Every feast in the Orthodox Church is in itself a piece of heaven. Every feast is God’s gift to us! However, every feast is just a refraction of the light of the greatest feast there is, and this feast is Pascha (also called Exodus or in Hebrew Pesah- all interchangeable terms). This feast had a huge importance amongst the early Christians and its importance will never fade. As we all know, what we celebrate here in this feast is Christ’s victory over death and our own exodus from death to life given to us through Christ’s resurrection. This word exodus or Pascha definitely reminds us of the exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt into the promised land. The question to be asked here is; How is this related to us, Christians of the 21st century? How does this connect to how we celebrate Pascha? The answer is given in passages to come.
The Jewish people before Christ were under Egyptian slavery for many centuries. Oppressed and tortured they were crying out to God for their liberation. After many centuries, God chose His servant Moses to take the Jews from slavery out into the promised land. This was not something that was accepted easily by the Pharaoh. In the book of Exodus, we read that God has sent many plagues upon Egypt because of the Pharaoh’s stubbornness and in spite of Moses’ warnings. Eventually, God said to Moses:
“This is what the Lord says: About midnight, I will go throughout Egypt. Every firstborn son in Egypt will die, from the firstborn son of Pharaoh, who sits on the throne, to the firstborn slave girl, who is at her hand mill, and all the firstborn of the cattle as well. There will be loud wailing throughout Egypt–worse than there has ever been or will ever be” (Exodus 11:4-6).
After Egypt was hit with this plague, this marked the start of the exodus of the people of Israel. In the chapter 12 of the book of Exodus, we see additional instructions which God has commanded the sons of Israel so that they can be ready to leave Egypt after he takes to himself the firstborn of Egypt. After the firstborn were dead, the Pharaoh himself asked the Israelites to go out of the land of Egypt. Without going into the rest of the story of exodus, it is important for us to notice that in Exodus 11:4-6, midnight is taken as the starting point of exodus. That Israelites had their exodus out of Egypt at midnight which is further confirmed by the refrain of the famous hagada (doxology sang at Jewish Paschal dinners) which sings about the exodus saying:
It happened at midnight!
Naturally, in order for the Exodus of the Jewish people to happen at midnight, it was necessary that they prepare themselves for this exodus. The preparation itself took place before midnight and at midnight, the exodus of the Jewish people started…Why is this important for Christians?
We derive many elements of Christian teaching from Jewish theology because Christianity itself was derived from Judaism. That is, Christianity is the fulfillment of the Jewish expectation. The early Christians understood this but they also knew that as Christians, they are different than the Jews. This meant for them that Pascha (Exodus or Pesah) still had great meaning but with Christ and His victory over death, the very meaning of Pascha was changed. When they read the Scriptures about the exodus of the people of Israel, they understood that the true exodus was the one inaugurated by the Messiah, Jesus Christ, which was an exodus from death to life and was foreshadowed in the Jewish exodus from Egypt. Indeed, there was no greater bondage for us than the bondage to death. It is through Christ’s resurrection that our exodus was inaugurated. Our exodus (Pascha) from death to life.
Although the meaning of Pascha was changed, Christians still understood that in the same manner the Jews were waiting for midnight for Pesah (exodus) and were incredibly impatient to get out of their bondage, so also Christians celebrated their liturgies at midnight (every liturgy is a paschal dinner itself). This was so embedded in the spiritual life of the early Christians that we read about Paul:
And at midnight, Paul and Silas prayed, and sang praises unto God: and the prisoners heard them (Acts 16:25).
The reason for Paul and Silas to sing praises to God at this time is because the eucharistic meal was happening at midnight. Every liturgy for the early Christians was the Paschal liturgy and it remains for us today. Since they could not have had that while they were imprisoned, they sang praises to God. For the early Christians, celebrating liturgies at midnight was a strict time they observed without exception. Even in the hardest days of persecutions liturgies would always take place at midnight.
As many centuries passed by, and the cycle of services of the Church grew and was developing, Christians ended up celebrating liturgies at different times of the day. However, Paschal liturgy would always be celebrated at midnight. Why? Because as we previously read and explained: The exodus of the Israelites happened at midnight and we Christians are considered to be the New Israel.
The celebration of Pascha in the 21st century and in the 1st, century should not be any different. In some Churches, for various reasons (most of them completely theologically incorrect) the Paschal celebration was moved to be celebrated in the morning of the feast day itself. In some cases, matins would start at 6am and further the liturgy would be served but in some more extreme cases, the celebration of Pascha would be delayed for 10am or even later.
If we truly understand the meaning of Christ’s victory over death and the exodus of us Christians from death to life, we should not allow that the celebration of the feast of all feasts happen at times that we have tailored for our own weakness but we should respect and follow what Christians have been doing throughout the ages. Every tradition of celebrating Pascha at 8am, 9am or 10am which spans over the period of 20, 30, 40 or 50 years, fails the test of time because the time for Paschal celebration till this very day was taken to be midnight throughout the world and through the ages past.
Additionally, celebrating the feast of all feasts at later times than Midnight, also is showing disrespect towards the feast itself. Indeed, how can we convince someone that Christ’s victory over death is important to us if we do not celebrate it as earlier as possible (midnight) but push it away for times tailored by us and not by the Church? How can we say, that we desire exodus from death to life, but still want to remain in bondage to Pharaoh? (Indeed, all those who did not exit with Moses at midnight stayed in bondage to Pharaoh).
The paschal liturgy for us Orthodox Christians should happen at midnight. Also, in the same manner like the Jews of old prepared themselves for the exodus which would happen at midnight, so do we prepare ourselves with matins at 11pm which further leads into the divine Paschal liturgy at midnight.