christ on the altar. It’s one of the reasons why, when we come into the church, we might bow or cross ourselves when we cross paths with the altar or go in front of it. But that’s the portion of the Eucharist that the priest or deacon will use to take to the sick and the dying throughout the year.
Mr. Maddex: And what if that is unused? I don’t want to go off on a tangent here.
Fr. Evan: No, it’s a simple and practical question. I was just about to actually say what we do with the reserve sacrament from the previous year is consume it at the end of the Liturgy.
Mr. Maddex: Okay, all right.
Fr. Evan: That happens at every Liturgy. We consume the unused portions of the Eucharist, in a special service that takes place on the table of oblation. Some of us may have seen that service; we might have been invited to read the post-Communion prayers with the clergy. Quite a beautiful service.
Mr. Maddex: Yeah, it is.
Fr. Evan: Now, John, the other liturgical act or service that occurs in many of our parishes is the Nipsis... I’m sorry; I said that word incorrectly in Greek. I’ll just say it in English: the Washing of the Feet. This is a service that comes to us from John 13:2-17, and it is also an event connected with the Eucharist and commemorated in the Church as an event that embodies Christ’s humility and his service to mankind. It’s interesting to note, of course, that this service to mankind is comprehended by different people in different ways. We see Peter struggle with it, right?
Mr. Maddex: Yeah.
Fr. Evan: And even in the icon, he’s shown kind of rubbing his forehead, like: “I don’t get this!”
Mr. Maddex: And the Lord kind of gets a little impatient with him, in a righteous way, of course.
Fr. Evan: Yeah, he says, “If you don’t have a part to play in this, if you’re not going to accept this, then you have no part in me.” So then Peter says, “Wash not only my feet, but my head,” in other words, practically thinking…
Mr. Maddex: “Give me a bath.”
Fr. Evan: Totally, right? And so the God-man is come to serve, not to be served. We’re reminded of that. So in a lot of our churches the priest will conduct the service, and he washes the feet of the faithful.
Mr. Maddex: Now, I have not seen a foot-washing service in Orthodoxy yet, so that does happen?
Fr. Evan: Yes, it does, and it’s a beautiful service. In many of the cathedrals, the bishop will do it, and he’ll wash the feet of his priests. It’s a service that I have a feeling is going to slowly move its way back into our churches. It’s sort of like the canon of St. Andrew. It’s something, as a child, I’d never even heard of, but you know what the canon of St. Andrew is.
Mr. Maddex: Yeah, that’s right.
Fr. Evan: That first great week of Lent, and, boy, that’s something. And it’s even done in its entirety in the last week of Lent.
Mr. Maddex: The week of the sore back.
Fr. Evan: Yeah, and knees and thighs and all the rest from all the prostrations. Same with this service of the Washing of the Feet. It’s a service of the Church that I think has lost its place, but it’ll… As the Church does, she remembers and brings back in its complete and total glory all that she has for the faithful.
Mr. Maddex: I’d love to see that.
Fr. Evan: Yeah, it’s beautiful. It’s an act that is connected with the Cross and God’s love for his creation, and likewise it’s an act that allows all of us to see and understand how we can accept the love of God, and that’s an important thing. Part of Peter’s problem is that he has a difficult time accepting the love of God, and that’s a problem that many of us have.
John, we move to the last service that is often on Thursday evening, but it’s the orthros of Great Friday, and that’s the reading of the twelve gospels, and unfortunately, John, this is the service that everybody says, “I’m not going to that one.”
Mr. Maddex: [Laughter]
Fr. Evan: “It’s too long.”
Mr. Maddex: It’s long, but you’re missing a lot if you don’t go.
Fr. Evan: Oh, yeah. It’s really a service in which the themes of betrayal, the trial, and, of course the crucifixion and death and even the burial of Christ come up. And we see in this service really the ultimate victory of sin, death. Even the Author of Life now dies on a cross. The whole pageantry of Satan’s evil hatred of God and the demonic reality breaks forth, and the ugliness that the opponents of Christ wish to visit upon him. And we pray in a special way in this service at the reading of the gospels: “Glory to thy forbearance, O Lord; glory to you.”
The Church realizes: “Boy, here the Master of the universe, the Creator of all, is subject to the humility of death, but death on a cross.”
Mr. Maddex: It’s just amazing. It’s all there in that service. You can’t come away from that service and say that the Orthodox Church is not a biblical Church, can you?
Fr. Evan: No, we just read the entire accounts of his crucifixion, basically from start to finish in all four of the gospels. That’s what we do this whole week is we just keep reading and reading and reading. It’s like, if you’ve never read the Bible, at least the New Testament, you’ll hear it if you come to church.
Mr. Maddex: You’ll hear it then.
Fr. Evan: And the liturgical acts of this service are quite powerful. We read, of course, the twelve gospels, and in many of our parishes there’s sort of a ritualistic lighting of twelve candles that accompanies that, but the liturgical act that most of us probably remember most is the procession of the icon of the Crucified One. This is the special cross with the icon of Christ crucified that stands behind our altars in our Orthodox churches. It’s that large cross with almost a life-size icon of Christ crucified, and this is processed during the service, and while it’s processed, that incredible hymn of the 15th antiphon is sung, that great hymn, “Today Is Hung Upon the Cross.” Powerful, powerful, and often the bells are tolled at that point. We have an opportunity ourselves to enter into the mystery and the sadness of the Lord’s death.
Mr. Maddex: “He who hung the earth upon the waters is hung upon the Cross.”
Fr. Evan: And that cross is processed around the church and then placed in the middle of the church, and then the faithful are invited to come up and venerate the cross. So the Church tries to reverse what happened. In other words, what did most people do when the Lord was crucified? All but two fled, and now the Church asks the faithful to come forward, to come forward and venerate the cross, and they do that during the service.
Mr. Maddex: Again, if you’re familiar with the service and you think about the hymnody sung and the way that it is sung in your parish, I’m sure you are humming that now and rejoicing over its beauty.
Fr. Evan: Yeah, and so then we move now into the Friday morning service, which is the Royal Hours. John, it would help probably for most of our people to recognize that the hours are a service—or a number of services—that is part of the daily office of prayer. And the Church has four hours, and each hour bears a numerical name. We have to imagine time as it’s kept in the ancient world.
Mr. Maddex: Right, right, and you find that right in the New Testament, in case you’re thinking this is something that was invented later: nope, it’s right there in the Bible.
Fr. Evan: Yeah, Peter is on the rooftop in Acts, praying at the time of the hours, at the hour of prayer, when he has his vision about the blanket and the animals. But the names to these hours are: first, which is approximately sunrise; third, which is mid-morning or 9:00 a.m.-ish; sixth is noon; and ninth hour is mid-afternoon, around 3:00 p.m.
Each hour in the daily office has a particular theme. Throughout the year, in the first hour, we read a prayer that recognizes the coming of Christ as the true Light. So as the sun’s coming up, we recognize the true Sun of righteousness. In the third hour, at 9:00 a.m., we commemorate the descent of the Holy Spirit. Then in the sixth hour, around noon, the Passion and Crucifixion of Christ. And in the ninth hour, the death and burial of Christ.
Mr. Maddex: Again, these are done every day. These are not just for Holy Week.
Fr. Evan: Yeah, every day, and you can learn the prayers of the hours. You can get them online. You get them in a service book. You can learn them. They’re very short prayers. And then as you get to those different parts of the day, you can just say that prayer to yourself. With the hours, there’s usually three psalms that are read, the Lord’s Prayer, some hymns and the prayer “At all times…” is read, and then the prayer of the hour.
Now, on Great Friday, just like we saw this at Epiphany or for the Nativity, the order of things is disrupted, and we see a vast expansion of the hymns and Scripture readings. While eventually in the monastic communities the hours are sort of combined with other services—so first hour is often combined with the matins service or the orthros service, and the third and sixth hour are combined and read around late morning, and ninth hour comes before vespers, some of us who’ve been going to Great Lent services, we may have heard the ninth hour read before the Presanctified—on Great Friday, something very unusual happens. We take first, third, sixth, ninth hour, and we put them all together, and there’s one service.
During that service, basically, we’re going to read through the psalms, the Prophets, the New Testament, and the epistles that relate to the great event of Christ’s Passion, death, and coming Resurrection. So typically what’s done at this service is simply a podium is set up and the Scriptures are brought out and the community listens to the Scriptures that are associated with Holy Week. It’s a long service, but a beautiful service, one of my favorites, because we just sit there and read Scripture.
Mr. Maddex: I was going to say: leave your watch at home.
Fr. Evan: Yes.
Mr. Maddex: Just come and drink it in.
Fr. Evan: Yeah, and then what happens, John, is usually after the service, this is when the faithful start to decorate the tomb of Christ. Many of our churches have a beautiful wooden structure. In Greek it’s known as the kouvouklion. And they decorate this tomb now with flowers and set it out. So on the center of the church, you’ll have the Crucified One, and then his tomb is now displayed. So we start to bring out liturgical items that bring the story and the narrative into a real sense, like you were talking about at the beginning of this program.
The faithful stay usually on Great Friday from the morning through the evening, and after the service they’re decorating the tomb of Christ. I should have said that on Great Thursday, or the service of the Mystical Supper that we celebrate, usually after that service, that’s usually when the faithful come to church and begin to dye and polish the red eggs that will be eaten at the Paschal Vigil.
Mr. Maddex: And just a little plug here…
Fr. Evan: Yeah, that’s a beautiful book you sent me!
Mr. Maddex: A brand-new book for children: The Miracle of the Red Egg from Ancient Faith Publishing. It’s available at our store.
Fr. Evan: Yeah, really neat book. After this service, John, there’s a little gap in the day, and then there’s a vespers of Great Friday, and it’s a service that’s for many of us known as the service of the taking down from the Cross. It is a service in the Church that concludes the commemoration of the Lord’s Passion, and now we’re turning our attention towards the Lord’s descent into Hades, and there’s even a hint, a sense, that we’re going to come to his Resurrection. The Church even changes her vestments here, and we go from the purple to red. There’s sort of a lightening, a brightening if you will. The Church is kind of, at this point, going: We know what’s coming. We’re ready. We’re barely containing ourselves at this point.
Mr. Maddex: Chomping at the bit.
Fr. Evan: Right, and it’s a beautiful service. I love this service, because in it we read through the gospel in which Joseph goes and asks for the body of Jesus. This is a tradition that came out of Antioch, John, and it’s one of the later traditions that’s been added to Holy Week, but it’s a tradition that they kept at the Church of Antioch. It probably goes back quite a while in Antioch, but the rest of the Orthodox world didn’t know of it, but eventually it’s made its way into the rest of the Orthodox world.
So we take the icon of the Crucified One off the cross. Many of our churches have this cross that’s got the, like I said, life-size icon of Christ on it, and it can be removed, and we take it down, and the priest very reverently wraps it in a clean linen shroud and places this body of the Crucified One at the back of the altar. Then the Church, instead of using that icon, has a tapestry with the Crucified One on it. Have you seen this before, John?
Mr. Maddex: Oh, yes. Yeah.
Fr. Evan: It’s beautiful. It’s known as an epitaphios, which simply means that which goes upon the tomb. And it’s a tapestry that depicts the Lord being prepared for burial. It’s quite beautiful. It’s a larger version of the antiminsion, which is that special cloth given to each parish that [lies] on the altar on which the priest celebrates the Liturgy.
Mr. Maddex: Signed by the bishop.
Fr. Evan: Signed by the bishop, yeah, which is really the transportable church. If we need to go someplace because we’re being persecuted, we just take the antiminsion and go. But the epitaphios is processed by the priest, and in the older rite it was really a beautiful thing. Several priests would take part. They’d hold the various corners with the senior priest being under, holding the gospel. Most of our parishes only have one priest now, so he just carries it himself, but he processes this icon of the crucified Lord through the nave and the faithful, and then he brings it and lays it in that tomb that had been decorated after the service of Royal Hours. There it remains for the next service.
We’re headed to that Friday evening service, which is the orthros of Saturday, known as the service of the Lamentation, where the tomb of Christ is processed. That’s the central liturgical act. In this service, the Church is once again considering the theme of Christ’s descent into Hades and his entombment and how he goes into the place of the dead and he defeats it. It really is a service of the funeral of Christ. Can you imagine the Church celebrates the funeral of Jesus Christ? We focus on the tomb. We focus on this tomb of Christ which is not an ordinary place of death. Rather, the place of the dead receives the Author of Life, and this dead One will not see corruption.
Instead, his tomb, which all of our altars symbolize—all of our altars, all of our baptismal fonts, they symbolize the tomb of Christ which issues forth Christ; that’s why they’re often decorated with vine motifs: life comes out of that tomb—this Christ who’s laid in the tomb is the Source and Power of Life. So he bursts asunder the confines of Hades. He despoils it, and he takes away Satan’s dominion. And the reality of the Author of Life becomes the Firstborn of the dead.
Some of the Fathers, they speak about… on this day, as we celebrate this service, Christ descends into a new type of rest, a new Sabbath, and as he descends into Hades, as the Church remembers his resting in the tomb, he prepares a new creation, because he’s going to emerge from the tomb with his body, but in a sense not recognizable. In this service, the path of the Resurrection is being prepared. I think that’s something that we miss, that when we celebrate this funeral service, one of the reasons why the Church… It has a different feel, right, John? You’re at this service and we’re seeing the Lamentations before the tomb of Christ, and there’s almost a joy, there’s almost a buzz. There’s a spiritual reality that I think is being communicated, that right now Christ is preparing the path of resurrection for me. He’s going into the jaws, the maw of death, and he’s going to wipe it out.
Mr. Maddex: And I’ll tell you, it’s palpable when you go to those services. It really is.
Fr. Evan: Yeah, so here’s that liturgical act, John. We sing the Lamentations before the tomb of Christ, which are funeral songs. They’re quite beautiful. There’s many stanzas. Each church kind of picks how many they’ll do, or your bishop tells you how many, but they’re beautiful hymns. Oh my gosh. These are the hymns that, when I start to sing these hymns, I choke up every year. They’re so powerful. Short little hymns, so easily remembered. I remember the first time I heard them in Africa. No matter where you in the world, you hear these hymns and they strike you to the core.
After the singing of these hymns, there’s different traditions, but most parishes have the priest at the singing of these hymns, he sprinkles the faithful with rosewater, just like the body of Christ was anointed with sweet-smelling spices. We’re in a sense preparing you for your burial. This is the service that is the funeral of Christ, but in a sense it’s the service that’s your own funeral.
Mr. Maddex: Interesting.
Fr. Evan: As we go through, we then eventually take up the tomb with the epitaphios and we process out into the night. We take our Light into the darkness. And we process Christ in the tomb, and we process our symbol of victory, and we take it out and around the church or through our neighborhood or wherever it might be. And eventually that’s brought back to the church and placed on risers before the entrance of the church, and usually the priest stands there with the gospel and still that’s a little vessel that we sprinkle you with, and the people, the faithful, come and venerate the gospel, are sprinkled with that sweet-smelling water, and they go under the tomb and enter into the church. This reality is a reliving of our baptismal commitment. It’s a reliving of the reality of the tomb, that for us to enter into life, we ourselves must enter the tomb. So it’s, as I said, like living out your own funeral service before you go. People would always say, “I wish I could be at my funeral service so I could see who shows up.”
Mr. Maddex: In a sense, you can.
Fr. Evan: Yeah, or “What people are going to say about me.” Well, here you have your chance to go to your own funeral service, to live your funeral service. You’re going to go through and under the tomb of Christ, which is your own entrance into death, and then enter into the church, the space of Life.
Then the tomb is brought back into the church and up onto the center of the church, the middle, and then the priest very reverently lifts off the epitaphios, the tapestry of the Crucified One, takes it in and processes it around the altar, and lays it now on the altar where it will stay for the Paschal season. He’ll celebrate the Liturgies now on that tapestry.
Then the service concludes, and as the faithful come up to receive a flower from the tomb of Christ, they take that home to place in their prayer corners. I remember my grandmothers and my mother, from all the years of going to those services, and all the flowers from the tomb of Christ, they had them in a little vessel in their prayer corner and they dried them, and the sweet, musty smell that still came from those flowers…
I should say, John, we failed to mention it, but in so many of these services, starting with the services of the Bridegroom, the Church sets something out for us to come and venerate, pay special attention to. The tomb of Christ is one of those things.
So, John, this takes us again to what you’ve been anticipating: the service of Saturday morning on Great Saturday, which is really the vigil service that may be celebrated in many of our services on Saturday evening, early evening. It is my favorite Liturgy of the year.
Mr. Maddex: Is it really? Interesting. It is one of my favorites, I have to say.
Fr. Evan: Yes, it is. I think for those who’ve been to this service, they’ll recall the service begins as a vespers, and when we get to after the entrance, the small… It’s not really the Small Entrance; it’s the entrance that occurs in vespers where we have that central hymn, “O Gladsome Light,” in Greek, “Phos Hilaron.” The readings which are quite wonderful are first from Genesis. Then we read Jonas and the story of him in the belly of the whale, and the whole narrative there. Then we go to the book of Daniel, and we end that reading with the hymn of the three youths, and usually at this point a choir or the chanters picks up the scriptural reading. It’s quite beautiful. There’s [an] antiphonal response, usually done in that reading. Sometimes a children’s choir sings these for the choir of the three youths.
Mr. Maddex: Yes, I’ve seen that.
Fr. Evan: That’s what our parish does. In this service, it’s after the epistle reading that the hymn or the verse, “Arise, O Lord, and judge the earth…” The priest comes out and he begins to scatter the bay leaves through the church.
Mr. Maddex: What’s the significance of bay leaves?
Fr. Evan: Think of it this way: in the ancient world, when a king would come to a city in order to conquer it, he would approach the city in a very different way, and he would usually tear down its walls and destroy its temples and ransack the homes and oppress the population, but if a king was going to enter a city and bring to it peace and prosperity and his protection, he could send heralds in who would spread laurel leaves, bay leaves, flowers, and prepare the roads of the city and announce that he was coming in peace. At the same time, when a king was entering a city, whether it was to conquer it or not, if a king was returning to a city, the city would usually turn out, like they did for the Lord entering into Jerusalem and spreading out their cloaks and mantles and palm branches, similarly now, the Church spreads the flower in the church to announce the coming of the Risen One who will take possession of his kingdom in peace. It’s a beautiful liturgical act, quite lovely. Children love this part of the service, because they love seeing the bay leaves get spread all over the church. In some of our churches these bay leaves, which are quite fragrant…
Mr. Maddex: Especially when they’re crushed.
Fr. Evan: ...they’ll stay out for the entire 40-day period.
Mr. Maddex: Yeah, that’s the way it was in the Antiochian parish we attended in Chicago.
Fr. Evan: So they’ll stay out, or some parishes will sort of kind of move them discreetly to a couple locations in the church so they don’t form quite a mess throughout the entire sanctuary. So that is what you’ve been waiting for, that wonderful liturgical act.
Mr. Maddex: Again, it’s one of those services of participation. It just, again, is physical. It’s something that you feel, you smell. The kids are involved. It’s got deep significance. I just love it.
Fr. Evan: And thematically here we’re really beginning our celebration of the Resurrection. We know that Christ has despoiled Hades. We know he’s destroyed the kingdom of Satan. He’s overthrown death, and the whole service has a tone that’s resurrectional and celebratory, even though it’s not yet the Paschal Vigil, even though we haven’t [sung] that central hymn to the Paschal season, “Christ is risen,” the Church at this point is in full force celebrating the coming victory at this point.
Mr. Maddex: Again, it’s so huge that we just can’t wait until Sunday. We’ve got to reference it, because we know. We’ve read the last chapter.
Fr. Evan: And like John’s gospel indicates, the Lord was in the tomb three days, but the minimum amount; he’s not in there 72 hours. He’s barely in there, and that’s just the way the Author of Life, he couldn’t be contained. It’s the reality of Christ conquering death. Death could barely contain him, and we could say in a sense it never did. The tomb was burst asunder the minute he went in.
Mr. Maddex: That’s right.
Fr. Evan: Hades was despoiled the minute it tasted the Author of Life.
So that service concludes… In some of our parishes it’s done Saturday morning, but its typical spot would be, really, in the evening, about the time that the sun is setting.
So then we come now to this Feast of feasts, the Paschal Vigil itself, and for some parishes this service is conducted after midnight, and in many parishes it’s conducted as an early-morning vigil, with the Liturgy being celebrated around the time that the sun is rising.
Mr. Maddex: How do you do it at St. Spyridon?
Fr. Evan: Well, we do it according to the way our bishop tells us. [Laughter]
Mr. Maddex: Good answer.
Fr. Evan: Yeah! Which means that we follow the traditions that the Greek Archdiocese of America follows, and it’s done at midnight. The church usually gathers some time around 11:00 p.m. for the singing of the canon the precedes the vigil service, and then at midnight all of the lamps and lights in the church are extinguished. But I know that many parishes still do it, outside of the Greek jurisdiction, they’ll do it as a vigil.
Without getting myself in hot water, I’m going to say what my feelings are, hope that doesn’t lend anybody to saying, “Well, we should attack Fr. Evan on this point,” but I think it’s better to do it as a vigil in the middle of the night and to celebrate the Liturgy as the sun is breaking. This fits with the biblical narrative better. The myrrh-bearing women went to the tomb early on the first day of the week, and they describe how they get to the tomb and the angel and the stone being rolled back and the Lord not being there, and they’re told by the angel, “He is not here. He is risen. See the place where they laid him.”
And that’s when the early Christians would celebrate Liturgy themselves. If you go to a monastery, an Orthodox monastery, that’s still what they do. They typically hold their Liturgy with the sun rising, even trying to move the time throughout the year, so that the Liturgy’s often served with the Eucharist coming out as the sun’s breaking over the horizon. Isn’t that wonderful?
Mr. Maddex: Oh, it is. So I’m just trying to clarify in my mind, because the parishes that I’ve been involved with, there would be the vigil at 10 or 11, which would be over, then, at midnight, and the Divine Liturgy would start at midnight, and then the Eucharist would be taken at around 1:30 or 2:00.
Fr. Evan: Yeah, that’s what we do. I think the better order is to start that vigil probably three in the morning or so, so that around five or six the Eucharist is being served about when the sun is rising, and that would be the older tradition.
Mr. Maddex: All right.
Fr. Evan: But it’s okay. We talked about this in the beginning. We’ve kind of transposed the services a half a day back. So typically what most people experience is, as you said, they’ll show up 10, 11 o’clock, they’ll hear the canon, and then, believe it or not, before the orthros service and the Liturgy, there is a service for the vigil in which, like you described, the lights go out, we extinguish the candles, and the priest brings the Paschal candle out, having lit it from the flame that’s kept on the altar table throughout the year. And he brings this flame out, and as he does so, the royal gates to the altar, [in] the iconostas, are opened, and he sings that beautiful hymn, “Come, receive the light from the unwaning Light which is Christ, and glorify him who is risen from the dead.” And as he does that, the faithful approach and light their own Paschal candles, their Paschal light, and slowly the church emerges out of the darkness. As each candle is lit, the light grows, and that’s such a powerful way of describing the light that dawned from that tomb so many years ago.
Mr. Maddex: Just spread.
Fr. Evan: Yeah, if you think about it, in Jerusalem this tradition continues where, at the time of Pascha, the patriarch of Jerusalem enters into the tomb, the actual tomb of Christ, with an unlit candle. It’s the miracle of the Holy Fire. I don’t know if some of our listeners have heard about this, but he goes in, and then out of the tomb comes a supernatural flame that lights the patriarch’s candle, and as he comes out, the faithful throng to have their candles lit by it. And then you see the faithful putting their hands in this flame; it doesn’t burn them. Then eventually it turns into a normal flame, but at first it’s still a supernatural flame, a supernatural light.
In our parishes, we imitate that reality. The church goes dark, [to] sort of represent the darkness of death and the sort of desolation of the tomb, and then that light breaks the darkness, and it hearkens us to the beginning of the gospel of John and how the darkness couldn’t comprehend nor overtake the Light, and the light spreads, and our Paschal candles are lit. Then, John, what typically happens is there’s a procession of the light out of the sanctuary and into the darkness in the world. Does your church do this?
Mr. Maddex: Oh, yes. Every church I’ve ever attended—not that many, but both Antiochian and OCA make the procession.
Fr. Evan: Yeah, so, after everyone’s candles are lit, the clergy and altar servers assemble in full paraphernalia, all the regalia. We head out the church and through its front doors, out onto usually a raised platform somewhere out maybe in a courtyard or in some of our parishes on the steps of the church, and the faithful assemble with their lit candles out in the darkness, because this light doesn’t just remain among the faithful. We take it out into the world, and we light the world with this message of the risen Lord.
And there we first hear the Paschal hymn: “Christ is risen.” “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and to those in the tombs he has granted life.” As you’ve said so beautifully in the earlier parts of these two podcasts, people are probably now recalling the way it’s sung in their parish and the joy and the ringing of the bells. It just breaks forth! If you don’t know the hymn, you’re going to know it by the service!
Mr. Maddex: It’s almost like it’s been pent up inside you, and all these days and weeks of Lent and then Great Week and finally the celebration.
Fr. Evan: You know that hymn breaks forth, and as it does break forth and, as you said, you’ve been fasting and preparing and there’s something about the fast and the preparation for the Feast that builds it to a climax that is holy and precious. It’s not the same as a Super Bowl celebration. It doesn’t have that sort of secular and vulgar element to it, but there’s a joy.
Mr. Maddex: I’ve felt it many times, and there’s really nothing like it. It’s hard to describe.
Fr. Evan: It’s hard to describe, but it’s otherworldly. It’s a spiritual joy. It’s a recognition and a participation in the good news unlike any other time of the year. And something about being with those that you’ve co-labored with, the community, I think that’s really precious and special. People you’ve stood shoulder-to-shoulder with, prostrated with, fasted with, struggled with, the community that’s gathered together, and they’re with their shepherd, their priest, who has labored with them and for them. There’s something that happens in that communal struggle as well. I think that’s often lost on the modern-day Christian. They really too often think of it as “myself and God, myself and Scripture, myself and Jesus.”
Mr. Maddex: “My personal relationship with Christ.”
Fr. Evan: Yeah, and that personal relationship, it doesn’t speak of the Trinity’s reality very well. The Trinity is a communion of Persons, and so is the Church. The Church is a community. So the celebration of Pascha is something we do as a community, and it’s felt within the community in that way. I can say for my wife, as we’ve had children and those children are young, there’s been many a Paschal vigil she’s not been able to make it to because we’ve got young children or a baby at home or something like that, or she’s nursing in the middle of the night, and it’s such a sadness for her to miss that celebration.
Mr. Maddex: Of course. I can understand why.
Fr. Evan: So we go out into the night and we sing, “Christ is risen,” we begin to exchange the greeting—“Christ is risen!” “Truly he is risen!”—we sing this hymn several times, and then after a litany we read from the beginning of John’s gospel:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him nothing was made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.
These words the Church takes and centers them into the Paschal vigil as an opportunity to reflect on Jesus Christ being the light of men and their life.
Mr. Maddex: And you’re still outside at this point?
Fr. Evan: Yeah, you’re still outside. Think of this central idea of Pascha, and we bring up this idea of light and life, that Christ is our light. He’s how we can see all that is true and real. He is our life. This is how we not only get our biological life, but our spiritual life. And so it’s interesting, because it is a Feast of lights. It’s the Liturgy of light, if you will, and when we think of the tomb, we think of evil, all the imagery that’s really associated with darkness. And I can remember as a kid, waking up with a scary dream, and the first thing I wanted to do was turn on a light.
Mr. Maddex: Get that light on, right.
Fr. Evan: Get that light on. And when we encounter death, even as I speak to some of those who are preparing for death, they’ll often tell me, “You know, Father, one of the things I’m terrified about is the idea… I know I’ll be dead, but getting closed up in that tomb and sent underneath the earth, and it’ll be dark and cold.” So the Church proclaims in a very basic way: in Christ the opposite occurs. Light, life, warmth, illumination, sight, comprehension.
So we’re outside, we’ve finished this reading, and then the Church triumphantly walks, processes back into the church with people shouting to one another: “Christ is risen!” “Truly he is risen!” “Khristos vosrkese! Voistinu voskrese!” in all these different languages. Oh, we just go berserk saying, “Christ is risen!” As we’re doing that, the orthros of Pascha begins, and the beautiful canon of Pascha and the seasonal hymns, “This is the day of resurrection,” are sung. The hymn to the second tone, resurrectional apolytikion, “The noble Joseph.” The Church breaks forth in sort of a celebration of the reality of the Resurrection.
The doors to the altar are open and remain so, because the veil between the inner sanctuary and the outer sanctuary has been rent, and the barrier between God and man has been destroyed. So we represent that with our altar doors now being open, and they remain open for the Paschal season. Is that something that your church keeps, John?
Mr. Maddex: Yes, although some of the parishes, both in Chicago and where we live in Chesterton now, are small, so there’s not a large iconostasis, so the doors… They do have doors that open and close at least in the Chicago parish, so it’s not quite as dramatic.
Fr. Evan: So for some parishes that have larger icon screens, you’ve got the royal doors, which are the royal gates that go before the altar, and then the two side deacon’s doors, one on the side of the Archangel Michael and the other on the side of the Archangel Gabriel, and those doors are often opened as well.
Vestments are bright white, and if they’ve got the ability to change out the vigil lamps, they usually will change the glass to white, and the same with the altar boys’ processional candles. Everybody’s holding their Paschal candle that’s lit. As the orthros concludes, we move into the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. Such a joyous and wonderful Liturgy.
I think here, John, the Church obviously filters everything that she says and does through the lens of the crucifixion and the lens of the Resurrection. Without these two realities, the Church doesn’t really have anything important to say. I mean, all we would be left with would be a series of interesting and profound, if not revelatory, teachings by Jesus Christ, even some miracles that are astonishing, a way of life that’s certainly unlike others worth imitating—but we’d be robbed of the centrality of our message and the power of our message.
Mr. Maddex: Right. The Scriptures say he was raised for our justification. “If Christ be not raised, we are still in our sins.”
Fr. Evan: Sadly, years ago, as I was going around the country holding seminars and workshops at different places, I was speaking about the Resurrection in one of these parishes, and a young man raised his hand, and he said, “Wait a minute. I thought when we spoke about the Resurrection we were speaking in a figurative sense. You mean to tell me we really believe this Man died and came back to life?” And I said, “Yes. This is what we believe. This is what we teach. This is what we experience. And this is our hope.” So in this Liturgy, this is our focus, is the Resurrection. Not figurative: real, actual.
It’s even best, John, for us not to say, “Christ has risen,” as if it was a past-tense thing.
Mr. Maddex: Is risen.
Fr. Evan: Christ is risen. My bishop has even asked us to strike language like “arose from the dead.” He wants everything in the present tense.
Mr. Maddex: Yeah.
Fr. Evan: Because the Crucified One is the Risen One, and he’s for now and ever known as the risen Lord.
So we go into this celebration of the Resurrection, and we look at it in all of its glory and mystery: the risen Christ who conquered death and overthrew the dominion of Satan and brings the risen life to creation. I think C.S. Lewis in modern literature did a beautiful job in his description of Aslan returning to Narnia and life being spread to that wintry land and springtime returning. Isn’t it interesting that our celebration coincides with the spring of the earth?
Mr. Maddex: That’s right.
Fr. Evan: The same thing happening.
But it also is interesting, John, that when we look at the icon of the Resurrection… This is something I think for listeners… Oftentimes we’re just listening, and it’s important sometimes to pull an image in front of our mind, and if you don’t have an icon of the Resurrection, you can go to Google Images and just type in “Orthodox icon of the Resurrection,” and you’re going to get one. That icon, notice, is not Christ as we’ve seen in some Western art sort of floating in a cloud coming out of a tomb. That’s not the icon of the Resurrection that we depict. We depict Christ standing on the gates of Hades; they’re broken down, and the chains and locks and all the accoutrements of bondage are broken. And he’s reaching into the tombs, grasping Adam and Eve. Have you ever noticed where he grabs them?
Mr. Maddex: On the wrists.
Fr. Evan: [Laughter] Yeah! It’s like the risen Lord isn’t even going to wait for us to reach our hand out; he’s going to grab us out of the tomb.
Mr. Maddex: We’re leaving!
Fr. Evan: We’re coming out, and he’s pulling us out of the tomb. Then, if you’ll notice, if you look real carefully, on many of the icons Christ is depicted in sort of a white, sort of brilliant… There’s almost like a halo around his whole body, this transfigured light, this immaterial light. The grave clothes of Adam and Eve are dull, except you notice that on the sleeves of the arm that Christ has grabbed around the wrist, there’s color returning. Have you ever noticed that?
Mr. Maddex: I have not noticed that. Now I’m going to have to take another look.
Fr. Evan: Take a look, and it’s not always [there], but in many icons, the icon in our church of the Resurrection has it this way, where he’s pulling Adam and Eve out, and the sleeve of Adam’s tunic, the sleeve of Eve’s tunic, has got color; it’s bright. So C.S. Lewis got it right, that as the Author of Life touches into the grave, reaches into the grave, pulls us out of the grave, life is restored. Of course, the risen Lord is also shown with the marks of the nails. The Crucified One is the Risen One, and he carries those wounds into his heavenly and eternal existence. Those wounds will forever be on the body of Christ.
Mr. Maddex: And they were depicted the next week, with Thomas.
Fr. Evan: Thomas Sunday, yeah, which could take us through a whole ‘nother program, to go into the Paschal season. One of the things that’s interesting to me is that when we consider the Lord’s Resurrection, it’s never divorced from the Cross, and vice versa. The Cross is never divorced from the empty tomb. In many of our churches, those icons are depicted on opposites of the church, as if they’re speaking to one another, and this is how it’s done at my church. If you’re standing at the altar facing the nave, the people, on my left is the icon of the Crucifixion, and on my right, exactly opposite, is the icon of the Resurrection.
This is how the Church does it. We never mention one without the other. They always are speaking to one another. They always are informing one another. Of course, as we consider this in our own lives, we recognize the true reality, that our own suffering, even in small ways during our life, leads to many resurrections, but our own death, which the Crucifixion represents, will lead to a resurrection.
Here I want to note something, John. Do you know everybody’s resurrected?
Mr. Maddex: Yes.
Fr. Evan: Everyone, righteous and unrighteous, but as the gospel of John points out—I think it’s the fifth chapter—some of us are resurrected into a state of being that’s glorious and wonderful, and others are resurrected into the resurrection of judgment, which is quite awful to think of. But none of that on the vigil.
Mr. Maddex: Nope.
Fr. Evan: Happy thoughts.
Mr. Maddex: Yes, for this program.
Fr. Evan: At the vigil we celebrate the Resurrection. At the conclusion of this wonderful Liturgy, the Liturgy of light, the Liturgy of the Resurrection, we read from the Paschal Homily of St. John, and this is an unusual thing. It is the only sermon that I know of that finds its way into the liturgical texts of the Church.
Mr. Maddex: Yeah, of every Orthodox church.
Fr. Evan: Yeah, it doesn’t matter where you’re from; you’re going to read this homily. So the priest himself doesn’t have to preach. He’s quite happy to recite these timeless words of St. John. This sermon is often spoken at the end of the service with the people standing. They don’t sit for this sermon, and they’re holding their Paschal candles, and the priest begins:
Whosoever is a devout lover of God, let him enjoy this beautiful, bright festival. And whoever is a grateful servant, let him rejoice and enter into the joy of his Lord. And if any be weary with fasting, let him now receive his reward. If any have toiled from the first hour, let him receive his due reward; and if any have come after the third hour, let him with gratitude join in the feast…
And on this wonderful homily goes.
Let all, then, enter into the joy of our Lord. Ye first and ye last, receiving alike your reward. You sober, you slothful; you rich and poor, celebrate the day. You that have kept the fast and you who have not, rejoice today, for the table is richly laden. Fare royally on it. The calf is a fatted one. Let no one go away hungry.
What a wonderful sermon.
Mr. Maddex: Just takes everybody in. Doesn’t exclude anyone.
Fr. Evan: It does; it does, and then he concludes. He speaks of the Resurrection, and then he says:
Oh, Hades has been vexed by encountering him below. It is embittered.
And the people shout back: “It is embittered!”
For it is even done away with. It is embittered.
And the people say: “It is embittered!”
For it has been mocked. It is embittered, for it is destroyed. It is embittered, for it is annihilated. It is embittered, for it is now made captive. It took a body, and, lo, it discovered God. It took earth, and, behold, it encountered heaven. It took what it saw and was overcome by what it did not see. O death, where is thy sting? O Hades, where is thy victory? Christ is risen.
And the people shout: “Truly he is risen!”
And thou art annihilated.
It’s an amazing sermon.
Mr. Maddex: Oh, it is. Another translation of that that I like is: “It took a body and met God face to face.” It just gives you goosebumps.
Fr. Evan: Oh, totally, right? “Christ, having risen from the dead, is the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.”
Mr. Maddex: Of course, while the sermon is being read, you can smell the smells coming up from the basement kitchen.
Fr. Evan: I have to tell you that some priests have lamented the fact that the kitchen was placed too close to the sanctuary. Especially at the time of the Paschal vigil, as you smell those smells, you’re thinking, “Oh, I can’t wait to go in for that celebration!”
The service ends and many people bring their Easter baskets to be blessed, and we hand out red eggs, which, that book you mentioned, is a wonderful way to understand that tradition. Of course, the red egg, not pastel in color, but red for the blood of Christ. It’s got that beautiful white egg inside that you’ve been longing to eat for so long during the Fast. And we greet one another by cracking the egg and emptying the tomb by saying, “Christ is risen.”
Mr. Maddex: “Truly he is risen.”
Fr. Evan: And, John, that kind of wraps it up, but one last service remains, so we usually leave that service to head out into our fellowship halls and our homes and stay up late into the night, eating and rejoicing together. Then usually, sometime in the afternoon of the following day we get together for the service called the Agape Vespers, and that is the service where we proclaim the good news of our Savior in just about every language we can think of. What a wonderful way to conclude the week by proclaiming this good news to the world.
Then usually, in my parish—I don’t know what the tradition’s been at your community—but then we hold a Paschal barbecue. We get eight or nine lambs on the spit that are roasting, and we gather together as a community. We have lamb and our Paschal eggs and sweet breads and the different food traditions of Orthodox countries kind of mingle at our parish, the different sweets and candies that people have to celebrate it, and usually a little wine, sometimes some dancing goes on. We just stay together for as long as we can and celebrate the day.
Mr. Maddex: It’s amazing. This is where the diversity of Orthodoxy really shines forth, because we’re all celebrating the same thing. We’re doing it in the ways of our culture or a culture that has even been created for those parishes that aren’t richly connected to another culture.
Fr. Evan: Yeah, I would say that it’s funny, because we, having our origins in the Greek Archdiocese, there’s a lot of Greek traditions, but we’ve started to take on others—Russian, Serbian, Georgian—but also now some American traditions. So there’s a group of parishioners who have BLTs.
Mr. Maddex: [Laughter] That’s perfect, perfect.
Fr. Evan: They want to have BLTs, so they bring stacks of BLTs to the party.
Mr. Maddex: I thought you were going to say White Castle or something.
Fr. Evan: We don’t have White Castle in Colorado, but when I was out East, some of the altar boys would have their hamburgers lined up in the back of the altar, ready to eat those once the Paschal Vigil concluded.
Mr. Maddex: Or their Pascha baskets, waiting to be blessed.
Fr. Evan: Yeah, but what’s so wonderful, John—and we don’t have time for it in this program, but the Church obviously continues this celebration of the Resurrection well into the year. We go forty days out singing, “Christ is risen,” and we remain in the Paschal season even up until Pentecost.
I have to say, I was in one of the years in which the Orthodox celebration of Pascha differed from the Western celebration, I went with a friend of mine to Easter services, and I was struck by how quickly the service was over and how quickly in a sense it was forgotten. It was just simply a day, Easter Sunday, as opposed to a season. I think this hearkens up to where we began, that for the Church this event of the Lord’s Resurrection and even the death and Passion and all the events that surround it form the center of our liturgical life, of our Church life. This is our Gospel. This is our good news. Christ is risen.
Mr. Maddex: Indeed he is risen. Wow. Well, it’s quite a week and quite a culmination on Pascha and even the forty days beyond with the beautiful hymnody, “The Angel Cried,” and so many favorites that just remind us again of the importance of the Resurrection. I remember I went to Russia just after I became Orthodox, and there with a group of Evangelicals, actually, and when they learned that we were Orthodox and there we were in an Orthodox country, they were trying to say, “I thought we were coming here to evangelize the Orthodox,” and we said, “No, no, the Orthodox don’t need to be evangelized.” The one said, “Well, aren’t they the ones that don’t believe in the Resurrection?” [Laughter] And I said, “Oh, you have no idea how much we believe in the Resurrection.”
Fr. Evan: Yeah, it’s really a joy and an honor. I think my concluding remark would be that as we look at this great season, we were warned by the Apostle that these services and these acts of the Church and even these spiritual disciplines we followed never remain external to us, but they have to transform the person. They have to reach into the very fiber of who they are, and we have to become people of the Gospel, not just people who read it.
And we have to be people of the Resurrection, not just people who proclaim it. By the end of this season, our sincere hope is that the faithful have been changed: they’ve become more merciful, they’ve become more righteous, they’ve become more forgiving, they’ve become more generous, they’ve become more forbearing and patient, they’ve become more spiritually watchful, they’ve detached themselves from the world. And I would say that for many of the faithful, this is exactly the experience, and they almost lament the passing of the season.
Mr. Maddex: Oh, I do. Yeah.
Fr. Evan: Well, as the Greeks say, “Kai tou chronou na eimeste kala—in the new year may we reach it again in good health.” So that the Lord would grant us the opportunity to celebrate this again and further prepare ourselves for the true coming kingdom, when the Lord does return and when we ourselves, even if it’s before that parousia, we ourselves leave this temporary existence for the eternal condition.
May all of you who have listened to this program celebrate the week with great reverence and joy. May it reach into the inner fiber of your very person, and may you take hold of the Christian life in a way that you haven’t before, and further be transformed and so transform the world yourself and those you encounter.
Mr. Maddex: And thank you, Fr. Evan, for leading us through this very important week, Holy Week, or better called Great Week, to help us understand what the Gospel is and how we participate in it physically through the attending of these services, through taking the Body and Blood of Christ, and through celebrating his great and holy Resurrection.
Fr. Evan: Well, thanks, John, and again, thanks for all of our listeners who’ve supported Ancient Faith and this program of Orthodoxy Live. For those of you who’ve been listening, you’ve been listening to Orthodoxy Live with your host Fr. Evan Armatas. I’ve been joined by the president and CEO of Ancient Faith Ministries, Mr. John Maddex. This is your live call-in show about the Orthodox faith, her teachings and traditions, and we have been broadcasting a special two-part series on Great Week. May all of you enter into the joy of our Lord this Paschal season. God bless, and thanks for listening.