The Feast of the Glorious Resurrection of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is the principal and the most ancient Byzantine Rite festival celebrated with great solemnity from its inception. Already in the fourth century it was called ” the Feast of feasts,” since by its solemnity it surpassed all other festivities as the “sun surpasses all other stars by its brightness” (cf. St. Gregory of Nazianz, Oration 45, 2). The commemoration of Christ’s resurrection in our Rite is indeed ” the day that the Lord has made,” therefore the faithful are encouraged to be ” glad and rejoice in it” (Ps. 118:24).
1. The feast of Christ’s resurrection popularly is called-Easter, a name believed to be derived from the Anglo-Saxon word ” eastre,” meaning the spring. More recently, however, the experts point to the Old German word for dawn ” eostarun ” (since Christ had risen at dawn) from which they deduce the German name for the feastOs tern, and its English equivalent-Easter. The ancient term, The Pasch, which has become more and more popular since the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, is derived from the Hebrew ” pesach,” meaning the pass-over. In the already cited Easter Oration of St. Gregory, he explains: “This great and venerable Feast of Pasch in Hebrew is called “Pesach,” which means passing over. Historically it recalls the passing over (of the Israelites) from Egypt in the Promised Land but spiritually (for the Christians) it means the passing over from things down below (from the earth) to things above (to heaven).”
Among the Ruthenian people, Easter is called Velikden’, the Great Day. And it is indeed a great day on account of its important events, its lasting meaning, and its solemn celebration. The use of this word was inspired by Holy Scriptures (In. 19:31), and can be traced to the fourth century, being used for the first time by St. Athanasius (d. 373) in one of his Easter Letters. Another Ruthenian name for Easter is-Svitloye Voskreseniye (Glorious Resurrection) , since it is celebrated with solemn and joyous festivities.
2. The glorious resurrection of our Lord in the Byzantine Rite is solemnly proclaimed at the Easter morning services, called the Matins of Resurrection or, simply, Resurrection Services, celebrated shortly after midnight or early in the morning. These services were composed at the beginning of the eighth century by the renown Byzantine hymnographer, St. John Damascene (d. 749). He was inspired in their composition by Holy Scriptures and by two famous Easter Orations of St. Gregory of Nazianz (d. 389) .
The Matins of Resurrection are constructed around the Paschal Canon, in which the Risen Christ is repeatedly extolled and glorified for his final victory over sin and over death. Because of its enchanting beauty and its deep spiritual meaning, it is called The Golden Canon, since by it St. John Damascene inaugurated the Golden Age of Byzantine hymnography.
The Easter Canon of St. John Damascene is a magnificent liturgical poem in honor of Christ’s victorious resurrection and its leading theme is given to us in the first hymn-irmos: “It is the Day of Resurrection, 0 people be enlightened by it. It is the Passover of the Lord, the passover from death to life, by which Christ our God has brought us from earth to heaven. Therefore, we are singing the hymn of victory.”
3. The Resurrection Services begin with the removal of the Holy Shroud, the Plaschanitsa, from the grave (cf. Byzantine Leaflet Series, 1971 , no. 7). The celebrant, vested in his festive robes, incenses the Holy Shroud, takes it from the grave and places it on the altar where it remains until Ascension Day in testimony that our Saviour, after His glorious resurrection, remained on earth for forty days.
Having prepared the altar, the priest, altar boys, and the faithful, with lighted candles, process once around the church repeatedly singing the resurrectional stichera, “Your resurrection, 0 Christ our Savior, is praised with the angelic voices in heaven; make us also worthy here on earth to praise You and to glorify You with a pure heart.” After all the faithful leave in procession, the main doors of the church are closed. The procession symbolizes the Myrrh-bearing Women who, “very early in the morning on the first day of the week” (In. 20:1) came to the tomb to anoint the sacred Body of Christ, and found the tomb empty. For this reason the procession is made only once around the church.
The procession stops before the closed doors at the main entrance to the church. Here the celebrant, after having incensed the doors and the people, begins the Matins of Resurrection.
4. The Matins of Resurrection start with a customary benediction of the celebrant, intoning: ” Glory to the holy, consubstantial, life-creating and indivisible Trinity, always, now and ever, and forever.” After the response, “Amen.”, the priest with a solemn voice sings the Easter hymn :
“Christ is risen from the dead, by death He conquered death, and to those in the graves He granted life.” In this part of the Matins, the celebrant represents the Angel, announcing the glorious resurrection of our Savior to the Myrrhbearing Women at the grave. While the people jubilantly repeat the Easter hymn, the church bells carry the glad tidings to the rest of the world.
At the conclusion of the responsorial psalm, the celebrant once again intones the hymn and, at the words: ” by death He conquered death,” signs the doors with the sign of the cross and opens them with the cross in his hand. In doing so, he symbolizes Our Saviour Who, by His death on the cross, has ” conquered death” and has opened the gates of heaven for all of us.
Ascending the altar, the celebrant chants the Ekteny of Peace, which is immediately followed by the Golden Canon of St. John Damascene. The entire canon is pervaded by a certain triumphant mood, perhaps best expressed by the third Troparion of the first ode: “Let the heavens properly rejoice and let the earth exult, let the whole world, both visible and invisible, celebrate for Christ, our eternal joy, is risen.”
It is interesting to note that the Byzantine Church keeps alive the ancient traditional belief about the Angel announcing the resurrection of Christ first to the Blessed Virgin Mary, as described by St. John Damascene in the prelude to the ninth ode of his canon: “The Angel exclaimed to her, Full of Grace: Rejoice, 0 pure Virgin, again I say: Rejoice! For Your Son after three days is risen from the grave and has raised the dead. Therefore, all you people, rejoice!”
5. The second part of the Matins of Resurrection begins with the Psalms of Praise (Pss. 148-150), which are followed by four Sticheras of Praise (Tone One), reminding us to praise Christ’s “saving passion and to glorify His resurrection” in songs. These four resurrectional sticheras are followed by four Paschal Sticheras. In them the triumphant joy of Easter reaches the highest point. Let us direct our attention, in the way of example, to the fourth stichera:
“A delightful Pasch, the Pasch of the Lord, the venerable Pasch has dawned upon us. Because of this Pasch, let us joyfully embrace one another. o Pasch, you are our deliverance from all sorrow, since today Christ has come out from the grave as radiant as He would come out from the bridal chamber, and He filled the Women with joy, saying : “Announce (the glad tidings) to the Apostles.”
This personal ” announcing” of the glad tidings of the resurrection takes place exactly during the chant of these paschal sticheras, as the people approach the celebrant to kiss the Holy Cross, the Book of Gospels and the Icon of Resurrection.
The celebrant stands outside and invites the faithful to venerate the cross which he holds in his hand, while the assisting clergy or the altar boys hold the Book of Gospels and the Icon of Resurrection . As the faithful kiss the cross, they are greeted by the priest with the words : ” Christ is risen!” The people, in confirmation of their personal belief, answer: ” Indeed He is risen!”
During the Resurrection Services the Holy Cross is venerated, because by His death upon the cross our Savior ” conquered death,” the Holy Gospel proclaims the glorious resurrection of our Lord, and the Icon reminds us of the descent of Christ into Limbo, liberating the souls of the just:
“and to those in the graves He granted life.” The Easter greeting: “Christ is risen!-Indeed He is risen!” is our personal proclamation of Christ’s glorious resurrection, and is the greeting used by the faithful until Ascension Thursday.
6. The old Greek Synaxarion (the Prolog) gives the following explanation of the joyous celebration of Easter in the Byzantine Rite:
” On this glorious and the most holy day, the whole Church celebrates the joy of the final victory and life-giving resurrection of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ. After the long period of darkness brought about by sin, after the endless expectation of the prophets, after the glad tidings of Christ’s birth when the designated time had come, after the thirty years of Christ’s hidden life and the three years of His public life, after the frightful passion, death upon the cross and three days in the tomb, behold-Christ is risen!
“Indeed, indeed He is risen! And all is true, every promise of God has been fulfilled: the Savior has come, the Lamb of God has been sacrificed for the sins of the world, and totally triumphant He crushed death by His death, restoring to us everlasting life through His glorious resurrection. The time of weeping is over. Now is a time of joy. Now that we have repented and atoned for our sins during the penitential season of Lent; now that we have been cleansed by the Passion of Christ ; now let us rejoice, let us give to one another the Christ-like kiss of peace, thus confirming our love towards all and celebrating the end of all enmity … Christ, our Savior, is risen!”