The year 2020 will be remembered by Orthodox as the year without Pascha. At the beginning of the year, and even at the beginning of Great Lent, it hardly seemed possible. I remember the second Sunday of Great Lent here at St. Herman’s. We had served the Liturgy of St. Basil and commemorated St. Gregory Palamas. We were looking forward to the coming Sunday when we would venerate the Cross, and I gave our little hand-cross into the care of one of our people asking her to decorate it with flowers as she did so beautifully last year. She accepted the cross and the assignment and I looked forward to receiving the decorated cross from her skilful young hands the next Saturday. Then a day or so later a letter came to all of us Canadian clergy from our bishop informing us that he very reluctantly was closing the churches at least until the end of the month. There would be no beautiful cross to venerate this year.
But we all still set our hearts on Pascha and looked forward to gathering again then, processing around the church with our candles, gathering at the front door at midnight and crying “Christ is risen!” and then feasting after Matins and the Liturgy in the church hall until the wee hours of the morning. Such optimism now seems hopelessly naïve. We imagined the Covid 19 storm would blow itself out in a week or two. At time of writing, it seems as if the storm might last on into the summer. But on the Sunday of St. Gregory Palamas the thought of losing all of Lent was horrific. The thought of losing Pascha was unthinkable. How could we survive without it? I am not the only one to mourn 2020 as the year without Pascha. All over the world Orthodox are grieving and struggling to cope.
My wife, as usual in our house, found just the right words to describe the feeling. It was, she said, something like “How the Grinch Stole Pascha”—the Grinch being the faceless Covid virus that stalks the land like an invisible enemy. And hidden in that characterization is perhaps the Orthodox answer to our grief, a way of seeing our situation in its true light so that we can better cope and survive.
Let us return to the Grinch—not the 2000 film with the talented Jim Carrey, but the real Grinch—the animated short film voiced by the immortal Boris Karloff, created in 1966. In that story, the Grinch hated the annual celebration of Christmas with all its joyful noise, and he was determined to stop the whole thing. He decided therefore to steal Christmas from the inhabitants of Whoville who lived at the base of his mountain home. He disguised himself as Santa Claus and, with coerced help from his hapless dog Max, entered every home in Whoville and stole all their Christmas presents, their Christmas trees, their Christmas decorations, and their Christmas food. In the famous ending to the short tale, after his night of Grinchy work he ascended to the top of his mountain to dump all the stolen Chrismas swag into the deep valley below. But before he did so, he waited gleefully to hear the mournful lamentation of the Whos down in Whoville below who, he felt sure, would all cry out in grief when they discovered that he had stolen Christmas from them.
Who can forget the ending? “The Grinch put a hand to his ear. And he did hear a sound rising over the snow. It started in low and it started to grow. But this sound wasn’t sad. This sound sounded glad. Every Who down in Whoville, the tall and the small, was singing—without any presents at all. He hadn’t stopped Christmas from coming—it came! Somehow or other, it came just the same.”
The Grinch puzzled and puzzed til his puzzler was sore. How could it be so? The answer, as the Grinch finally discovered, was contained within the song the Whos sung as they gathered in the public square: “Christmas Day is in our grasp, so long as we have hands to clasp.”
Dr. Seuss, that theologian of childhood’s joy, gives us insight into our current situation, and a new way to understand our Paschal deprivation. Pascha in Orthodoxy is not dependent upon our assembled Eucharist and feasting any more than Christmas in Whoville was dependent upon the presents and the decorations. Pascha is the inextinguishable hope that Christ kindles in the hearts of His people, a hope that we who have been united with Him in His Church will finally share His triumph over death. Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.
And it is not as if Christians have never before been forced to cope with liturgical deprivation through extraordinary circumstances. I remember the story of some Orthodox Christians imprisoned for their faith and political dissent after 1949 in Romania. In one such prison in Jilava, the prisoners lived fifteen meters underground in dampness and darkness, the single window there sealed against light and fresh air. They were hungry, hemmed in, living in semi-darkness during the day and pitch blackness during the night, forty-five Orthodox men in the stench of mold, urine and excrement waiting in a tomb.
As Pascha approached, they were determined to keep Pascha. They calculated when the midnight hour would arrive because they remembered that the nearby train blew its whistle at 11.40 p.m. as it left the station. When midnight finally arrived, they all raised the cry, “Christ is risen!”, and led by the two deacons among them, sang Paschal Matins from memory at the top of their lungs. Outside their cell, the guards went crazy, running up and down and banging on the doors, yelling at them to be quiet. But nothing could quench their joy and stop their mouths, and all the Jilava prison rang with the hymns of the Resurrection. Circumstances prevented the prisoners from serving the Paschal Eucharist and feasting as they had done in happier days. But no circumstances could separate them from Christ and from their Paschal hope.
That hope remains in our hearts as well, even as Christ’s presence remains with us, whether or not we can gather together physically on Pascha night to serve the Eucharist and keep the Paschal feast. Christ remains in our midst, and we have still Him, because we still have each other. For now, we must meet together separately, and share the Paschal celebration virtually through our computer screens at home. Soon enough we will join together and clasp hands physically as well. For now, from our homes on Pascha night let us rejoice in our risen Lord. We Orthodox Whos, the tall and the small, will sing to the Lord this Pascha. Pascha is within our grasp, so long as we have hands to clasp. Covid 19 cannot grinchily steal Pascha from us. It will come without us gathering for the Eucharist; it will come without the midnight feast. Somehow or other, it will come just the same.