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Great and Holy Saturday Night

by Monk James

This is the blessed sabbath on which Christ is sleeping; He will rise on the third day’ (Kontakion of Holy Saturday).

Perhaps before considering the other implications of this day’s events, we should pause to note that Jesus ‘rose on the third day, in accordance with the scriptures’ (Symbol of Faith); He did not spend three days in the tomb.

On the contrary, from the time of His burial a little before sunset on the day of His death, perhaps around 5:00 PM on Friday, until His resurrection sometime near sunrise on Sunday, perhaps around 5:00 AM, it could be suggested that our Lord lay dead in the tomb no more than thirty-six hours, although the Latin tradition seems to assert forty. We need to be more careful in our translations of ‘third-day’ references to accommodate the reality of the events recorded in the Gospel: ‘third day’ does not equal ‘three days’.

Now Jesus’s work of redemption is finished on Earth, and His tortured body reposes in death, sealed within a tomb. But the eternal Son of God is not contained by that stony chamber, or limited in any way: ‘While physically in the tomb and spiritually in Haides, as God You were in Paradise with the Thief. Yet You remain enthroned with the Father and the Spirit, O boundless Christ, filling all things!’ (Divine Liturgy).

Hidden from our sight, Our Lord’s human soul and His divinity are now completing the work of ransoming those who are no longer alive on Earth, but are imprisoned by Death and Haides (1 PET 3:18-21). In a marvelous metaphor, the golden-mouthed preacher describes how Haides got a bad taste in his mouth when he swallowed our Savior: Duped by the human soul of Christ, Death (Haides and Death are identical) thinks that he has gulped down just one more hapless human victim. To his great surprise, Death discovers that -- this time -- he has swallowed no mere mortal, but the living God (Catechetical Homily of St John Chrysostom on the Resurrection).

Nearly all the Sunday troparions of the resurrection refer specifically to this event: the righteous dead who had been swallowed by Haides are now illuminated by the light of Christ's presence among them; no longer is it dark and dismal. The mists of death begin to fade away and Death, instead of swallowing anybody, is now ‘swallowed up in victory’ (1 COR 15:54).

The ransomed dead now pass over to everlasting life in the true Passover which was prefigured by the release of Israel from Egypt. ‘This is the day of resurrection! Let us be enlightened, O people! This is the Paskha, the Paskha of the Lord! For from death to life, and from Earth to Heaven, has Christ our God led us, as we sing a hymn of victory.’ (St John of Damaskos, Heirmos of Ode 1 of the Kanon of Paskha).

In the Aramaic language spoken by Christ our Lord, the word _paskha_ (a close relative of the Hebrew word _pesakh_, ‘Passover’ in both languages) was brought over into the Greek Gospels as a transliteration rather than a translation; this was obviously a conscious choice on the part of the evangelists, and should be respected in modern translations. It may well be that paskha is the only appropriate Christian term for this holy day, and it is certainly the only evangelical one. While it might be possible to appropriate ‘Passover’ for Christian speech, the Church -- in almost every language -- has preferred to use the Greek form, a direct assimilation of the Aramaic term used by Jesus Himself.

This seems to be a universal usage, except in English and languages related to or influenced by English, which (even when the British church was orthodox) seems always to have preferred to call this day ‘Easter’, possibly on the notion that the sun appears to ‘rise’ in the East, in an identification of ‘rising’ with ‘resurrection’; ‘Easter’, ‘East’, and ‘Eostre’ appear to share a common etymology related to ‘sunrise’. That possible explanation notwithstanding, St Bćda (‘Venerable Bede’) seventh-century British scholar-monk, describes the term ‘Easter’ as having been derived from the name of a pagan Spring goddess, Eostre. He also comments that no one remembers how her name came to be associated with Christ’s resurrection, except that the Christian holy day is celebrated in the Spring. It is also worth noting that very old English translations of the Scriptures render even the Jewish term ‘Passover’ (Latin _pascha_) by some form of ‘Easter’, clearly demonstrating the great confusion at work.

Church Slavonic keeps the evangelical Greek paskha, as does Arabic, although the Arabic _faskha_ reflects that language’s lack of the sound of p, replacing it with its allophone. Latin says _pascha_, so the Italians use _pasqua_ and in Spain we hear _pascua_ while the French have _pâques_. Dutch has shortened the word to _pask_, but it is still recognizable. Since the English-speaking world received a large part of its pre-Christian mythology and folklore from the old Teutonic and Celtic peoples, it should come as no surprise that the Germans (except for some of the orthodox who call the feast _das Passah_ -- scholars are trying to get them to drop the final h) know it as _das Ostern_ or _das Osterfest_ (‘Eostre’s Feast’!!).

In a curious historical turnabout, the use of the term ‘Easter’ seems to have been first applied to the Christian observance in the British Isles. When Irish missionaries evangelized northern Europe, it seems likely that they brought this usage with them. While it might be possible to analyze and explain the historical patterns at work in the transmission of the term ‘Easter’ among English-speaking Christians, the fact remains that they, seemingly alone among all Christians, have departed from the pattern established by the Gospel and embraced by all the churches. Now that there is an increasing return of English-speaking Christians to orthodoxy, perhaps it can be hoped that the evangelical Paskha will replace the pagan word.

It’s important also to realize that, in Jewish terms, _paskha_ means not only the exodos from Egypt and the festival which actuates memory of it and participation in it, but also that _paskha_ is the term for the lamb whose blood spared Israel from the pharaoh's destruction, and who (theoretically) is still slaughtered each year for the seder meal. But now, ‘Christ, our paskha (Passover Lamb), has been sacrificed, so we can keep the feast’ (1 COR 5:7-8).

In view of the long history of remembering Israel’s passing over from slavery to freedom, and Passover’s resonance of liberation, not to mention the very clear consensus of the Church’s recognition of Jesus as the fulfillment of the ‘Lamb’ prototype established in the Old Covenant, we ought to resist language which fails to acknowledge the sacred realities celebrated in the resurrection of Christ, which typifies our own resurrection. In English, perhaps we can leave ‘Passover’ to the Jews and ‘Easter’ to the heterodox who don’t appreciate its pagan overtones; let the orthodox keep the Lord’s Paskha.

And so we make this mystical journey with Christ, Who promised to take us with Him. Just as He did, we understand that -- by following Him -- we also will pass over to everlasting life. Death no longer holds any terror for Christians; it is painful and inevitable because we are sinners, but it is temporary. This is the simplest definition of salvation by Christ: death isn't permanent, and the just will be raised to everlasting life.

Lord, Your death is our life. Teach us not to cling to our own lives selfishly, but to lose them for Your sake, living for You and for each other, and so come to share in Your own everlasting life.

Monk James is an Eastern Orthodox Church Monk

See Also:

Great and Holy Saturday Evening
A look at the Eastern Orthodox Liturgy behind the Holy Saturday Evening Worship Service, part of Passion Week Service.

Great and Holy Saturday Morning
A look at the Eastern Orthodox Liturgy behind the Holy Saturday Morning Worship Service, part of Passion Week Service.

Sabbath of the Gospel, Sabatho Dasbartho or Gospel Saturday
A detailed article that examines the background behind the prayer for the departed, the concept of hell and paradise, etc.

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