The Orthodox Pages
TALK ON THE HOLY LIGHT AND
CUSTOMS OF THE
15th APRIL 2010
Christ is risen from the dead by death he hath overcome death and to them in the grave hath he given life.
Hope you all had a wonderful Pascha. Every year millions of Orthodox worldwide celebrate this feast of all feast, but only a few actually understand the true meaning of the feast. For most it is an annual celebration of a historical event which happened two thousand years ago. But this life giving Resurrection reaches way back to the beginning of man’s creation and extends to the future age after the Second coming of Christ. We have spoken many times of Adam and Eve and everything we believe in always has its roots in want they chose to follow using the gift of their free will which God granted them. Today’s talk will not be on the theological understanding of the feast, but rather on the Structure and traditions of the Resurrection service, but very quickly I want to give you a short summary of how we should understand the Resurrection.
God created Adam immortal and placed him in the Garden of Eden, in other words Paradise. Through his own will, Adam lost immortality and as a result was cast out of Paradise and lost the ability to become one with God. But God loves his creation and wants to re-establish him one again in Paradise. But he is faced with a problem: Adam freely accepted sin and the consequence of his disobedience and fall resulted in death. The only way to save man from death and to unite him with God and eternal life, was to have someone break the chain of inherited original sin. To do this God, had to create a new Adam that would not inherit original sin, but at the same time, he would have to have a common link with the rest of humanity. Man is conceived through the seed of man and the consequences of original sin are passed on through this process, so how did God solve this problem? God willed that He would himself become a man and live as one of us. This He did by taking flesh from the Virgin Mary.
Mary, born of the seed of man, became the common link with the rest of humanity, right back to Adam. She lived without sin, choosing from her birth to be guided by the Holy Spirit, until God chose the right time for His incarnation. Christ is therefore the New Adam, He is God become man, but He was not subject to original sin. He was not created like the rest of mankind. From His birth to His Crucifixion, death and Resurrection, we learn all we need to know of His life as a man, in the Holy Gospels. Death can only have a hold on someone if that person inherits of falls into sin, because death is the consequence of sin. Christ was free from all sin and so when he was crucified and laid dead in the tomb, death had no legal claim over Him, and so His body was resurrected and ascended into heaven. Christ’s human nature, free from sin, had broken the barrier that separated us from God.
The New Adam had pulled down the middle wall of partition that had been erected by the fall of the Old Adam. In the same way that we are all one and share in the fallen human nature of the Old Adam, we can now become one with the renewed and deified human nature of Christ, the New Adam. And this we do when we unite ourselves with him in the Sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion. But the meaning of Christ’s resurrection reaches even beyond this life. Christ is the first-fruits of the Resurrection and his Resurrection will be followed by our resurrection, when at the Second Coming, our dead bodies, wherever they might be, will be raised and made immortal once again in Paradise. Thus the feast of Pascha is not just a celebration of a historical event; it is the celebration of our return to Paradise and our return to God in the future age after the Second Coming. In short it is the feast of man’s eternal salvation.
This is the message we receive from some of the customs that we keep on Easter night. Those of you who took the trouble to come up to Sylikou for Holy Week and the Paschal Service would have heard and seen certain customs that have become desolate in most town churches. This doesn’t mean that these customs don’t have their place in Orthodoxy – they are customs and traditions that are well rooted in the past and villages have a way of holding on to the old traditions far better than in towns where people like to consider themselves modern and more civilized. In our last talk we had before the Easter break, we saw the structure of the services of Holy Week so today we will look at the Easter Service and the meaning of some of the things done during the service which are not mentioned in your service books.
The bells ring at 11.00pm. and we begin with the Midnight Service which in some books is wrongly named Mattins. The service is basically a repeat of the Canon Hymns sung on Good Friday Evening and is acts like a filler to fill the time we have until we begin the actual Resurrection Service which begins at exactly 12 midnight. A few minutes before midnight the lights are switched off and candles and vigil lights are put out. During this time we should be engulfed in silent prayer asking Christ to enlighten us and make us worthy to behold his Resurrection and to make us understand what this means for us personally and what it means for mankind in general.
An old custom that we keep in the village is to sing while still in total darkness the 7th Sunday morning (Εωθινό) hymn from the sanctuary: What is Εωθινό? The word literally means morning but it refers to the Resurrection Gospels. In the church’s normal cycle, the accounts of the Resurrection and all the events after are divided into 11 readings and every Sunday one of these is read in rotation during the Sunday Mattins service. For each Gospel reading there is a hymn called an exapostilarion and the Doxastiko which are based on the Gospel readings. The 7th Εωθινό is taken from St. John’s Gospel which tells us that John and Peter ran to the tomb and having seen how the graves clothes were still wrapped on the stone slab in the same way that they were wrapped around Jesus’ body but now empty of the body were convinced of the Resurrection. Thus the hymn says:
“Behold, darkness and early dawn. And why, Mary, art thou standing by the tomb, thy mind full of darkness? Why dost thou ask where Jesus has been laid? But see the disciples running together, see how they have realised the Resurrection from the grave clothes and the napkin, and have remembered the Scripture concerning this. With whom and through whom we too have believed and sing thy praises O Christ, the Giver of Life.”
After the hymn there is again total silence as the people wait for the Priest to exit the Sanctuary with his 3 lighted candles. As he comes out he sings: “Come ye, and receive the light, from the never setting and eternal light, and give glory unto Christ, He who hath risen from the dead.”
We need to say something about this light and the hymn because in the official Church service books these do not belong to the Resurrection service but to another unique service sung only in Jerusalem at about 1 or 2pm in the afternoon of Holy and Great Saturday. The service is called the Service of the Holy Light. Every year during this service a miraculous fire lights by itself in the Holy Sepulchre. To be close to the Sepulchre, pilgrims begin to camp around it from Holy Friday afternoon. At around 11am of Holy Saturday the Christian Arabs chant traditional hymns in a loud voice. These chants date back to the Turkish occupation of Jerusalem in the 13th century, a period in which the Christians were not allowed to chant anywhere but in the churches. You will hear them sing “We are the Christians, we have been Christians for centuries, and we shall be forever and ever. Amen!” They chant at the top of their voices accompanied by the sound of drums. The drummers sit on the shoulders of others who dance vigorously around the Holy Ciborium. But at 1pm the chants fade out, and then there is almost a total silence. Then a delegation from the local authorities elbows its way through the crowd. At the time of the Turkish occupation of Palestine they were Muslim Turks; today they are Israelis. Their function is to represent the Romans at the time of Jesus. The Gospels speak of the Romans that went to seal the tomb of Jesus, so that his disciples would not steal his body and claim he had risen. In the same way the Israeli authorities on this Holy Saturday come and seal the tomb with wax. Before they seal the door, they follow a custom to enter the tomb, and to check for any hidden source of fire, which would make a fraud of the miracle.
Then the Greek Orthodox Patriarch, followed by the Armenian archbishop, march in grand and solemn procession with their own clergies, while singing hymns. They march three times round the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Once the procession has ended, the Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem recites a specific prayer, puts off his robes and enters alone into the sepulchre. Before entering the Tomb of Christ, the Patriarch is examined by Jewish Israeli authorities to prove that he does not carry technical means to light the fire. The Armenian archbishop remains in the antechamber, where the angel was sitting when he appeared to Mary Magdalene after the Resurrection of Jesus. The congregation subsequently chant Kyrie eleison until the Holy Fire spontaneously descends on two bunches of 33 white candles held by the Patriarch while he is alone inside the tomb chamber of Jesus.
So what happens inside the Sepulchre? Well listen to the following account by the Patriarch Diodoros.
“I enter the tomb and kneel in holy fear in front of the place where Christ lay after His death and where He rose again from the dead. I find my way through the darkness towards the inner chamber in which I fall on my knees. Here I say certain prayers that have been handed down to us through the centuries and, having said them, I wait. Sometimes I may wait a few minutes, but normally the miracle happens immediately after I have said the prayers. From the core of the very stone on which Jesus lay an indefinable light pours forth. It usually has a blue tint, but the colour may change and take many different hues. It cannot be described in human terms. The light rises out of the stone as mist may rise out of a lake - it almost looks as if the stone is covered by a moist cloud, but it is light. This light each year behaves differently. Sometimes it covers just the stone, while other times it gives light to the whole sepulchre, so that people who stand outside the tomb and look into it will see it filled with light. The light does not burn - I have never had my beard burnt in all the sixteen years I have been Patriarch in Jerusalem and have received the Holy Fire. The light is of a different consistency than normal fire that burns in an oil lamp. At a certain point the light rises and forms a column in which the fire is of a different nature, so that I am able to light my candles from it. When I thus have received the flame on my candles, I go out and give the fire first to the Armenian Patriarch and then to the Coptic. Hereafter I give the flame to all people present in the Church.”
The Holy Light is not only distributed by the Patriarch, but operates also by itself. It is emitted from the Holy Sepulchre with a hue completely different from that of natural light. It sparkles, it flashes like lightning, it flies like a dove around the tabernacle of the Holy Sepulchre, and lights up the unlit lamps of olive oil hanging in front of it. It whirls from one side of the church to the other. It enters some of the chapels inside the church, as for instance the chapel of the Calvary (at a higher level than the Holy Sepulchre) and lights up the little lamps. It lights up also the candles of certain pilgrims. This divine light also presents some peculiarities: As soon as it appears it has a bluish hue and does not burn. At the first moments of its appearance, if it touches the face, or the mouth, or the hands, it doesn’t burn.
The ceremony surrounding “The Miracle of the Holy Fire” may be the oldest unbroken Christian ceremony in the world. There is written testimony from St. Gregory of Nyssa who lived in the fourth century where he narrates how the Apostle Peter saw the Holy Light in the Holy Sepulchre after Christ's Resurrection. But from the fourth century all the way up to our own time, sources recall this awe-inspiring event. From these sources it becomes clear that the miracle has been celebrated on the same spot, on the same feast day, and in the same liturgical frame throughout all these centuries. The Holy Light only appears by the invocation of an Orthodox Archbishop. Whenever heretics have tried to obtain the Holy Fire they have failed. Three such attempts are recorded. Two occurred in the twelfth century when priests of the Roman church tried to force out the Orthodox Church, but by their own confession these ended with God's punishment. But the most miraculous event occurred in the year 1579; the year when God clearly testified to whom alone may be given His miracle. During this year, the Armenians, who ascribe to a monophysite heresy, paid the Turks, who then occupied the Holy Land, in order to obtain permission for their Patriarch to enter the Holy Sepulchre, the Orthodox Patriarch was standing sorrowfully with his flock at the exit of the church, near the left column, when the Holy Light split this column vertically and flashed near the Orthodox Patriarch. A Muslim Muezzin, (the official who calls the Muslims to prayer from the minaret) called Tounom, who saw the miraculous event from an adjacent mosque, immediately abandoned the Muslim religion and became an Orthodox Christian. This event took place in 1579 under Sultan Mourad IV, when the Patriarch of Jerusalem was Sophrony IV. The column which dates from the twelfth century still exists today and Orthodox pilgrims embrace it at the place of the split as they enter the church.
As with many miracles, of course there are people who believe it is a fraud and that the Patriarch has a hidden lighter inside the tomb, even though this has been thoroughly searched beforehand. These critics forget that the miracle has repeatedly occurred for two thousand years and that a few hundred years ago the world didn’t have matches let alone a lighter. But the best argument against a fraud is the thousands of independent testimonies by pilgrims whose candles were lit spontaneously in front of their eyes without any possible explanation. But why is this yearly miracle completely unknown in the west? Only one explanation that arises to mind - that it is church politics. Its worldwide knowledge is suppressed by western churches because it would question the authenticity of their own church. The miracle only occurs on the Orthodox date of Easter and only to the Orthodox Church without the presence of any Catholic authorities. It would certainly raise questions on which is the true faith.
Lets now return to the our Resurrection service. The lighting of the candles and the singing of “Come ye, and receive the light...” is not the official start of the Resurrection service, but a symbolic act of the Jerusalem Light. But why do we perform an imitation of this service? I couldn’t say what year it began, but with the many pilgrims that visited Jerusalem at Easter, there arose a demand to have the Service of the Light in their own Churches. This was impossible, but the Church wanting to fulfil the people’s desire, took the "Δεύτε Λάβετε Φως" (Come ye and Receive the Light) and placed it at the beginning of the Resurrection Service as a symbolic commemoration of the miracle that takes place every year at the Holy Sepulchre. It also serves to remind us that the Orthodox Church is the True Church, for other churches have in the past tried to beseech God for the light but without success.
In our Churches, we usually have an eternal vigil lamp (ακοίμητη καντήλα), which is kept lit throughout the year. The Priest will light his 3 candles from this light and coming out to the people will sing "Δεύτε Λάβετε Φως" (Come ye and Receive the Light) whereby the people will light their candles. No special prayer is said for the light and no blessing by the Priest. It is a light that is constantly offered to God as a form of prayer. In that sense, it is different from just lighting a candle from a matchstick. It is customary to take home the light as a blessing and I was asked a question by email – if we can consider this light to be consecrated. I answered: God doesn’t always need our prayers to send his grace upon something. We are often asked by people to give them the oil from the καντήλες (vigil lamps) so that they can cross someone who is ill. The oil is not Holy Unction (Άγιον Ευχέλαιο), but just ordinary oil that is used to burn the lamp, but we hear of people recovering from their illnesses after being crossed with the oil. People take water from springs near monasteries and churches (Αγίασμα, not Αγιασμό – sanctified water) and again we hear stories of people being healed.
If someone believes that the light from the Resurrection service will give their home a blessing, then I would be inclined to agree with them. We should never underestimate the power of faith. On a more spiritual level, the Resurrection light should be a spiritual enlightenment, for without this we will never understand the true meaning of the Resurrection and what Christ did for mankind.
So after the priest comes out with the lighted candles and sings “Come ye and receive the light… he them comes out of the sanctuary holding the Gospel Book to his chest and holding the three candles and singing the hymn “Thy Resurrection O Christ our Saviour…, which is the actual beginning of the Resurrection vigil, he makes his way down the nave to exit the church for the Pascal procession around the Church. The procession around the Church is symbolic of Christ’s earthly life and the people following the procession are the multitudes that believed on Him and followed Him. Once around the Church the Priest will stand on the platform prepared for the reading of the Gospel or somewhere suitable which would allow all the people to hear. In Sylikou we have a raised platform similar to a stage which was purposely built for the Resurrection service and which is used as a stage for other social activities.
The Reading of the Gospel is called the Good News (Καλό Λόγο) and is the Good News of the Resurrection announced by the angel to the Myrrhbearers. This is followed with the official opening blessing for the Mattins service (Glory be to the Holy, Consubstantial, life-giving and undivided Trinity: always, now and for ever: world without end) and the peace petitions. We then sing “Christ is risen” 10 times and make our way back to the Church. But before entering we do something that again is not found in the service books, but is a custom done in many Churches. As soon as the procession began and everyone had come out of the church, the doors of the Church are closed. With the doors shut, the Priest knocks three times on the western doors and says: Lift up your heads, O ye gates; and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors; and the King of glory shall come in. Someone from within the Church will respond saying: Who is this King of glory? And the Priest shall reply: The Lord strong and mighty, the Lord mighty in battle. This is done a total of three times and the doors are opened and the Priests leads the people back into the Church. The dialogue is taken from Psalm 24 (KJV) but what does all this mean?
When Adam was cast out of Paradise we are told that God put an angel with a flaming sword to guard the entrance of Paradise so that no one could enter in. The dialogue the priest has with the person inside represents a dialogue between Christ and that angel. The Priest representing Christ tells the angel to open the doors of paradise so that he who is the King of Glory can enter in. As the doors open, Christ leads the people back into Paradise, which is what the Resurrection actually means, our return to Paradise, our return to the Kingdom of Heaven which is our rightful place where we will reign with Christ forever and ever. Thus the Resurrection is also symbolic of the Second coming of Christ when He shall judge both the quick and the dead and shall lead the faithful into the Kingdom of Heaven, the New Jerusalem.
But this understanding brings us to another Easter custom and what it represents. In many places during the Easter vigil one will see a great bonfire in the courtyard. Most town churches have now banned these bonfires from the courtyard, but in villages the bonfire is still a highlight of the night. The bonfires have nothing to do will the Church service. In times of old, they were probably lit so that the people outside the church could keep warm and in time it became a tradition. But if the entering into the Church is symbolic of our return to Paradise and the Second coming of Christ then symbolically the bonfire can only represent the fire of hell where all those who are unworthy of the Kingdom will be cast. This understanding will justify the tradition of burning an effigy of Judas on the Bonfire. Historically, Judas hanged himself, so burning him gives a wrong teaching, but if the bonfire represents the future hell fire then this justifies the action and meaning. The two symbols of Paradise and hell is also supported by a tradition that has held fast from the times of the Apostles. Although we don’t know the year, the Apostolic tradition says that the Second coming of Christ will be one year on the night of the Resurrection. Symbolically then, those who are found inside the church are those who are saved and those outside are those who will suffer the fires of hell. This is why it is important to re-enter the Church and stay to the very end and partake of Holy Communion which is non other than the heavenly banquet Christ will share with those he finds worthy to be with him in the new age.
At the very end of the Service it is customary for the Priest to give everyone still remaining a red egg. The Egg is a symbol of the Resurrection. From the egg emerges a new life, a creature whose life had been hidden within its dead shell. In a similar manner, Jesus’ dead body, after being sealed within the tomb represented by the egg shell, arose a new life. At the same time, the red colour of the Paschal egg represents the Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. The red colour reminds us that, we have been redeemed through the precious Blood of our Lord.
The custom of giving an egg to each other is quite an ancient one and apparently reaches back to the time of the Apostles. There are various versions of its origin, so one cannot say which one is or comes near to the true version, but let’s look at some of the stories. The most well known is the account with Mary Magdalene who after the Lord’s Ascension, went to Rome to preach the Gospel. Standing before Emperor Tiberias she said, “Christ is Risen!” At this the Emperor pointed to an egg on his table and stated, “Christ has no more risen than that egg is red.” After making this statement it is said the egg immediately turned blood red. Another version again involves Mary Magdalene. It says that she was bringing cooked eggs to share with the other women at the tomb of Jesus, and the eggs in her basket miraculously turned brilliant red when she saw the risen Christ.
Yet another version says that on the actual day of Christ’s Resurrection, when everyone was convinced that Jesus Christ could not possibly rise from the tomb, a certain Jew was carrying a basket of eggs to market. Along the way, he met another Jew who said to him, “So, friend, do you know what a miraculous thing has happened in our city Jerusalem? For Christ, Who died three days ago, has risen from the tomb, and already many have seen Him.” However, the Jew who was taking the fresh eggs to market said to him, “No, I do not believe that Christ has been resurrected from the tomb. That would be just as impossible as to have white eggs suddenly turn red.” As soon as he had spoken those words, the white eggs in the basket suddenly turned red. That miracle so amazed him that he rushed to adopt the Christian Faith. News of that marvellous event soon spread among the faithful Christians, and in commemoration thereof, they began to exchange red eggs with one another.
One thing is for sure, the red eggs of the Orthodox have nothing in common with the Bunny rabbits and chocolate eggs of western Christianity. The customs of western Christians seems to have been interwoven with European pagan customs and celebrations for springtime fertility. Rabbits and eggs were and still are widely-used pagan symbols for fertility.
After the Resurrection service we do one more thing. We greet each other with the Paschal greeting “Christ is risen” and reply “He is risen indeed” or “Truly He is risen” and with the greeting we exchange a Paschal kiss. When we give the Pascal greeting or reply to it we are of course proclaiming our belief that the Lord has indeed risen from the dead, and in a certain manner we are emulating the Lord’s apostles who after the Resurrection had sightings of the risen Lord and discussed this among themselves, but simultaneously we are proclaiming our belief that through the Lord’s Resurrection we also will be resurrected from the dead. We are proclaiming our very own salvation. The kiss is a sign of sincere mutual love and on this glorious and wonderful day where the Lord has re-opened the gates of Paradise for all mankind we Christians have no right to continue bearing enmity for any person. We are obliged to have sincere love for all men. The last hymn of the Easter Mattins service sums it up totally:
“This day of the Resurrection, let us be radiant for the feast, and let us embrace one another. Let us say brethren even to those that hate us. Let us forgive all things on the Resurrection, and thus let us cry aloud: Christ is risen from the dead, by death he hath overcome death, and to them in the graves, hath he given life.”
(Ἀναστάσεως ἡμέρα, καὶ λαμπρυνθῶμεν τῇ πανηγύρει, καὶ ἀλλήλους περιπτυξώμεθα. Εἴπωμεν ἀδελφοί, καὶ τοῖς μισοῦσιν ἡμᾶς· Συγχωρήσωμεν πάντα τῇ Ἀναστάσει, καὶ οὕτω βοήσωμεν· Χριστὸς ἀνέστη ἐκ νεκρῶν, θανάτῳ θάνατον πατήσας, καὶ τοῖς ἐν τοῖς μνήμασι, ζωὴν χαρισάμενος.)