The celebration of Easter takes place on the first Sunday following the first full moon after the spring equinox
Augustine Sokolovski, Doctor of Theology, priest
The arrival of spring this year marks the beginning of the blessed Great Lent. This 2023 Great Lent in the Orthodox Church begins on February 27 and, according to the ancient tradition, lasts exactly 48 days, or 7 weeks, until the Easter holiday.
Recall that Great Lent consists of two separate parts. These include the holy forty days – days of repentance and prayer, and Holy Week – the memory of the Passion of the Lord Jesus Christ.
According to the decrees of the First Ecumenical Council in Nicaea in 325, the celebration of Easter takes place on the first Sunday following the first full moon after the spring equinox. At the same time, it is important to remember that, according to the tradition of the Orthodox Church, Christian Easter is celebrated after the Jewish Passover.
In addition, and this is very important, it must be remembered that the Julian calendar, which all Orthodox Churches follow in calculating the Easter time, is 13 days late in relation to the modern Gregorian calendar. Therefore, the earliest possible date for celebrating Easter is not March 22, as in the Catholic and Protestant Churches, but April 4. In other words, if among the fourteen universally recognised Orthodox churches, some follow the modern Gregorian calendar, and others follow the ancient Julian, then in the calculation of the date of the celebration of Easter, all but the autonomous Orthodox Church of Finland, follow the Julian one calendar!
This year Easter in the Orthodox Church is celebrated on April 16. The Orthodox celebration of Easter almost always falls on late spring days. “Today, spring is fragrant,” says one of the liturgical hymns of these days.
Among Orthodox believers, the Easter greeting ‘Christ is Risen’ replaces any other greeting. The Church, as a Society of Believers, proclaims these words with heart and mouth, each of which has a special weight and great gravity. For it carries the initial experience of this true metaphysical spring of the universe – the Event of the Resurrection of Christ.
The phrase ‘Christ is Risen’ is not just a message that Jesus is alive, but one of the original Articles of Faith. This early Christian exclamation confesses the belief that the Lord Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, the God-Anointed Saviour of the World, in whom, and only in Him, deliverance is given. “God raised Him from the dead, and He is a stone that has become the head of the corner, and there is salvation in no one else,” says the book of the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 4:10-12).
The phrase ‘Christ is Risen’ is a confession of faith that the Lord Jesus is risen. He is risen from the dead, and death no longer has dominion over Him, “Death no longer possesses him,” as Scripture says. “Christ, having risen from the dead, dies no more; death no longer has power over Him” (Acts 6:9). Also, every believer who joins this witness of the life and death of Christ is withdrawn from the power of death by the power of Christ and God.
The phrase ‘Christ is Risen’ – this confession of the Lordship of Christ and His Victory over death – replaces any greeting and even many prayers on Easter days. It repeats over and over again. This happens, because the property of the Orthodox Christian faith is such that only transmitted, that is communicated to others, believers and non-believers; it comes to life in the heart of the very person who professes this faith and becomes their real property.
After all, faith is not the property and acquisition of a person, but God’s gift. It is unaccountable, sovereign, eternal, that is the Gift of God and the Father in Christ Jesus. “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not of yourselves, it is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8). Faith is synonymous with grace, for grace is a gift given freely. “All my life I tried to reconcile grace and freedom, but grace won,” as St. Augustine (354–430) wrote about this in his last years.
The proclamation of the phrase ‘Christ is Risen’ joins the one who pronounces them, each person individually or the whole Church, as the Body of Christ, to the experience of the holiness of the saints. “After this, I looked, and behold, a great multitude of people, whom no one could number, from all nations and tribes and peoples and languages, stood before the throne and before the Lamb in white robes and with palm branches in their hands,” it is written in the book of Revelation (Apocalypse 7:9). Imagining this great multitude of saints serving God and helping people day and night, the Church awaits the fulfillment of times.
By proclaiming the Creed of the Easter days, ‘Christ is Risen’, the Church remembers the event of the Resurrection. She joyfully communicates, that is, she proclaims it to others, and, as a genuine unexpected joy from God, she receives from Him the ability to live the Resurrection of Christ, rushing into the future. For grace is communication.
Belief in the Resurrection of the Lord Jesus from the dead is the key, fundamental, most important dogma of Christianity.
Faith in the Resurrection of Christ is made up of consistent saving truths. One such truth is the belief of the Ancient Church that the Lord Jesus descended into hell. Ancient Creeds, among which is the Symbol of the Apostles, profess faith “in Jesus Christ, the Son of God and our Lord, who suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried, and descended into hell.” The descent of the Lord Jesus into hell is a mandatory component of the New Testament understanding of the Resurrection. To understand the essence of the descent, one must understand the worldview of the Ancient Church, patristic theology, and dogmatics, one must be faithful to the letter and spirit of Holy Scripture. In the likeness of the mystery of the Holy Trinity, biblical faith has always been built from three components: To trust God, to believe in God, to strive after God, that is, to go along with Him.
The Epistle of Peter says: “Christ, in order to bring us to God, suffered for our sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, having been put to death according to the flesh, by the spirit He descended and preached to the spirits in prison (1 Peter 3; 18–19).
“By the Spirit He preached to the spirits in prison” – this phrase is extremely important. In the ability of the Lord Jesus, after His bodily death, to preach to the spirits, with the spirit lies the necessary consequence of the authenticity of the humanity of Christ, and, at the same time, the sign of the raising victory over death, destruction and hell.
Hell is the ultimate degree of human dehumanisation. Hell does not involve communication. Christ, being visibly defeated and annihilated by death in his humanity and his messiahship, according to the Apostle Peter, not only participated in this tragical mystery, but also overcame it. For he preached to those in hell, preached the gospel to the spirits of dead people, who were plunged into silence.
It turns out that the Lord’s rest of death on Holy Saturday was not the abolition of all life, but the time of His salvific action. “We proclaim Your death, O Lord, and confess Your resurrection,” proclaim the ancient Eucharistic prayers of the Church after the transubstantiation of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ. Thus, the symbolic and realistic languages of the liturgy agree that in the descent of the Lord Jesus into hell there was a contact between the accomplished death of the Lord and the beginning of His resurrection from the dead. Faith in the Resurrection of the Lord on the Third Day is inextricably linked with the conviction of the salvific significance of Christ’s Descent into Hell. The Gospel testifies to him, the Ancient Symbols speak of the Resurrection on the Third Day.
The third day, according to the Bible, is the day when all human hope is dead. This is the day when, contrary to all expectation, the Lord Himself begins to act. In this sense, time is not just chronology, but the biblical distance between man and God. Time is given to a person to learn to say goodbye. At the same time, time is given to man to return to God. The path of returning to God is a lifelong journey.
This theological understanding of time corresponds to the anthropological one. In the Gospel of John, Martha, the sister of the deceased Lazarus, says this about her brother: “Lord! already stinks; for four days he was in the tomb” (John 11:39). In accordance with the symbolic counting of time, in the time of the Lord Jesus, there was an experiential conviction among the people of the Bible that the deceased, if the first and second days after death had already passed, were finally and irrevocably dead. The third day, in the language of Varlam Shalamov (1907–1982), is the place of dehumanisation.
It is important to remember that in the biblical sense, death is both a category of knowledge and a category of experience. Only a dead person could be considered to have lived a human life completely, truly, finally and irrevocably, to prove by his very death that he lived. “Death needs the living,” as Andrei Platonov (1899–1951) wrote. According to the Tradition of the Church, even the greatest ancient prophets, Enoch and Elijah, who, according to the Bible, did not see death, that is, they were taken to heaven alive, will have to return to earth in order to endure death, be killed, become dead (Rev. 11.12).
If the life of the Lord Jesus ended on the Cross, it would be the greatest victory for the forces of evil in history. The slandered, crucified, and murdered Messiah would be the greatest defeat of God and His Covenant with the People. Therefore, God and the Father prepared His own, and what is very important, unexpected, paradoxical, unaccountable and, at the same time, sovereign response. The name of this answer is Resurrection. Third day… It is very important that the Lord Jesus’ rest in death was not long.
The appearances of the Lord Jesus after the Resurrection were evidence of the coming Majesty of the Messiah, the revelation of that divine answer, which was His raising from the dead. Heavenly Father clothed His Messiah with visible divine glory.
The time from Easter to Pentecost is the Easter period of the church year. An important celebration of this Easter time is Mid-Pentecost. The day of the Mid-Pentecost itself means the passage of exactly half of the period that separates Easter from the Celebration of the Descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles. As the most important among twelve feasts of the orthodox liturgical tradition, the Mid-Pentecost, in the image of the blessed eternity of the City of God, is celebrated by the Church for eight days. It is very significant that in this year 2023 the Feast falls on May 10th.
It is important to understand that both events – Easter Day and Pentecost, as well as the time between them – represent the true revelation of the Paschal Mystery of the Resurrection of Christ.
To understand the essence of the celebration of Mid-Pentecost, let us recall the mystery of the Paschal Dogma. The resurrected Lord Jesus appeared to the Apostles for the required number of days. The resurrected Lord Jesus spoke to the disciples about the mysteries of the Kingdom of God.
It was in the light of these appearances of the Saviour that the Apostles wrote the New Testament texts which were included in the canon of the Holy Books of Scripture under the name of the Gospels and Acts of the Apostles. These New Testament texts are an example and a model, a normative norm, of all the proclamation and teaching of the Church for all time. They are the Paschal reading of all “that the Lord Jesus did and taught from the beginning” (Acts 1:1).
On Mid-Pentecost, during the divine service, an excerpt from the Gospel of John is read, in which the Lord Jesus, in the face of those who accuse Him in the Jerusalem Temple, proclaims His Messiahship. “But in the middle of the feast Jesus entered the temple and taught,” say the initial words of this gospel reading (John 7:14-30).
This reading allows us to come close to understanding how the Apostolic Community, in the light of the Resurrection, remembered the words of the Lord Jesus as the Messianic manifestation of the Spirit that had already taken place. The Mystery of the Resurrection gave a new and complete understanding of what He had previously said in earthly life. On the Day of Mid-Pentecost, the Church, as a Society of Believers, partakes in the mystery of connecting the Paschal perspective with the events of the Earthly Life of the Lord.
Finally, Mid-Pentecost is also a reminder of how each day brings the Church and the Universe closer to the Eschatological Meeting with the Lord. The Second Coming is the Faith of the Church, part of the Paschal Dogma. The Feast of Mid-Pentecost symbolises half of the life path of every person and the whole human history that has already been passed.
The resurrection is not a return and therefore the corporeality of the Lord Jesus acquiring all those perfections that the divine nature possesses. The Lord Jesus could appear sovereignly when He Himself desired it. The repeated suddenness of His Paschal appearances became the moment of contact of the Paschal Presence with the beginning of the Second – Final and Irrevocable – Coming of the Lord.
Belief in the Resurrection of the Lord Jesus from the dead gives Christianity a salutary incompleteness, makes it thirsty looking into the future. After all, the belief in the Resurrection of Christ from the dead is closely connected with the expectation of a general resurrection of the dead at the end of history. “I believe in the resurrection of the flesh,” says the Apostolic Creed.
So, what God accomplished in the Resurrection of Christ, the Messiah hastens to become the heritage of everyone, to fill the bones sleeping in the earth with life (Ezek. 37:3), to become the property of all. In the language of the Bible and Theology, Easter, by the gift of faith in Christ Jesus, acquires a future, eschatological dimension. “Behold, I come quickly, and my reward is with me. And the Spirit and the bride say: Come! And let him who hears say: Come! Amen. Her, come, Lord Jesus,” says the Book of the Apocalypse (Apocalypse 22;12,17–20). The Church, as the Society of Believers and the Bride of Christ, together with the saints of the Living God, is already here and now waiting for the return of the Lord Jesus from Heaven. This expectation must be fulfilled soon.