After observing Lent, and especially the last days of Holy Week, it’s absolutely amazing how exciting the arrival of Easter is. At The Advent, we had a service every night of Holy Week, including a vigil at 11:30 Saturday night in order to celebrate the Resurrection literally first thing in the morning. By the time of our vigil, the mounting anticipation was intense. I was weary from fasting and annoyed at my own shortcomings that the fast had revealed. The powerful Good Friday service the day before had forced me to experience our Lord’s death in new ways. The fact that Saturday itself is part of Holy Week — the fact that I had to observe it too, to think about Jesus’ cold body lying in the dark on a slab, me hiding uncomfortably with the scattered disciples — made me want to jump ahead to the resurrection I knew about from history. The emotions that kept bubbling up didn’t match my circumstances, like when a sad dream affects the tone of the next day. I was present in Saturday, April 23 2011, but was to some extent feeling that Holy Saturday when Jesus was dead, not as with residual emotions from the past, but with a current, in-the-moment sort of nervous sadness. The hours leading up to 11:30pm crept by.
Then the vigil began. The service itself was called the Pascha (Greek Passover) Vigil because Christ is our Passover lamb (1 Cor. 5:6-7, Rev 5:6-8), and because his death/resurrection actually happened at Passover time. The beginning of the service was illuminated from light spread from the Paschal candle, representing the light of Christ. Though pure and compelling in the dark, the candlelight shown appropriately dim as we listened to the Old Testament readings describing God’s work in the world leading up to Christ. We stood for the duration of the nine substantial readings, as in expectation of what was to come. Finally, after hearing all of Scripture pointing toward the crucified Jesus as the Christ, messiah, and giver of life, our waiting came to an end. In triumphant song, the church declared “Christ is risen!” and every light came on, fully illuminating every fatigued but smiling face. This was the moment of resurrection, liturgically. And it was followed immediately by the declaration, “Alleluia! Christ is risen!” “The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!” The rest of the service consisted of an amazing and refreshing Paschal homily by St. John Chrysostom, singing, readings from the epistles and Matthew’s gospel, a brief sermon, and of course, the Eucharist (Greek Thanksgiving).
Now after a week of extravagantly breaking my fast in celebration of the Resurrection, I’ve been reflecting on my Lenten journey and the arrival of Pascha. I think the most striking thing about it all was just how much I was put into the reality of Christ’s work through my fasting and participation in the services of Holy Week and Pascha. Throughout Lent, the lectionary readings followed Jesus through the Gospels on his last trip to Jerusalem. On Palm Sunday we followed Jesus into Jerusalem in royal procession, but quickly recognized the darkness looming in our hearts. Holy Week was all preparation for the crucifixion on Friday, and Saturday marked both the “resting” of Christ’s body in the tomb, and his “work” in the harrowing of Hades (the setting free of the prisoners in 1 Peter 3:18-20). If you attend all these services it would be hard for you to miss this progressive journey through the texts, but at our church, we strive to make what’s happening abundantly clear by constantly reminding everyone how it works. Participating in the story has been immensely helpful for me.
The fasting, on the other hand, was not as pleasant. I’m not going to lie — I don’t like fasting. What I gave up was not too monumental, and I actually followed the rules of my fast very well. But the point of fasting is not to give up food or whatever; that’s the method of fasting. The point of fasting is to use the utility of hunger and inconvenience as a way of increasing prayer and self-examination, and building the virtue of self-control. Sadly, hunger and inconvenience produced in me anger, self-pity, and the practice of self-indulgence in other areas such as my use of free time. That doesn’t mean that fasting didn’t work, but rather that fasting revealed to me problems within myself that otherwise may have stayed hidden. I’m sometimes asked by people who have never practiced the Lenten fast what the point of it is, and if it isn’t just some unhealthy form of self-loathing. My response is that Lent is primarily an opportunity to fast, as all Christians should. In Matthew 6 Jesus said “when you fast,” not “if you fast.” And Jesus wouldn’t advocate any form of self-loathing. Fasting means “self-learning,” and it’s meant to be productive, increasing our dependence on God and spurring our charity toward others. Secondly, Lent’s an opportunity to fast corporately, meaning we get to join with countless other Christians while doing it, drawing on them for strength and practical advice. Finally, the Lenten fast is colored the specific tone of the journey to the cross. Our context in Lent is our preparation to go and die with Christ (John 11:16).
Just as the lectionary moves us through the text toward the cross and the Lenten fast prepares us for the cross, observing Good Friday and Holy Saturday holds us underneath the cross. They pin us down so we can’t rush ahead. We have to wrestle generally with pain, sadness, loneliness, and death. We have to wrestle specifically with our own sin, the weight and ramifications of that sin, and the intolerably personal demonstration of love displayed on the cross. As I said above, after participating in all of that, the moment we celebrate Christ’s resurrection is filled with amazing elation and joy. I’m not saying that in an artificial or cheesy way. I mean, I was absolutely filled with joy as I proclaimed aloud with my church family that Christ had defeated death. That’s what a disciplined corporate fast, a systematized reading plan, nightly services for a week, and an elaborate midnight Pascha Vigil accomplish. They don’t change the reality of what Christ has done, but they unite us to the work of Christ in a profound and unique way. I have a stomach, two ears, two knees, a mouth, two eyes, and an imagination, and it takes engaging all of those to more fully immerse me in the glorious death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, son of God and son of man.