“The light of Christ illumines all mankind!”
This cry punctuates Orthodox services as the faithful wend their way through the Great Lent to the Great and Holy Pascha. A lit candle is brought out of the sanctuary into the people, who prostrate in worship before Christ “the light of the world.” “The light shines in the darkness but the darkness has not overcome it.”
Constantly, this motif of light is seen and heard in Orthodox worship and hymns. When a vigil is held, the faithful often hold lighted candles, and the service begins with the priest censing the Church while led by a deacon holding a large lighted candle.
The newly-baptized are given candles to hold. Worshipers light candles in memory of those fallen asleep as well as before icons of beloved saints. At Vespers, as “Lord, I call” is sung, the candles in the Church are lit, and at the end of Matins, when the Great Doxology is sung, the Church lights are brightened.
But all of these lighting lights in the darkness are most especially founded within the Paschal celebrations. The first “reference” is on Holy Saturday in the reading of Genesis 1: “Let there be light.” Then we read in Exodus of the “pillar of fire by night.” Isaiah proclaims, “Arise, shine, for your light is come!”
This is all “acted out” and set forth liturgically when, as the Faithful wait in the darkness of the tomb, the hymn “The angels in heaven sing of Your resurrection,” the light is brought out of the sanctuary and the cry goes up, “Come, receive the light…”
The darkness in which the congregation waits is the darkness of death, of Hades, where Christ has gone “in the spirit” to bring the good news of His eternal victory and to raise the dead “from ages past.” This image is developed in the Gospel of Nicodemus, which, while not accepted into the canon of scripture by the Church, nonetheless has strongly influenced her understanding of the “great and mystical pascha.”
In this gospel, the scene is set in which the dead are languishing in the darkness of death. The prophets are prophesying. A cry goes up: “Lift the gates.” A light is seen, grows nearer and becomes brighter than the sun. Christ, through His crucifixion and death has entered into Death, and being Life, looses all the dead from their ancient bonds.
It is this which the Orthodox enact and celebrate on the great and saving night of the Holy Pascha. After receiving the light in the darkness and processing around the Church with it, we enter it, now bathed in light. We sing in the great canon of St. John of Damascus (who knew the Church’s tradition as it had been handed down through the fathers and hymnographers, including the deacons and poets Efrem the Syrian and Romanus the Melodist):
“When they who were held captive in the bonds of Hades, O Christ, beheld Thy lovingkindness without measure, they pressed forward to the light with joyful steps, praising the eternal Pascha.”
“Let us go with lamps in hand to meet Christ, Who comes forth from the grave as a Bridegroom. And with the heavenly ranks of angels, the let us celebrate the saving Pascha of God.”
“Now all is filled light: heaven and earth and the lower regions [Hades]. All creation celebrates the rising of Christ, in Whom we are established.”
“How lifegiving, how much more beautiful than Paradise, and truly more resplendent than any royal palace proved Thy grave, the source of our resurrection, O Christ.”
The light of Christ — the Light Who is Christ — illumines all!