Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann

Father Alexander's Winter Pascha

by Protopresbyter Thomas Hopko

Father Alexander Schmemann was the dean of Saint Vladimir's Seminary in Crestwood, New York, and the spiritual father, teacher, pastor, and friend of countless people not only in America but around the world. He died on December 13, 1983, the same day of the year as Saint Herman of Alaska. For those who knew him, and those who will yet come to know him, the day of Father Alexander's death will always be a precious part of the Church's celebration of the Christmas-Epiphany season.

As we have already noted, the expression "Winter Pascha" was coined by Father Alexander.[1] The Church's Typikon speaks of the celebration of the Lord's Coming in the flesh as a "splendid Pascha." It was Father Alexander who added the adjective "winter" for those of us who celebrate it in the darkness of wintertime, when the light is just starting to shine more brightly and the nights begin to shorten, heralding the victory of Light and Life in the springtime Pascha of the Lord's Death and Resurrection.

Father Alexander learned that he had cancer in the fall of 1982. He greeted the disease as the opportunity for Christian witness. As a person who spoke so much about Christ, he said, it was fitting that he be put to the test to confirm in action, by God's grace and power, all that he had proclaimed in words. The disease was God's gift to him of the possibility to practice what he himself had preached so forcefully and so enthusiastically for so long.

Father Alexander underwent his personal "Winter Pascha" in December of 1983 as he "passed over from death into life," in what Mrs. Schmemann, in her letter to the seminary community, called, the "feast of Father's dying."

Truly, truly I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes in Him who sent Me, has eternal life; he does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life. (Jn 5:24)

On Thursday, December 8, Father Alexander received Holy Communion and was annointed in the sacrament of Holy Unction in his hospital bed in New York City. At the end of the service, when he kissed the Cross of Christ, and the priest and people said, "Amen!" Father Alexander pronounced loudly and clearly: "Amen! Amen! Amen!" This triple amen comes from the celebration of the holy Eucharist when, after the invocation of the Holy Spirit, the offered Gifts are changed into the Body and Blood of the Lord.

Again we offer unto Thee this reasonable and bloodless worship, and ask Thee, and pray Thee, and supplicate Thee: Send down Thy Holy Spirit upon us and upon these Gifts here offered.…

And make this Bread the precious Body of Thy Christ. Amen!

And that which is in this Cup, the precious Blood of Thy Christ. Amen!

Making the change by Thy Holy Spirit. Amen! Amen! Amen! [2]

Father Alexander received Holy Communion for the last time on Sunday, December 11, the Sunday of the Holy Forefathers.' After partaking of the Holy Mysteries, now at home, Father listened to his family and friends sing the prefeast hymns of Christmas which he especially loved. When the praying and singing was over, he said simply, "Thank you."

On Monday morning, December 12, because of a mistake in the official church calendar of the Orthodox Church in America, the liturgy for the feast of St Herman was celebrated in the seminary chapel. Later that morning Father Alexander was seated in a chair in his room and listened to the hymns and prayers of the Church's office of The Separation of Soul and Body. He was blessed once more with the consecrated Oil used for the mystery of Holy Unction, and lay again on the bed in which he was to die.

It stormed in Crestwood from Sunday to Tuesday, December 13. It was dark. The wind howled. There was thunder and lightning. The sidewalks and roads were flooded. Branches of trees were strewn all over. Father Alexander gave up his spirit to the Lord on Tuesday afternoon, surrounded by family and friends. Metropolitan Theodosius arrived minutes after Father passed on, and a memorial service was sung over his body, which was immediately prepared and vested and taken to the seminary chapel, there to begin the splendid celebration of Father Alexander's "Winter Pascha."

Thousands of people came. More than a hundred priests and bishops assisted. The seminary choir sang, with all of the faithful. Archbishop lakovos of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese and Metropolitan Philip of the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese, among others, spoke at the services. In response to Metropolitan Theodosius' sermon at the end of the divine liturgy on Friday, December 16, the entire body of the faithful proclaimed: "Amen! Amen! Amen!" Amen to the will of God. And Amen to the life and death of Father Alexander!

The day of Father's funeral was sunny and cloudless. Everyone remarked that it was like the Lord's Pascha in the spring. And everyone experienced, in hearing Father Alexander's own words which were read at the divine liturgy, what Pascha always means for those who believe.

The purpose of Christianity is not to help people by reconciling them with death, but to reveal the Truth about life and death in order that people may be saved by this Truth.… If the purpose of Christianity were to take away from man the fear of death, to reconcile him with death, there would be no need for Christianity, for other religions have done this, indeed, better than Christianity. [4]

The Church is the entrance into the risen life of Christ; it is communion in life eternal, "joy and peace in the Holy Spirit." And it is the expectation of the "day without evening" of the Kingdom; not of any "other world," but of the fulfillment of all things and all life in Christ. In Him death itself has become an act of life, for He has filled it with Himself, with His love and light. In Him "all things are yours; whether the world, or life, or death, or things present, or things to come; all are yours; and ye are Christ's; and Christ is God's (1 Cor 3:21-23). And if I make this new life mine, mine this hunger and thirst for the Kingdom, mine this expectation of Christ, mine the certitude that Christ is Life, then my very death will be an act of communion with Life. For neither life nor death can separate us from the love of Christ. I do not know when and how the fulfillment will come. I do not know when all things will be consummated in Christ. I know nothing about the "whens" and "hows." But I know that in Christ this great Passage, the Pascha of the world has begun, that the light of the "world to come" comes to us in the joy and peace of the Holy Spirit, for Christ is risen and Life reigneth.

Finally I know that it is this faith and this certitude that fill with a joyful meaning the words of St Paul which we read each time we celebrate the "passage" of a brother, his falling asleep in Christ:

For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel's call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first; then we who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so we shall always be with the Lord (I Thess. 4:16-17). [5]


[1] See Winter Pascha, p. 11.

[2] The eucharistic prayer of the liturgy of St John Chrysostom (translation of the Orthodox Church in America, 1967).

[3] See Winter Pascha, pp. 62-65.

[4] Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1973) p. 99.

[5] For the Life of the World, p. 106

From [Protopresbyter] Thomas Hopko, The Winter Pascha (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1984) pp. 49-53.