+ His Eminence Archbishop Dmitri
For forty days after Pascha the Church lives and rejoices in light of Christ's resurrection. At every service during the Paschal season the faithful sing, "Christ is Risen!" The Paschal canon, sticheras and kontakion are repeated many times. Members of the Church greet one another with a holy kiss and the words, "Christ is Risen!" receiving back the affirmation, "He is Risen, indeed!"
The Paschal season is experienced by the Orthodox as the focal point of all Christian celebration. Such is the content of our liturgical life, and yet what a paradox that immediately after "the feast of feasts, holy day of holy days," Christian people take a vacation from Church. We often witness generally, a decline in church attendance at this time of year. As a result the wonderful joy proclaimed by the Church's liturgy fails to be deeply felt by many individuals.
With regard to this phenomenon much thought has been given to the idea of restoring or recapturing that which has been lost. In recent years the Church has devoted a great deal of time and effort to the restoration of Lent and to some extent of the Paschal season, because we have witnessed (probably for centuries) an almost complete loss of the Great Fast as a meaningful phenomenon in the Christian community. Perhaps we Orthodox have been somewhat more reluctant than others to do away with these seasons entirely, for we have realized in some way that the very essence of the Faith is to be found in Lent, Pascha and the Paschal season.
I am convinced, however, that the dimension that has been lost and which we are still somewhat far from acquiring, that makes it difficult to recapture and restore the meaning of what is at the heart of the Christian year, is what can be called the "baptismal dimension."
We are all somewhat familiar with the history of the matter we are talking about: (A.) how Lent developed from a period of intense preparation for those who were to be baptized; (B.) how at the Paschal celebration the catechumens were baptized and became, for the first time, full participants in the Eucharist; and (C.) that the Paschal season was a period of post-baptismal instruction, in which the newly baptized were told repeatedly of the marvelous things that had happened to them through the waters of the fount, and were prepared for their own "mission" as disciples.
The entire Church not only lived the new life in Christ, but true to its missionary nature, concentrated its attention upon incorporating the new converts into the Body of Christ. Such were the "missionary" and "baptismal" orientations of the Church. All of this was centered on the Paschal celebration for one simple reason: the moment of Christ's triumph over death was the most appropriate moment for one to become a member of Christ: the meaning of being buried with Him in baptism and rising with Him to walk in the newness of life (Romans 6:3-4) was clear to every Christian.
The true spirit of Lent and the Paschal season can never be recaptured as long as we have a weak missionary vision: as long as baptisms and receptions of converts are private affairs, become "routine," and are not considered as matters of concern to the whole Church.
With His ascension into Heaven, forty days after the resurrection, our Lord indicates for us the way, the orientation of our life. The Kingdom of God is initiated on earth with the advent of Christ ("Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand"), and we are commissioned to receive into it, as citizens, "such as would be saved" (Acts 2:47). Our life, following Christ, is all ascension, directed toward the "Kingdom to come" manifested in and through Christ. At each Eucharistic celebration (the Divine Liturgy) we participate in that worship which eternally takes place before the Throne of God.
The disciples went back to Jerusalem (after the Ascension) with great joy, because they had the confirmation and assurance that everything they had been told by Christ was true. Now they simply awaited the power to perform their mission in the world. They knew what their mission was: to go into all the world, preach the Gospel to all nations, "baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you." They knew from their Master that He would "always be with them, even unto the end of the world" (Matthew 28: 19-20). This was the source of their joy: the assurance of the Lord's abiding presence and of the power to bring others into the fold. Any lack of joy or participation on our part during the radiant season of Pascha can be said to coincide with (A.) a certain amount of doubt or insensitivity to the fact that "Christ is in our midst," or (B.) a lack of appreciation for mission.
It can be rightly asked, "how can we not revel in the joy of these forty days, when we think of the possibilities for bringing salvation to others, given to us by the risen Christ dwelling among us, unless it is true that our faith wavers and that we have little interest in mission and evangelism?" We must pray always that our Lord will give to us the Spirit of wisdom and understanding to come to an appreciation of the Paschal season for the life of each of our communities.