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PROPER OF THE SEASON

Pascha, not Easter!

By Father Dr 

Dumitru Macaila

(THE HELLENIC VOICE, May 1, 2002 & ORTHODOX CHRISTIAN WITNESS, August, 2002

 

The Venerable Bede (673?-735) gives us information related to the Christian Feast of feasts “Pascha” that is, how the greatest of all the Christians feasts came to be named Easter in the English language. He claims that the term comes from the word Eastre, a pagan Germanic goddess of spring, named Ostarun in old high German language.

 

As to Eastre, it was not only the name of the pagan Germanic goddess of spring, it was also the name of her festival. It is quite strange, in fact, unexplainable to me, how her name came to be given to the greatest of all Christian feasts, the Festival of festivals, the very foundation of the Christian Church. It is twice as mystifying if one remembers that “Easter” is the Christian Passover, that the core belief related to it is that through Christ’s resurrection, we passed from death to life, from bondage to sin to eternal life. The Hebrew term Pesah or Pesach means Passover, and on this feast the people celebrated their deliverance from slavery. Our Christian Passover is in direct continuity with the Jewish feasts involving the lamb that was to be without blemish, as a reminder that their firstborn had been saved from death.

 

The Greek language, the original language of all but one books of the New Testament assimilated the term almost unchanged, Pascha, with the same meaning, Passover. Moreover, the Greek word Pascha was assimilated by all modern Latin laguages. In my mother language , Romanian, (which is based on the percentage of Latin words in our vocabulary and which is number one among the modern Romance tongues) the word is PaÂYte; in French Paques; in Italian Pasqua; in Spanish Pascua; and in Portuguese Pascoa. Not only that, but the deep significance of the Feast of feasts remains the same for all peoples who communicate through a modern Romance language, despite the fact that some are Orthodox and some are Roman Catholics. What is unique to our Orthodoxy is that Pascha is celebrated by our Church not only once a year but on every Sunday. “The Orthodox Church is correctly referred to - with an eye toward both theology and liturgy as the Church of the Resurrection” (Michael Prokurat, Historical Dictionary of the Orthodox Church, p 256).

 

This theological and liturgical truth, deeply rooted in our Orthodox tradition, is emphasized by the fact that in the Russian language, for example, which is spoken by the largest Orthodox nation in the world, Sunday is called Voskreseniye, which means Resurrection. With a similar significance the first day of the week, Sunday, is named in my mother language, Duminica, from the Latin Dies Domini, the Lord’s Day. One doesn’t need to be a rocket scientist to identified the Lord’s Day with the Day o Resurrection, on which the early Church Christians “continued steadfastly in the apostles’ teaching, in fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and prayers” (Acts 2:42). “Now on the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul, ready to depart the next day, spoke to them ad continued his message unto midnight” (Acts 20:7; see also I Cor. 16:2; Rev. 1:10; Acts 2:46; 20:11). There is no doubt that they came together to break bread, viz., to celebrate the Eucharist, on the first day of the week, Sunday, exactly because this was the day on which Christ rose from the dead. Why do I strongly plead for the name Pascha, and not Easter to be given to the Day that must be seen as the most sacred, not only be our Faith, but by the human race as a whole? I do so because it is my contention that in employing the heathen term Easter, the deepest, holiest significance of this Holy Day is lost. When we say Pascha “Passover” we are reminded of the greatest event in human history, the Resurrection of Christ. Yes, Christ’s Resurrection must be seen as the climax of mankind’s redemption, the very “moment” when every human being regained the potentiality to pass from death to life. On one imperative condition: to start one’s passing over from death to life by dying and rising with Christ, by living one’s own Passover.

 

If we start our life’s journey by dying and rising with Christ, and continue throughout our life to “work out our own salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12), our eternal destiny is resurrection with Christ, the other side of the “coin” being eternal death. In his work, Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, St. John of Damascus makes the point that resurrection is the second state of that which has fallen. If the souls are immortal, he goes on, how can they rise again? Death is the separation of soul and body, while resurrection is the reunion of soul and body, the second state of the living creature that that has suffered dissolution and downfall.

 

“It is, then, this very body, which is corruptible and liable to dissolution, that will rise again incorruptible… If there is no resurrection, wherein do we differ from the irrational brutes? If there is no resurrection, nether is there any God or Providence… For observe how we see most righteous men suffering hunger and injustice and receiving no help in the present life, while sinners and unrighteous men abound in riches and every delight… There must be, therefore, there must be a resurrection!”(op. cit.) Notice that our holy Father connects our resurrection to the very existence of God, a high logical connection that is very hard for a godless world such as ours to make.

 

Speaking about the resurrection of Lazarus, St. John of Damascus emphasizes that Christ raised Lazarus’ body along with his soul, and not another body but the very one that was corrupt. By raising Lazarus, Christ wanted in fact to make the divinity of His nature manifest and to confirm the belief in His own and our resurrection. Unlike Lazarus who was destined to die once more, the Lord became Himself the first-fruits of the perfect resurrection that is no longer subject to death.

 

“But if there is no resurrection from the dead, then Christ is not risen. And if Christ is not risen, then our preaching is empty and your faith is also empty… For if the dead do not rise, then Christ is not risen. And if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins!” (I Cor. 15:13-14; 16-17).

 

Our Christian Faith makes no sense without Christ’s resurrection, the foundation of our own resurrection! St. John Damascene has very harsh words for those who still doubt that the dead will be raised up:

 

“Oh what disbelief! Oh what a folly! Will He, Who by His solitary determination changed earth into body, Who commanded the little drop of seed to grow in the mother’s womb and become in the end these varied and manifold organs of the body, not the rather raise up by His solitary will that which was and is dissolved! … Believe, likewise also. In this wise, that the resurrection of the dead will come to pass by divine will” (op. cit.)

 

“Behold the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29), exclaimed John the Baptist when he saw Christ. He identified Him with the Suffering Servant foreseen by Isaiah, the sacrificed Lamb, “wounded for our transgressions” (Isaiah 53:5). He is our Paschal Lamb, without blemish.

 

As the Lamb’s blood, with which the Hebrews marked their doors, reminded them that their firstborn had been saved from death, and that the people were freed from bondage and allowed to set out toward the Promised Land, in the same “indeed, in a more perfect” way the blood of God’s spotless Lamb reminds every human being that we all have been saved from death and are allowed to set out towards the Heavenly Jerusalem, to live forever with the Crucified and Risen Christ. “For Christ our Paschal Lamb, was sacrificed for us” (I Cor. 5:7). It is Pascha with its perfect, otherworldly joy “not Easter” which is the door towards our eternity with Christ.

 

 

                         © Fr. Dr. Dumitru Macaila was the assistant parish priest of the Greek Archdiocese Annunciation Church, Lancaster, PA.

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