Many people were already in the church when I arrived about 11:00 p.m. on Saturday night. On the carpet in the transept opposite the choir several blankets and children were laid out. I bought a fat candle to have ready for the procession, but it wasn’t lit until an hour later, and in the meantime I was getting intoxicated by the honey-warm scent rising to my nose, feeling as though I was already breaking the fast with some rich dessert. It smelled richer than baklava.
Then the Easter lilies came into olfactory focus, blending with the beeswax. By this time my ears were full of the hymns reminding me of Christ’s rising from the tomb, in a garden, in a real place on the earth, because He was really a man of flesh and blood as we are. When He rose He must have noticed whatever flowers were blooming in that garden.
|Camellia in our church garden during Holy Week|
Families were arriving, and while most males were dressed in their “ordinary” best Sunday clothes, the clergy wore white vestments, and many women and girls had put together very springy and bright, often all-white, outfits. A score of little girls had flouncy skirts that would have been fancy enough for a ball, or for acting the role of a fairy in a drama. I was so happy for their being able to commemorate their Lord’s Resurrection by being their prettiest.
Even I had found a long and full eyelet skirt at a discount store, to wear with an odd assortment of other white things, and switched from black to flowered purse. There were lots of us, then, adding our white forms to the press of bodies, including the Eritreans who always wear beautiful white gauze. On this day more Eritrean men than usual wore their white gauze, too.
When the deacons and priests started around with censers, it was with the incense that is so heady I want to cry over it, knowing that “Jesus is fairer, Jesus is sweeter….” Is it made from roses? I must find out about this.
When we made our procession around the property — it was a longer route than merely around the church building — yes, there was some drizzle, but very fine, and not enough to put out anyone’s candle. We were singing our new Paschal processional hymn, which the choir tried to teach the rest of us last week, but I know I didn’t get it. Several of us noted as we were trailing along silently, too far behind in the train to hear the choir, that it had taken us ten years to learn the old Paschal hymn; it would have helped to have the choir members scattered along the line, interspersed with the rest of us and leading us.
But I think everyone was content. We were at Pascha! At one point we who were closer to the front of the long line could see across the lawn to a stream of worshipers at the end of the procession, and the view was stunning, their white garments reflecting the flickering candles they were holding up in the dark. There were hundreds of us! I didn’t think it seemed that crowded in the building.
Soon we arrived again at the doors of the church, at which the priest knocked, and then, “He is not here! He is risen!” When we went inside we heard as always on this night the Paschal homily of St. John Chrysostom, which he gave about 1600 years ago and which has never sounded sweeter to my ears, full as it is of the love and grace of God. As we float through Bright Week and through the next 50 days, its glad tidings will remind us to keep greeting one another with “Christ is risen!”
This year our Father Michael, who is over 80 years old, read the homily. Somehow his voice never weakens, and retains the strength and authority of a strong spirit. Every time he serves or preaches I am so thankful for the grace that enables him to keep going, because he is so dear. His heart is such that the message of this sermon is of the sort that would flow from his own pen and lips.
At every repetition of the phrase, “Hell [or it] was embittered,” Fr. Michael paused so that the congregation could answer with a shout: “It was embittered!” — a sort of boisterous participation that we all seem to enjoy this one time in the year.
In a hearty baritone, this is what he proclaimed:
- If anyone is devout and a lover of God, let him enjoy this beautiful and radiant festival.
- If anyone is a grateful servant, let him, rejoicing, enter into the joy of his Lord.
- If anyone has wearied himself in fasting, let him now receive recompense.
- If anyone has labored from the first hour, let him today receive the just reward.
- If anyone has come at the third hour, with thanksgiving let him feast.
- If anyone has arrived at the sixth hour, let him have no misgivings; for he shall suffer no loss.
- If anyone has delayed until the ninth hour, let him draw near without hesitation.
- If anyone has arrived even at the eleventh hour, let him not fear on account of tardiness.
- For the Master is gracious and receives the last even as the first; He gives rest to him that comes at the eleventh hour, just as to him who has labored from the first.
- He has mercy upon the last and cares for the first; to the one He gives, and to the other He is gracious.
- He both honors the work and praises the intention.
- Enter all of you, therefore, into the joy of our Lord, and, whether first or last, receive your reward.
- O rich and poor, one with another, dance for joy!
- O you ascetics and you negligent, celebrate the day!
- You that have fasted and you that have disregarded the fast, rejoice today!
- The table is rich-laden: feast royally, all of you!
- The calf is fatted: let no one go forth hungry!
- Let all partake of the feast of faith. Let all receive the riches of goodness.
- Let no one lament their poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed.
- Let no one mourn their transgressions, for pardon has dawned from the grave.
- Let no one fear death, for the Saviour’s death has set us free.
- He that was taken by death has annihilated it!
- He descended into Hades and took Hades captive!
- He embittered it when it tasted His flesh! And anticipating this, Isaiah exclaimed: “Hades was embittered when it encountered Thee in the lower regions“.
- It was embittered, for it was abolished!
- It was embittered, for it was mocked!
- It was embittered, for it was purged!
- It was embittered, for it was despoiled!
- It was embittered, for it was bound in chains!
- It took a body and came upon God!
- It took earth and encountered Ηeaven!
- It took what it saw, but crumbled before what cannot be seen!
- O death, where is thy sting?
- O Hades, where is thy victory?
- Christ is risen, and you are overthrown!
- Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen!
- Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice!
- Christ is risen, and life reigns!
- Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in a tomb!
- For Christ, being raised from the dead, has become the first-fruits of them that have slept.
- To Him be glory and might unto the ages of ages.
As I finish this post, it is Bright Tuesday. I went to church, and the gospel for today was the story of Christ meeting some of His followers on the Road to Emmaus soon after His rising from the dead. The unfolding of the scene, and imagining the Lord walking alongside and hearing them telling about the recent events — then their eyes being opened, His vanishing from their sight…. They said, “Didn’t our hearts burn within us?” And I got chills.
|The altar is open all during Bright Week.|