April 29, 1997

Bright Week represents Orthodoxy's 'eighth day'

SUNDAY, APRIL 27, WAS EASTERN ORTHODOX PASCHA this year, the feast of the resurrection which is called Easter by English-speaking Roman Catholics and Protestants, who celebrated it fully a month earlier. Some years eastern and western Christians celebrate it on the same Sunday, some years it is only a week apart, but this time there was a month's difference. The Pope of Rome changed the calendar and the reckoning of Easter in accord with new scientific findings about the equinoxes several centuries ago. Most Orthodox have in this century accepted the new calendar (December 25 is the same for Greeks and most others except Russian Orthodox), but the Orthodox feast of the Resurrection still references the Jewish feast of Passover according to the system that was used in the First Century, when Christ's crucifixion, death, and resurrection overlapped with Passover.

I began a journey of faith that totally unexpectedly led me to embrace Orthodoxy with a column published in January 1994. Unsatisfied with the independent evangelical Protestant church I'd been attending, I listed items I was looking for in a church, many of which the Orthodox Church came to supply in a direct way, but a few of which were diametrically un-Orthodox. You can read the whole column by clicking the hotlink above, but here, indented, are the excerpts most relevant to Pascha and Bright Week:

...Christmas should be the high holy day, and there should be a Christmas emphasis for at least four Sundays (this may be "advent," but it should include at least the Sunday after Christmas).

Orthodoxy calls it the feast of the Nativity, precedes it by a 40-day fast ("no fast-no feast" is the ancient-church equivalent of "no pain-no gain") which it doesn't officially call advent (though use of western terminology is inevitable), and concludes it with the feast of Theophany (comparable to Epiphany in the West—in the West the worship of Christ by the Wise Men is comemmorated; in the East it's His worship by Simeon at His presentation in the Temple, and His revelation by the Father at His baptism) 12 days after Nativity ("Christmas" is also a Roman-Anglican word).

There should be at least two Christmas eve services—Christmas eve is christendom's holy night—one for families with children to get to bed by 8 o'clock, and one that ends at midnight for everyone else. If the service is brightly lighted or if the senior minister is not leading, they don't have it right. Quietness, "Silent Night," and candlelight or Christmastree lights are the keynotes.

In Orthodoxy, the parish, children and all, is one unified whole, so there is only one service for any given liturgical occasion. There are no Saturday evening liturgies for those who can't get to service on Sunday morning (though there is a Saturday evening service called great vespers, somewhat comparable to the Jewish Shabbat erevs—Sabbath eve—service). There are services both Christmas eve and Christmas day, but they are not duplicates one of the other, but rather mark separate aspects of the feast.

Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus every Sunday—that's why Sunday, not Saturday, is our sabbath. The overall implications of Resurrection, as opposed to reincarnation, say, or spiritualism, are so central to our message they must be alluded to constantly, so Easter is nowhere nearly as important as Christmas (Christmas comes but once a year, "Easter"—ghastly choice of words—is an everyday matter).

This was my Calvinistic education coming through. Orthodox also see every Sunday as a "little Pascha," but Pascha itself (rather than Christmas) is the "feast of feasts," the high holy day.

There should be a special resurrection observance with the appropriate hymns...on the Sunday after Jewish Passover, but as nobody's elected me Pope I can't change the calendar to make it as it should be, so I'll continue putting up with the present mish-mash.

The fact that Orthodoxy observes Pascha the Sunday after the beginning of Passover was totally unknown to me at the time; this just seemed from the New Testament to be the right approach.

Lent probably deserves more consideration than most "low-church" Protestants give it, but I can't decide how much and never went in for that Ash Wednesday and Maundy Thursday business at the churches I attended that observed them! Bringing a team from Jews for Jesus in to demonstrate Passover the week before Easter has a lot more meaning—and biblical basis—to me.

Orthodoxy begins Great Lent on a Monday, and doesn't have an Ash Wednesday. Every day of Holy Week is a holy day, the "liturgical countdown" beginning with the resurrection of Lazarus on the Saturday before Palm Sunday. Holy Thursday has a special liturgy marking the institution of the Lord's Supper (the eucharist, which is the centerpiece of Orthodox worship), but "Maundy" is a middle English word not used in Orthodoxy.

In my Protestant years my great quest was expressed in the words of Calvin College philosophy professor H. Evan Runner: All of Life is Religion. Runner, a disciple of the great Dutch theologian and statesman Abraham Kuyper, and their multitude of disciples including myself, were always trying to persuade our Protestant brethren of the rightness of this proposition, and it did appeal to a small following from all denominations including Roman Catholicism. In Orthodoxy, however, this is a given. All of life is religion—marked every week of the year (with few exceptions, and they are marks of another kind) by fast days, and every day of the Christian's life by liturgical prayers, and every moment of every day by Christlike watchfulness against sin and for His coming.

The week after Pascha, for example, is Bright Week. There is no fasting because the whole week marks the resurrection life attained in Pascha, the reopening of Paradise, lost through our first parents' sin. Orthodox priest Fr. Seraphim Holland writes:

Bright week begins with the Sunday of Pascha, and comes to a close on Bright Saturday, at Vespers. One may actually argue that Bright week comes to a close before the ninth hour (which precedes vespers), [when] the royal doors [which separate the congregation from the altar] and deacons' doors, which have been wide open all week, are closed. This is a sad and significant moment. Just like our forefathers Adam and Eve, we cannot remain in paradise in this life, because of our sins. Ours is a life of struggle against our passions, which hold us back from full realization of paradise in this life.

He also says that, "according to the sun's rising and setting, Bright week is seven days, (Sunday through Saturday) but to the church, liturgically, it is one day - the 'eighth day.'"

This week, then, bright resurrection week, "is the day that the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it" (Psalm 118:24).

As always, this is an open forum. Your feedback, comments, challenges and questions are welcome.

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1997 Jon Kennedy