Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Holy Light of our Lord's Pascha

Kala Pascha to all my fellow Orthodox Christians. Christos anesti! Alithos anesti!

As I have now gone through my fourth Paschal celebration, I can honestly say that I am no closer to understanding the mystery that has occurred at the original Pascha, namely that of a dead man, nay God Himself incarnate, arising from the dead, conquering it and shattering its gates and bringing those dead in the tombs to life. I don't understand it. I don't think anyone can. Explain to me how mercy can be so great and how death can be defeated by death itself. It defies logical explanation; it defies categorization. Yet, though I don't understand, I believe. As Augustine once said, credo ut intellegam--I believe to understand. One must precede the other. And I believe that Christ's Resurrection has most certainly occurred as I am certain that I am typing these poor words.

The celebration of Orthodox Pascha differs from many Protestant/Western expressions of Christianity. Though joyful, we are still somber. The great majority of our hymns for this day, especially the Paschal Troparion (Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death and upon those in the tombs bestowing life; I have included a recording) are in a very haunting plagal of tone 1 (i.e. 5th tone) melody. Though joyful, we are still in a sense of awe as to how something so wondrous could happen. To understand that, I am sure, is to understand God's incomprehensibility.

There is one particular ritual in the Orthodox Church which baffles and confuses many Orthodox and non-Orthodox alike. THis is the ceremony of the Holy Light. On Holy Saturday evening, the Greek Patriarch of Jerusalem enters the sepulchre of Christ at the Church of the Resurrection in Jerusalem (which is where we believe Christ was buried). He is checked for any incendiary devices. While he is saying the prayers, a mysterious light appears overhead in the darkness. He emerges from the sepulchre with a lighted candle carrying the eternal light. No other clergy from any other expression of Christianity has been able to do this, not Catholic, not Protestant, not non-Chalcedonian Orthodox. It is not the Patriarch who does anything but it is the work of Christ Himself, revealing His Resurrection to the world every year. Some people have actually claimed to witness this. I recently read a book entitled "I Saw the Holy Light" where the author, who was the guard of the Sepulchre, responsible that the area at all times was properly cleaned and cared for. Desiring to see the holy light for himself, he devised a plan, a deception, for him to climb into a niche where he stayed for many hours just to have a glimpse of the Holy Light. And he did. It was a blue glow circling the Patriarch's head. I don't know if I particularly believe this account. It almost strikes me as too good to be true. But every year, this event happens. That is certain. There is no deception. All attempts to point this out as deception have utterly failed. And no one else has been able to duplicate this during the celebration of their respective Pascha. I am at a loss to explain. But, fortunately, Orthodoxy for me does not depend on, nor will it ever depend upon, my understanding and/or articulation of the hows of the Holy Orthodox Church and the Faith.

Nevertheless, questions remain. How does it happen? And why? Surely Christ's Resurrection can be proclaimed without this "miracle." And it can. We did not duplicate this at St. Mary's this year. Fr. Don lit the Paschal Candle with a match like he does every year. We must not forget that Christ has always used his creation to manifest his own glory. He has not shunned creation. Though corrupted, we are not utterly depraved. He uses creation because as it says in Genesis, God saw creation and saw that it was good. No sin can undo what God has wrought. If it could, then God would not be Almighty and would be limited. Christ uses what we can recognize and perceive with our senses so that we can come to understand. That does not mean that we will, but it will allow us to to perhaps make a beginning.

The Holy Light is a manifestation that God is among us. God is the Lord who has revealed Himself to us, we sing at Orthros. If God has chosen to dwell among us and to come to us in various manifestations, especially incarnate, it is only because he wishes us to dwell with Him. May they be one as we are one, Christ prays to His Father in the Gospel according to St. John. The Holy Light encourages us to draw near and to take Christ the true light into ourselves and to become one with Him. Christ does this especially in the sacraments, i.e. the Eucharist, baptism, etc. This is just another way to make Christ part of us, to partake of His Resurrection, not as an idea, but in a very real and life changing way.

As we come forward to take the light, this hymn is chanted, again in a very haunting, aweful and yet joyful plagal of tone 1 (tone 5): Come, take light, from the light which is never overtaken by night. And glorify Christ who is risen from the dead.

Kala Pascha! Al-Maseeh Q'am. Haqqan Q'am.

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