At the Passover meal in observant Jewish homes, it is the tradition for the youngest child in the house to ask, “How is this night different from all other nights?” The family then tells the story of how God brought the Israelites out of bondage in Egypt. In the twelfth chapter of the Book of Exodus, on the eve of the plague of the death of the first-born, Moses tells the Israelites: “Thus shall it be, when your children say to you, ‘What does this service mean?’ that you shall say, ‘This is the Paschal sacrifice of the Lord, who passed over the houses of the Children of Israel in Egypt when He struck the Egyptians and delivered our households.’”
So, too, we can ask the same question: “How is this day different from all the other days?” And our answer will be, “This is the Paschal sacrifice of the Lord, when He freed us from bondage to sin and death.” This is our Passover, our Pascha. This is why, in most languages around the world, the name for Easter is some form of the word “Pascha.” And, this year is even more different than most other Good Fridays, in that all over the world, all Christians, whether they are Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant, are commemorating the death of Christ on the Cross on this day. I was thinking about this just yesterday: with our global awareness, every New Year’s Eve we get to follow the New Year being celebrated around the world, starting around New Zealand, and making its way westward. On that night, for twenty-four hours, somewhere, someone is ringing in the new year. And it is true for this Good Friday. At any given time during this day, people of different cultures, of different Christian traditions, are doing something special today. Some people are carrying crosses, statues, or something special in procession. In the Eastern Christian world, the burial shroud is being carried by thousands priests, followed by countless thousands of parishioners, carrying candles, kneeling their way up to the shroud, bowing before Christ, kissing His wounds. I think it is beautiful to realize that what we are doing here tonight, in this little town in New Jersey, is part of that bigger procession, encompassing the whole world.
It is a day of profound holiness. In the words of the sticheron we sang earlier, “An awesome and glorious mystery occurs today: the God Who cannot be contained is now restrained. He, Who freed Adam from the curse, is bound. The Searcher of Hearts and Souls is questioned unjustly. He, Who confined the deep, is now confined to prison. In front of Pilate now stands the One before Whom the heavenly powers tremble. The Creator is struck by the hand of a creature. The Judge of the Living and the Dead is condemned to the cross. He, Who conquered Hell, is sealed in a tomb. O innocent Lord, Who graciously suffered all things and saved all Mankind from the curse, glory be to You.” There is no way I can come up with anything more profound to tell you today: you see the shroud before you; you sang these bitter-sweet hymns to Him Who saved us all. But one thing I wish to remind you of: at the end of our proskomedia, the preparation of the gifts for Holy Communion, the priest prays this prayer: “When Your body was in the tomb, and Your soul in Hades, when You were in paradise with the thief, You were at the same time, O Christ, as God upon Your throne with the Father and the Spirit, infinite and filling all things.” It is difficult for our mind to grasp these words, but wonderful to ponder all the same. In the words of St. John Chrysostom, in his Paschal Homily, he says:
“He that was taken by death has annihilated it! He descended into Hades and took Hades captive! He embittered it when it tasted His flesh! And anticipating this, Isaiah exclaimed: ‘Hades was embittered when it encountered You in the lower regions’. It was embittered, for it was abolished! It was embittered, for it was mocked! It was embittered, for it was purged! It was embittered, for it was despoiled! It was embittered, for it was bound in chains! It took a body and came upon God! It took earth and encountered Ηeaven! It took what it saw, but crumbled before what it had not seen!”
What sublime words for us to ponder as we come before the tomb today and kiss the forehead, the hands, the side, and the feet of the Man Who is God. And how much more sublime when next we gather and find this tomb empty. This is our Passover. He is our Paschal sacrifice. The One now lying here in the tomb is our hope. He is our life. This night is unlike any other night, for the day of our salvation is at hand.