Fallen Leaves wishes its readers, whoever they may be, a happy Orthodox Easter.
After the reading of Acts, during the midnight office, after the lights go off but before the singing of the Easter sticheron begins, there is a pause. The clergy are praying in the altar but the people outside do not hear them. The choir is silent. This moment, which is actually quite brief, suddenly starts to feel very long.
This silence contains the anguish and fear that the Apostles surely experienced on Great Saturday — scattered, in hiding, helpless and alone. Perhaps they were so frightened that, at that moment, they were not able to properly mourn their Teacher.
When the sticheron first sounds (“Thy Resurrection, O Christ our Savior…“), it is weak and distant, and has a funereal quality, as if a small handful of survivors had finally found the courage for one last and futile act of defiance, obstinately proclaiming His life despite having just seen it end in disgrace. But as the clergy leaves the altar and is followed outside by the congregation, the hymn is amplified, the angels join among the human voices. The line between Heaven and earth wavers. After the procession, the congregation crowds outside the open doors; the priest strides out and announces that Christ is risen.
To this day, death is just as tragic and terrifying as it was two thousand years ago. Our increased material comfort and improved medical knowledge have only made it worse — we now have more things that we inevitably have to leave behind, and all that we have accomplished in our drive to extend our lives is to add to them a long and excruciating period of deterioration. Every secular program for achieving eternal life is inherently dehumanizing. On the other hand, the Resurrection of Christ is still completely new — its promise that death does not exist is, if anything, more startling, more radical and more fervently longed-for now than at any time in the past.
“If any man be devout and love God, let him enjoy this fair and radiant triumphal feast. If any man be a wise servant, let him rejoicing enter into the joy of his Lord. If any have labored long in fasting, let him now receive his recompense. If any have wrought from the first hour, let him today receive his just reward. If any have come at the third hour, let him with thankfulness keep the feast. If any have arrived at the sixth hour, let him have no misgivings; because he shall in nowise be deprived thereof. If any have delayed until the ninth hour, let him draw near, fearing nothing. If any have tarried even until the eleventh hour, let him, also, be not alarmed at his tardiness; for the Lord, who is jealous of his honor, will accept the last even as the first; he gives rest unto him who comes at the eleventh hour, even as unto him who has wrought from the first hour.
And he shows mercy upon the last, and cares for the first; and to the one he gives, and upon the other he bestows gifts. And he both accepts the deeds, and welcomes the intention, and honors the acts and praises the offering. Wherefore, enter you all into the joy of your Lord; and receive your reward, both the first, and likewise the second. You rich and poor together, hold high festival. You sober and you heedless, honor the day. Rejoice today, both you who have fasted and you who have not fasted. The table is full-laden; feast ye all sumptuously. The calf is fatted; let no one go hungry away.
Enjoy ye all the feast of faith: Receive ye all the riches of loving-kindness. let no one bewail his poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed. Let no one weep for his iniquities, for pardon has shown forth from the grave. Let no one fear death, for the Savior’s death has set us free. He that was held prisoner of it has annihilated it. By descending into Hell, He made Hell captive. He embittered it when it tasted of His flesh. And Isaiah, foretelling this, did cry: Hell, said he, was embittered, when it encountered Thee in the lower regions. It was embittered, for it was abolished. It was embittered, for it was mocked. It was embittered, for it was slain. It was embittered, for it was overthrown. It was embittered, for it was fettered in chains. It took a body, and met God face to face. It took earth, and encountered Heaven. It took that which was seen, and fell upon the unseen.
Death, where is thy sting? Hell, where is thy victory? Christ is risen, and you are overthrown. Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen. Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice. Christ is risen, and life reigns. Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave. For Christ, being risen from the dead, is become the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. To Him be glory and dominion unto ages of ages. Amen.”
Paschal sermon of St. John Chrysostom
Constantinople, end of the 4th century
Христос воскресе из мертвых, смертию смерть поправ,
и сущим во гробех живот даровав!