Excerpt from Treasures of the Fathers: The Holy Pascha series, which is available for purchase and download here.
Without question, the Holy Pascha week is the holiest week of the entire year. The artistic beauty and spiritual depth of the rites of this week are at its zenith. Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection are the foundation upon which is built the whole fabric of Christianity.
The Word, “Pascha”
“He is the Pascha of our salvation.”
Melito of Sardis
The understanding of the word Pascha has a complex and confusing historical interpretation. Pascha or Pesach in the Old Testament referred to the Jewish feast of the Passover, the paschal lamb itself, and sometimes denotes both together. It also referred to the first night of the Unleavened Bread, the entire week. In the Christian tradition, the use of the term “Pascha” varies in use according to the theological focus of the Christian group. The early Latin rite, focusing on the sufferings of Christ, used Pascha to refer the “Passion” and thus related more closely to the day of our Lord’s Crucifixion. One example of this is Melito of Sardis, who writes, “What is the Pascha? It is taken from an accompanying circumstance paschein (to keep Pascha) comes from pathein (to suffer). Therefore, learn who the suffer is and who is he who suffers along with the sufferer.” However, there is a second, more accurate understanding of Pascha, which was interpreted as “passage” instead of “passion.” This understanding was introduced by the Jewish writer Philo, and continued in by the famous Alexandrian fathers, the Scholar Origen, St. Cyril of Alexandria, and St. Clement. Thus, our Church focused more on the glory and victory of the resurrection rather than the sufferings.
This “passage” or “passing through” relates to the two main references in the Old Testament relating to the Pascha. The first relates to the Lord’s explanation to His people in book of Exodus, “It is the Lord’s Passover. For I will pass through the land of Egypt on that night” (Ex 12:11-12). This phrase, “pass through” (also in v. 23) refers to a linear motion as when Jacob crossed over the Jordan when fleeing from Laban (Ge 31:21), or when Jacob desired to cross through the territory of King Sihon (Nu 21:23). The Lord then repeats this saying, “And when I see the blood, I will pass over you” (Ex 12:13). The Hebrew word for “Passover” comes from this phrase “pass over.” The exact word used in Hebrew is pacach (pronounced paw-sakh’); which means to hop, to skip over, or to spare. Amazingly, the only other time this word is used in the Bible outside this chapter is in Isaiah 31:5, where the Lord explains, “Like birds flying about, so will the Lord of Hosts defend Jerusalem. Defending, He will also deliver it; Passing over, He will preserve it.” Below are the sayings of these Alexandrian fathers. Also below is the understanding of St. Augustine, who though properly explaining the word “pascha,” does slightly mix its meaning with the western understanding.
Most, if not all of the brethren think that the Pascha is named Pascha from the passion of the Savior. However, the feast in question is not called precisely Pascha by the Hebrews, but phash. The name of this feast is constituted by the three letters, phi, alpha and sigma, plus the rougher Hebrew aspirate. Translated, it means “passage.” Since it is on the feast that the people go forth from Egypt, it is logical to call it phash, that is “passage.” In the speech of Hellas the name itself cannot be pronounced as the Hebrews say it, because not using the rougher Hebrew apriate, the Hellenes cannot say phash. Consequently, the name was Hellenized, and in the prophets we read phasek, which upon further Hellinization has become pascha. And so, if any of our people in the company of the Hebrews makes the rash statement that Pascha is so named because of the passion of the Savior, they will ridicule him for being completely ignorant of the meaning of the appellation (The Scholar Origen).
This feast day was called Pascha, a word belonging to the Hebrew language and signifying the Passover…The name of the feast on which Emmanuel bore for us the saving Cross was the Pascha. St. Cyril of Alexandria Pascha (Passover) is not, as some think, a Greek noun, but a Hebrew: and yet there occurs in this noun a very suitable kind of accordance in the two languages. For inasmuch as the Greek word paschein means to suffer, therefore pascha has been supposed to mean suffering, as if the noun derived its name from His passion. But in its own language-that is, in Hebrew-pascha means Passover; because the Pascha was then celebrated for the first time by God’s people, when, in their flight from Egypt, they passed over the Red Sea. And now that prophetic emblem is fulfilled in truth, when Christ is led as a sheep to the slaughter, that by His blood sprinkled on our doorposts, that is, by the sign of His cross marked on our foreheads, we may be delivered from the perdition awaiting this world, as Israel from the bondage and destruction of the Egyptians; and a most useful journey we make when we pass over from the devil to Christ, and from this unstable world to His well-established Kingdom. And therefore surely do we pass over to the ever-abiding God, that we may not pass away with this passing world (St. Augustine).
St. Paul describes the life of Christianity as one that passes “from glory to glory.” In a similar way, the story of the Passover increases in intensity, meaning, and holiness throughout the ages. St. Gregory Nazianzen also explains: “For some people, supposing this to be a name of the Sacred Passion, and in consequence Graecizing the word by changing Phi and Kappa into Pi and Chi, called the Day Pascha. And custom took it up and confirmed the word, with the help of the ears of most people, to whom it had a more pious sound.” Therefore, we regard this entire week, not just as remembering the suffering of our Lord on the Cross, but as a gateway to eternal life. Our goal is not to weep for Him alone; but to pass over with Him from death to life. We look not only for the crucifixion of our bodies, but for the resurrection of the dead. This is the difference between the western understanding of Pascha, and the Orthodox understanding. Therefore, in this book we refer to this period as the Holy Pascha Week, while avoiding the phrase, common in the western tradition, Holy Passion Week.
The Last Week of Ministry
The Holy Pascha Week clearly revolves around the last week of the ministry of our Lord Christ. On Saturday, Christ our Lord attended a feast in Jericho at the home of Simon the leper, where Mary anointed Him with costly perfumes and wiped His feet with her hair. Some of the disciples protested this act because they felt it was a waste of money, but Jesus commended her. He pointed out that she was anointing Him for His coming burial (Mt 26:13; Mk 14:3-9). On the following day, Sunday, the Lord entered into Jerusalem as explained in the four gospels. Thus the church commemorates this great event and welcomes the Lord as the King of Glory into our church and hearts. When the Pharisees saw this, they rebuked Him and His followers. But the Lord explained to them that the stones would cry out-this is the focus of the readings on Sunday evening (or the eve of Monday) Afterwards, When the Pharisees told Jesus to rebuke His followers, He replied that if His followers were quiet the stones would cry out. That evening Jesus and the Twelve returned to Bethany (Mt 21:1-9; Mk 11:1-10; Lk 19:28-38).
The Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of the Holy Pascha are a special unit in this journey. These are three days, with a common theme and common system of prayer. This similarity is also matched in other Orthodox traditions as well. On Monday, while they were traveling again to Jerusalem, He cursed a fig tree for not having fruit when He required it (Mt 21:18-19; Mk 11:12-14). Thus, we read on Monday of the prophesies of hypocrisy in the Old Testament and of the judgment of our Lord in the New. When the Lord reaches Jerusalem, the Jewish leaders demanding Him to explain the authority by which He was acting. Our Lord explained this by using many parables. Thus, during this day we read many parables, to the extent that some have called this day the “Day of Parables.”
The change between Monday and Tuesday is perhaps best seen in Matthew 23, where after the Lord denounces the Pharisees and scribes, he expresses His concern, love and care for His people. Thus, after we read of the judgment and condemnation of the hypocrites on Monday, we read of the Lord’s love for us, and acknowledge Him as our Bridegroom on Holy Tuesday. Even part of Matthew 23 is read on Third Hour of Tuesday and during the Ninth Hour of the Eve of Wednesday. He also gave several discourses on the last days during this time, which we read (Mt 24-25; Mk 13).
On Wednesday, the Lord rested in Bethany. There, Mary poured the fragrant oil on the feet of the Lord, in preparation for His burial (Jn 12:3-5) Also Judas betrayed Him and sold Him for thirty pieces of silver before the Jewish council of the Sanhedrin. We speak of this day as the day of love and betrayal, two extremes for the hearts of the world in relation to the Lord.
On Holy Thursday evening began the celebration of the Great Passover. We read of the preparation of the meal by St. Peter and St. John; many passages from Exodus and the Old Testament referring to this sacrifice; and the New Testament fulfillment of these types. As the Lord washes their feet, eats the Passover Meal with His disciples, and then goes to Gethsemane; so the Church does the same. We celebrate the Lakkan service, remembering the washing of the feet; we celebrate the Divine Liturgy; and then we continue with the Paschal prayers in the evening. In Gethsemane, the Lord prayed all night until Judas arrived with the soldiers who arrested Him (Mt 26:36-56; Mk 14:32-52; Lk 22:47-53; Jn 18:1-14)
On Great Friday, we read of His trials, sufferings and death in detail. Hour by hour, we review the events as they took place. It is among the most important and most moving prayers of the entire church year. In the Western tradition, there is a common practice of calling this day, “Good Friday.” However the exact reason for this title is debated among most scholars today. Some believe that this was a corruption of the name, “God’s Friday.” Others believe the “good” refers to the “Good News” of salvation. In this book we use the term “Great” to refer to the greatness of this occasion, our Lord crucified for our salvation. It is also used to refer to Holy Thursday here as well. This is also consistent with the Early Church references to calling this week “the Great Week” or the 40 days of fasting as the “Great Fast,” which we now call the “Great Lent.”
In the evening, during Bright Saturday or Apocalypse, we sing praises of joy and read many passages Old Testament as we commemorate the Lord who is bringing us salvation; as He descends into Hades and lifts us up with Him. The following is an excellent summary of the final events in the ministry of our Lord by St. Gregory Nazianzen:
If you are a Rachel or a Leah, a patriarchal and great soul, steal whatever idols of your father you can find; not, however, that you may keep them, but that you may destroy them; and if you are a wise Israelite remove them to the Land of the Promise, and let the persecutor grieve over the loss of them, and learn through being outwitted that it was vain for him to tyrannize over and keep in bondage better men than himself. If you doest this, and come out of Egypt thus, I know well that you shall be guided by the pillar of fire and cloud by night and day. The wilderness shall be tamed for you, and the Sea divided; Pharaoh shall be drowned; bread shall be rained down: the rock shall become a fountain; Amalek shall be conquered, not with arms alone, but with the hostile hand of the righteous forming both prayers and the invincible trophy of the Cross; the River shall be cut off; the sun shall stand still; and the moon be restrained; walls shall be overthrown even without engines; swarms of hornets shall go before you to make a way for Israel, and to hold the Gentiles in check; and all the other events which are told in the History after these and with these (not to make a long story) shall be given you of God. Such is the feast you are keeping today; and in this manner I would have you celebrate both the Birthday and the Burial of Him Who was born for you and suffered for you. Such is the Mystery of the Passover; such are the mysteries sketched by the Law and fulfilled by Christ, the Abolisher of the letter, the Perfecter of the Spirit, who by His Passion taught us how to suffer, and by His glorification grants us to be glorified with Him…
If you are a Simon of Cyrene, take up the Cross and follow. If you are crucified with Him as a robber, acknowledge God as a penitent robber. If even He was numbered among the transgressors for you and your sin, do you become law-abiding for His sake. Worship Him Who was hanged for you, even if you yourself are hanging; make some gain even from your wickedness; purchase salvation by your death; enter with Jesus into Paradise, so that you may learn from what you have fallen. Contemplate the glories that are there; let the murderer die outside with His blasphemies; and if you are a Joseph of Arimathaea, beg the Body from him that crucified Him, make your own that which cleanses the world.
If you be a Nicodemus, the worshipper of God by night, bury Him with spices. If you are a Mary, or another Mary, or a Salome, or a Joanna, weep in the early morning. Be first to see the stone taken away, and perhaps you will see the Angels and Jesus Himself. Say something; hear His Voice. If He says to you, Touch Me not, stand afar off; reverence the Word, but grieve not; for He knows those to whom He appears first. Keep the feast of the Resurrection; come to the aid of Eve who was first to fall, of Her who first embraced the Christ, and made Him known to the disciples.
If you are a Peter or a John; hasten to the Sepulcher, running together, running against one another, vying in the noble race. And even if you be beaten in speed, win the victory of zeal; not Looking into the tomb, but Going in. And if, like a Thomas, you were left out when the disciples were assembled to whom Christ shows Himself, when you do see Him be not faithless; and if you do not believe, then believe those who tell you; and if you cannot believe them either, then have confidence in the print of the nails.
If He descends into Hades, descend with Him. Learn to know the mysteries of Christ there also, what is the providential purpose of the twofold descent, to save all men absolutely by His manifestation, or there too only them that believe. And if He ascends up into Heaven, ascend with Him. Be one of those angels who escort Him, or one of those who receive Him. Bid the gates be lifted up, or be made higher, that they may receive Him, exalted after His Passion.