"Christ is risen from the dead, by death He conquered death, and to those in the graves He granted life." (Troparion of the Resurrection)
Of all the great feasts in the Ecclesiastical Year the most ancient, celebrated and joyous is the resplendent feast of the Resurrection of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. This festival, according to the Irmos of the eighth Ode of the Paschal canon of the Matins of the Resurrection is: "The King and Lord, the Feast of feasts, and Triumph of triumphs."
The holy Fathers of the Church, in a special way, stress the significance and the majesty of this feast. "The Pasch (Resurrection) for us," says St. Gregory the Theologian in his Easter sermon, is the feast of feasts, which surpasses all the other, not only civil, but also Christian feasts, celebrated in honor of our Lord, as the sun surpasses the stars. St. John Chrysostom in his sermon on the Resurrection extols this feast in these words: "Where, O Death, is your sting? Where, O Hades, is your victory? Christ is risen and you have fallen. Christ is risen and the demons have been cast down. Christ is risen and the angels rejoice. Christ is risen and life reigns. Christ is risen and the tomb is emptied of the dead, for Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep."
Thus, during the glorious and joyous day of the Resurrection (Easter) the Church calls upon heaven and earth to unite in holy and divine rejoicing: "Let, therefore, the heavens worthily rejoice, and the earth be glad, the whole creation visible and invisible celebrate, for Christ is risen, Eternal Joy. (Troparion of the first Ode in the Matins service of the Resurrection)To acquire a better understanding of the majesty and spirit of the feast of the Resurrection, we shall consider its history, liturgical services, and significance for us.
History of the Feast of the Resurrection
The feast of the Resurrection of our Lord in our liturgical texts (books) is addressed with the following titles: "The Holy and Great Sunday of the Pasch", "The Day of the Holy Pasch" or simply "The Holy Pasch". Our people have another name for the Resurrection (Easter), and that is, "Greatday" or "The Great Day", since it is truly great for the event it commemorates and for its significance and for the great joy it brings.
The word "pasch" is derived from the Hebrew word "pasach" which denotes "passover". Here it refers to the angel of God who, because Pharaoh would not free the Israelites, during the night destroyed the first-born of the Egyptians, but "passed over" (in Hebrew "pasach") the houses of the Israelites, whose door frames were sprinkled with the blood of a one-year-old lamb. To the Jews the word "pasch" also meant a lamb, which they slaughtered on the feast of the Pasch (Passover). Later this name came to denote the day or feast of the Pasch itself, which commemorated the deliverance of the Jews from Egyptian bondage.
For the Apostles and first Christians the Pasch became the symbol of another passover, namely, the twofold or double passover of Jesus Christ: first from life to death and then from death to life. The first passover formed the basis for the Pasch of the Crucifixion, and the second for the joyful Pasch of the Resurrection. The Apostles and first Christians celebrated the Christian Pasch together with the Jews, but it was not one of joy; rather it was one that was sad and linked with fasting, because it was, for them, the anniversary of Christ's death.
For the Christians, the paschal lamb of the Jews prefigured Jesus Christ who, like an innocent lamb, offered himself as a sacrifice for the sins of the world. This is why in the resurrectional services he is called the paschal lamb" or simply the "Pasch". "For Christ our passover," says St. Paul, has been sacrificed." (I Cor. 5,7)
In the second century while the sorrowful Pasch of the Crucifixion was still being observed, the practice of celebrating the joyous Pasch in honor of Christ's Resurrection arose. This Pasch was kept on the Sunday after the Jewish Pasch (Passover). Regarding this twofold celebration of the Pasch of the Crucifixion and the Pasch of the Resurrection, a long and relentless controversy developed concerning the day on which the Patch should be celebrated. This dispute arose because of the changing view concerning the character of the Pasch itself. At first, Christians had looked upon the Pasch as a day of sorrow and fasting in memory of Christ's death but, gradually, they developed a desire to combine this sadness with the joyful celebration of Christ's glorious Resurrection. This joyous festival did not, of course, harmonize with an altitude of sorrow nor with penitential fasting. The Christian Church, as a whole, began celebrating the Pasch of Christ's Resurrection on Sunday, but certain Christian communities, especially in Asia Minor, stubbornly adhered to the celebration of the Pasch with the Jews on the 14th day of Nisan, which is the day of the first vernal full moon. These Christian groups were called "Quartodecimani", (from the Latina for the fourteenth) i.e., the "Fourteenth-dayers", from day of the 14th of Nisan.
The Council of Nicea (325) finally put an end to these long and bitter disputes by decreeing that all Christians must celebrate the feast of the Pasch on the same day, that is on the Sunday after the first full moon following the spring equinox of March 21, and not according to the Jewish custom. During the course of the fourth and fifth centuries, the celebration of the Pasch was extended from one day to a whole week, called Bright Week", in contrast to the week before Easter, which was called "Great" or "Passion" week,
The collection of ecclesiastical laws entitled the "Apostolic Constitutions", which were set down in writing in Syria around 380 A.D. but which allegedly, from Apostolic times, offers the following information concerning "Bright Week": "Let slaves rest from their work all the Great Week, and that which follows it – for the one in memory of the passion, and the other of the resurrection; and there is need they should be instructed who it is that suffered and rose again, and who it is that permitted him to suffer, and raised him again." (VIII, 33)
Emperor Theodosius the Great (+395) banned court proceedings during the entire Bright Week, while Emperor Theodosius the Younger (†450) barred all performances in the theatre and circus. In Jerusalem, the most solemn days were the first three days of the Pasch, which the Eastern Church observes to the present day.
Regarding the method of celebrating Bright Week, the Sixth Ecumenical Council (691) decreed: From the holy day of the Resurrection of Christ our God to the new Sunday (i.e., Thomas Sunday) the faithful are required to spend the time in a state of leisure, frequent the church and participate in singing psalms, and spiritual hymns, rejoicing in Christ, and listening attentively to the readings of the Holy Scriptures, for in this way shall we rise with Christ and with Him be glorified. Therefore, during these days no horse races or other public spectacles are allowed to be held." (Rule 66)
Matins of the Resurrection
Of all the services in honor of the feast of the Resurrection of our Lord, the Matins of the Resurrection commands our special attention. This morning service can be called the grand hymn of glory in honor of Christ the Victor. Composed by that great theologian of the Eastern Church and great master of eloquence, St. John Damascene (c. 676-749), it is based on the paschal (Easter) sermons of the Fathers of the Church Gregory the Theologian, Gregory of Nyssa and John Chrysostom. The content of this resurrectional service is profoundly dogmatic, its form highly poetic, its tone joyful and The troparion of the Resurrection: "Christ is risen from victorious the dead...", which is sung so many times during the Easter season, encompasses the content, essence and significance of the feast. The canon is the center of the Resurrection Matins. In the Irmoses, troparions and sticheras of the canon, Christ reveals Himself to us as the promised Messiah, as God in majesty and power, as the Saviour and Redeemer and as the Victor over death, Hades and sin. In regard to its form, the paschal Matins poetry at its best and is, frankly speaking, unique in the ecclesiastical literature of the Eastern Church. Here we find a great wealth of beautiful poetic forms, images, comparisons and symbols. The triumphal tone, characteristic of a holy, unearthly and everlasting joy permeates the profound content and poetic forms of the Matins of the Resurrection. Here we experience that fulness of joy because of the Resurrection of Christ, which St. Gregory the Theologian expresses in his paschal sermon: "Yesterday I was crucified with Christ, today I am glorified with Him. Yesterday I died with Him, today I live with Him. Yesterday I was buried with Him, today I rise with Him." In Christ's victory all creation shares - heaven, earth and Hades. Everything calls upon us to rejoice. This heavenly joy overwhelms the whole person and all his sentiments.
The joy of the Resurrection reaches its peak in the sticheras of the Resurrection. They form one powerful hymn of joy in honor of the risen Christ - the New Testament Pasch. This joy is imparted to all and embraces all, even our enemies. "This is the day of the Resurrection," we sing in the last stichera, "let us be enlightened in triumphal celebration and embracing one another, let us say: 'Brother' – even to those hating us, let us forgive all things because of the Resurrection, and thus let us sing: 'Christ is risen from the dead, by death He conquered death and to those in the graves He granted life.
The Significance of the Resurrection
The resurrection of Christ is incontrovertible proof of his divinity. When the Pharisees and the Scribes demanded a sign from Christ which would prove that He is the Son of God, He answered them saying that they will not receive a sign other than that of the Prophet Jonas: "For even as Jonas was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth." (Matthew 12,40). And so it happened. On the third day of His death, the glorious Resurrection took place.
The resurrection of Christ is the foundation of our faith. What meaning would Christ's teaching have had the resurrection, which he had so frequently predicted, had not taken place. The Apostles, when they preached the Gospel, frequently appealed to Christ's resurrection as to the most convincing argument proving the veracity of Christ's doctrine. "If Christ has not risen, then," says St. Paul, "is our preaching vain and vain too is your faith... But, as it is, Christ has risen from the dead, the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep." (I Cor. 15,14-20) For this reason, the truth of the resurrection and the Christian religion are inseparable.
The resurrection of Christ, finally, is the sure pledge of our own resurrection to a happy everlasting life. Just as Christ rose, so too shall we rise one day to a new and glorious eternal life. Christ Himself assured us of this when He said: "The hour is coming in which all who are in their graves shall hear the voice of the Son of God. And they who have done good shall come forth unto resurrection of life; but they who have done evil unto resurrection of judgment... For this is the will of the Father who sent me, that whoever beholds the Son and believes in Him, shall have everlasting life, and I will raise Him up on the last day." (John 5,28-29; 6,40)
Source: A Byzantine Rite, Julian J. Katrij, OSBM