The Fall of my Senior year in high school my dad announced that he was going to a service at an Orthodox Church 20 minutes away. He was not entirely sure it wasn’t all going to be in Russian. He came home delighted. It was in English, and it was beautiful. It was a spiritual coming home. As a family, we went the next week.
I remember it smelled strongly of incense, and that we stood up listening to the choir sing. I didn’t know what to do with my arms while standing for the better part of two hours and listening and looking at icons. The priest came in and out of a wall of icons with doors with icons in them followed by a deacon and a collection of altar boys. People brought candles to a corner to light them. Everything was so strange and beautiful and orchestrated.
It took a few months for the patterns to emerge, to begin to sing along to the refrains of the psalms and the litanies: Lord have mercy. I learned to cross myself, and eventually to kiss or venerate an icon. It was different than raising my hands to a praise chorus at the non-denominational Pentecostal church we had attended before, but it felt more connected than I had expected. It felt the same ultimately because the people at both churches loved Jesus and showed this in singing and using their hands in worship.
That first spring we all journeyed through Lent together, arriving wide eyed and expectant at that first Paschal weekend. The services invite you to take up the steps of the first disciples. On Friday, there is a tomb upon which a death shroud icon of Christ with pierced hands and feet is laid. Until early on Easter Sunday, it is there as a reminder and image of Christ slain and lying in the tomb. It is decorated with flowers, and people volunteer to read continually through the Psalms and the book of Acts night and day. Like those first disciples, you stay up late, and eat only a little, waiting and keeping watch.
Finally, at 11:30 pm on Saturday night we come to the tomb, lit by only a few candles. When the weather permits, we take our candles outside after the final leg of the vigil. Like the women coming to the tomb early on Sunday, we walk under trees around the outside of the church. When we finally come back to the church, we burst in upon the empty tomb, which the attendants have prepared while we were outside. The dark has been replaced by white light, the waiting with celebration.
Into the night we sing, sometimes in Russian or Greek and also with spoken parts in Norwegian, Spanish, and Arabic we proclaim that Christ has Risen from the Dead. And then after singing we come to the table. First there is Easter morning communion, and then we extend the feast with baskets and a picnic dinner at 3 am downstairs.
That first Pascha that I attended over 10 years ago, the women of the church put together a basket for my family. It was a symbol of the hospitality that was continually extended to us. We know how to make our own picnic basket now, although, we’ve had to learn to make some of the recipes Paleo.
My parents joined the church that Fall. My first trip home from college was for the service. I was so happy for them to join, to be a part of the place that had taught me how to worship with incense and readings from the church Fathers. It was beautiful to see the peace in my Dad’s face and the joy that my parents had together to step into this stream of the Church.
This past weekend my brother and sister-in-law joined. On the Saturday morning service between Great Friday (as it is called in the East) and Pascha (Easter Sunday), they were anointed with Holy Oil. It’s called Holy Chrismation, and like the West’s sacrament of confirmation, it recognizes their baptisms and brings them into full communion of the church.
It was beautiful to come back to this place, to that service, and to watch it become more of a home to my family. I loved watching my brother take communion for the first time, to hear the prayer for Candace and the child that she bears, to hear my husband Evan hum the Pascha hymns, which he had gotten to hear for the first time, throughout this week.
I have learned so much about how to understand the Church and worship at the Orthodox Church. Yes, it is about understanding icons and incense and Russian hymns and typography, but it also about the welcoming of the people. It is the dozen hugs from people I haven’t seen in a few years. It was how one of the men showed me that the match box we gave out as a wedding favor had been used to light some of the candles for the service. We are part of that extended family, welcomed to wait with them at the tomb and feast with them in the bright light of the Resurrection.
The family of God is big. It has different traditions and ways of remembering. But we are all called to remember the Death and Resurrection of Christ, and we are all called to welcome people into the family. We are called to walk in the footsteps of the myrrh bearing women, to journey to the tomb and find it empty and run back and announce the Good News. We are all invited to the Feast of the Resurrected Lord. So eat your chocolate, and drink your coffee. The fast is over, and the family has gathered for dinner.
How are you keeping the feast this week?
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