Dear Parish Faithful,
Our parish website – www.christthesavioroca.org - has a plethora of excellent resources about Holy Week that would make any further commentary from me rather superfluous. These resources explain Holy Week and Pascha from various inter-related perspectives: liturgical, scriptural, theological, spiritual, etc. I highly encourage everyone to carefully read through some of this wonderful material so as to deepen your own personal experience of the beauty and depth of Great and Holy Week. This may be especially true for those who are new to the Orthodox Church. This Week of the Lord’s Passion can get rather overwhelming, so perhaps a prior insightful explanation of the various services can prove to be more than a little helpful.
What I did want to comment on is a very problematic practice that has become a (dubious) “tradition” among many of the Orthodox faithful: to leave the midnight Paschal service before it is completed - or even before the reception of Holy Communion. There is the initial exodus of some following the paschal procession itself and the announcement of the Resurrection. After hearing “Christ is Risen!” preferably in a language other than English, some of these faithful disappear into the night, more intent on eating lamb than partaking of the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world. It is as if the “drama”of experiencing the transformation of the church from darkness to light is satisfying enough; or perhaps everything to follow is simply too anti-climatic and thus unable to further hold the attention of these annual visitors to the church. My mother’s friend once referred to this group as Easter Orthodox Christians. Others “enjoy” the paschal Matins and its wonderful hymnography and the well-known melodies developed within traditionally Orthodox countries. This group will melt away as the paschal Matins draws to an end. The “usual” Divine Liturgy to follow does not hold the promise of the same delights as the annual uplift of the Paschal canon sung in a memorable style that provokes the nostalgic memories of childhood experiences. Or, to complete the picture, others will stay through a portion of the Liturgy, but not prepared or intent on receiving Holy Communion, they too will depart into the night for whatever further celebratory observances are planned.
I recall a striking example of this from my past. When serving a mission parish in London, Ontario, there was another large Orthodox parish in the city that was quite “ethnic” in its over-all composition. This parish, which regularly saw about two-three hundred worshippers at a given Sunday Liturgy would have to rent a large hall in order to accommodate the huge crowd that would appear for the midnight pascha service. The priest told me that there would be from two-three thousand Orthodox faithful at the beginning of the paschal procession at midnight. (Where had they been “hiding” all year?). He further told me that about one-half of that large crowd would leave after the initial “Christ is Risen,” not even re-entering the hall/church; and that by the time of Holy Communion in the Liturgy, only about three-four hundred remained. This was a routine occurrence year after year. This is Orthodoxy as a cultural phenomenon, but not as a living Faith that can transform one’s life.
Now, the midnight Paschal services, culminating with the Divine Liturgy, is the culmination and climax of a long and exhausting week that demands a certain stamina. I cannot speak for anyone else, but I am tired near the end of the week. “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak,” and it is possible that our bodies will get the better of us as the services unfold. One can get to feel poorly, or light-headed, and reluctantly be forced to leave early. This can happen. For those with children, even with the best of intentions, you may have a “meltdown” on your hands half-way through the services, rather than that sleeping child blissfully stretched out on a pew as was the initial “strategy” for making it through the long night. Such a “family drama” may preclude the possibility of staying for the duration of the services. Obviously, I am not alluding to these very real scenarios. I am addressing the issue of … just leaving for no particularly pressing reason. Somehow, this has become an Orthodox “tradition” – dubious as it is.
When we encounter the exodus of Easter Orthodox Christians out of the church on Pascha – the “night brighter than the day” – we are encountering the reduction of Pascha to the level of custom, “tradition,” cultural and/or ethnic phenomenon that has more of an “Easter holiday” atmosphere, than the celebration of the paschal mystery of the “death of death” in and through the crucified and risen Lord, Jesus Christ. In this approach, Easter is a one day event culminating in a special family meal with other family traditions. But the paschal mystery is an all-together different reality that begins on the night of Pascha, culminating in the Divine Liturgy and the reception of the Eucharist. This is the one Divine Liturgy of the Church’s annual cycle in which all Orthodox Christians need to receive Holy Communion – even if it means “hanging on” just a little bit longer. That is the whole meaning of the Paschal homily of St. John Chrysostom read near the conclusion of Matins. Prepared or unprepared, the Master is inviting us to the table that is laden with Christ, our paschal Lamb. How can we ignore that invitation? To leave the Liturgy before this blessed communion with Christ at the paschal Liturgy is to somehow deeply misunderstand the deeper meaning of Pascha, the Liturgy and the Eucharist.
Remaining for the blessing of the paschal baskets is enjoyable and good fellowship, but insignificant in comparison to receiving the “food” of the Eucharist, the Body and Blood of the Risen Christ. As the Paschal Service book states it:
The altar table is fully laden with the divine food: the Body and Blood of the risen and glorified Christ. No one is to go away hungry. The service books are very specific in saying that only he who partakes of the Body and Blood of Christ eats the true Pascha.
Even though this may not be an issue for our local parish, this is just a reminder of the riches in store for the faithful on the brilliant night of Pascha. We greet all of our visitors on that night with a spirit of hospitality – and wish that many of them would stay a bit longer. And we hope and pray that no circumstances take that possibility away from us.