For Orthodox Christians, Pascha (Easter) is the highlight of our year, the culmination of 40 days of Lenten preparation plus Holy Week, when we participate in Christ’s journey to Jerusalem, and ending in joyous celebration at the Paschal feasts. If you’re visiting an Orthodox Church for the first time at Pascha, it would most likely be at one of three services.
Great and Holy Saturday
If you have a friend or relative joining the Orthodox Church this Paschal season, you might be invited to Great and Holy Saturday. At St. Nicholas, Holy Saturday vesperal Liturgy usually begins around 11 a.m. (although you should check the calendar for this year’s time) on the Saturday immediately before Pascha.
One of the two or three longest services of the year, the themes are water and the Lord’s conquering of death. It is at this service that the new Church members are enrolled — by baptism for those who have not been baptized or by chrismation for those who have.
Baptism happens by immersion in the large font in the center of the narthex.
Chrismation means anointing the catechumens with oil. It is a symbol of their being sealed with the gifts of the Holy Spirit and made new members of the Church.
The other notable thing about the Holy Saturday Liturgy is the 15 readings from the Old Testament, all relating in some way to water. It’s traditional to sit during Old Testament readings, and so there’s no expectation that anyone will stand for the entire three hours.
After the Liturgy, there is a light snack and celebration with the new Church members, and then we all head home to complete our preparations for later that evening.
The Paschal celebration continues at 11:30 p.m. that same night (again, check the calendar for the exact time).
It begins in a darkened church, with a buzz of anticipation filling the air. As they enter, people take candles, but don’t light them until later (when the time is right, you’ll know).
Between 11:30 and midnight, you will hear some of the most beautiful music of the year, music that you won’t hear in church at any other time.
And then the lights are extinguished, and the priest comes out and invites us to share the light. We light our candles from each other’s candles and go outdoors to begin our procession around the church.
At the end of the procession, we gather outside the church door. Standing before the closed church door, the priest reads the Paschal Gospel about the discovery of the empty tomb, and we sing the Paschal troparion for the first time.
Christ is risen from the dead,
Trampling down death by death
And upon those in the tombs bestowing life!
After a liturgical conversation at the door, we all enter the church again. Now the church is blazing with light, and the people go in singing, “Christ is risen . . . ” and greeting each other with the Paschal greeting “Christ is risen” and “Indeed He is risen.”
From there we begin a joyous Liturgy, punctuated by “Christ is risen!” in various languages, and we wander out at around 2 a.m. to the Paschal banquet.
Many parishioners bring Paschal baskets to be blessed between the Liturgy and the banquet. The baskets contain rich breads and cakes from different Orthodox traditions, adult beverages, eggs and cheese, meats and chocolate — or whatever anyone wants to bring.
The Paschal banquet is a huge potluck spread with all the foods that were off the menu for Lent, now provided in riotous abundance. People may bring beer and wine for themselves or to share, but we ask that people not bring hard liquor, or if a bottle is in a Pascha basket, to leave it there unopened.
A Brief Pascha Survival Guide
Some very practical suggestions for getting through Pascha:
- The parking lot fills up quickly, so arrive early if walking is a problem.
- The temperature varies from quite chilly during the procession to quite warm during the Liturgy when the church is full, and the candles are burning, and people are exuberantly singing. Dress in layers, so that you can be comfortable.
- Wear comfortable shoes.
One of the priceless treats of the year is a service of Paschal Vespers, which some parishioners at St. Nicholas fondly call “Ice Cream Vespers.”
Paschal Vespers usually happens at 1 p.m. (check the calendar for the correct time) on Paschal Sunday. It’s a sung service with the choir dispersed among the other worshippers and everybody singing the hymns that begin “Let God Arise” from the Paschal Liturgy.
The service lasts about 45 minutes, followed by an Easter egg hunt for the kids, barbecue and ice cream sundaes for everybody, and a leisurely Sunday afternoon enjoying the spring weather and conversation with friends. It’s a good service to come and get to know the folks at St. Nicholas in a low-pressure environment.