The People’s Pascha
At the end of October in 1840, the celebrated author Hans Christian Andersen (famous for his fairy tales) left his native Denmark for an extended trip in the east. He wrote about his travels in his book A Poet’s Bazaar: a Journey to Greece, Turkey and Up the Danube. Andersen was an experienced traveller, who had visited Italy some years before. In his latest memoir, he compared his experiences of Easter in both Rome and Greece in the following words: “The Catholic Easter in Italy, especially in Rome, is wonderful, fascinating! It is an uplifting sight on the vast square of St. Peter’s to see the whole throng of people sink to their knees and receive the Blessing. The Easter Festival in poor Greece cannot be celebrated with such splendor. But having seen both, one comes to the conclusion that in Rome it is a festival which, in its splendor and glory, comes out of the Church to the people; whereas in Greece it is a festival which flows out from the hearts and minds of the people—from their whole way of life—and the Church is only one link, one strand.”
Sometimes “outsiders” can see with greater clarity and objectivity than “insiders” can, and I think that in this case the non-Catholic and non-Orthodox Christian Andersen was onto the something. Andersen appreciated both the Catholic and the Orthodox Paschal celebrations, but he thought that the Catholic one “came out of the Church to the people”, whereas the Orthodox one “flowed out from the hearts and minds of the people”. In other words, both Easter festivals were like the churches which celebrated them, the Catholic Easter manifesting the clericalism which characterized the Catholic Church, and the Orthodox Pascha manifesting the popular spirit which characterizes Orthodoxy. In the Orthodox Church, Pascha “flows out from the hearts of the people.” Clergy are involved, of course, since they too are part of the “People of God,” the holy laos; hence, Pascha is primarily “the people’s Pascha.”
This popular spirit of Pascha reveals something fundamental about the Church’s life, namely the reality that Saint Paul calls “the koinonia of the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 13:14, Philippians 2:1). The Greek term koinonia eludes easy translation. It is sharing, fellowship, joint participation, communion, an experience of the Spirit which is shared by all the faithful and which binds all of them together. In Philippians 2:1, Saint Paul groups it together with “encouragement in Christ”, “incentive of love”, and “affection and sympathy” as inspirations and reasons for maintaining unity within the local church.
This is why it is so important for a community to travel together, with a sense of mutual belonging. We define ourselves not just in terms of our relationship to Christ, but also in terms of our relationship with one another; we serve Christ as our Lord, but as members of a particular community, as fellow-communicants with Sam and Suzy and Vladimir and Antonios whom we see at the chalice every Sunday. It is as a community that we journey through Lent; it is as a community that we experience the power and intensity of Holy Week. It is as this same community that we finally arrive together at our Paschal goal. Our weekly Sunday attendance at Liturgy and our annual experience of Great Lent and Holy Week all combine to meld us into one body, allowing us to experience the koinonia of the Spirit, and it is as this united body that we experience Pascha. Pascha “flows out from the hearts of the people” as Andersen noted because the koinonia of the Spirit has knit our hearts into one. The priest prays for this at the conclusion of every Anaphora: “Grant that with one mouth and one heart we may praise Thine all-honourable and majestic Name….” After Holy Week has reaches its climactic conclusion on the following Sunday, this prayer is abundantly answered, as the people’s Pascha flows out from this one heart. Andersen saw this when he visited “poor Greece” well over a century ago. It can be seen even today in Orthodox Christian parishes throughout the world.