April 23, 2020
My Dear and Beloved Brethren,
Christ is risen!
Reading St. John Chrysostom’s Paschal Homily this year was like a microcosm of our experience of Pascha as a community. Normally, the sermon perfectly fits the day. In fact, it so perfectly fits the day that the Holy Spirit has guided the Church to establish a worldwide pattern of reading it on every Pascha. It is, in a sense, the Church’s “final word” on Pascha. But this year, truth be told, it didn’t all fit our experience like it usually does.
The second half of the sermon still worked perfectly, since it is a beautiful description of Christ’s conquest of Hell and his bestowal of eternal life upon humanity: “O death, where is your sting? O Hell, where is your victory?… Christ is risen, and life reigns.” In a certain sense, this is a message we need now more than ever. The world around us is panicked and in upheaval and suffering greatly from the fear of death. And no doubt many of us, too, live with some of that fear. So there is great comfort in St. John’s assurance that death and Hell are “embittered,” “overthrown,” “abolished,” and “slain.” And there is an immediate and pressing relevance for us in John’s exhortation, “Let no one fear death, for the Savior’s death has set us free.”
Whatever our station in life, this is a time for us to “be strong and courageous” in the face of a mortal threat (Joshua 1:6).
But while the latter half of the sermon fit our context so well, the first half seemed very out of place in our experience, as it is nothing less than a sustained call for us to come to Holy Communion. When St. John exhorts us to “hold high festival” or to feast at the “full-laden” table or to partake of the “fatted calf” or of the “feast of faith,” he is not calling us to enjoy eggs and cheese and lamb and kielbasa; he is calling us to receive the Holy Eucharist. Holy Communion is the true Feast of Pascha. All the rest of our savory foods are only adornments and extensions of our joy at receiving Communion, since Holy Communion is the true Feast.
The idea that Holy Communion is the center of Pascha may seem rather odd to some, since in a more normal year, one of the things we do to prepare ourselves to receive Communion on Pascha is actually to receive Communion more frequently; on Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays, and on the Holy Feast of Annunciation. We commune in order to prepare to commune. On the surface, this is an odd thing. But if we look more deeply into the matter, we realize that this is what we are called as Christians to spend our whole lives doing. In the understanding of the Church, every Sunday is a “little Pascha” on which we partake of the same “Feast of Feasts” as we do on Pascha itself. And all of this communing, whether on a Sunday, or on a Holy Day, or on Pascha itself, is a feast of anticipation. We are already participating in the Body and Blood of the Lord, already being united to Him, already being grafted into Him. But the completion and finalization of this union does not occur in this age; it occurs in the age to come. In this life, we partake repeatedly of the Feast of Feasts in order that we may be able to partake of it “more perfectly… in the never-ending Day” of Christ’s kingdom.
Yet there is actually another way in which we are called to prepare for Pascha during Great Lent: fasting. And this fasting even includes an abstention from the Eucharist itself. No matter how much we may desire it, the Church forbids her priests to celebrate Holy Communion on most of the weekdays of Great Lent (and in fact we cannot even consecrate the Gifts on Lenten weekdays, which is why we make use of the Presanctified Liturgy during this time). So, paradoxically, we both eat of the Feast of Feasts in preparation for the Feast of Feasts and we abstain from eating of the Feast in preparation for the Feast. But whatever we do in Lent, our aim is to arrive at Pascha. We are living in anticipation. Whether we commune or whether we fast, we’re always looking forward to a day that is to come: Pascha, our “Holy Day of Holy Days.”
This year we find ourselves in a uniquely peculiar situation as a church family. We have proclaimed Christ’s resurrection, and all of the second half of St. John’s sermon is still good and appropriate to our situation. But we have not yet eaten of the Pascha! We are still fasting in the absence of the Holy Gifts, still living in anticipation. This is a truly bizarre situation. But let us not be dejected by this, for even if we had eaten of the Lord’s Body on Pascha, it is still only a foretaste of the great and coming Feast of the end of the age. And whenever the Lord will bless us by restoring us to Communion in this life, it will be a Pascha for us. Perhaps for many of us it will be more of a Pascha than if we had been able to celebrate the Feast as we normally do. How many of us will not meet it with tears of joy and relief? How thorough and honest a Confession we will make beforehand! This is not like another year, on this year we will fully remember how blessed we have been and how blessed we now are.
So let us take this time to prepare ourselves. Let us honor these days with merriment and food and song, but let us also hold in our minds that we have not yet partaken of the true Pascha, and that everything we do at this time – as though we were still in Great Lent – should be geared towards preparing to meet the Lord and to eat His Glorious Pascha. Whenever it comes again for us in this life, it will be glorious. We shall once again feast on the Body and Blood of the Lord, our everlasting bond of love and our sure promise of eternal life.
May the joy of the Feast be with you all! Christ is risen!
With Overflowing Love and Great Anticipation,