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[Published in The Greek Australian Vema, April 2010, 12]

Not Yet, Today, Already:

Paschal Digressions on the Liturgical

Rev Dr Doru Costache

In the following, I shall attempt to address the rich treasure represented by

the liturgical tradition of the Orthodox Church, as annually experienced during
Great Lent and the Pentekostarion (the fifty days between Pascha and the
Pentecost). The two liturgical periods present structures that remain unusual for
the rest of the year, illustrating their climactic significance for a genuine Christian
worldview and phronema. Indeed, the Paschal night/day seems to constitute the
point of intersection for a number of different liturgical rhythms or ways of
spiritual experience. For the symbolic power pertaining to the respective terms, I
will designate this variety as the ‘not yet’ rhythm, the ‘today’ rhythm and the
‘already’ rhythm.

The ‘not yet’ rhythm is perfectly illustrated by the Lenten-type week. When
browsing the liturgical calendar, we realise that the Lenten week begins on
Monday to end on Sunday, according to the symbolic pattern of a journey towards
a certain goal. Given the obvious specific nature of the Great Lent as a time
dedicated to spiritual endeavours and ascetic undertakings, it seems appropriate
to infer that this structure of the week suggests a crescendo from the toils of the
spiritual labours, as represented by the weekdays, to the reward embodied by
Sunday. Nevertheless, we cannot escape the feeling that the journey of a Lenten
week never reaches a proper end: each Sunday, with its mild rule of fasting,
remains far from matching the abundance of regular Sundays. Since, according to
St Maximus, joy is the name of the future blessing, and since the expressions of
joy are limited for any Lenten Sunday, the reward is not yet fully bestowed on us.
It may come as no surprise therefore that each Lenten Sunday looks like a short
break during a storm, before a new plunging into the whirling waters of a new
challenging week of fasting. The symbolic architecture of the Lenten week fits
very well the historical model of the journey undertaken by God’s people towards
the eschatological Kingdom, reminding us of the transitory state of our current
condition. The lesson of the Lenten week is clear: Lent is not a goal in itself, we
are not yet there, and there is much more to do.

After the Great Lent, whose traditional end is marked by the Saturday of
Lazarus, a new type of liturgical experience is open. With the Saturday of Lazarus
and for the whole period that ends with Pentecost, everything is about ‘today.’
Nothing just happened; instead, everything is happening. The events narrated by
both the scriptural readings and the liturgical hymns of the period abundantly use
the term ‘today,’ pointing to the ongoing character of the salvific events related
to Christ’s passion, resurrection, ascension and sending of the Holy Spirit. It is the
proper rhythm characterising the life of God’s people, which constantly reiterates
the experience of the first generation of Christian witnesses. According to the
symbolic typology of this period, there is no historical break between the
experience of the first Christian generation and our own experience with Christ.
We are not disadvantaged because we live two millennia after the events, for the
simple fact that the events transcend history and offer us the opportunity to
experience them today, here and now. We are Lazarus, we are the crowds
acclaiming the humble Lord of glory, we are the disciples, we are the witnesses of
the New Covenant at the mystical supper, we are Judas, we are those insulting
Christ and those crucifying him, we are those mourning him, we are the myrrh-
bearers and Thomas, we are God’s people, mystically instructed for forty days,
receiving the Spirit and being sent to the ends of the world to preach the Good
News to all nations, in all languages and to all cultures.

Together with the repetitive occurrence of the word ‘today,’ this reality is
manifoldly made evident. The priest literally takes Christ off the holy cross (the
ἀποκαθήλωσις service) and we all pass underneath the holy epitaph, the tomb of
Christ, on Holy Friday; thus buried with Christ, we experience on Saturday
morning the earthquake caused by the liberating descent of the Lord into the
Hades; still in the tomb, we anxiously wait in the dark to see the light, which
literally shines in the night of Pascha, and we rise together with Jesus, resurrected
by him whom death cannot defeat… All these ritual moments are meant to
enforce our awareness of the ever-unfolding events and our contemporaneity with
them. Everything happens ‘today’ and there is no room for doubt. Like the
apostles, we proclaim:

“That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have
seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched
– this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have
seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was
with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have
seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our
fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. We write this to
make our joy complete. This is the message we have heard from him and
declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. If we claim
to have fellowship with him yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live
by the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have
fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us
from all sin” (1 John 1:1-7).

‘Today’ inaugurates the third rhythm, that of the ‘already.’ This corresponds to
the structure of the first resurrectional week (known as Bright Week) that begins
with Sunday, as a sign of abundant grace and joy, being continued through the
weekdays, as symbols of the labours for the appropriation of the gift that is
already bestowed on us. This structure is common to all subsequent weeks. The
historical pattern is still present, given that the weeks succeed each other in their
unfolding towards the eschaton. Nevertheless, this time we journey confidently,
since the light has been manifested and accompanies us along the whole
distance. Such is the experience of the new people of God: sent to the world (ἐν
εἰρήνῃ προέλθωμεν) to joyfully bring the Good News that everything which has
been done is for us to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and by
believing we may have life in his holy name (see John 20:30-31). A message of
hope, which unveils the complex character of the ecclesial phronema, as
cherished by the Orthodox Church in its paschal journey through history…