Worshippers solemnly process outdoors with an icon representing a shroud of Christ. Accompanied by the clanging of bells, they will then bang on the front doors of the church, demanding that they be opened, which symbolizes their ardent longing for the Crucified Christ to be let out of his tomb, so that all may relish in the freedom of his resurrection.
As the doors are opened, the liturgy raises the worshippers up out of mourning and into a sweeping jubilation, making way for the glory of the Risen Christ to resound.
So Easter begins in the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, one of the Catholic Church’s 23 Eastern-rite Churches.
“During the Paschal Divine Liturgy, the bells chime out and people are singing at the top of their lungs, and the church is filled with flowers,” remarked renowned iconographer Abbot Damian Higgins of Holy Transfiguration Monastery/Monks of Mount Tabor in Redwood Valley, California. “It is so powerful that you can actually feel it in your body.”
The Divine Liturgy is then followed by a “Paschal Feast” with festive foods. Parishioners will often bring in baskets to be blessed, filled with foods they gave up during Lent, such as butter (made into the shape of a lamb), eggs and sweets. This practice is also common among Latin-rite Catholics in Eastern Europe.
“This rejoicing and celebrating of Christ’s victory over sin and death is the purpose of this and every Divine Liturgy,” explained the late Father Pavlo Hayda, of St. Joseph the Betrothed Ukrainian Catholic Church in Chicago, in a blog post. “The Divine Liturgy is a re-presentation, a replaying or ‘re-praying’ of the great cosmic drama of God’s great love and never-ending care for his creation, namely us — the drama of our sin and struggle against temptation and God freely giving us grace, strength, his very life, body and blood, for our salvation, and ultimately new life in his resurrection.”
In fact, the Byzantine Paschal Divine Liturgy has proven to be so compelling that it has won over the most stubborn of hearts.
“I had a lawyer friend who was a devout Catholic, but his wife was not even interested in the faith for years,” Abbot Damian said. “At one point, however, she attended the Paschal Liturgy, and it inspired her to become a Catholic. She said to me, ‘How could you come to this and not believe? The bells and the Easter baskets, the beautiful sounds and sights of this Paschal celebration have entered into my soul.’”
And, according to Carol Pride, whose late husband, Deacon Robert Pride, served the Melkite Catholic Church in the Eparchy of Newton (Massachusetts), the Paschal Divine Liturgy can also win the attention of the squirmiest children. “Now that my six children are grown, I look back and see how good the liturgy was for them,” she said. “Children are so kinetic — always in motion — and the sensory experience of the Eastern-rite traditions keeps them engaged. The icons, incense and beauty which surrounded my children during the liturgy constantly called them back to what was happening on the altar. Heaven catches earth at the moment of the Consecration, and it carries you into another spiritual world, where you can worship God with your fellow Christians. The Eastern-rite Lenten and Easter services and traditions are just marvelous.”
Also a talented iconographer, Pride has found the richness of the Paschal icons to be incredibly nourishing to her artistic heart and soul. “There are two prominent icons we pray with during the Easter season,” she explained. “One depicts Our Lord standing at the gates of hell, lifting Adam, Eve and all of our ancestors up to heaven. The other is of Christ when he appears to St. Mary Magdalene after the Resurrection. Interestingly, Byzantine icons are not to depict the moment of the Resurrection, because it is considered too sacred of a mystery to show.”
According to Abbot Damian, however, the transcendent joy of Easter is the result of a well-lived Lent. In his monastery, no meat or dairy products are eaten during Lent, and the monks fast mainly on bread, water and fruit throughout the day, followed by a vegan evening meal.
“Those who have entered into Lent through asceticism and fasting can better physically enter into the feast of Easter,” the abbot remarked. “One of the ways we allow the body to be consecrated to God is through fasting. Penance and asceticism are about affirming the holiness of the body. As long as the human body is in union with God’s will, it is a wonderful thing.”
And, of course, sacrifice is undeniably a matter of the heart.
“One of the most important things Eastern-rite Catholics practice during Lent is intentional forgiveness of others,” Abbot Damian explained. “Lent opens with ‘Forgiveness Vespers,’ during which we are all — monks, priests and laypeople alike — asked to forgive everyone and ask forgiveness from them, as well.”
Brother Ephraim, a former Calvinist and now monk at Holy Transfiguration Monastery, cherishes a profound appreciation for the liturgical traditions of his newfound faith. “The religious practices of the Eastern rite have such rich history and mystery behind them,” he said.
“They strengthen our relationship with the Lord and help us live out the Gospel in our lives so we can walk in the shoes of the apostles.”
He also appreciates being able to spend the Lenten and Easter seasons with his monastic community. “Almost everything in our monastic schedule changes in light of the Paschal season,” Brother Ephraim shared.
“We live monastic life in the fullest sense of the word. We use different tones for chanting, eat different food, etc. It all serves to bring us deeper into the Church’s practice of the Easter mystery and reflect on the fact that the Blood of the Lamb is being poured on the ‘doorposts’ of our souls.”
Consequently, the monks’ celebration draws souls to Catholicism in remarkable ways.
“My favorite thing about the Easter season is seeing people enter the Church,” he said. “We now have three men who we have been catechizing who will become Catholic this year.
“It is so amazing and inspiring to see them go through the same journey I went through.”
Amanda Evinger writes
from North Dakota.
Abbot Damian Higgins’ icons can be viewed at MonksofMtTabor.com.