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Massacre of the Innocents

2013-01-22 by Dan O'Day. 2 comments

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Editor’s note: This was supposed to be published back in December, but due to a variety of reasons, publishing was put off and off until now.

As we prepare for the second coming of Christ this Advent season, one of the events we must consider connected to Jesus’ first coming is the slaying of innocent children. Matthew 2:16-18 records what is called the “Massacre of the Innocents,” the genocide of all children age two and under in Bethlehem and the surrounding region by King Herod. Matthew records that this event fulfilled a prophesy made by Jeremiah:

“A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more” (Matthew 2:18, ESV).

Herod wanted to prevent Jesus from becoming King as had been prophesied. Two thousand years later, a small American community is also weeping because of the death of children during this Advent season. December 14, 2012 was a tragic day for the community of Newtown, Connecticut. Twenty children and eight adults were killed (including the shooter and his mother). Their deaths were evil.

In the midst of this tragedy, there are plenty of pundits stepping up to the microphone to use this as an opportunity for advancing various agendas and political platforms. Whether it’s liberal politicians endorsing gun control legislation or the Christian Right using this as an opportunity to scold the nation for a breakdown in morality and not allowing prayer in schools, Rachel is still weeping for her children. She still refuses to be comforted. But politicians don’t have answers or hope. Neither do Christian moralists.

But a little perspective is in order. Every day even more children are killed in the name of “a woman’s right to choose.” This murder will even be subsidized by American tax dollars. Not to mention the violence committed daily in many urban neighborhoods. We live in a culture of death.

In 1 Corinthians 15:26, St. Paul reminds us that “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” All death is evil. It is our enemy. God did not create suffering. All death flies in the face of our Creator, who made us for life. The only answer to violence is love. No legislation will fix the problem. No amount of moralizing will address the root issue. The problem is sin. We can only prevent violence by freeing our hearts from it. Only love can free our hearts.

Even during this horrific tragedy, heroic acts of love were performed. The teachers who died trying to protect their students showed real love. John 15:13 tells us, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” The ultimate act of love for all mankind was that of Jesus’ death for us.

But even His death was evil. In fact, it was the most evil death of them all. Death is a consequence of sin, but Jesus didn’t sin! He is the only one who didn’t deserve to die! Yet He chose to….

Jesus hated death. We know this because he ruined every funeral he ever attended. Death is not right. It’s not the way things are supposed to be. But Jesus died in order to defeat death. He trampled down death by death. And He rose from the dead. He is alive and death is dead. That is our comfort. It is the only comfort we have.

This Advent season we remember that when Christ comes again He will utterly destroy the last enemy: death. The grave cannot hold us. We will rise again in our bodies and live forever. Christ is risen!

Let us join in proclaiming the Paschal Troparion said every Pascha (Easter) in the Eastern Orthodox Church:

“Christ is risen from the dead, Trampling down death by death, And upon those in the tombs, Bestowing life!”

Christos Anesti!

2012-04-30 by Dan O'Day. 4 comments

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Χριστός ἀνέστη! Ἀληθῶς ἀνέστη! Christ is risen! Truly, He is Risen!

Χριστὸς ἀνέστη ἐκ νεκρῶν,
θανάτῳ θάνατον πατήσας,
καὶ τοῖς ἐν τοῖς μνήμασι,
ζωὴν χαρισάμενος!
‎”Christ is risen from the dead,
Trampling down death by death,
And upon those in the tombs,
Bestowing life!”

The above words are the Paschal Troparion from the liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, first in Greek and then in English. This is sung every Easter in the Eastern Orthodox Church. My brothers in Christ have done an excellent job discussing the meaning of Easter in the past few weeks, and most of the things said apply also to Eastern Christians. So let us then focus on the differences between Eastern and Western Christians in regard to this feast, and let us begin by dispelling a common objection to the holiday: that of its pagan origins.

Isn’t Easter a pagan holiday?

This is a common objection to the celebration of Easter (and Christmas), even among some fundamental Western Christians. While there is somewhat of a valid argument as to the pagan origins of Christmas, there really isn’t one concerning Easter. The confusion lies in a heavily disputed comment made in 730 A.D. by St. Bede, an English monk and Christian historian. The comment concerns the origins of the name Easter, which St. Bede attributes to feasts dedicated to a fertility goddess named Eostre in the month of April that were celebrated in Nordic/Germanic culture. The problem with using this as justification for the pagan origins of Easter is that the Nordic/Germanic people were late converts to the Christian faith (late 6th century), and it is clear from history that the celebration of Easter was practiced by Christians as early as the second century. Christianity Today wrote a detailed historical analysis of Easter’s supposed pagan origins that is highly recommended for further information. The article goes to great lengths to demonstrate that it is highly unlikely that Easter comes from a pagan holiday.

But what about the Easter bunny and colored eggs? The Easter bunny comes from German legends, but the practice of coloring eggs is actually from Eastern Christianity, not from paganism. There are several legends about why Eastern Christians began coloring eggs, but what is clear is that Eastern Christians came to color eggs red in remembrance of Christ’s blood which was shed for us. Eastern Christians do not mingle cultural pagan customs such as the Easter bunny into their celebration of the liturgical feast.

Is the feast called Easter or Pascha?

For Eastern Christians, the title “Easter” has only recently begun to be used, and that only for convenience and ease of understanding as Eastern Christianity has spread to Western English-speaking countries. Since the times of the apostles and their direct disciples, Christians have called this holiday “Pascha,” from the Greek word Πάσχα meaning “Passover.” In the East, this holiday is clearly connected to the Jewish Passover. The Eucharist was instituted by our Lord on the Last Supper which was the Passover Seder meal. Scripture makes it clear that Jesus is our Paschal Lamb who takes away the sin of the world, defeating death and giving us life. The preferred and official title for the feast is Pascha in Eastern Christianity, as this has been the title of this feast in Christianity since the time of the apostles. In scripture we learn:

“I will pass through the land of Egypt in the same night, and I will attack all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both of humans and of animals, and on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgment. I am the Lord. The blood [of the slain lamb] will be a sign for you on the houses where you are, so that when I see the blood I will pass over you, and this plague will not fall on you to destroy you when I attack the land of Egypt” (Exodus 12:12-13, NET, emphasis mine).
“God publicly displayed him at his death as the mercy seat accessible through faith. This was to demonstrate his righteousness, because God in his forbearance had passed over the sins previously committed. This was also to demonstrate his righteousness in the present time, so that he would be just and the justifier of the one who lives because of Jesus’ faithfulness” (Romans 3:25-26, NET, emphasis mine).

Just as God passed over the Israelites, sparing their firstborn sons when He saw the blood of the lambs on their doorposts in Egypt, God passed over our sins and did not spare the Paschal Lamb, His firstborn Son Jesus Christ. Hence we celebrate Pascha in remembrance of Passover and its fulfillment in Christ. Jesus demonstrated His victory over death by His resurrection three days later on Sunday morning. This is why the day of worship for Christians was changed from Saturday (the Jewish Sabbath) to Sunday.

Why do most Eastern Christians celebrate on a different day than Western Christians?

The simple answer is that the Eastern Orthodox Church uses the Julian calendar while the Western Church uses the Gregorian calendar. In any given year it can be celebrated one to five weeks after Western Easter (or sometimes on the same day, such as in 2011). But a little elaboration is in order. The Roman calendar was being exploited by priests in order to control politics, so Julius Caesar instituted the Julian calendar in 45 B.C. to put an end to this. The Julian calendar was still the dominant civic calendar when the dating of Pascha was decided at the first Ecumenical Council of Nicaea, and since the Eastern Orthodox do not believe that anything can be changed without the approval of the entire Church at an Ecumenical Council, the Julian calendar continued to be used as the liturgical calendar even after many Eastern nations adopted the Gregorian reform to their respective civic calendars. The Roman Catholic Church began using the Gregorian calendar for liturgical feasts in 1582 and Western Christianity followed suit.

In 1923, an Eastern Orthodox synod was held in Constantinople that proposed a revised Julian calendar which would account for some of the discrepancies between the dating of Eastern and Western Christian holidays. But this decision is not accepted by all Eastern Orthodox Christians and is not without controversy:

The synod, chaired by controversial Patriarch Meletius IV of Constantinople, and called Pan-Orthodox by its defenders, did not have representatives from the remaining Orthodox members of the original Pentarchy (the Patriarchate of Jerusalem, Antioch, and Alexandria) or from the largest Orthodox Church, the Russian Orthodox Church, then under persecution from the Bolsheviks, but only effective representation from the Patriarch of Constantinople and the Serbian Patriarch….
While the new calendar has been adopted by many of the smaller national churches, a majority of Orthodox Christians continue to adhere to the traditional Julian calendar, and there has been much acrimony between the two parties over the decades since the change, leading sometimes even to violence, especially in Greece.
Critics see the change in calendar as an unwarranted innovation, influenced by Western society. They say that no sound theological reason has been given for changing the calendar, that the only reasons advanced are social. The proposal for change was introduced by a Patriarch whose canonical status has been disputed and who was a Freemason.
The argument is also made that since the use of the Julian calendar was implicit in the decision of the First Ecumenical Council at Nicaea (325) which standardized the calculation of the date of Pascha (Easter), no authority less than an Ecumenical Council may change it. The adoption of a new calendar has broken the unity of the church, undoing the whole purpose of the council of Nicaea, so once again, “on the same day some should be fasting whilst others are seated at a banquet….”
Proponents also argue that the new calendar is somehow more “scientific”, but opponents argue that science is not the primary concern of the Church; rather, the Church is concerned with other-worldliness, with being “in the world, but not of it”, fixing the attention of the faithful on eternity. Scientifically speaking, neither the Gregorian calendar nor the new calendar is absolutely precise. This is because the solar year cannot be evenly divided into 24 hour segments. So any public calendar is imprecise; it is simply an agreed-upon designation of days.

Many English-speaking Eastern Orthodox churches in North America use the revised Julian calendar, but many who still retain the language and culture of their homeland (many Eastern Europeans) still use the old Julian calendar (they are called new calendarists and old calendarists, respectively – often used derogatorily by those who are of the opposite persuasion). It is the position of most new calendarists that the First Council of Nicaea did not actually specify that the Julian calendar had to be used, it was simply used since it was the dominant civic calendar at the time, thus strict adherence to the original Julian calendar is not necessary for Eastern Orthodox Christian unity. Some Eastern Christians have even switched to using the Gregorian calendar and follow the dates of Western liturgical feasts.

How do Eastern Orthodox Christians celebrate Pascha?

Detailed accounts and videos of the Pascha celebration exist, so this will only be a brief (and thus incomplete) summary. Eastern Orthodox Christians gather slightly before midnight on Great and Holy Saturday; the priest will remove the burial sheet (winding sheet) from the “tomb” and place it on the altar table where it will remain for 40 days until the Ascension (leave-taking) of Christ. The congregation will leave the building at midnight singing and process around the building. Then before the closed doors of the sanctuary the priest will announce the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, often by reading the Gospel concerning the empty tomb. At this point the Paschal Troparion quoted earlier will be sung. There is then continual singing and proclamation of “Christ is risen!” To which the people of God reply, “Truly, He is Risen!” (as was stated in the opening line of this post). This is often done in English, Greek, and/or any native languages of the congregation. The Paschal Homily of St. John Chrysostom is then read, inviting the people of God to forget their sins and fully join in the feast of the celebration of Christ’s resurrection. The Eucharist may be celebrated at this time, where God’s people partake of the Paschal Lamb. The Paschal Troparion is sung numerous times, then the beginning verses of Acts are read, followed by the beginning of St. John’s Gospel. The Divine Liturgy then follows, with the Paschal Troparion being sung continually throughout.

“The celebration of Easter in the Orthodox Church, therefore, is once again not merely an historical reenactment of the event of Christ’s Resurrection as narrated in the gospels. It is not a dramatic representation of the first Easter morning. There is no ‘sunrise service’ since the Easter Matins and the Divine Liturgy are celebrated together in the first dark hours of the first day of the week in order to give men the experience of the ‘new creation’ of the world, and to allow them to enter mystically into the New Jerusalem which shines eternally with the glorious light of Christ, overcoming the perpetual night of evil and destroying the darkness of this mortal and sinful world” (OCA website).

After Divine Liturgy, a large meal is celebrated as the family of God. Food is brought to be blessed by the priest, and the faithful break their fasting together. Not all Eastern Orthodox practice all of this the exact same way – this is a general outline of how the feast of Pascha is observed. It is a long night, beginning before midnight and extending into the early morning hours. Sometimes people leave and return later in the morning or afternoon for various aspects of the feast.

Every Sunday is Pascha

The final point that I’d like to share is that every Sunday is Pascha (Easter). The resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is the center of the Christian faith. St. Paul says that if Christ is not raised from the dead, then our preaching and faith are in vain (1 Corinthians 15:14). Jon did a great job establishing the centrality and reliability of the resurrection a few weeks ago. Because of Christ’s resurrection from the dead, Sunday came to be known as “the Lord’s Day,” which is symbolic of the first day of creation and the last day – or as it is called in Holy Tradition, the eighth day of the Kingdom of God. Every time we gather we proclaim that “Christ is risen!”

Χριστός ἀνέστη! Ἀληθῶς ἀνέστη! Christ is risen! Truly, He is Risen!