My First Pascha Service

Last Saturday night, I joined an Orthodox friend of mine at his church’s Pascha (Easter) service.  Last year, I attended their Good Friday service and so I somewhat knew what to expect, but a Good Friday service and a Pascha service are by no means the same.  So when I say I somewhat knew what to expect, I simply mean I knew I would be standing for the vast majority of the service, that there would be, what I would describe as, booklets that contained nearly every word of the service (liturgy), and that almost every word would be sung (chanted?).  What the exact service would be like was a mystery.

I arrived about 30 minutes early and thought I would be one of the first people there, but to my surprise the parking lot had quite a few cars in it.  I thought I was late for the service.  As I entered, I realized that was not the case.  There was a woman in the front reading by candlelight.  My friend’s dad met me at the door and explained to me that at 9:00 on Holy Saturday night the book of Acts is read.  People take turns with the reading and they go as far as possible until 11:00 at which time the service begins.  He also told me that at 11:00 the lights would go out and the priest would come out with candles, some men would light their candles from the priest’s,  and the congregants would have their candles lit from those men.  After a few moments we would all go outside and walk around the church.

Soon after, my friend came out from an office in the back, having met with the priest about his responsibilities for the night.  He proceeded to go over some of the same events that would be taking place.  As we were sitting listening to the reading from Acts, I leaned over and whispered the question: “When you read why do you sing it?”  “I don’t know” came the answer with a good Tevye impersonation he whispered, “TRADITION.”  A few minutes later he left to prepare for his duties to come.

The reading stopped, the small pulpit moved to the side, and darkness came upon the sanctuary.  Except for a bit of moving there was silence.  I fully expected the priest to come through the doors with the candles but he didn’t come.  I just sat there in joyful expectation of the lights to come.  It sounded fun to light a candle and then walk around the church at 11:00 at night.  But he didn’t come.  I was left in the dark with people I didn’t know (with the exception of my friend’s wife and child behind me).  Darkness.  I figured that the delay was either due to the priest not being ready or just for dramatic effect.  He would be out within a minute.  A minute passed and I was still in darkness.  Suddenly, the effect came upon me.  Whether intentional, or whether anyone else felt what I felt, I began to feel something.  The reality of the darkness was crushing.  At first, I felt as if I were among the women who had prepared the spices for Jesus’ body and were walking before sunrise to the tomb.  They would have experienced such a darkness (as it is alway darkest before dawn).  But as time continued on, I came to experience an understanding of how dark Saturday must have been for the disciples.  Their Rabbi was gone.  He was dead and buried.  They had left everything for Him.  They had forsaken all others for Him.  He was their Hope, their Joy, their Lord, their Messiah.  He was gone and so was all that He was to them.  The despair and darkness of soul from Friday night to Sunday morning must have been overwhelming.  As one minute turned into what I’m guessing was five minutes of darkness, I remember longing for the candles to come out.  Longing–not hoping with excitement–but longing, the kind of longing that comes when nearly all hope is lost.  In my mind I was pleading for light to shine, no matter how small (granted, it wasn’t pitch black in the sanctuary, but it was not the light that I needed, expected, or wanted).  Finally the door opened and there was the lit three-pronged candelabra.  The flames seemed to flicker so high and were so bright.  I couldn’t help but smile.  Light was shining in darkness.

Soon the candle I had purchased in back was lit, and the choir began its song/chant.  “The angels in heaven, O Christ our Savior, sing of Thy resurrection.  Make us on earth also worthy to hymn Thee with a pure heart”  (at least I think this is what they were singing.  I only recalled a few words and when I googled them, this song came up on the website).  It was a windy evening.  Wind and candles don’t mix.  I cupped the flame of the candle so that it would keep burning.  I had longed for light and I would do anything I could to keep that light burning.  My hand tried desperately to block the wind, but it seemed to be coming from every direction.  As I covered the light, I couldn’t help but think of Jesus’ words, “No one lights a lamp and puts it under a basket, but rather on a lampstand, and it gives light for all who are in the house.  In the same way, let your light shine before men,” (Matt. 5: 15-16a, HCSB).  As cars passed the church so late at night, it had to look peculiar to see a group of people in a line walking around the building.  Would they see the candle light and wonder why we were doing this?  By sheltering my candle the metaphor that Jesus used struck me like never before.  While I was physically sheltering the light that night, was I any better when it came to the light of Christ?  My candle soon burned out and my heart sank. O! that Christ’s light would burn on in my life so that others would see and give glory to the Father!  On a side-note: I was happy to see that my candle was not the only one to go out; in fact, everyone’s went out.  Still the metaphor struck me hard.

We walked around the building three times, and then ended at the front door.  I’m not quite sure of the significance, but I remember a child asking his father, “What’s he doing?”  My mind immediately rejoiced.  Yes! this is exactly what this type of event is supposed to do–cause children (and others) to ask “what’s going on?”  I thought of the Passover and the Lord’s instructions for the Israelites: “In the future, when your son asks you, ‘What does this mean?’ say to him, ‘By the strength of His hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt, out of the place of slavery’,” (Exod. 13.14, HCSB).  Unfortunately, the dad shushed his son and no explanation at the time was given as to what the priest was doing and why he was doing it.  In a few moments the doors were opened and we went inside.  We could re-light our candles.  I gladly did so.

Once again I was taken by God’s Word.  What a perfect representation of how the assembling of God’s people should be.  By week’s end our candles may be burned out or barely flickering.  Yet when we assemble we are to reignite our love and passion.  “And let us be concerned about one another in order to promote love and good works, not staying away from our worship meetings, as some habitually do, but encouraging each other, and all the more as you see the day drawing near,” (Heb. 11:24-25, HCSB).

I won’t go through the rest of the service, but just make two more quick notes that impressed me.  The first was the number of times the exclamation of Christ’s resurrection was made.  “CHRIST IS RISEN!” from the priest as everyone responded, “INDEED, HE IS RISEN!”  It was done multiple times; if I were to guess at least two dozen times I do not think I would be exaggerating.  They said it not only in English but in Russian and Greek (Russian OC).  Throughout the liturgy, the priest would (in my inexperienced understanding) suddenly walk down the aisle with his censer and begin the victory cry.  It was really fascinating.

The second part was what is called the Troparion:  “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.”  It took me a few times before I caught all the words being said and so be able to join in.  It was even a few more times before the profundity of those words struck home.  Christ trampled death by death.  In essence, Jesus killed death by dying and rising from the dead.  That’s not new to me, but I am sure you have heard something said in a certain manner that isn’t familiar and it makes old things new again.  That’s what the Troparion did for me.  But it wasn’t just the words, it was how those words were sung.  There was a sense of victory.  Either I did not catch the inflection early on, or the inflection began to grow with anticipation and excitement as the night went on, but by the end there was this sense that yes, Jesus was victorious over death and we who will die and be buried will have life bestowed upon us as well.

Maybe it’s because I was so new to the Pascha service, or maybe it was because it had been a long day and I was overly sensitive, or maybe it is because that is the design of the service in the first place, but I came away bursting with a renewed look of Christ’s resurrection and myself as His light in the world.  One last thing: I probably will not go another Easter without personally reading John Chrysostom’s Paschal Sermon.

Passion Week (Part 6)

Remember though that we can’t remove the stain of sin ourselves.  We are as helpless as the white shirt with marinara sauce all over it.  So how does this happen?  It happens by faith in Jesus, and what he did nearly 2,000 years ago.

I love how the prophet Isaiah put it over 700 years before Jesus walked on earth.  Isaiah prophesied about humanity’s sinfulness and God’s response through Jesus.  “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all,” (Isa 53.6, ESV).  God made a path for us to walk, and not only did we stray off the path a bit, but we turned away from the path, doing our own thing.  But what we see is that the LORD laid on Jesus the iniquity, a big word for sin, of all of us.  In other words, God judged and punished Jesus, who had never done wrong, but was always in the right, rather than punishing us who receive him by faith.

What God did was transfer our sins over to Jesus, leaving us with a clean record.  In other words, our record of unrighteousness (wrong-doing, wickedness) is expunged if we will put our faith into what Jesus has done.  This is what we call being justified.

When we try and justify ourselves, we try to make excuses for the wrongs we’ve done.  “It’s not my fault; If such and such hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t have been forced to do it.”  “Don’t try and justify yourself.”  When we try and justify ourselves, we try to make excuses, but we can’t justify ourselves.  But when God justifies us, He doesn’t make excuses for us, but instead, he takes away the wrongs we’ve done and gives them over to Jesus.  He removes the stain from us, so that when he makes his verdict of whether we are in the right or in the wrong, he will declare we are in the right!  That is the righteousness that is apart from the law; that is a righteousness of faith.

And are justified (declared in the right) by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,” (Rom 3.24, ESV).  The declaration of being in the right is a gift that doesn’t require anything on our part.  We don’t have to do anything to get it.  It’s a gift.  It is a gift that is paid for, redeemed, by Jesus.  But it is a costly gift.  Jesus died to bring us that gift.

I remember watching the movie, Saving Private Ryan.  It is a story of four brothers who join the American forces in World War II.  Three are killed within days of each other, but Private Ryan is presumably alive, and there is a squad whose mission it is to bring him home safely.  The captain, playing by Tom Hanks, is killed at the end, saving the life of Private Ryan.  As he is dying, he whispered into Ryan’s ear, “Earn this.”  The movie flashed back to the present day where Private Ryan is now an old man, standing at the grave of the captain, and he falls to one knee in tears, asking his wife if he’s been a good man.

There are two thoughts that come to mind in those scenes.  One is that God never tells us to “earn this.”  I want that to be made abundantly clear.  We cannot earn a gift, otherwise it becomes a payment and not a gift.  Paul wrote repeatedly that this is a gift not a payment, not a wage.  But what we saw in that movie was Ryan’s understanding of the price for his life: the captain’s life so that he may live.

Jesus’ death brought us life.  The Son of God, who lived forever in the right, dead so that we, who live in the wrong, could live in the right.  The greatest gift that has ever been given, the life of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior, for us.

God, the one who will judge whether we are in the right or in the wrong, will judge with justice.  He will give us exactly as we deserve: no more and no less.  For those who trust that Jesus took our sin upon himself, and therefore are declared not guilty, will receive no punishment or judgment but rather eternal life.  For those who believe, Jesus assuaged God’s anger. He satisfied God’s wrath.  There is not an ounce of anger left in God towards those who put their trust in Jesus.  It’s what we call propitiation, the satisfaction of God’s wrath.  It is Jesus, “whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.  This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance, he had passed over former sins,” (Rom 3.25, ESV).  Jesus died to assuage God’s anger for those who will put their faith in Him.  Remember the term the righteousness of God from faith.  Those who receive Jesus are revealed God’s righteousness.  This power to forgive and declare righteous was and is powerful enough to reach back all the way to creation.  For those who believed in God’s coming Messiah, they would be declared not guilty, having their sins removed.  To we who believe in the Messiah who came, we too are declared not guilty, having our sins removed.

We were in mind, along with the people Paul was writing to when he wrote, “It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus,” (Rom 3.26, ESV).

God always judges in the right.  He is just.  We often will hear of someone not facing charges for his or her crimes, for gets charged but is found not guilty, or is found guilty but the punishment doesn’t fit the crime.  Some drunk driver kills a family of four and has community service.  There is something in us that says, that’s not just, that’s not right.  We can never accuse God of doing something like that.  God is always just, never giving out a punishment too harsh or not harsh enough.  He is just in His judgments.

But He is also the justifier.  He is the only one who can transfer our sins supernaturally away from us and onto Jesus.  So He is just, and the One who declares us in the right.  Since the penalty for sin is death, then Jesus had to die.  It’s the only way for God to be just.  He has to punish the sin that was done, and since the punishment is death, then the one who owns the sin (Jesus, because it was transferred to Him) must face the punishment, which He gladly volunteered to do.

This is what we mean when we say: Jesus died for our sins.  There are two ways to being in the right with God: The first is by obeying 100% of God’s law, 100% of the time.  That way is an impossibility.  It is hypothetical, but impossible.  Thus the only other way to be in the right with God is through faith in Jesus Christ.  But the only reason that there is this way through Jesus, is because Jesus lived the righteousness of obedience.  Had he not lived in 100% obedience of 100% of God’s law there would be no reason to put our faith in Him.  Jesus lived the life of obedience to the law and died the death that we deserve.  But there is more.  This is after all, Resurrection Sunday.  You see, there is no reason to place faith in a dead religious leader.  Paul said that if Jesus did not rise from the dead we are to be the most pitied people on earth.  But Jesus rose from the dead, and is deserving of our love, devotion, and full-faith.

At the beginning I asked you to suppose that there was a Creator, and that Creator made us with a purpose.  That purpose is, at least in part, to be in the right with Him.  He made laws to show us how to do that.  But being that we cannot keep those laws, God also revealed His righteousness apart from the law.  It is a righteousness that comes by way of faith in Jesus.  He gave the most precious and costly gift to have ever been given.  He did all the work.  He paid the price in full.  We simply must receive Jesus, putting our full faith and confidence in Him.

How awful it must be to the ears of God to hear people say that all ways are equal or that there are many ways, as if to thumb their noses at what Jesus did, as if it were no big deal.  As if the price paid were not high enough.  As if the precious blood of Jesus were nothing more than cheap wine to be poured down the drain.  As if living a “pretty good life” amounts to receiving all the sins upon Himself and dying a death that we deserve.

In the Old Testament, the Jews would make sacrifices of bulls, goats, and lambs in hopes of assuaging God’s wrath for another year.  But that lamb could transfer no righteousness to the one making the sacrifice.  In the New Testament, Jesus is portrayed metaphorically speaking, as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.  He takes our sin upon Himself, and in returns transfers His righteousness to us.  “For our sake he [God] made him [Jesus] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God,” (2 Cor 5.21, ESV).

There is no other way to be right with God.  As Peter once said, “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved,” (Acts 4.12, ESV).