Sunday, May 5, 2013

The People's Pascha

            At the end of October in 1840, the celebrated author Hans Christian Andersen (famous for his fairy tales) left his native Denmark for an extended trip in the east.  He wrote about his travels in his book A Poet’s Bazaar: a Journey to Greece, Turkey and Up the Danube.  Andersen was an experienced traveller, who had visited Italy some years before.  In his latest memoir, he compared his experiences of Easter in both Rome and Greece in the following words:
            “The Catholic Easter in Italy, especially in Rome, is wonderful, fascinating!  It is an uplifting sight on the vast square of St. Peter’s to see the whole throng of people sink to their knees and receive the Blessing.  The Easter Festival in poor Greece cannot be celebrated with such splendor.  But having seen both, one comes to the conclusion that in Rome it is a festival which, in its splendor and glory, comes out of the Church to the people; whereas in Greece it is a festival which flows out from the hearts and minds of the people—from their whole way of life—and the Church is only one link, one strand.”
            Sometimes outsiders can see with greater clarity and objectivity than insiders can, and I think that in this case the non-Catholic and non-Orthodox Andersen was onto the something.  Andersen appreciated both the Catholic and the Orthodox Paschal celebrations, but he thought that the Catholic one “came out of the Church to the people”, whereas the Orthodox one “flowed out from the hearts and minds of the people”.  In other words, both Easter festivals were like the churches which celebrated them, the Catholic Easter manifesting the clericalism which characterized the Catholic Church, and the Orthodox Pascha manifesting the popular spirit which characterizes Orthodoxy.  In the Orthodox Church, Pascha “flows out from the hearts of the people”.  Clergy are involved, of course, since they too are part of the holy laos, but Pascha is primarily the people’s Pascha.
            This popular spirit of Pascha reveals something fundamental about the Church’s life, namely the reality that St. Paul calls “the koinonia of the Spirit” (2 Cor. 13:14, Phil. 2:1).  The Greek term koinonia eludes easy translation.  It is sharing, fellowship, joint participation, communion, an experience of the Spirit which is shared by all the faithful and which binds all of them together.  In Phil. 2:1 St. Paul groups it together with “encouragement in Christ”, “incentive of love”, and “affection and sympathy” as inspirations and reasons for maintaining unity within the local church. 
            This is why it is so important for a community to travel together, with a sense of mutual belonging.  We define ourselves not just in terms of our relationship to Christ, but also in terms of our relationship with one another; we serve Christ as our Lord, but as members of a particular community, as fellow-communicants with Sam and Suzy and Vladimir and Antonios whom we see at the Chalice every Sunday.  It is as a community that we journey through Lent; it is as a community that we experience the power and intensity of Holy Week.  It is as this same community that we finally arrive together at our Paschal goal.  Our weekly Sunday attendance at Liturgy and our annual experience of Great Lent and Holy Week all combine to meld us into one body, allowing us to experience the koinonia of the Spirit, and it is as this united body that we experience Pascha.  Pascha “flows out from the hearts of the people” as Andersen noted because the koinonia of the Spirit has knit our hearts into one.  The priest prays for this at the conclusion of every Anaphora:  “grant that with one mouth and one heart we may praise Your all-honourable and majestic Name”.  After Holy Week has come to its climactic conclusion on the following Sunday, this prayer is abundantly answered, as the people’s Pascha flows out from this one heart.  Andersen saw this when he visited “poor Greece” well over a century ago.  It can be seen even today in Orthodox parishes throughout the world.


  1. I loved this article and Andersen's commentary! My Danish American grandma gave me a huge Hans Christian Andersen anthology when I was little, which I still have. It's so interesting that he wrote what he wrote. I wonder if his trip to Greece influenced his writing.

    1. As a catechumen - from the Anglican Church - I desparately miss the Body and Blood of our Lord. At least I can venerate the Chalice and worshipping the One Whose Glory is therein and receiving His blessing from the Priest.

  2. To Christiana Mohr,
    Hans Christian Andersen loved to travel. He wrote: "To travel is to live", so I'm sure he also was inspired by what he experienced in Greece. He had such a vivid imagination and such an eye for detail that he created masterpieces from even the slightest thing he discovered. I'm a native of Denmark and also enjoy reading his stories. In them you also discover his religious universe. Easter has of course a little different meaning to me as a protestant, but I guess we can still agree that it is the symbol of the greatest love story ever told and the focus of the most important Christian sacrament.

    Arthur Hansen

  3. My wife also loves Andersen, and has many of his writings. We even have an image of the little mermaid statue in our home. Thank you for writing.


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