The Historical Development of the Services of Pascha

In trying to learn more about how the Liturgical Services of the Resurrection of Christ developed through the years in the Orthodox Church of the East, we find that much of this information comes to us from the liturgical settings of Jerusalem in the fourth century. It has also been discovered that much of what we know about these beginnings is due to the writings of a female pilgrim, known to us as Egeria (or sometimes spelled Etheria). Her account of the Jerusalem liturgy, during the years of A.D. 381-384, complements other historical works, such as the so-called “Old Armenian Lectionary,” and lectionaries in Georgian, and other homiletical or historical data. Also, it must be said that much of what is quoted here comes from The Origins of the Liturgical Year by Thomas J. Talley.

In her writings, Egeria makes mention of various physical sites in Jerusalem of the events of Christ’s passion, and how these sites were visited during these celebrations. These sites were the old church of Sion, the complex at Calvary (built by Constantine), which included what she called the Anastasis (with the cave of the tomb), the great basilica called Martyrium, the smaller church of Golgotha (or the “chapel behind the Cross”), and the three-chambered baptistry running south from the Anastasis, and finally the Mount of Olives across the Valley of Kidron (its principal church being the Eleona, but with the place of the ascension, Imbomon, and Bethlehem lying close by, and Gethsemane lying nearer the foot of the mount toward Jerusalem).

With this in mind, we now turn to the writings of Egeria, concerning Holy Saturday. From her experience, she writes that “they have normal services at the third and sixth hours, but the ninth hour is not kept on this sabbath because they prepare for the vigil in the Great Church.” By the fourth and fifth centuries, the paschal vigil was accustomed to being opened with the lighting of the lamp. The bishop would light a taper from the eternal lamp burning in the tomb in the Anastasis, and proceed to the Martyrium, where he would light one or more lamps. It was at this time, around the ninth hour, that the clergy began the vigil of the readings.

The early Jerusalem usage shows a series of twelve lessons, each followed by prayer and prostration. The first lesson, and only the first lesson, was preceded by the singing of Psalm 117 (118), with the response being, “This is the day which the Lord has made.” Following this responsorial psalm, the readings were as follows:

1. Genesis 1:1 – 3:24 (the story of creation)
2. Genesis 22:1 – 18 (the binding of Isaac)
3. Exodus 12:1 – 24 (the Passover narrative)
4. Jonah 1:1 – 4:11 (the story of Jonah)
5. Exodus 14:24 – 15:21 (the passage through the sea)
6. Isaiah 60:1 – 13 (the promise to Jerusalem)
7. Job 38:2 – 28 (the Lord’s answer to Job)
8. 2 Kings 2:1 – 22 (the taking up of Elijah)
9. Jeremiah 31:31 – 34 (the new covenant)
10. Joshua 1:1 – 9 (the command to passess the land)
11. Ezekial 37:1 – 14 (the valley of dry bones)
12. Daniel 3:1 – 90 (the story of the three children)

These readings are based on the themes of baptism as well as creation which had previously been developed in earlier centuries with respect to Pascha. Pascha had originated with its connection to Passover, and was a Christian experience of Redemption, similar to the Jewish exodus from Egypt, before it became a celebration of Christ’s resurrection. As you can see, the first three readings show how the Jerusalem vigil was a continuation of the Passover tradition in the days of the New Covenant, while the remaining readings are related to our passage into that New Covenant. It was also known that while these readings were being done in the Martyrium, the converts were over in the baptistry being baptized, thus accomplishing sacramentally what was being proclaimed in the readings. This series of readings done in Jerusalem during the fourth century was the oldest known series and had quite an influence on other series. Although the number of readings and the selections differ somewhat from what is currently in use today in the Orthodox Church, Gregory Dix mentions in The Shape of the Liturgy that “this Jerusalem series, or selections from it, appear in almost every liturgy for the paschal vigil in Christendom down to the sixteenth century.” He goes on to say that “it is remarkable that the themes of many of them occur in the two earliest patristic paschal sermons extant, those of Melito (bishop of Sardis) and Hippolytus.”

At this point, Egeria reveals to us that unlike in the West, it was here that after all of the converts had been baptized and clothed, during the singing of the canticle of the last reading, with the Song of the Three Children, the bishop would take them all to the Anastasis where they would sing a hymn and he would say a prayer for them, and then take them into the Martyrium where all the people were keeping the vigil in the usual way. According to the rubrics, the conclusion of this final canticle would take place at midnight, and the prokeimenon of the eucharistic liturgy would then begin, thus bringing the baptism of these converts to its fulfillment. The epistle of 1 Corinthians 15:1 – 11 would then be read, with its Alleluia verses of Psalm 29 (30), followed by the gospel reading of Matthew 28:1 – 20. (Our current practice is to read Romans 6:3-11, followed by Psalm 82:8, Arise, O God, Judge the earth, and the same gospel reading.)

It can be seen that the development of this liturgical tradition is quite similar to what we now refer to as our Holy Saturday Vesperal Liturgy service, which is done on Saturday morning. The only reference I could find that had any mention about why this Vesperal Liturgy had moved more toward the morning as opposed to its traditional place in the evening and night, was from Fr. Alexander Schmemann. He claims that it was the increase in the number of catechumens that caused the first baptismal part of the Paschal celebration to be disconnected from the liturgy of the Paschal night to form our so-called pre-paschal service of Saturday morning. But both Egeria and various lectionaries make specific mention of one characteristic of the Jerusalem paschal celebration not mentioned elsewhere, and that is a second celebration of the eucharist in the Anastasis immediately following the dismissal in the Martyrium, without the oblation being preceded by a series of readings.

With this in mind, and without being able to obtain a copy of further documentation available to us on this matter, I offer a few thoughts to consider with respect to our current liturgical practice.

We find a reference in the footnotes of The Liturgikon, with respect to the Order of Great Vespers on Great and Holy Friday, that “the ancient Paschal Vigil began with the Vesperal-Liturgy at around four o’clock on the afternoon of Great Saturday and the reading of the Acts of the Apostles until the beginning of the Paschal Midnight Office at around two thirty o’clock on the morning of Pascha.” With the fact that there was a separation of the first celebration of Pascha (our current Saturday morning Vesperal Liturgy) with the Midnight Office, originally due to the increase in catechumens, and with the reading of the Acts of the Apostles during the vigil of that night, it may be that this further emphasized the original themes of baptismal and creation of Paschal itself, and led to the reading of the Acts of the Apostles as the Epistle lesson, and the Gospel of St. John (1:1ff) as the gospel lesson. Our current practice of receiving the Light from the bishop or priest would also be in accord with the ancient practice of the bishop coming to light his candle from the eternal light in the tomb of Christ, and then in turn lighting other candles as well. Following our lighting of the candles, we currently process out of the church and around the temple three times in remembrance of the baptismal procession mentioned above with the bishop and the catechumens. Unfortunately, I cannot offer any explanation as to why we, in our Antiochian and Greek tradition, come back to the doors of the church, and after the initial singing of the Christ is risen, then proclaim the words of Psalm 23 (24): Lift up your gates, O ye princes; and be ye lifted up, ye everlasting gates, and the King of glory shall enter in. The connection of these words and their responses to the fact that they also occur in the Service of the Consecration of a church will, for me, remain the topic of further investigation.

Nevertheless, our celebration of this Feast of Feasts, the Resurrection of our Lord, God, and Saviour Jesus Christ, will continue to show Pascha not as a reenactment of what Christ has done, but rather as a remembrance and celebration of Christ’s death and resurrection. Our liturgical celebration will always reflect the early Church’s celebration of Pascha as a baptismal feast, and reveal the Sacrament of Baptism as the Paschal sacrament of a new and glorified life in Christ Jesus, our Lord.