Last Saturday night, I joined an Orthodox friend of mine at his church’s Pascha (Easter) service. Last year, I attended their Good Friday service and so I somewhat knew what to expect, but a Good Friday service and a Pascha service are by no means the same. So when I say I somewhat knew what to expect, I simply mean I knew I would be standing for the vast majority of the service, that there would be, what I would describe as, booklets that contained nearly every word of the service (liturgy), and that almost every word would be sung (chanted?). What the exact service would be like was a mystery.
I arrived about 30 minutes early and thought I would be one of the first people there, but to my surprise the parking lot had quite a few cars in it. I thought I was late for the service. As I entered, I realized that was not the case. There was a woman in the front reading by candlelight. My friend’s dad met me at the door and explained to me that at 9:00 on Holy Saturday night the book of Acts is read. People take turns with the reading and they go as far as possible until 11:00 at which time the service begins. He also told me that at 11:00 the lights would go out and the priest would come out with candles, some men would light their candles from the priest’s, and the congregants would have their candles lit from those men. After a few moments we would all go outside and walk around the church.
Soon after, my friend came out from an office in the back, having met with the priest about his responsibilities for the night. He proceeded to go over some of the same events that would be taking place. As we were sitting listening to the reading from Acts, I leaned over and whispered the question: “When you read why do you sing it?” “I don’t know” came the answer with a good Tevye impersonation he whispered, “TRADITION.” A few minutes later he left to prepare for his duties to come.
The reading stopped, the small pulpit moved to the side, and darkness came upon the sanctuary. Except for a bit of moving there was silence. I fully expected the priest to come through the doors with the candles but he didn’t come. I just sat there in joyful expectation of the lights to come. It sounded fun to light a candle and then walk around the church at 11:00 at night. But he didn’t come. I was left in the dark with people I didn’t know (with the exception of my friend’s wife and child behind me). Darkness. I figured that the delay was either due to the priest not being ready or just for dramatic effect. He would be out within a minute. A minute passed and I was still in darkness. Suddenly, the effect came upon me. Whether intentional, or whether anyone else felt what I felt, I began to feel something. The reality of the darkness was crushing. At first, I felt as if I were among the women who had prepared the spices for Jesus’ body and were walking before sunrise to the tomb. They would have experienced such a darkness (as it is alway darkest before dawn). But as time continued on, I came to experience an understanding of how dark Saturday must have been for the disciples. Their Rabbi was gone. He was dead and buried. They had left everything for Him. They had forsaken all others for Him. He was their Hope, their Joy, their Lord, their Messiah. He was gone and so was all that He was to them. The despair and darkness of soul from Friday night to Sunday morning must have been overwhelming. As one minute turned into what I’m guessing was five minutes of darkness, I remember longing for the candles to come out. Longing–not hoping with excitement–but longing, the kind of longing that comes when nearly all hope is lost. In my mind I was pleading for light to shine, no matter how small (granted, it wasn’t pitch black in the sanctuary, but it was not the light that I needed, expected, or wanted). Finally the door opened and there was the lit three-pronged candelabra. The flames seemed to flicker so high and were so bright. I couldn’t help but smile. Light was shining in darkness.
Soon the candle I had purchased in back was lit, and the choir began its song/chant. “The angels in heaven, O Christ our Savior, sing of Thy resurrection. Make us on earth also worthy to hymn Thee with a pure heart” (at least I think this is what they were singing. I only recalled a few words and when I googled them, this song came up on the OCA.org website). It was a windy evening. Wind and candles don’t mix. I cupped the flame of the candle so that it would keep burning. I had longed for light and I would do anything I could to keep that light burning. My hand tried desperately to block the wind, but it seemed to be coming from every direction. As I covered the light, I couldn’t help but think of Jesus’ words, “No one lights a lamp and puts it under a basket, but rather on a lampstand, and it gives light for all who are in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men,” (Matt. 5: 15-16a, HCSB). As cars passed the church so late at night, it had to look peculiar to see a group of people in a line walking around the building. Would they see the candle light and wonder why we were doing this? By sheltering my candle the metaphor that Jesus used struck me like never before. While I was physically sheltering the light that night, was I any better when it came to the light of Christ? My candle soon burned out and my heart sank. O! that Christ’s light would burn on in my life so that others would see and give glory to the Father! On a side-note: I was happy to see that my candle was not the only one to go out; in fact, everyone’s went out. Still the metaphor struck me hard.
We walked around the building three times, and then ended at the front door. I’m not quite sure of the significance, but I remember a child asking his father, “What’s he doing?” My mind immediately rejoiced. Yes! this is exactly what this type of event is supposed to do–cause children (and others) to ask “what’s going on?” I thought of the Passover and the Lord’s instructions for the Israelites: “In the future, when your son asks you, ‘What does this mean?’ say to him, ‘By the strength of His hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt, out of the place of slavery’,” (Exod. 13.14, HCSB). Unfortunately, the dad shushed his son and no explanation at the time was given as to what the priest was doing and why he was doing it. In a few moments the doors were opened and we went inside. We could re-light our candles. I gladly did so.
Once again I was taken by God’s Word. What a perfect representation of how the assembling of God’s people should be. By week’s end our candles may be burned out or barely flickering. Yet when we assemble we are to reignite our love and passion. “And let us be concerned about one another in order to promote love and good works, not staying away from our worship meetings, as some habitually do, but encouraging each other, and all the more as you see the day drawing near,” (Heb. 11:24-25, HCSB).
I won’t go through the rest of the service, but just make two more quick notes that impressed me. The first was the number of times the exclamation of Christ’s resurrection was made. “CHRIST IS RISEN!” from the priest as everyone responded, “INDEED, HE IS RISEN!” It was done multiple times; if I were to guess at least two dozen times I do not think I would be exaggerating. They said it not only in English but in Russian and Greek (Russian OC). Throughout the liturgy, the priest would (in my inexperienced understanding) suddenly walk down the aisle with his censer and begin the victory cry. It was really fascinating.
The second part was what is called the Troparion: “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.” It took me a few times before I caught all the words being said and so be able to join in. It was even a few more times before the profundity of those words struck home. Christ trampled death by death. In essence, Jesus killed death by dying and rising from the dead. That’s not new to me, but I am sure you have heard something said in a certain manner that isn’t familiar and it makes old things new again. That’s what the Troparion did for me. But it wasn’t just the words, it was how those words were sung. There was a sense of victory. Either I did not catch the inflection early on, or the inflection began to grow with anticipation and excitement as the night went on, but by the end there was this sense that yes, Jesus was victorious over death and we who will die and be buried will have life bestowed upon us as well.
Maybe it’s because I was so new to the Pascha service, or maybe it was because it had been a long day and I was overly sensitive, or maybe it is because that is the design of the service in the first place, but I came away bursting with a renewed look of Christ’s resurrection and myself as His light in the world. One last thing: I probably will not go another Easter without personally reading John Chrysostom’s Paschal Sermon.