Pascha in Orthodoxy: Why We Celebrate the Holy Season

Orthodox Christianity 101
By Orthodoxy Christianity 101
March 26, 2024

Pascha, or Easter as it’s widely known, is the most significant feast in Orthodox Christianity. It’s a time when I delve deep into the heart of my faith, celebrating the resurrection of Jesus Christ. This isn’t just a one-day event; it’s the culmination of a sacred season filled with profound spiritual significance.

You might wonder why Orthodox Christians call it Pascha and why it’s often on a different date than Western Easter. I’m excited to share the rich traditions and theological reasons that make this holiday so central to my faith. From the intricate preparations to the jubilant expressions of faith, Pascha is a time of renewal and joy.

In this article, I’ll explore the historical and spiritual reasons behind the celebration of Pascha in Orthodox Christianity. Whether you’re a fellow believer or just curious about this ancient tradition, you’ll find the story behind Pascha both enlightening and inspiring.

The Significance of Pascha in Orthodox Christianity

Pascha stands as the cornerstone of Orthodox Christian faith, marking the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. This pivotal event signifies the victory over death and sin, offering believers the promise of eternal life. The Resurrection is so central to Orthodox Christianity that all elements of the faith revolve around it, making Pascha the most important and joyous celebration of the ecclesiastical year.

To fully appreciate its significance, it’s vital to recognize Pascha’s placement in the church calendar. The Great Lent, a period of fasting and reflection lasting forty days, precedes Pascha. This spiritual journey, culminating in Holy Week, prepares the faithful for the Resurrection through increased prayer, repentance, and fasting. Holy Week itself is an immersive experience, with each day holding its own significant rites and rituals, focusing on the last week of Jesus’ earthly life.

Pascha is not just a historical commemoration but a present reality. Its celebration begins at midnight with the Paschal Vigil, a service of light that starts in total darkness symbolizing the Tomb and erupts into light at the announcement of Christ’s triumph. The Paschal Troparion, “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!” is sung joyfully by the congregation, echoing the transformative power of the Resurrection.

Orthodox Christians believe that through Pascha, humanity is renewed and recreated. It’s seen as a chance to spiritually rebirth oneself, to shed the old ways and embrace the new life in Christ. This renewal is not a solitary undertaking but a communal one, as the faithful gather together to break the Lenten fast, share the Paschal meal, and exchange greetings of “Christ is risen,” to which the reply is always “Truly He is risen.”

Incorporating themes of hope, rebirth, and unity, Pascha is a time when the gates of Heaven are believed to be open wide. During this season, the faithful feel especially close to God, reaffirming their faith and the truths that underpin the Orthodox Christian doctrine. The celebration continues for forty days, reinforcing the pillars of love and resurrection until the Ascension of Christ.

The Historical Origins of Pascha

The celebration of Pascha, or Easter as it’s known in the Western Christian tradition, has roots deeply embedded in Jewish history. It’s directly connected to the Jewish festival of Passover, commemorating the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt and their liberation from slavery. This connection is not merely symbolic; the Gospels of the New Testament place the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus around the time of the Passover festival.

In those early years, Early Christians were mostly Jewish and observed Passover, infusing it with a new layer of significance. They saw Jesus’ death and resurrection as the true fulfillment of the Passover, with Jesus as the Paschal Lamb slain for the salvation of humanity. This reinterpretation transformed the Passover into a Christian festival celebrating the resurrection, eventually coming to be known exclusively as Pascha among Orthodox Christians.

The dating of Pascha was a significant issue in the early Church, leading to the First Council of Nicaea in AD 325. This council was instrumental in establishing a unified date for its observance, separate from the Jewish Passover. The agreed formula was that Pascha would be celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon following the vernal equinox, ensuring it would always fall after the Jewish Passover.

  • Key events that relate to the historical origins of Pascha:
  • Transition from Passover to Pascha as a celebration of Christ’s Resurrection
  • First Council of Nicaea’s role in dating the festival
  • Development of traditions specific to Christian Pascha over time

Over centuries, Christians developed their own unique Paschal traditions, reflecting the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies and the new covenant through Christ’s sacrifice. These include the rich liturgies of Holy Week, the Paschal Vigil, and the festive celebration that follows. Through these observances, the historical origins of Pascha are honored and the foundation of Christian faith is joyously proclaimed.

The Theological Meaning of Pascha

In understanding why we celebrate Pascha, it’s essential to delve into its theological significance within Orthodox Christianity. At its core, Pascha is a feast of victory — a celebration of Christ’s triumph over death. This fundamental belief encapsulates the promise of eternal life and the hope of resurrection for all believers. It vividly demonstrates God’s power and love, offering redemption from sin and the restoration of humanity’s unity with the Creator.

Pascha stands as the pinnacle of the liturgical year, commemorating not just a historical event, but the very cornerstone of Christian faith: Jesus’ resurrection. It is often referred to as the “Feast of feasts”, surpassing all other religious observances in its importance. The event marks a transition from darkness into light, from death into life, reinforcing the concept that Christ’s resurrection paves the way for the salvation of all mankind.

For Orthodox Christians, Pascha isn’t merely an annual remembrance; it’s a present reality that permeates their daily existence. Each year, the Paschal season renews and strengthens the faithful’s understanding of redemption. The liturgical practices and hymns sung during this period are not just traditional rituals; they’re a living proclamation of the Gospel. Embedded within them are rich layers of symbolism:

  • The Paschal candle represents the Light of Christ, dispelling the darkness of the world.
  • The Paschal troparion, ‘Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life,’ succinctly captures the essence of the feast.
  • The custom of exchanging the Paschal greeting, ‘Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!’, reaffirms the shared joy and communal aspect of the celebration.

This period of reflection and jubilation continues for 40 days following Pascha, until the Feast of the Ascension of Christ. During this time, Orthodox Christians live out the reality of the resurrection, which is reflected in their worship, prayers, and communal gatherings. The Paschal joy is not confined to this period; it extends to every aspect of liturgical life, reaffirming the belief that Christ’s resurrection has indeed transformed the world.

Pascha vs. Western Easter: Understanding the Differences

While both Pascha and Western Easter celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, there are distinct variations that set them apart. As an Orthodox Christian, I’ve observed that the calculation of the date is one of the most significant differences. Pascha often falls on a different Sunday because it’s determined by the Julian calendar, whereas Western Easter uses the Gregorian calendar. This system ensures that Pascha always follows the Jewish Passover, maintaining the link that early Christians saw between the events commemorated by both holidays.

The preparations and observances themselves differ markedly as well. In the lead-up to Pascha, Orthodox Christians engage in Great Lent, a period of fasting and penitence that is more extensive than the Lenten practices of many Western churches. This time reflects a deep spiritual cleansing and preparation for the most important feast of the church year.

The Holy Week liturgies in Orthodox Christianity are soaked with ancient rituals and long services, rich in liturgical drama. The sense of anticipation builds up to the midnight Paschal Vigil, which is the zenith of the liturgical year for me and my community. At the stroke of midnight, churches are plunged into darkness before being illuminated by the light of the Paschal candle, symbolizing the Resurrection’s light. In contrast, Western Easter services may vary widely but often include sunrise services and are generally shorter in duration.

Another important distinction is the traditional Paschal greeting. In Orthodox churches, the greeting “Christ is Risen!” and the response “Truly He is Risen!” are exchanged, reflecting the joyous and communal nature of the celebration. This custom is deeply rooted in the foundational events of Christian faith and continues to be a unifying and uplifting practice.

Throughout the Paschal season, the emphasis on renewal and the victory of life over death is pronounced in both liturgical and domestic Orthodox settings. For me, Pascha is an immersive experience that leaves a lasting impact, transforming spiritual practice into a living reality.

Preparations for Pascha: A Season of Fasting and Prayer

As we delve deeper into the significance of Pascha, it’s essential to recognize the extensive preparation that Orthodox Christians undertake. This preparation is not merely an obligation but a transformative journey aimed at spiritual renewal.

The traditional preparation for Pascha, known as Great Lent, is a 40-day period that serves as a time for introspection, repentance, and a recommitment to faith. Here’s what this solemn season involves:

  • Strict Fasting: Orthodox Christians adhere to a strict fast, abstaining from meat, dairy, and eggs. This discipline helps in cultivating self-control and mindfulness of spiritual priorities.
  • Intensified Prayer: During Lent, the frequency and intensity of prayers are heightened. Attending additional church services like the Presanctified Liturgy and the Akathist Hymn embeds a rhythm of worship into daily life.
  • Almsgiving: Giving to those in need is emphasized, reflecting Jesus’ teachings on compassion and charity.
  • Spiritual Reflection: Reading the Bible and lives of the saints, and engaging in spiritual conversations are encouraged to deepen one’s faith and understanding.

The culmination of Great Lent is Holy Week, an emotionally charged sequence of services that reenact the events leading to Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. Each day of Holy Week has its own particular focus and set of traditions that are diligently observed:

  • Palm Sunday: Celebration of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, often with parishioners carrying palm fronds.
  • Holy Wednesday: Anointing with oil for healing, reminding me of the need for spiritual rejuvenation.
  • Holy Thursday: Commemoration of the Last Supper and the betrayal of Christ.
  • Good Friday: Solemn remembrance of Jesus’ crucifixion with the veneration of the epitaphios, a symbolic bier for Christ.
  • Holy Saturday: The day of waiting and quiet reflection before the glory of the Resurrection.

This intensity of devotion not only prepares Orthodox Christians for Pascha but also carves a path for lasting spiritual growth. Through these acts of fasting, prayer, and reflection, we reach a deeper connection with the divine and enter a state of heightened spiritual awareness. The impact of these preparations extends far beyond the Pascha celebration; they shape our approach to faith and life itself.

The Midnight Paschal Liturgy: The Highlight of the Celebration

The Midnight Paschal Liturgy stands as the zenith of the Paschal celebrations in Orthodox Christianity, a service teeming with profound symbolism and exultation. As I walk into the candlelit church, there’s a palpable sense of anticipation, the faithful yearning for the culmination of Holy Week’s somber reflections in a burst of joyous revelation.

This liturgy commences in darkness, symbolizing the world before the Resurrection. The church, steeped in shadows, echoes with the solemn chants of the congregation, representing the human condition before Christ’s triumph over death. The darkness, however, is not merely the absence of light but a canvas waiting for the first strokes of dawn’s luminance to break through.

As the clock nears midnight, the priest emerges with a single flame, the Holy Fire, said to be kindled by divine intervention each year in Jerusalem. This flame is the light of Christ, and it rapidly spreads throughout the church, each person’s candle flickering to life as the fire is shared from one to the other. The light multiplies, a metaphor for the spreading of the Gospel and the illumination of the Truth brought forth by the Resurrection.

The procession then moves outside the church, a reenactment of the myrrh-bearing women’s journey to the tomb and their discovery of Christ’s Resurrection. The chant “Christ is Risen!” enraptures the air, and the once darkened church now resonates with the light and the jubilant voices of the faithful.

During the liturgy, the Paschal Canon is sung, a composition rich in theological significance that reaffirms the victory of life over death, and with it, the assurance of salvation. The hymns and readings are carefully selected to guide the faithful through the narrative of the Resurrection, instilling the essence of Pascha into the hearts of everyone present.

Traditionally, the service continues until the break of dawn, the light within the church now competing with the first morning light symbolizing the New Creation. This progression from darkness to light encapsulates the Paschal message, a cornerstone of Orthodox belief, serving not just as a historical memorial but as an ever-present reality shaping our spiritual journey.

Joyful Traditions and Customs of Pascha

Orthodox Christians worldwide cherish the rich and joyful traditions that mark the celebration of Pascha. My personal experiences with these customs reveal a tapestry of practices that embody the essence of this high feast.

Paschal Foods

Preeminent among Paschal celebrations is the breaking of the Lenten fast. I look forward to savoring the taste of Paschal bread, also known as tsoureki, its sweet, braided loaves symbolizing the intertwine of the Holy Trinity. Another staple is magiritsa, a traditional soup prepared with lamb offal, signifying the end of Lent’s abstention. And let’s not forget the red dyed eggs, a vibrant symbol of life and Christ’s resurrection which often take center stage at the Paschal feast.

Home Blessings

As the Holy Week unfolds, I’ve witnessed many families inviting priests into their homes for a Paschal blessing. This custom reinforces the connection between the Church’s celebration and the domestic sphere, making the joy of Pascha palpable in our daily lives.

Processions and Gatherings

The communal aspect of Pascha finds its expression in the various processions and gatherings. In my own community, I’ve observed the significance of the outdoor procession during the midnight service, where parishioners circulate the church holding candles, representing the light of Christ illuminating the world. Following this solemn procession, the churchyard often becomes a place of reunion and celebration, with people exchanging greetings of “Christos Anesti!” (“Christ is Risen!”) and “Alithos Anesti!” (“Truly He is Risen!”).

These customs and traditions are not mere formalities; they’re the living heritage of Orthodox Christianity, shaping our spiritual landscape every year. As I gather with family and friends, enjoying dishes steeped in symbolic meaning and participating in ancient liturgical practices, I’m reminded that Pascha is an ever-renewing wellspring of faith, hope, and communal unity.

Pascha: A Time of Renewal and Joyful Celebration

Pascha, or Easter as it’s widely known in the Western Christian tradition, is the cornerstone of the Orthodox Christian year. It’s a celebration that marks the resurrection of Jesus Christ and holds profound spiritual significance. As the Lenten period culminates, Orthodox Christians enter a phase of renewal — a resurrection of the spirit and reaffirmation of faith.

For me, Pascha isn’t just a day on the calendar; it’s an experience that permeates every aspect of life. It’s the time when the grueling fast gives way to a feast of the senses and the soul. During this period, families and communities come together to share in the joy and the promise of new beginnings.

The festive atmosphere is tangible with special hymns and liturgies like the Midnight Service. The church becomes a beacon of light as parishioners hold candles, symbolizing the Light of Christ. It’s an ethereal moment that transcends the mundane, bridging the gap between the divine and the earthly.

As I participate in the festivities, I’m reminded that Pascha is also about inclusivity and love. People greet each other with “Christ is Risen,” and the response, “Truly He is Risen,” echoes the universal truth celebrated at this time. Children laugh and play games, while adults reflect on the deeper meanings of the Resurrection.

The communal aspects of Pascha are evident in the sharing of a meal — breaking bread as one large family. The Paschal bread, a rich, sweet bread called tsoureki, takes center stage. It’s not just food; it’s a reminder of the sweetness of life that comes with spiritual awakening.

Eggs dyed red symbolize the blood of Christ and the promise of eternal life. Cracking them open is not just a playful tradition but a metaphor for breaking free from the tomb of sin and death.

During Pascha, I find my own spirits lifted as I join in the ancient rhythms of celebration that have bound communities together for centuries. It’s in these moments that time stands still, and we partake in the joy and renewal that has been the hallmark of this sacred season through the ages.


Pascha stands as a beacon of hope and renewal in Orthodox Christianity. It’s a time when the breaking of bread and the sharing of red dyed eggs become profound acts of faith and unity. Participating in these ancient rhythms has always been a source of joy and spiritual rejuvenation for me. It’s in these moments that we truly grasp the essence of our faith — celebrating the resurrection and embracing the communal spirit that defines our tradition. This festive season renews our spirits, reminding us of the enduring power of our shared beliefs and the joyous celebration of life’s triumph over death.

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