To conclude the Intentional Lent Series, Dr. Erin Moulton shares the tradition of Bright Week with us.
Bells are made for ringing. Voices are there for shouting. Hearts are best at rejoicing. Humans are intended for joy.
Christ’s Resurrection breaks the supposed rules of nature, frees the captives, throws open all doors, releases shouts of joy. I say this in the present tense, because we experience the Resurrection as part of eternity – God’s ever present eternity. Although it happened in time over 2000 years ago, the Day of Resurrection is not a past event. It is a present event which we annually live on Easter, commonly known as Pascha to Orthodox Christians. There is no greater joy than the destruction of death brought by the death and Resurrection of Christ.
In the Eastern Christian tradition, the faith practiced by Orthodox Christians around the world, Pascha is the pinnacle of joy, the highest point of the year. We know this not just intellectually or abstractly. We experience this joy with our whole bodies.
Our preparation for the Great and Holy Feast of Pascha begins weeks in advance, with 40 days of Great Lent followed by Holy Week. We keep strict fasts and prayer routines during this time. Orthodox Christians remove meat and dairy products from their diets throughout the period, attend extra prayer services, add penitential prayers and melodies to prayers at home and in the church. The resounding cry of Great Lent is “Lord have mercy.” Christians pause to acknowledge their sin and work to repent and turn back to God. It is a joyful period, but one focused on quietude and sobriety. We discipline not only our minds and hearts, but also our bodies.
And then the Bright Day of Resurrection dawns. Our physical experience of this day is tangible and audible. The anticipation for the coming of this Feast of Feasts is so intense that we must celebrate at the first possible moment, like a small child bursting with excitement for a birthday. Services begin at midnight on Saturday evening, greeting the world with the good news as early as possible.
The service begins with a dark church with each person holding an unlit candle. Then the priest emerges from the dark altar with one lit candle singing a call to Christ.
“Come behold the Light that is never overtaken by night. Come glorify Christ, Risen from the dead.”
The light spreads throughout the dark church as each person receives the light. We exit the church and process in parade with singing.
“Your Resurrection O Christ our Savior, the angels in Heaven sing. Enable us on earth to glorify you in purity of heart.”
Returning to the locked doors of the church, the priest literally bangs on the doors reciting the psalms.
“Lift up your gates, O ye princes, and be ye lifted up, O eternal gates: and the King of Glory shall enter in.”
After three attempts, the doors are flung open, echoing the destruction of the doors of Hades. All are freed and people literally rush into the church, now lit brightly, singing and shouting with joy.
“Christ is Risen from the dead, trampling down death by death and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!”
This hymn is repeated many times with loud rejoicing. The doors of the altar are thrown open. In some churches or monasteries, doors are literally removed from their hinges. All is open and white and bright. If you enter an Orthodox Church around 1 AM on the early morning of Pascha, you’ll find immense loud rejoicing. In the middle of the night, the church is full of a tangible experience of lightness and unspeakable joy. On Pascha, all rules are broken. All strictness is removed. Everything is loud and bright and all is light, light, light.
Christians are greeted with the ancient Paschal homily of St. John Chrysostom, entreating them that all are invited to joy this day, no matter the circumstance, no matter the effort.
“Ye sober and ye slothful, honor the day. Ye that have kept the fast and ye that have not, be glad today , , , Let all enjoy the feast of faith, receive all ye the riches of goodness. . . . Let no one weep for his transgressions, for forgiveness hath dawned from the tomb. Let no one fear death, for the death of the Savior hath set us free.”
But this day is not the end of the celebrations. It is only the beginning. Pascha is followed by the most joyful week of the year – Bright Week. During this week, all rules are broken. All of life is changed. Christians greet each other daily not by saying, “Hello, “ but by proclaiming, “Christ is Risen!”
Tables are richly laden with foods – meats, cheeses, eggs, drinks, sweet breads, and more. The prayer “Lord have mercy” disappears and is replaced daily with “Christ is Risen!” People stay home from work on Monday or even additional days during the week. They visit each other’s homes, go to the theater, attend concerts, and host meals in celebration.
In the church services, hymns are replaced with “Christ is Risen.” All is white and covered in flowers. Nothing is recited. All is sung. There is no kneeling. Every service of the week ends with a joyous singing procession outdoors.
Monasteries and churches normally have specific rules for when bells should be rung. Someone is designated as the bell ringer. But not during Bright Week. Anyone can ring the bells at any time this week. Christ’s Resurrection is proclaimed with joyful music and ringing randomly at all times of day and night. The week is set apart and filled with exuberance.
This is the message of Christ’s Resurrection. We work and repent and prepare. But, at our core, humans are a people of joy. Christ’s Resurrection breaks all the rules we might think should stay in place. The dead become alive. Locks are broken. Doors are thrown open. Darkness is dispelled by light. Shouting and singing resound. Bells ring freely. Hungry bellies are filled. Hearts are made light, even in the middle of the night.
For Orthodox Christians, the experience of Pascha and Bright Week sustains us always. In moments of intense grief, we call upon that moment when a single light emerges from the altar, and we are called to join others in a procession of light. At a funeral, we return to this experience. We mourn, but we also sing “Christ is Risen.” Our struggles may consume us some days, but we know how to rejoice. Christ is Risen and the gates have been destroyed. No one remains in darkness.
We are a people who are not only called to Light. We know the Light.