Beyond Pascha

Forty days of Great Lent having been completed, along with Holy Week, and the Great Feast of Feasts, Pascha, having been marked in the Church, it is very easy to take a deep breath and say, “Now, that’s done!.” And with the exhalation we take our leave of a liturgical feast and return to our daily routine and schedule. Just as the modern world has little understanding of the meaning of fasting, so, too, does it fail to understand the meaning of liturgy. Liturgy is not a means of marking time on a calendar – liturgy is a means (and mode) of existence.

Through baptism and chrismation we have entered into a new mode of existence. It is an existence of constant becoming. The Scriptures describe this as new birth, the death of the old man, the putting off of the old nature and the putting on of the new. This newness, this radical change in the mode of existence, is not accomplished by human effort. It is a gift from God. Rooted in the age to come, this new existence is maintained and nourished by the Eucharist. At every Divine Liturgy we hear the good news of Christ and enter into the process of conversion. We are given the possibility to acquire for ourselves the eucharistic manner of existence. Little by little we become ourselves communion and love. At the Divine Liturgy the tragic elements of our fallen existence – pride, individualism, blasphemy, vanity, hypocricy, envy, anger, division, fear, despair, pain, deceit, untruth, malice, greed, vice, gluttony, passions, corruption, death – are being continuously defeated, in order to make us capable to be love, freedom and life. (From an article by  Rev. Alkiviadis Calivas on the Greek Archdiocese website).

Liturgy and the Feasts of the Church are thus not mere calendar events which mark the annual remembrance of occasions now lost within history. What we celebrate are events within the Kingdom of God –  now manifest in our midst.  The liturgy continually initiates and renews us in the life of the age of come.

The opposite  approach (one which dominates our modern world) is to see liturgical events as simply things among other things. They mark historical events, now past, and, as such, are reminders not of God’s presence, but His absence. Thus the modern Easter easily becomes a feast of the Christ that was (who can barely compete with the chocolate and bunny rabbits).

In the modern world, Christmas and Easter are frequently secular feasts (of various commercial interests). Thus many feasts (such as Pentecost, the Ascension, the Dormition of the Mother of God, the Annunciation – to name just a few) often pass with little attention in the Church. Even in the Orthodox Church such feasts are often poorly attended. Were there no commercial accompaniment to Christmas and Easter – those, too, I suspect, would be of some note – but not much. I recall a local Baptist Church cancelling Sunday services several years ago, because Christmas fell on Sunday that year.

I have written at length on the problems of Christianity in the secular world ( cf. “two-storey universe” and the book Everywhere Present.

This historical sense of living “in-between” adds a twist to the two-storey experience: it is rooted in our modern understanding of history and time. It is easy, almost obvious, to think of ourselves as living between major events in the Christian story. Two-thousand years have passed since the resurrection of Christ. Christians continue to wait for His second-coming. How do we not perceive ourselves as living in-between?

St. Gregory Palamas (14th Century) uses an interesting example from the Scriptures that dismantles the “in-between” model that is so common in our modern world. His example comes in a sermon on the Cross (Homily XI). He begins with the assertion that the Cross, though manifest in history at Christ’s Crucifixion, has always been God’s means of salvation – at all times and places.

His example is quite illumining:

Although the man of the sin, the son of lawlessness (cf. 2 Thess. 2:3), by which I mean the Antichrist, has not yet come, the theologian whom Christ loved says, “Even now, beloved, there is antichrist” (cf. 1 John2:18). In the same way, the Cross existed in the time of our ancestors, even before it was accomplished. The great Paul teaches us absolutely clearly that Antichrist is among us, even though he has not yet come, saying, “His mystery doth already work in you” (cf. 2 Thess. 2:7). In exactly the same way Christ’s Cross was among our forefathers before it came into being, because its mystery was working in them. (Quotation from The Homilies).

St. Gregory goes on within this homily to illustrate (generally with typological interpretation) how the Cross was present in the lives of the Patriarchs and other righteous “friends of God” within the Old Testament period.

His sense of time recognizes a reality of history, “even though he has not yet come,” but transcends that limitation in recognizing that “his mystery doth already work in you.” And of the Cross “[it] was among our forefathers before it came into being, because its mystery was working in them.” This understanding of time and history places these categories in a subsidiary position – they are not the frozen, solid stuff of an empty, empirical world. They are a place in which we live – but also a place that is permeated by things that have not even “come into existence.”

St. Gregory’s treatment of these things is rooted in the classical Orthodox understanding of the relation between earth and heaven; past, present and future; and the mystery of the Kingdom of God at work in the world. His universe is distinctly “one-storey.” This understanding also undergirds the Orthodox understanding of eschatology (the study of the “last things”). St. John Chrysostom, in his eucharistic prayer, gives thanks for the Second Coming of Christ in the past tense – not that he is saying that the Second Coming has already occurred in history – but that the Eucharistic celebration stands within the Kingdom of God, such that the Second Coming can be described in the past tense. The Eucharist is the “Marriage Feast of the Lamb,” the “Banquet at the End of the Age.”

To speak of ourselves as living “in-between” or to think of liturgy as mere remembrance, is to place history in the primary position, relegating the Kingdom of God to a lower status. It is the essence of secularism. The Kingdom of God is not denied – it is simply placed beyond our reach (as we are placed beyond its reach). The Kingdom, like God Himself, is reduced to an idea.

Living “in-between” is part of the loneliness and alienation of the modern Christian. Things are merely things, time is inexorable and impenetrable. There is an anxiety that accompanies all of this that is marked by doubt, argument and opinion. Faith is directed towards things past or things that have not yet happened.

This stands in sharp contrast to St. Paul’s statement in Hebrews: “Faith is the substance (hypostasis) of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (11:1). The relationship of faith with things “hoped for and not seen” is more than a trust that they will be, more than a longing for what is not. Faith is the very substance of such things.

In earlier postings on faith, I have noted that faith is more than an intellectual or volitional exercise. It is an actual participation (koinonia) with the object (or subject) of faith. To describe faith as the substance of things is to grant a kind of existence to them. And so in Hebrews 11, St. Paul describes the faith of our forefathers (Old Testament) and the impact that the substance of faith had in their lives and world. St. Gregory’s homily echoes this very same phenomenon (indeed he quotes extensively from this chapter in Hebrews).

By faith, we do not live in-between. By faith, we live in a one-storey universe in which the realities of God’s Kingdom permeate our existence. We are not alone nor need we be alienated. The anxiety that haunts our every step is produced by a false perception – a delusion.

Of course, this is an easy thing to assert, but a difficult thing to live: it is the great struggle of our times. But without this struggle, faith will remain alien to us and we will remain lost “in-between” the worlds, trapped within those things that “are passing away.” Christ has given us something greater.

St. Paul says, “But now we do not yet see all things put under him. But we see Jesus…” (Heb. 2:8-9). It is the presence of Christ in the Holy Spirit that is made manifest in our feasts – but this is the same Christ who is made manifest in our hearts and who promised to “abide with us.” We do not see Jesus “in-between” but rather as the “author and finisher of our faith” (Heb. 12:2). He is Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. Indeed, He is the Feast of feasts.

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19 Responses to “Beyond Pascha”

  1. Jerilyn Says:

    I have often wondered why it is that there are so many beautiful prayers and services throughout Lent and Holy Week, then, once Pascha is over, everything’s over! Shouldn’t there be just as many prayers and services to celebrate that Christ is Risen? I mean, we hold this magnificent truth in our hands, but we have nowhere to go with it!

  2. Lina Says:

    I second the question of Jerilyn!

  3. fatherstephen Says:

    Jerilyn,
    There are such services – though you’d usually have to be in a monastery to see them. We had a liturgy on Bright Monday. In most parishes the priest, choir, etc., are exhausted and unable to continue at that pace. But, having said that, our consciousness does not need therefore to return to secular-limbo.

  4. Fr. Justin Frederick Says:

    Pascha is celebrated for 40 days in the Church. As Fr. Stephen said, those services are often neglected for the reasons noted. But all of Bright Week, the Paschal services continue. And throughout the 40 days of Pascha, paschal hymns are sung at all services, and at Matins for Sunday morning (served as part of Vigil). When these services aren’t served, or people don’t attend, they miss out on the ongoing paschal celebration. And finally, every Sunday is a “little Pascha”, every Sunday commemorates the Resurrection. Of course, most of the hymns are to be found at the All-Night Vigil, particularly the Matins portion, which is all too-often omitted in parish life.

  5. armsopenwide Says:

    So we are pilgrims and strangers simply -merely- in relation to this passing world, but in actuality we are the joyful partipants in a 40 day Paschal parade celebrating an abiding reality: our Lord Jesus Christ’s victory over death and sin, a victory He won for all. Glory to Thee, Our God, Glory to Thee, Our God, Glory to Thee!

  6. fatherstephen Says:

    Armsopenwide,
    I would go further and say that the “40 days” of Pascha is “iconic” – not just a literal 40 days. Were it not so, it would be 35 days, or 19 or 41, etc. 40 is always iconic in the Scripture. Something is made present (some aspect of the Age to Come) in the 40 days.

  7. Jerilyn Says:

    Thanks for the explanation from all the priests here, and I hope I didn’t offend–all of you must be REALLY worn out!

    I think what might be useful, though, is having a book of readings and meditations for each day of the Pascha season. There are many Lenten books of this sort. Maybe I’ll just write one!

  8. George Says:

    I have been an Orthodox Christian since 1993. Previous to that, I went back and forth between Western Christianity and the new age movement.
    While in the new age movement, I became quite evil. But God rescued me. Two times in particular the rescue was raither remarkable. After my conversion, I wondered why I was rescued and many of my friends were not. Then I began to repent of my past life and I began to pray that God would forgive me for my deep sin and to rescue me from that evil life that I was living. But how could my prayers in 1993 affect what happened 20 or 30 years earlier. They could because God is eternal. He will always exist in the past and Has always existed in the future. And we pray not into time and space but into eternity.

  9. Rebecca Says:

    Fr. Stephen, bless!

    Thank you so much for this post. I reflected at my own blog how much I missed Pascha and then this post helped me figure out what it was that I missed (not that I missed an event), but more of a longing. I borrowed a bit from your post (with credit of course) for a new reflection on mine.

    One of the great joys of Orthodoxy, for me, is the way in which it rips me out of my concrete world and puts me where I belong. When I miss it, it is because I took myself back to where I was.

  10. Rebecca Says:

    It’s at rsgreen30.wordpress.com.

  11. Eugene Says:

    Hi, all,

    Jerilyn — and everyone — may I “plug” a book, here? I own a copy of the Pentecostarion, published by Holy Transfiguration Monastery in Brookline, MA. It’s FILLED with the beautiful prayers of the Pentecost season — all very Paschal — and also has a wonderful introduction explaining the typography used in Pentecost — the symbols, the language, etc.

    I’d recommend everyone get a copy, though it’s expensive, I think! I use it in my morning and evening prayers during Pentecost, and it definitely helps keep the awareness of Pascha alive. I don’t do the whole services, just take prayers and add them to my regular morning and evening prayers.

    Christ is Risen!

    Eugene

  12. Looking Toward Rome, Part 2 | Koinonia Says:

    […] got), and a cheapening of the Eucharist along the lines that Fr Stephen Freeman discussed on his blog a sign of Jesus’ […]

  13. Jerilyn Says:

    Thank you so much, Eugene! I found it online–for free!

  14. zeitungzeid Says:

    Awesome…

  15. A Genius of Compression Says:

    “The relationship of faith with things “hoped for and not seen” is more than a trust that they will be, more than a longing for what is not. Faith is the very substance of such things.

    In earlier postings on faith, I have noted that faith is more than an intellectual or volitional exercise. It is an actual participation (koinonia) with the object (or subject) of faith. To describe faith as the substance of things is to grant a kind of existence to them….” – Father Stephen Freeman

    Now you are becoming very interesting – what if Faith actually allows you to see things that are are?

    Hebrews 11:3 By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible.

    Not that I would call myself a ‘one-storey’ phenomenologist, because that would limit my comments to things that are visible only.

    This is Great:

    “It is an actual participation (koinonia) with the object (or subject) of faith.” – Father Stephen Freeman

    The Eucharist will just never be the same again.

  16. A Genius of Compression Says:

    This is not deja vu – just adding one essential word:

    “The relationship of faith with things “hoped for and not seen” is more than a trust that they will be, more than a longing for what is not. Faith is the very substance of such things.

    In earlier postings on faith, I have noted that faith is more than an intellectual or volitional exercise. It is an actual participation (koinonia) with the object (or subject) of faith. To describe faith as the substance of things is to grant a kind of existence to them….” – Father Stephen Freeman

    Now you are becoming very interesting – what if Faith actually allows you to see things that are already are?

    Hebrews 11:3 By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible.

    Not that I would call myself a ‘one-storey’ phenomenologist, because that would limit my comments to things that are visible only.

    This is Great:

    “It is an actual participation (koinonia) with the object (or subject) of faith.” – Father Stephen Freeman

    The Eucharist will just never be the same again.

  17. zeitungzeid Says:

    Very good…

  18. Lina Says:

    For a long time now, I have looked upon the word faith almost as of it were a verb and not a noun. It is something you do.

  19. Prudence True Says:

    It always seems to me that faith just Is . . . it’s what Is here all around us all the time.

    Sorry, no deep theology here from my simple mind.

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