From Lent to Pascha: The Journey of the People of God
The Lord took a handful of dust from the earth. He breathed into it, and created me, a living man! He made me Lord and master of all things on earth; Truly I enjoyed the life of angels! But Satan the deceiver tempted me in the guise of a serpent, I ate the forbidden fruit and forfeited the glory of God. Now I have been delivered to the earth through death. O my compassionate Lord, call me back to Eden.
-- “Lord, I Call” verses, Cheesefare SundayVespers
Beginning with Vespers on Forgiveness Sunday, the entire atmosphere of the Orthodox Church is markedly different from that of the regular liturgical year. Bold, joyful melody is replaced by simplicity and quiet. Prayer and supplication are constant and intensiﬁ ed. Darkness blankets and dulls the outward brilliance of the church. Such outward transformations help to signify a different time in the Church: a time of pilgrimage. During the period of Great Lent and Holy Week, the Orthodox Church is the vehicle by which the people of God are able to “return to Eden.”
Such metaphor has been an important part of the life and liturgics of the Orthodox Church for centuries. Speciﬁcally, the notion of the Church as pilgrimage is most pronounced during the season of Great Lent. During this period, the Church reminds us that we are indeed in exile, alienated from God because of our sin. Yet the Church not only reminds us of our evil ways; she provides the way of return to Christ. This article will describe the ways in which the Orthodox Church enables her members truly to grasp the reality of the pilgrimage of the people of God and thereby to participate more fully in the Resurrection of Christ.
As with any lengthy journey or period of travel, there is a time of preparation that precedes it, a “warm-up.” For four weeks before the actual beginning of the Fast, the Church teaches the meaning of Lent. In a sense, we are being primed; we are being made ready for repentance.
It is a characteristic feature of the Orthodox liturgical tradition that every major feast or season – Easter, Christmas, Lent, etc. – is announced and “prepared” in advance. Why? Because of the deep psychological insight by the Church into human nature. Knowing our lack of concentration and the frightening “worldliness” of our life, the Church knows our inability to change rapidly, to go abruptly from one spiritual or mental state into another. Thus, long before the actual effort of Lent is to begin, the Church calls our attention to its seriousness and invites us to meditate on its signiﬁ cance. Before we can practice Lent we are given its meaning (Schmemann, Great Lent, 17).
Five Sundays are reserved for the preparation for the Fast, each with a particular theme. The Gospel for the ﬁrst preparation Sunday is the story of Zacchaeus, whose desire to see God is emphasized; during the second week, the Church listens to the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee and learns about the importance of humility; on the third Sunday the lesson of the Prodigal Son stresses the possibility of return from exile, or alienation, from God; the fourth week emphasizes love and brotherhood as the very foundation and life of the Church; ﬁnally, on the last preparation Sunday, the Church recalls humankind’s expulsion from Paradise and remembers that God – through Christ – calls us back to it.
On the eve of this last Sunday, the journey of Great Lent begins. During the Vespers service, the people once more recall their expulsion from Paradise and life without God. The prayers and hymns remind us that it is only through repentance and reconciliation that we can successfully return to God’s Kingdom.1 The tribes of Israel had to suffer through forty years in the wilderness of Sinai in order to reach their land of milk and honey. The present people of God must do the same.
Although the mood during Forgiveness Sunday Vespers is undoubtedly somber and pensive, the inauguration of the pilgrimage of the Church also becomes a source of hope and joy, for we are returning home! It is critical to understand that, while Lent serves to heighten our awareness of our sinful nature, the Church never loses sight of the Resurrection. It is during this service that the Church sings, “Let God Arise!” in sure anticipation of our destination.
The transition to Great Lent comes as less of a shock on account of the previous four weeks of preparation. We are prepared, in other words, for the arduous journey ahead. Whereas previously the Church had informed us of the meaning of our pilgrimage, she now enters into it. To make this absolutely real, the Orthodox Church employs several means: service and prayer, repentance, fasting and sensory experience. None of these elements is discrete or separate; all combine and coalesce in Orthodox life.
The number of services prescribed during Great Lent increases dramatically. During the ﬁrst week alone, the Church sings the Canon of St. Andrew every day.2 The Canon is a lengthy series of penitential prayers and lamentations read by the priest, while the people make prostrations and sing, “Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me,” in response. What is important to note is that the prayers used during the Canon draw one into the exile of the Old Testament. St. Andrew employs the stories of Moses, Jacob, Joseph and Job, to name a few, to highlight the utter sinfulness of man and the toil and labor he must endure to be right with God:
With a great art, St. Andrew interwove the great biblical themes . . . with confession of sin and repentance. The events of sacred history are revealed as events of my life, God’s acts in the past as acts aimed at me and my salvation, the tragedy of sin and betrayal as my personal tragedy. My life is shown to me as part of the great and all-embracing ﬁght between God and the powers of darkness which rebel against Him (Schmemann, Great Lent, 64).
The repetition of such themes begins to wear on us – while we may have been insensitive and dulled to the absolute expanse of our sin at ﬁrst, we begin to feel its weight pressing on us, making it real. We begin to understand more fully our need for Christ and our desire to participate in the Resurrection. We long for His refreshment!
It is not uncommon for people – Orthodox themselves – to comment on the length of these services and the number of prostrations included. The reason for such things, however, is not to provide a calculated way of measuring salvation or forgiveness, or even to be some sort of punishment or reprimand; rather, the Church Fathers realized that such an intense mode of prayer is necessary in order to slow us down and make us aware:
We understand that it is simply impossible to pass from our normal state of mind made up almost entirely of fuss, rush and care, into this new one without ﬁrst “quiet ing down,” without restoring in ourselves a measure of inner stability (Schmemann, Great Lent, 33).
This is precisely what the Canon allows us to do.
Also beginning in the ﬁrst week of Great Lent is the celebration of the Liturgy of the Presanctiﬁ ed Gifts.3 This service is meant to support us in our lengthy and tiresome pilgrimage:
On this journey we need help and support, strength and comfort, for the “Prince of this world” has not yet surrendered . . . and in this ﬁ ght, our main help is precisely the Body and Blood of Christ, that “essential food” which keeps us spiritually alive and, in spite of all temptations and dangers, makes us Christ’s followers (Schmemann, Great Lent, 47 –8).
On Wednesdays and Fridays, the days that this service is celebrated, the people abstain from food or drink from the beginning of the day until after the liturgy, which is in the evening. It goes without saying that this is difﬁcult and arduous. I have never heard anyone say that they “enjoyed” this preparation. Yet, at the close of the evening, after the liturgy has been celebrated, the feeling of joy and peace is indescribable. And what makes it so is the amount of – indeed, the difﬁculty of – the preparation. On the day of a Presanctiﬁed Liturgy, time ceases to be “normal time,” and as one goes about his or her daily tasks, things tend to take on different hues and colors. Indeed, the perspective of Christ is “forced” into our lives. What was previously important – errands, tasks, lists –become trivial. Instead, all of one’s being seeks the evening at hand:
The Church keeps a “watch” – she expects the Bridegroom and waits for him in readiness and joy. Thus, the total fast is not only a fast of the members of the Church; it is the Church herself as fast, as expectation of Christ who comes in glory at the consummation of all time (Schmemann, Great Lent, 50).
During this service, several Old Testament excerpts are read, which again remind us of our pilgrim state as they draw us into the world of the people of Israel.4 Yet the Church does not forget that all Scripture is fulﬁlled in Christ. Thus, she proclaims, “The light of Christ illumines all things!” midway through the readings to remind us of this fact. As Christians, Christ remains our center, and as we recall our exile we likewise remember that Christ is the light of the universe and our salvation. In other words, our pilgrimage would mean nothing without Jesus.
All of this prayer, toil and preparation continues for the entire seven-week period of Great Lent. The simplicity of life that the Church prescribes in terms of eating, drinking and living allows the person to breathe, to reﬂect on what he or she was truly meant to be: in communion with God. Meat and dairy products, oil and fats are eliminated from the diet not because these things are somehow unclean or sinful, but because human beings – when content and satisﬁ ed – ﬁnd it much more difﬁcult to focus on God:
Jesus did not say, if you fast. He said, when you fast. Fasting is part of the spiritual life without which the soul perishes, suffocated by the ﬂesh and choked by carnal pleasures. A human being must fast. The effort enlightens the mind, strengthens the spirit, controls the emotions and tames the passions. If you do not kill the ﬂesh, the saints tell us, the ﬂesh kills you. Yet it is not the body as such that is to be mortiﬁed, it is carnal lusts and desires (Hopko, 109–110).
When physical hunger is over-satisﬁ ed, spiritual hunger is more easily and readily forgotten.5 Thus, the people refrain from eating certain foods and practice utmost simplicity in order to enhance the amount and quality of attention to spiritual behavior.
In this same vein, many Orthodox will speak of traditions that are familiar to them outside of the speciﬁc foods that they refrain from eating, such as abstention from television or loud music (or any music), spending leisure time quietly rather than at parties or gatherings, or only reading the Bible or other theological texts as opposed to casual material. All of these things, provided they are not seen as ends in themselves, provide a way for man to reach his destination of a “return to Eden.” And while the Orthodox Church has borne countless accusations of archaism and traditionalism, it is this understanding of human nature and the reality of God that lies at the bottom of her liturgical and daily expressions. Through such means, the Church prepares us for Holy Week and the Paschal celebration.
In addition to the types of fasting and abstention mentioned above, being in church is also different during the period of Great Lent. The Church is clothed in the dark garments of purple rather than the bold colors she wore previously. The inside of the building is kept dark and dim. The responses of the people and the choir are plain and simple. Candles continuously burn and even the incense seems to smell different. All of these things – the dark colors, the dim and quiet inside the Church, the lack of ornate music – encourage one to repent:
When a person enters the temple during Lent, he would notice a marked contrast. The brightness is gone. The festivity has left. The building becomes like the wilderness – dark and forsaken by God . . . it is spring and although the air is warm and the sun is shining, the atmosphere is one of a “sad brightness” (J. Oleynik, 30).
Through sensual experience also, the Church is the vehicle for the people of God.
It is important to note that, midway through the Fast, the emphasis is less on the sinner; instead, the Church highlights the Cross and Resurrection as the fulﬁllment of all of our labor and toil. We are on a journey – one that is meant to cleanse us from our sin and transgression. Yet, as Christians, the journey would be pointless if we did not understand the purpose of Christ’s dying on the cross and rising on the third day! As I have said, the whole Lenten journey would be pointless without Christ – there would be no destination, only aimless wandering. Indeed, the entire purpose and focus of Great Lent is not merely to purify ourselves as if that were some self-proclaimed ultimate good.6 The purpose of the Church’s Fast – the Church’s pilgrimage – is to enlighten our minds fully with the joy and reality of the Resurrection: “The meaning of our effort is now being revealed to us as participation in that mystery to which we were so accustomed as to take it for granted, and which we simply forgot” (Schmemann, Great Lent, 78). To remind us of this, midway through Lent the cross is placed in the center of the Church, adorned with ﬂ owers.
The Lenten journey continues until Holy Week, when the Church’s pilgrimage suddenly takes a different direction.7 Prior to this point, the services and continued prayer, the fasting and the experience of the Church have served to call her people to repentance, keeping Christ’s victory over death – the Cross – in sight. Beginning with Lazarus Saturday, however, the pilgrimage changes.8 The people of God have ceased their arduous wandering, but to complete their journey and “return to Eden” they must remember and enter into the death and passion of Christ. The people must go with Christ to Bethany and Jerusalem, to Gethsemane and Golgotha. Indeed, the entire purpose of the past forty days of Great Lent has been to prepare the people of God for participation in Holy Week.
On Saturday, as the Church travels to Bethany to witness Jesus raising His friend Lazarus from the tomb, we are made aware expressly of our ultimate purpose and destination. As we remember Lazarus, we are assured of our own destiny: we have life in Christ! Already we see that death has no dominion! From Bethany, the Church travels with Jesus up to Jerusalem, where she proclaims “Hosanna” with all of her might, waving palms and branches in victory. The Church unhesitatingly declares, “Blessed is He that comes in the name of the Lord!” There is a feeling of triumph and joy – the Church already knows the outcome of events to come. Yet, although victory is sure, death comes ﬁrst.
As we stand in church on the evening of Palm Sunday, we are sunk in darkness. This is the end . . we have held high our palm branches and accepted his Kingdom. But now these palms lie at home, and we stand in darkness. The end has come (Lazor, 5).
Knowing this, the Church grows silent.
During the ﬁrst three days of Holy Week, the people of God are called to be still and watch, for the hour is drawing near! An attitude of constant, relentless vigil envelops the Church as she waits, no longer in motion. On each of these days, the Church celebrates a Matins service – typically known as the Bridegroom Service – that emphasizes the parable of the ten virgins waiting for their Lord. The Church reminds us to be like the ﬁve wise virgins who are prepared and ready for whenever the Lord arrives to gather them into His celebration:
Midnight is the time for us to keep vigil, to watch and pray. The night time of “this world” is when we look for the coming of the Kingdom of God. The parable of the wise and foolish virgins who went out to meet the bridegroom forms the basis of this special troparion sung at the beginning of Matins each day . . . . [T]he bridal hall is the Kingdom of Heaven. The Bridegroom is Christ. He comes at an hour when we least expect Him. We must “watch, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour” (Lazor, 9).
Beginning with Holy Thursday, the Passion is made present. The Church partakes of the Last Supper with Jesus and His disciples at the midday Eucharistic celebration; the Church sees and hears the betrayal of Judas; the Church reads and lives all four gospel accounts of Jesus’ trials – from Gethsemane to the Cross. On Friday, the people of God bury Christ and lament His death; ﬁnally, the Church keeps watch over the tomb of Christ in prayer and quiet anticipation.9
On Holy Saturday, the people wait in the tomb for Christ’s Resurrection.10 The Paschal victory is anticipated as they remember their journey in the wilderness and corresponding alienation from God. Here, as is so common in Great Lenten services, the theme of pilgrimage ﬁ gures prominently. It is of no little consequence that the Old Testament readings draw “parallels between Israel’s Exodus and Christ’s Burial and expected Resurrection” (M. Oleynik, 32). The Church passes over death. And as such, she is able to proclaim the coming Resurrection with surety:
“Arise, O God, judge the earth! For to You belong all nations!”11
And suddenly – triumphantly – the Church sheds its darkness and exhaustion. Purple and black garments are exchanged for those that are white and radiant. Darkness is washed away by light and the Church sings a joyful “Alleluia!” The people of God are assured of Christ’s victory, for they have seen and tasted Christ!12
Although the Church tastes the joy of the Resurrection on Holy Saturday, she remembers that Christ is still in the tomb. So for the remainder of the evening, She keeps watch at the tomb and waits for the dawning of the third day. At midnight on Pascha, the Church throws open her doors in joy and elation: Christ is Risen! The people of God have reached their destination: Christ is Risen! The Church dances with happiness: Christ is Risen! Everyone rejoices with gladness, for after centuries of merely existing in the world, the human race now had a “new life.” This was the purpose for the celebration. As Christ walked away from the dark musty tomb, mankind now had the opportunity to leave the dark life of sin and walk away from the grave with its feelings of uselessness, hopelessness, gloom and despair. This is what Orthodox Christians are called to celebrate on Pascha for it is the day on which the passage from death to life is opened by Christ. And in the Orthodox Church it is indeed celebrated! Anyone who has been to the service at midnight on Pascha, even if he is not Orthodox, can sense in the atmosphere a special feeling. A new way of viewing the existence of man permeates the congregation. In the “night which is brighter than the day” there is an indescribable presence of joy. Even if it is only for a ﬂ eeting moment, the person cannot help but feel that the “day which the Lord has made” is indeed something different. It is different in a sense that there is something present that all men who have but once partaken of it, they cannot continue to deny. To celebrate the Resurrection in this manner would radically change a person’s attitude toward everything in the world. The Church naturally seeks to reveal this glory of the feast. The Church fervently desires to show the world that the splendor of Pascha will produce a different attitude towards life (J. Oleynik, 3, emphasis added).
Their pilgrimage over and their destination reached, the People of God once more fully participate in the joyous life of Christ.
Other Christian denominations continually emphasize the Church’s earthly existence as exilic;13 Orthodox theology, while in no way disregarding the “future and abiding” Kingdom, understands and lives the now of the Kingdom. It is the Kingdom-as-now in which we participate during each Eucharistic celebration; it is the Kingdom-as-now that we know as Christians and believers in Christ; it is the Kingdom-as-now that stretches and expands across space and time.
Thus we return to where we began, indeed to where the Eucharist itself begins: to the blessing of the Kingdom of God, as its content and all-encompassing meaning . . . [I]t means that now, already in this world, we conﬁrm the possibility of communion with the Kingdom, of entrance into its radiance, truth and joy. Each time that Christians gather in the church they witness before the whole world that Christ is King and Lord, that His Kingdom has already been revealed and given to man and that a new and immortal life has begun. This is why the Liturgy begins with this solemn confession and doxology of the King who comes now but abides forever and shall reign unto ages of ages (Schmemann, The Symbol of the Kingdom, 46-7).
This understanding of the Kingdom — indeed, the very essence and reality of the Church — is central to Orthodox theology.
In light of this understanding of Church and Kingdom, one may wonder why Great Lent is necessary. After all, if Orthodox Christians experience the reality of the Kingdom of God during each Eucharistic celebration, haven’t we already reached our destination of communion with God? Is the pilgrimage necessary?
The pilgrimage is necessary precisely because we do not always want or recognize His Kingdom. Indeed, rather than live in His communion and love, we have done nothing but forfeit that glory. We remain tied to our fallen world and our sinful state. We cling to our passions instead of clinging to God. Knowing this, the Church gives us Great Lent to assist us in our salvation. We need reminding. The Church is here to remind me of what I have abandoned and lost. And as she reminds me, I remember: “I have wickedly strayed from Thy fatherly glory” (Schmemann, Great Lent, 22). In order to continue to experience fully the joy of Pascha and our participation in the Kingdom, we must each year journey through the Sinai wilderness of our sin. We must be made aware of our utter rebelliousness.
Through the intense self-awareness that the journey of Great Lent brings, the people of God are prepared each year to experience the events of Holy Week and Christ’s Resurrection from the tomb. We remember that Christ died and rose again; we remember that we can do nothing without Him; we remember that we were baptized into Him and, as such, participate in that very Resurrection. One’s entire worldview is transformed:
We are baptized in the death of Christ, shrouded in water to rise again with Him. And for the soul lustrated in the baptismal waters of tears, and ablaze with the fire of the Holy Spirit, the Resurrection is not the only hope but present reality. The parousia [the return of Christ] begins in the souls of the saints, and St. Simeon the New Theologian can write, for those who become children of the light and sons of the day to come, for those who always walk in the light, the Day of the Lord will never come, for they are already with God and in God. An infi nite ocean of light fl ows from the risen body of the Lord (Lossky, 118, emphasis added).
Remembering — making real Christ’s passion and victory over death — transfi gures our life. Having been dulled to His glory, we are now awakened; having been ignorant of truth and life, we are now illumined; having been blind to Christ’s presence, we now see Him. Ultimately, Orthodoxy is a way of life. It is a continuous acknowledgement of, and participation in, that new life that Christ gave to us through His death and Resurrection.
Each year, at the start of Great Lent, the Church reminds us of our rebellion against God and compares humanity without Christ to Adam weeping bitterly outside the gates of Paradise. Out of love, she calls the people of God to return with her to the Kingdom. The choice is ours; if we are willing to participate, how much more joyously will we proclaim, Christ Is Risen!
Melanie Paulick received her M.A. in Theology from Duquesne University. She resides with her family in Pittsburgh and is a member of St. John the Baptist Orthodox Church in Canonsburg, Pa.
1. Reconciliation on Forgiveness Sunday is not merely spoken of; it is acted upon. At the end of the Vespers service, all of the people greet one
another with a brotherly kiss and ask for forgiveness. As simple as this may sound, it is one of the most emotional experiences in the Church,
for all triviality is laid aside and the essence of Christianity – love – is actualized.
2. Saturdays and Sundays are not regular days according to the Church calendar.
3. There is, of course, a very specifi c and detailed theology of the Presanctified Liturgy. Suffice it to say that, in the Orthodox Church, the celebration of the Eucharist is incompatible with fasting (and there are two different types of fasting), as it is literally a joyous feast. The bread and wine that are offered as communion during the Liturgy of the Presanctifi ed Gifts have already been consecrated on the previous Sunday. Presanctified Liturgy is not the joyous Eucharistic celebration of the Lord’s Day; rather, the communion received is “spiritual” food for our journey.
4. The imagery of the People of God is used in a very specific way in this service. The group of psalms read at the beginning, the 18th Kathisma
(Psalms 120 134), is reminiscent of Jewish processional hymns. These were read while the people stood on the Temple steps, as they prepared
to enter into the presence of God (Schmemann, Great Lent, 56).
5. For a more detailed expression on the connection between physical and spiritual hunger, see Alexander Schmemann’s For the Life of the World.
6. My point here of course is not to challenge Christian values and virtues, or the Christian way of life, but to insist that Great Lent – with all of its tools of purification – means nothing without Christ.
7. It is interesting to note that Holy Week is not considered to be part of the regular fasting days of Lent. Indeed, it is a different “time” according to the rubrics of the Orthodox Church.
8. Actually, the “journey” begins to change during the weekday liturgies that precede Lazarus Saturday, for “the liturg[ies] of the Church [make]
us follow Christ as He fi rst announces the death of His friend and then begins His journey to Bethany” (Schmemann, Great Lent, 79).
9. Of course, the liturgical details of each of these services contain great theological significance.
10. This “waiting” is literal: the people surround Christ’s burial shroud (placed in the center of the building) during this service.
11. Prokiemenon of the Holy Saturday Vesperal Eucharist service.
12. Again, this “seeing” and “tasting” are not figurative but literal. The people see Jesus in the tomb placed in the center of the Church; they partake of communion and taste Christ.
13. One example of this different understanding can be seen in the Vatican document Lumen Gentium, which stresses the exilic, earthly existence of the Church, which “while living in this present age goes in search of a future and abiding city” (Lumen Gentium, Chapter 9). The Kingdom of God here is only future; the emphasis falls on the biblical “not yet.”
Hopko, Thomas. The Lenten Spring: Readings for Great Lent. New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1983.
Lazor, V. Rev. Paul. Introduction, in The Bridegroom Services of Holy Week. Eds. David Anderson, John Erickson and V. Rev. Paul Lazor. New Jersey: Orthodox Christian Publications Center, n.d., 5 12.
Lossky, Vladimir. Orthodox Theology: An Introduction. Crestwood, New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1989.
Oleynik, Joseph. The Passover from Death to Life: The Psychology of Great Lent. Unpublished thesis, St. Tikhon’s Seminary, 1975.
Oleynik, Melanie. “The Poetical Incarnation of Liturgical Time and Space in Osip Mandelstam.” Unpublished honors thesis, Georgetown University, 2001.
Schmemann, Alexander. For the Life of the World. Crestwood, New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2000.
---. Great Lent. Crestwood, New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1974.
---. The Symbol of the Kingdom, in Orthodox Synthesis: The Unity of Theological Thought. Ed. Joseph J. Allen. New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1981, 35-47.
Trouve, Marianne Loraine, FSP., Ed. The Sixteen Documents of Vatican II. Boston: Pauline Books and Media, 1999.