Tuesday, May 01, 2007


Let me preface this post, as I will preface all in this series, by saying that I am far from any kind of an expert, in the academic or real sense, on Orthodoxy. I am quite probably mistaken about any number of things. I am not trying to provide a broad historical view of Orthodoxy, nor do I claim to have any or all of the answers. This post, as all others, is strictly from where I stand, one of many struggling to reach the Heavenly Kingdom.
Every year for forty days devout Orthodox Christians observe Lent. During this period we do not eat meat, dairy products, poultry, fish, or any by-products of these foods. It is a time of personal spiritual struggle and prayer. The church is decorated in dark purple and black rather than the usual gold or white. The tone of the services is more somber. There are are also more of them and they are longer. The Liturgy of St. Basil the Great is served, rather than the usual Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. These external changes are important, but it is even more important that each believer try to deny his or her will and labor more than usual.

After Lent we observe Holy Week. On Holy Thursday we celebrate the Last Supper and the Lord's betrayal. Holy Friday is the strictest fast day of the year. Those who are strong enough try not to eat anything for the entire day. Those who need to can eat a little after sundown. In the evening there is a procession with a bier which represents the tomb of Christ. Songs from the funeral service are sung as we walk around the church carrying the Lord's body. For the next twelve hours members of the congregation take turns watching over the bier and praying.

On Holy Saturday there is a Liturgy in the morning during which the cloths which decorate the church are changed to shimmering white and gold. The Lord is still in the tomb but the Resurrection is at hand. Baptisms often occur at this point as well. After the liturgy most people go home to rest and prepare. In the early evening the whole book of the Acts of the Apostles is read aloud.

About eleven o'clock the long service begins: Compline, Matins, Liturgy, and First Hour. When we first arrive the church is dark. At the door we are given an unlit candle which we will hold most of the night. The reading of the Acts is just finishing. Compline begins, quiet and subdued. At midnight all of the lights are extinguished. In a sense, we are in the tomb. The clergy goes into the altar, separated from the rest of the church by an iconostasis. There is silence as each one waits. It is pitch black. We can hardly see each other even though we are standing shoulder to shoulder. The whole congregation waits tensely for what they remember comes next. In these moments they feel more akin to each other than they ever have before. It is almost as though they are asking silently, "Will it happen again, the miracle I remember? Will I feel that jubilation as I say 'Christ is risen'?" We are waiting for the dawning of Pascha. Finally we hear a bell ringing and then the singing of the priests. They sing the troparion of Pascha, "Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death and upon those in the tombs bestowing life." They light a single candle whose small flicker is reflected on the hollow above the altar. Then more candles are lit. The priests walk out and hold their candles for the congregation to light their own. They are giving us the gift of light, the symbol of life. We pass it on to those behind us.

Now everyone is singing and the church is full of light. The shadows flee before the candle flames as the wax drips down on the paper wax catchers. The feeling of the people has changed from tense waiting to utter joy. Christ is Risen! Soon the altar boys are forming the front of a procession, two carrying banners with icons on them. They are followed by the priests and deacons and then by the rest of the people. They lead the way out of the church where the entire congregation processes around the outside, singing:

"Thy Resurrection, O Christ our Saviour, the angels in heaven sing. Enable us on earth to glorify Thee with purity of heart." And our voices sound more like angels than they ever have.

Even when there is hardly any wind the candle flames try to flicker and go out, like the flame of our faith. We try to keep them alive.

The church where I celebrated Pascha for many years is at the corner of a busy intersection, even at midnight. I often wondered what the people going by thought. We often got odd looks but on Pascha no one cares. It is the day of Resurrection. Let everyone else think what they will.

Standing in front of the doors to re-enter the church an antiphonal (call-and-response) hymn begins. The clergy starts and the people finish. Even in spring the night air is chilly and most people are shivering. Still, we would not trade this moment for the world.

When we go back inside we see candles and flowers everywhere. The church is transformed. Matins begins immediately. During the canon everyone greets each other with the Orthodox 'holy kiss,' a kiss on the right cheek, the left cheek, and the right again.

"Christ is risen!"
"Indeed He is risen!"

The rest of Matins goes by in a blur of candles, light, singing, and joy. During the canon the priest or priests come out and give the Paschal greeting of "Christ is Risen" in as many languages as possible. The people respond. Matins gives way to Liturgy where instead of a sermon the Homily of St. John Chrysostom is read. We received Holy Communion. First Hour is sung. After the final blessing we stream out into the hall where a feast has been arranged. After over forty days of abstinence even the body is given reason to be joyful. We eat together, a community in the physical as well as the spiritual world.

But eventually we know that we must leave. We sleep soundly knowing that when we wake the Lord will still be risen.


Anonymous said...

You described that so well, I can just picture it all. I can tell it is a truely wonderful time for you.


MaureenE said...

Thank you VB. :D