Tuesday, April 6, 2010

St Ambrose of Optina's 1871 Paschal Epistle

O ones wise in the Lord! For the Feast of the Nativity of Christ, in place of the usual greetings I wrote to you about the great Mystery of this glorious Feast. And now I would like to say something to you about the mystical meaning of the Triumph of Christian triumphs, that is, the Resurrection of Christ. But because of my weakness and sickness I have neither the strength nor the opportunity. I can only tell you briefly that the yearly triumphant and bright Feast of the Resurrection of Christ, besides having its own meaning, serves also for us as a reminder of the general resurrection of the whole world, which is particularly apparent in the remarkable Paschal Matins.

First: During the radiant night, after the reading of the Midnight Office, there is the triumphal procession around the church by the clergy and all the faithful with lighted candles, together with the cross, the icons, and the ringing of the bells. This is clearly reminiscent of the Gospel parable of the ten virgins woken at midnight with the cry: Behold, the bridegroom cometh! Go ye out to meet Him. Then all those virgins arose, and trimmed their lamps (cf. Matt. 25: 6-7). These virgins are the souls of the faithful, and the Bridegroom is Christ. The night is our temporary life. The lamps are our faith and good works. Do not the Gospel parable as well as the triumphant procession around the church by the faithful accompanied by the ringing of bells represent the general resurrection at the end of the world, when the voice of the archangels' trumpets will awaken all the dead, and the faithful in the Lord, like the Gospel virgins, will go forth to meet Him with their lamps, each according to her own worthiness?

Second: While this triumphant procession around the church is being performed, the church doors are closed. The faithful that walk see the light in the church, but on the path before them they see only impenetrable darkness, and thus they came to stand before the closed doors of the church. Does this not mean that all who are resurrected at the universal resurrection will see the heavenly bridal chamber of glory, but not all will enter therein -- only those who are worthy -- whose lamps, like those of the wise virgins, do not go out at the meeting of the Bridegroom Christ? All the rest, who like the foolish virgins have their lamps go out, will pitifully repeat the beginning of the hymn: I see Thy bridal chamber, adorned O my Savior, but I have no wedding garment, that I may enter there (Exapostilarion, Matins of Holy Week).

Third: Before the closed doors of the church, the presiding clergyman gives the usual initial Paschal glorification of the Holy Trinity and the singing of "Christ is Risen." Then, with the cross in hand, he opens the doors and enters the church first, and after him enter all the other Christians, singing the joyous hymn: Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life. Repeating this many times, to it is added yet more joyful singing: It is the day of Resurrection! Let us be radiant, O people! It is the Pascha, the Pascha of the Lord! From death to life and from earth to Heaven, Christ our God has passed us, who sing the hymn of victory! (Irmos, Canon of Paschal Matins). No longer is heard the usual singing that arouses us to compunction, only the ceaseless sweet singing awakening joy in all. The clergy continually come forth from the altar in brilliant vestments; ceaselessly we look upon the Cross of Christ and venerate the symbol of our salvation; ceaselessly we are surrounded by clouds of holy incense. All hold lighted candles in their hands; on the lips of all -- those who serve and those present who stand and sing -- is heard only the joyful: Christ is Risen!

Thus is celebrated the temporal Pascha of Christ on earth, and all Christians are allowed to celebrate -- the worthy and the unworthy, because the present life is subject to change. Often the worthy become unworthy and the unworthy become worthy, which is clearly portrayed by Judas and the thief. At first Judas was among the chosen twelve Apostles of Christ, following Christ for three years, listening continually to His teaching, having the power to cast out demons and heal many different diseases. But at the end he went mad from carelessness and love of money, betrayed Christ, then perished eternally. The thief had been part of a band of hard-core robbers for three years, but, being enlightened upon the cross, he confessed willingly the Crucified Son of God, Lord and Kind, and was the first to enter Paradise. May we always hold these examples in our remembrance, so that we might always refrain from the sin of judging, even though we might see someone sinning at the very end of his life, as St. John of the Ladder assures us.

But it will be different at the heavenly Feast of the eternal Pascha, after the general resurrection and judgment. To that Feast will be allowed only the elect, the worthy. And whoever will once be allowed into the heavenly bridal chamber, to the Feast of the eternal Pascha, will remain eternally among the ranks of celebrants, giving voice to their joy. Whoever is shown to be unworthy to participate in the celebration will be deprived and estranged eternally.

However, now is not the time to speak particularly of the bitter fate of these last, for it is the all-joyous Feast. We will only say that all of us Christians, while we are still alive, should be careful and attentive to our salvation. And those who think they stand, in the words of the Apostle, should take care lest they fall, remembering always the terrible example of Judas who perished. In those of us who are infirm and falling, may the hope of correction be awakened, seeing the comforting example of the wise thief who inherited Paradise.

O, great and holiest Pascha, Christ! O, Wisdom, Word and power of God! Grant that we may more perfectly partake of Thee in the unending day of Thy Kingdom (Canon of Paschal Matins).
Taken from Fr. Sergius Chetverikov, Elder Ambrose of Optina (Platina, CA: St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1997), 190-193.

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