In the very early years of its history the Eastern Orthodox Church adopted the custom of using the Paschal sermon of St. John Chrysostom at the Paschal Vigil service held during the Saturday night before Easter morning. Chrysostom first proclaimed this sermon as instructions to catechumens, new Christian converts, who were baptized during that vigil service.
The service itself is the high point of the year in Orthodox worship, and the Chrysostom sermon, recited (preached) in every Orthodox church each year, is a high point of the service. It is presented enthusiastically and with flourish. In one service I attended, the congregation joined the priest in saying the words, “It was angered” and “Christ is risen!” as those were repeated again and again. The poetic sermon is heard but once a year, but many worshipers know it by heart.
Hot Springs, Arkansas
The Lord is risen.
He is risen indeed!
If there are devout and God-loving people here,
let them enjoy this beautiful, radiant festival.
If there are prudent servants,
enter joyously into the Lord’s joy.
Whoever may be spent from fasting,
enjoy now your reward.
Whoever has toiled from the first hour,
receive today your just settlement.
If any came after the third hour,
If any of you arrived after the sixth,
have no misgivings, you have lost nothing.
If some have been as late as the ninth,
come forward, do not be at a loss.
If any of you have arrived only at the eleventh hour,
do not be dismayed for being late.
The Master is gracious;
He accepts the last even as the first;
He gives rest to those of the eleventh as well as to
those who have labored from the first;
He is lenient with the last while looking after the first;
to the one He gives, to the other He gives freely;
He accepts the labors and welcomes the effort;
honors the deed, but commends the intent.
So, all of you, enter into the joy of our Lord:
first and second, share the bounty.
Rich and poor alike, celebrate together.
Sober or heedless, honor the day.
Those who fasted, and those who did not, rejoice
The table is full, everyone fare sumptuously.
The calf is fatted; no one go away hungry.
Everyone, savor the banquet of faith;
relish the riches of His goodness.
No one need lament poverty,
for the kingdom is seen as universal.
No one need grieve over sins;
forgiveness has dawned from the tomb.
No one need fear death;
the Savior's death has freed us from it.
While its captive He stifled it.
He despoiled Hades as He descended into it; it was angered when it tasted His flesh.
Foreseeing this, Isaiah proclaimed: "Hades," he
said, "was angered when he met You below."
It was angered because it was abolished
It was angered because it was mocked
It was angered because it was slain.
It was angered because it was shackled.
It received a body and encountered God.
It took earth and came face-to-face with heaven.
It took what I saw and fell by what if could not see.
Death, where is your sting?
Hades, where is your victory?
Christ is risen and you are overthrown.
Christ is risen and demons have fallen.
Christ is risen and angels rejoice.Christ is risen and life rules.Christ is risen and not one dead remains in thetomb.
For Christ, having risen from the dead,
has become the firstfruits of those that slept.
To Him be the glory and the dominion, forever.Amen.
St. John Chrysostom (the name means “golden mouthed”) was one of the most famous preachers and reformers of the second half of the fourth century. He was a priest in his native city of Antioch, Syria, and later became Patriarch of Constantinople. Beginning in 390, he preached a famous series on the New Testament, including ninety sermons on Matthew, eighty-eight on John, and thirty-two on Romans. His reforms to purify the church brought him banishment; he died at age fifty in the year 407 during a forced march into exile.
FROM PROTESTANT WHO ATTENDS ORTODOX EASTER SERVICES
The Paschal sermon is the culmination of Great Lent, a time of fasting for Orthodox Christians. The faithful keep the fast as best they can—some very devoutly and others less diligently. And then there are some of us Protestants, who may not even be expected to fast, who know that there is great value in doing so.
So you have this period of Great Lent and growing awareness of our own weakness and sin. And each Sunday the assigned readings bring us closer and closer to Friday, and then to Easter. And at that Paschal service—ah, then, what a joy to hear Chrysostom’s sermon, reminding us all, priest and laity alike, that regardless of how well or how miserably we have done in our time of Lent, we are now all called to come to the Savior, to feed on him, to receive grace unconnected to our efforts or lack thereof. It’s a fine moment. The Paschal sermon occupies its proper place in a much bigger liturgy consisting of many other equally weighty expressions of praise and worship that embody and go beyond the joy of the sermon itself.
Grand Rapids, Michigan
IN A WORD
Paschal Vigil is a better designation for the service usually referred to as Easter Vigil.
I am convinced that the English language is the unfortunate inheritor of an inadequate word, the word “Easter.” Greek and Latin translated the Hebrew word pascha or passover, and so have other European languages (French: paques; Spanish: pascua; Dutch: pasen; Scottish: pask). In every case we can still hear the Old Testament meaning of liberation wedded to the passion of Christ and the New Testament celebration of the resurrection.
In many European traditions the communion bread was also called “pascha,” as was the lamb of Paschal sacrifice. Those language treasures of deliverance and sacrifice enable us to sense the richness of Paul’s phrase in 1 Corinthian 5:7: “Christ our pascha [Passover lamb] is sacrificed for us.” Christ, the lamb, the bread, the Passover.
In contrast, we can see how utterly impoverished is the translation of pascha as “Easter.” “Christ our Easter is sacrificed for us” is a nonsensical statement. So is using the word Easter as a designation for the central celebration of the Paschal reality of the Christian tradition. If we primarily commemorate the Paschal mystery, we must recover the biblical usage with long and rich tradition and speak again of “Pascha.”
—Arlo Duba, reprinted from his article on “Keeping Vigil” in RW 6.