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Paschal Light (Acts 10:34-43; Cor. 15:1-11; Jn. 20:1-18 or Mk. 16:1-8)

by Stanley S. Harakas

Stanley S. Harakas is a former professor of theology at Holy Cross Creek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline, Massachusetts. His most recent book is a collection of biblical reflections, Of Life and Salvation (Light & Life Publishing). This article appeared in the Christian Century March 12, 1997, p.267, copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


When my daughter Katherine was 16, she and her friends decided to put on a production of Jesus Christ Superstar. The parents of the actors gathered in a neighborís living room for the performance. My wife and I were impressed by our amateur thespians. We were also impressed with the play itself -- that is, until the end of the performance. The crucifixion of Jesus was dramatically and movingly performed. But something very important was left out. There was no mention of the resurrection.

The New Testament readings point to the inseparable relationship of Good Friday and Easter in the message of the church. In Acts, Peter speaks of Jesusí death "by hanging on a tree" and then immediately adds, "Him, God raised up on the third day" (KJV). In 1 Corinthians, St. Paul defines the gospel "by which also you [the Corinthians] are saved" as consisting of the preaching "that Christ died for our sins . . . that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day." Johnís Gospel tells us that Peter and John believed when they visited the empty tomb, even though "they did not know the scripture, that he must rise again from the dead." Mark 16:1-8 describes the myrrh-bearing womenís encounter with the angel at the tomb: "You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He is risen! He is not here."

This passage from Mark is the appointed reading in the dramatic Paschal service of the Eastern Orthodox tradition. The service takes place at midnight on Holy and Great Saturday, just as the "Day of the Resurrection" begins.

The context is important. Unlike gothic church architecture and the spire architecture of the New England meetinghouse, the architecture of the typical domed Eastern Orthodox church does not provoke an upward-reaching movement in the worshiper. Rather, it serves as an architectural manifestation of the Christian universe. The dome, with its traditional icon of Christ the King looking down toward the earth, is heaven. The floor, representing the earth, is divided into three parts: the entrance or narthex, the place for those who do not yet believe (historically, the place for the catechumens); the nave or sanctuary, where the people of God worship under the observance of their heavenly King; and the sanctuary or altar area, where icons, ecclesial furniture and the altar table represent the things that connect heaven and earth. The church building and the people in it are an ecclesial microcosm.

The Paschal liturgy is played out in this cosmic context. The light-darkness and life-death motifs of the Johannine telling of the gospel story take on an experiential character in this powerful and dramatic liturgical service. Just before midnight, every light in the church is extinguished with the exception of a small oil lamp on the altar table behind the closed gates of the iconostasis. All is dark. The world is overcome by darkness, death and the demonic.

The liturgist lights a large Paschal candle from the altar vigil light, and the doors of the iconostasis are opened. The priest steps forward with the light of the resurrection raised high and chants, "Come, receive light from the unwaning light, and glorify Christ who is risen from the dead." The stone has been moved away. In the first darkness of the new Pascha, the worshipers are witnesses of Jesusí resurrection.

Everyone holds a white candle. The altar servers stand before the glowing Paschal candle, light their own candles and quickly move to the congregation to spread the light. The world rapidly fills with the light of the resurrection, dispelling the darkness, overcoming the night of death and sin and the power of evil. Christ is victorious. The devil is vanquished. The liturgical act embodies St. Paulís words:

 Death is swallowed up in victory.
O death, where is thy victory?
O death, where is thy sting?
The sting of death is sin, and the
power of sin is the law. But thanks
be to God, who gives us the victory
through our Lord Jesus Christ!
(1 Cor. 15:54-57).

A procession takes place, with the priest bearing the Gospel Book to a lectern at the center of the church. The passage from Mark 16 is read and immediately followed by the repeated triumphant singing of the Paschal hymn:

 Christ is risen from the dead,
trampling death by death,
and bestowing life on those in the graves.

 Crucifixion and resurrection are tightly bound together in a paean of conquest over death and the affirmation of new life in Christ.

Immediately the Paschal Canon is sung, its first ode expressing the flush of joy and victory at the reurrection: "The day of resurrection! 0 people, let us be radiant. It is Pascha, the Lordís Passover; for Christ God has carried us over from death to life, from earth to heaven, as we sing a victory hymn."

Darkness and light. Death and life. Crucifixion and resurrection. We begin to understand the Christian message for humankind when the crucifixion and the resurrection together proclaim the message of salvation, redemption, hope and growth.


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