The Essential Meaning of the Paschal Feast

The following is the text of a public talk given by Fr. Alexander on May 2, 1989, in Moscow.

Fr. Alexander Men, Pascha, 1964

It is a remarkable feature of the night of Pascha that many people appear in church who otherwise almost never go there. Something mysterious and incomprehensible, yet not always conscious, attracts them there. What accounts for this? We say: it is the festival of spring. However, there were many different kinds of “festivals of spring.” And, of course, the picture of awakening nature – of these trees coming back to life, of the earth that has awoken from sleep – all of this is near and dear to all. You city dwellers have to observe all this as if under a microscope: you see only the very smallest signs of spring, but you see them nonetheless. And the traditions of Pascha, of course, have a direct relationship to this.

But I would like to speak with you about something different. There are people who do not consider themselves Christians who unfailingly try to have at least decorated eggs, kulich, and cheese pascha at home on Pascha. But we are reasonable and civilized people, so it would not be a bad idea to figure out what is going on here, what this all means. What is the origin of the relationship of all this to the Christian tradition? Or is this simply the remnants of paganism? How fair is it to say that these are remnants of paganism?

Yes, ancient man was able to stand in reverence before the majesty of resurrecting nature. He looked at it through entirely different eyes: for him nature was both mother and sister. Man rejoiced when, after the winter slumber, nature awoke and resurrected. And not only because he received more food as a result, but because he felt something special, some special currents flowing to him from Eternity, from the Cosmos.

This is why the Church did not reject the pagan elements of the Paschal celebrations. First of all, there is the Paschal kulich itself. (In the Ukraine it is called “pascha.”) What is the meaning of this? People collected the remnants of the past year’s harvest and, as if in memory and gratitude for the completed labors, they baked these loaves, sometimes in the form of birds and sometimes in the form of a column, as we commonly do now.

And “pascha” is molded curd with the emblem of the Risen Christ: XB for Christ is Risen [in Russian]. It is called “cheese pascha” to distinguish it from kulich.

The egg is a remarkable symbol, a very ancient pagan symbol of the resurrection of the dead. The egg looks like a dead stone, smooth and unmoving, but life beats inside of it – a marvelous miracle is hidden inside. Think about how this miracle develops. The result of this is a being that is alive, that thinks a bit, that undoubtedly feels, and that moves about beautifully – and it had been hidden inside this little white oblong ball. This is why people have always valued the egg as a symbol of eternal life, revival, and resurrection.

There was also the following ancient custom: eggs were placed on sprouted grass. In advance, in early spring, a sort of garden box was made into which seeds were planted, most often oats. With the warmth of the sun the first green shoots would rise up – or, rather, get up and run – and colored eggs would be placed among them. Many nations – I will not list them, but nearly every European nation – have this custom. For children the custom of playing with eggs has remained: they roll them, judging that the winner is whoever’s egg remains intact upon collision – it is like a kind of billiards.

There were masks, carnivals, and a wide variety of Paschal games – this was a time of letting loose, of extraordinary joy. Every one of you has likely heard, and many have seen, how in these pre-festal days the courtyards of the churches are filled with people bringing their offerings: kulichi, pascha, and eggs. I remember from childhood – even though it was during Stalinist times and this was all none too easy – how as soon as the morning of Great Saturday had arrived, lines of people stretched out along the half-dark streets, each bearing white bundles in their hands. It was easy to understand where they were all headed: they were going to have their Paschal meal blessed. Why indeed is the meal blessed?

Because when someone who has observed the fast reaches the time when the fast ends, then just as God’s blessing had been upon the fasting food, so too now must God’s blessing be upon the non-fasting food. This is so that one does not think that meat or cheese is unclean in and of itself. The Lord Jesus rejected the idea that food could be unclean: it is human thoughts and actions that can be unclean.

The blessing of meals is a framework for the blessing of life – the blessing of human joy and the blessing of human labor – that allows us the opportunity to see the food that is in front of us. Such is the meaning of this rite. And just what accounts for all this? I will briefly touch on this important topic.

The earthly life of Jesus Christ, His brief witness to the world, ended in failure, in the most profound defeat and overwhelming tragedy, because His disciples – as, indeed, everyone does – sought triumph over evil, they sought external victory, they thirsted for external power. They saw that power was hidden in the nature of their Teacher, that He could restrain the possessed, heal the sick, and pass unharmed through crowds trying to seize Him. And suddenly all this ended in the blink of an eye. It was as if they had all abandoned Him in the garden of Gethsemane the night He prayed concerning His cup.

What comes next was the most difficult for them, because He was treated like the least among criminals, disgracefully, with the clothes torn off Him. He who had been held in awe was now nailed onto a pillory alongside two bandits, with a mocking inscription hung above Him. After a short time He gave up the spirit. He gave up the spirit while praying for His executioners, repeating the words of a psalm. And then it was all over. And therewith Christianity came to an end.

Some people say: yes, of course, the disciples reverently preserved His memory, which learned people passed on. But these were not the sort of people to preserve memory and doctrine: they were simply artisans and fishermen, unlearned but kind people that were faithful to Him. After all, a complete catastrophe had just taken place before their very eyes, eliminating their hopes with one fatal blow. They said: “But we had thought He was the One Who would save Israel” from the oppressors – and to save, along with Israel, the entire world from evil. “But we had thought…” Such was their condition: fear, despair, and profound disappointment. They spent Saturday without going out – by Jewish law it was forbidden to travel far on the Sabbath. They locked themselves in, silently remaining in this stupor. I do not think they spoke about anything, but just sat there in silence. They were in mourning.

This was not simply the mourning for a deceased loved one: this was a lamentation for all their life dreams, all their hopes, all the wagers they had placed on this beautiful but misled man.

Some time later, early in the morning, before the sun had risen – by our reckoning this was the first day of the week, which we now call Sunday – Mary Magdalene came running to them. We know little about this woman. Legend has it that she had been a harlot. This is often used in novels and films, although in fact nothing is known about it – all this is fiction. The Gospels simply say that she had been ill, and that He had cast seven demons from her.

She entered, saying: “I have seen Him.” They had a single response: that the poor woman has gone mad from grief. But she relates that she had been at the tomb, that the stone had been rolled away, and that she had stood and wept. Other women had also seen that the tomb was empty, which meant that the authorities had simply extracted the body and hidden it somewhere so that people would not go to the grave to pray – a natural solution.

She said: “And then someone approached me from behind, saying something to me. I thought it was the gardener.” (There was a garden there, in which the tomb was located.) “I said: ‘Sir, if you have removed Him from here, then tell me where you have laid Him.’ He spoke a single word to me: ‘Mary.’ And I recognized Him: He Himself was standing before me! I rushed to touch Him, but He told me: ‘Do not touch Me. Do not touch me because I have not yet gone there.’” There were odd words: “When I go there, then you can touch Me.” (I will explain to you later what was going on here.)

It goes without saying that none of the disciples believed her. Indeed, what might a woman reduced to despair say? But then several more women came. They had gone to perform the final rite of anointing Him. In the East the custom exists of anointing the body of the deceased with precious ointment, which is very expensive. But inasmuch as Jesus had been buried quickly (it had to be done before the setting of the sun), they did not read all the prayers or properly anoint the body. Not having accomplished this, they wanted to finish it now.

So they went. They did not even know that the tomb had been guarded. They arrived: the enormous stone – which was round and flat, moving in a groove – had been rolled away. The tomb was empty, and a young man in white clothing was sitting there. He said: “Why are you looking for the living among the dead?” They were terrified and frightened: something about this young man in white clothing provoked fear in them. They ran away, deciding not to say anything to anyone. They were afraid. What were they afraid of? Horror had struck them: it was as if they had touched some otherworldly, superhuman mystery.

On that same day, two disciples were walking to a village near Jerusalem, talking between themselves and lamenting their fate, lamenting His fate, and bemoaning all this misfortune. Evening arrived. Someone joined them, walking alongside them. In the twilight the stranger asked them: “What are you talking about? Why are you so sad?” They replied: “Are you a stranger here? Have you not heard that this was Jesus of Nazareth Who died? He was executed the day before yesterday, but we had thought that He was the Savior of Israel and the world.”

Then He replied: “You are foolish; you have slow and hardened hearts. Even in the Bible, in Scripture, it says that the Savior, when He comes to the world, must suffer, die, and rise again.” He began to cite the words of the Old Testament prophets and the words of the Psalmist that speak of how the Redeemer, when come to the people, will endure suffering – great suffering, up to and including death.

Suddenly everything somehow became easier, calmer, and clearer for them. They reached their village. He was going to continue further, but they said to the Stranger: “Stay with us, be with us, and eat with us – for the day is already inclining toward evening.” He went with them into a room in the half-darkness. They lit the lamps and placed bread on the table.

He took and broke it, using the very same gesture of blessing that was so familiar to the disciples. They peered into those features – and suddenly the two of them were alone. There was bread on the table, breadcrumbs on the tablecloth – and the two disciples in the room.

They leapt up, saying: “Did not our hearts burn while He was speaking? It is He Who gave us this sign!” They rushed back from this village of Emmaus in the dark, running to Jerusalem. They knocked at the door of the disciples, who had locked themselves in for fear of agents and soldiers. When they opened the door, there were already no more tears, no more mourning. They all embraced, laughing and saying: “He appeared to Peter! The women have seen Him!”

They, too, related how they had recognized Him in the breaking of the bread, in this sacred act of bread-breaking. We call this the Eucharist; our Liturgy is at this table. We the faithful recognize His great presence through the breaking of bread.

Then they sat together, confused and anxious, but eternally joyful, still not understanding what had taken place. And suddenly they heard His voice: “Peace be unto you” – which means “salutations” or “greetings.” And He was standing among them. The doors had not been opened, and they had not heard a knock. His face changed continuously. This was an astonishing encounter, and there can be no talk of a “revived” body. The tomb was empty, but the Jesus Who appeared to them was different. He said to them: “I have been given all power in heaven and on earth.” He could be recognized, but He could also not be recognized. He could disappear as suddenly as He appeared.

But they had to go on living; they had to feed themselves by the work of their own hands.

The majority were fishermen. They went to the Sea of Galilee, cast their net, brought it up empty, and then cast it again. It was early in the morning; the sun had not risen, but the surface of the sea had already begun to turn silver. As they approached the shore someone was standing in the distance. He shouted: “Do you have anything to eat there?” It often happened that people came and bought fresh fish from the fishermen on board. They replied: “No, we fished all night, but did not catch anything.” And suddenly they remembered.

John was the youngest of them; he may not have been even twenty. He remembered that when the Lord Jesus had called them, the same thing had happened: Peter had worked all night without catching anything, but after Jesus spoke he cast again, and his nets were filled. When he was thinking about this, a cry was heard from the shore: “Cast to the right side!” They cast the nets as if asleep, but suddenly felt how it had begun to strain. They struck the oars and began moving towards the shore. The young John cast himself before Peter and whispered: “It is He, the Teacher.”

Peter was not the sort of person to reason and discuss: he disrobed immediately – they were half-naked on the boat – and began to swim to shore. When he reached the shore, a man with barely recognizable features was standing there. A fire was burning, and there was grilled fish on spits and bread – the meal was ready. “Come,” said He Who was both so familiar and simultaneously unfamiliar, “come, sit down, and eat!” They dried themselves off in silence one by one – they had come out of the water – and sat around the fire, silently passing around the bread and fish.

Suddenly everyone felt that this was as it had been before: He was among them. They hid their faces, lowered their eyes to the ground, and concealed themselves with their veils. No one dared ask: Who are You? But these simple hearts all suddenly felt that this was an Encounter, this was a Visitation.

Then He arose and, taking Simon Peter by the hand, took him aside, while the young John crept behind him. Peter heard:

“Simon, Simon, son of Jonas, do you love Me?”

“Yes, my Lord, I love You,” he said.

He then heard the voice that was infinitely familiar to him: “Then feed My sheep.”

Then He asked him again: “Simon, son of Jonas, do you love Me?”

“Yes, Lord, I love You.”

“Feed My lambs.”

And a third time: “Simon, do you love Me?”

Simon suddenly remembered how he had denied Him three times out of fear, saying he did not know this Man; how, not in order to betray Him but out of cowardice, he had denied Him three times. Grieved and sorrowful, he said: “You know everything. You know that I love You.” Then he again heard the voice:

“Feed My sheep. Follow Me. When you were young, you went wherever you wanted. When you are old, they will bind your hands and lead you where you do not want to go. Follow Me.” Follow Me along the path of the Cross ­– such was the meaning.

“And what about him?” asked Simon about his younger brother, John, who was walking behind them.

“Do not give thought to him. If I so desire, he will be here on earth until I come. You follow Me!”

Then it was the hills of Galilee once again. Everywhere there are places where He had been. He recognized every hill. You all know well just how dear places where we met with someone we love become to us. They arrived at Galilee, walking along the valleys, among fig trees, chestnut trees, and cypresses, saying: “Here He was with us, and here He said such-and-such, and on this shore He performed such-and-such a miracle.” Once they saw Him standing on a mount, and He spoke solemn words, special words, that seemed to resound through the entire world, and which have continued to echo throughout the centuries: “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to Me. Go therefore and teach all the nations.” Namely: has been given.

This means that as long as He was bearing His Cross on earth, He did not have such power. He was prone to illness, human infirmity, and even death. But now He says: “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to Me. Go therefore and teach all the nations, Baptizing them in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to perform everything I have commanded you; and I will be with you always until the end of the ages.”

Baptism means being united into one in the spiritual community that today we call the Church. That is what Baptism is. “In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Of the One God, Who appeared to us as the Creator of the world; and of Him Who was revealed as Divine Love in this world to which He came; and of the Spirit of God, Who lived, lives, and will live in mankind, in His community: the Church of Christ.

“Go and teach all nations.” The history of the Church began at this moment two thousand years ago, from a small beginning, from a small brook.

What does the Resurrection mean? The victory of Truth.  As the great Russian philosopher, Vladimir Solovyov, put it: If Pilate, the high priests, and all the dark forces had turned out to be right, then life would be meaningless, for in that case evil would have defeated and shattered the most beautiful, the most pure, the sinless God-Man. But, as the New Testament tells us, death could not contain Him. Our spirit is powerless to halt the process of death and decay, but pure and deified spirit is capable of accomplishing the victory over the decaying forces of matter.

This is the origin of that miraculous historical event: yesterday they were a handful of frightened fishermen, but today they enter the public square and shout: “Christ is Risen!” This is what they tell people, these very same ones who yesterday were afraid even to whisper about Him. Historians know this; the history of the world knows this. No one saw the mystery that was accomplished in the tomb. And there is no need to try to imagine it. But we must face the fact that an explosion burst out of this small kernel.

Many of you have likely heard that, according to modern theory, the universe came about from a small nucleus – and then there was an explosion, the Big Bang. Then the universe began to unfold. So it was with Christianity: a seed once sown explodes, Christ gives rise to the Church, and now for two thousand years these ecclesial galaxies have scattered in different directions.

This also means that He has remained with us. This is the most important thing. For example, the Church’s hymnody, architecture, traditions, books, and customs are, of course, as precious to me now as they were in my childhood. But all this would have only passing significance – no more important than the traditions of the ancient Indians or Egyptians, or of any other people or time – had I not felt that He indeed has remained, had I not heard His voice within, a distinct voice, more distinct than any human voice.

This is the mystery of history, the mystery of the earth: He has remained. The greatest moving force in history has remained intimately and profoundly in the world. “I will be with you always, until the end of the ages.” He rose in order to be present everywhere in our lives. Everyone can find Him today, too. He is not a historical figure about whom one can either remember or forget. Yes, He lived two thousand years ago. Yes, in ten years we will celebrate the two thousand year anniversary of His birth. But He not simply was, but is. This is the whole mystery of Christianity, the key to its power.

There have been many great scholars these past twenty centuries. Many minds have appeared in the spheres of philosophy and politics. On the island of St. Helena, Napoleon said that he had wanted to start a new religion in the world. But he added: alas, with my regiments and armies I could not accomplish what Jesus Christ accomplished, Who without an army taught us to love Him for centuries.

Christ has always conquered without bloodshed. When violence has been done in His name, when attempts have been made to impose the Gospel by force of arms or through coercion – then the spirit of Christ has been perverted. Why, you might think, in the history of the Christian churches have there been so many tragic pages? Why have they so often endured calamitous and grievous defeats? Was it only because there were forces of political evil or some other such forces? By no means was it only because of this.

It all started with us Christians. When we deviated from Him, therein lay the germ of future catastrophe. When today, with sorrow and pain of heart, I look at ruined churches or photographs of churches that have not survived, I appreciate that this is the work of barbarians, of cultured savages, so to speak; this is the work of totalitarianism, violence, intolerance, and black hatred. But I see the main root in something else.

A holy thing remains solid and inviolable only so long as the people gathered around it do not lose spirit. The Lord Jesus told those of His disciples who wanted to call down fire from heaven to punish sinners: “You do not know of what spirit you are.” These are words that could be addressed to our brothers: you do not know of what spirit you are. This is all very important.

There is nothing accidental in history; there is nothing accidental in life. We reap what we sow. If today we weep over ruined churches, then we should weep no less for the past sins and mistakes of Christians, our spiritual and bodily ancestors. Something had obviously gone wrong, that such tribulation might occur. It could not have occurred on its own. Because He has remained, and He continues to preside.

He said: “Now is the judgment of this world.” At the very moment of His coming, when His gaze penetrated into people’s souls, then began the judgment of each person’s conscience and fate. And this judgment continues today. This judgment is purifying. This judgment raises us up from the level of animals; it raises us up from the level of everyday dullness; and it raises us up to the level of spirituality, insight, and the fulfillment of our divine ideal in this earthly life.

Translated from the Russian.

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