Orthodox Christians will draw together Saturday evening across the country and indeed around the world to celebrate Pascha, the victory of life over death and the Feast of Feasts.
As midnight approaches, the church lights are extinguished -- symbolizing the darkness of the tomb -- before the priest exits the altar with a burning white candle inviting parishioners to receive the light.
As the smoke from beeswax candles fills the air and the faithful attentively listen to the Gospel according to St. Mark, the sacred and timeless Paschal Hymn is enthusiastically proclaimed by all: Christ Is Risen from the dead, by death He has trampled down death, and on those in the tombs He has bestowed life.
This is one reason why it is Orthodox tradition to describe someone who has passed as having "fallen asleep" as opposed to "died" since by His death and Resurrection He has destroyed death. In fact, the word cemetery is from the Greek meaning "sleeping place."
This most joyous and salvific truth is the indestructible foundation of the Orthodox Church -- the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. The Resurrection is so central that Christianity is little without it. The Apostle Paul writes in his First Letter to the Corinthians that, "If Christ is not risen, your faith is futile."
The Resurrection service though is neither an abstract nor isolated event to be approached legalistically; rather, it is the culmination of spiritual preparation so that believers can be witnesses to the Resurrection and genuinely experience its meaning.
Just as bread needs time to bake in the oven, the Church Fathers have prescribed a time before Pascha (Great Lent) and the indispensable means to prepare for the Resurrection.
Three weeks before the beginning of Lent, the Church enters the Triodion period with three powerful parables told on each successive Sunday: the Publican and the Pharisee; the Prodigal Son and, the Last Judgment.
Then, beginning on Clean Monday (so named because it ushers in a period of strict fasting) and lasting for 40 days in addition to the Holy Week, Orthodox Christians are invited to transform themselves through ascesis, through almsgiving, through forgiveness, through repentance and through prayer.
The essence of Orthodox spirituality is to work with God by doing His will and attracting His Grace, eventually reaching the state which the Apostle Paul wrote about in his Letter to the Galatians, "I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me."
For Orthodox, the Lenten period is a time characterized by "joyful sorrow" or "bright sadness." The constant contemplation of Christ's crucifixion, along with the self-denial and struggle is overshadowed by the certainty of His coming Resurrection.
It is also a time when we think and pray for those individuals and communities persecuted for their unwavering faith.
We think of the two Orthodox bishops abducted in Syria last week while on a humanitarian mission, along with the challenges the historic Patriarchate of Antioch faces. We think of Coptic Christians in Egypt who have suffered so much the last few years. We think of Archbishop John, a Canonical Orthodox Bishop that continues to be illegally imprisoned by the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. And we think of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, still denied full freedom of religion in Turkey including the continued closure of its Theological School in Halki.
Throughout the struggles, however, we remain steadfast in our faith in Christ and as we celebrate His Resurrection early Sunday morning and chant "Christ Is Risen!" we realize that our faith is anything but futile.