Christ is Risen! Xpictoc Bockpece! Xristos Anesti!
I just realized I never posted anything yesterday on the actual day of Pascha! For those of you who aren’t Orthodox, when we Orthos talk about Pascha, it probably gets translated in your brain as “Easter, but weirder”. To a certain degree, that’s a fair assessment. This year, in addition to being weird, it has been a very different Pascha due to the pandemic. I want to talk about this a bit, but first I think I need to “set the scene” of what a typical Pascha is like. Forgive me for the length!
What is Pascha, anyway?
Pascha (the Greek version of pesach, Passover) is the feast celebrating the resurrection of Christ in the Orthodox Church. Sometimes it is the same day as Western Easter, but usually it is one or more weeks behind Easter. Why is it a different date? Basically it has to do with the the change from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar. Here is a good summary if you’d like to know more.
The standard Paschal service means showing up at church an hour or so before midnight. The church is dark and you hear a person chanting Psalms while everyone else is trying to be quiet, but fails as there is energized low chatter of everyone who is excited to finally be here after the 40+ days of Lent and Holy Week. At 11:45 PM or so, the Midnight Office begins with readings and hymns of the many Old Testament passages that are seen as prefigurements of Christ (The parting of the Red Sea, Jonah and the Well, the Three Youths in the Fire). At the end of that short service, all lights are extinguished and, after a minute or so of silence, all see a single flickering candlelight from behind the iconostasis (a screen of icons that separates the altar from the nave) and the priest begins chanting “Thy Resurrection, O Christ our Saviour, the angels in heaven sing, enable us on earth to glorify Thee with purity of heart”. It is sung again, picked up by the other clergy and servers in the area as the priest’s candle light’s their candles. By the third time it is sung, the people join in as a room that was completely dark is now filled with the light of hundreds of candles and the sound of an equal number of voices joyously singing the same hymn as we proceed out of the church, make a procession around the building singing the hymn, and gather outside singing at the top of our lungs after midnight as bells ring out loudly. This inversion of the dark and quiet of night destroyed by light and song by the resurrected life of God that could not be contained within the depths of the grave speaks to the entering of heaven to earth and to us partaking in a reality more real than what we generally consider as empirical reality.
Here is a short video from this part of the service from 2019:
For the entirety of Lent, there has been an aesthetic of asceticism and repentance. The vestments and liturgical fixtures, normally in golden fabric, are a deep red or purple. The melodies of the hymns are simpler and more often in minor keys. All the faithful are asked to increase their prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, forgiving each other and striving to purify their hearts as they do their best to not hurt others in their lives. But now, this fast is at an end! The fabrics are changed to a gleaming bright white, the music is joyous, loud, and back to major keys, fast tempos, and concordant harmonies. There is an electricity in the air. This is the moment for which we have all waited for nearly two months. Infectious smiles erupt as the priest shouts “Christ is Risen!” and the faithful shout back “Indeed, He is Risen!” in a multitude of languages whose speakers are part of our parish. When the time comes for the Gospel reading, the text is always the first 17 verses of the Gospel According to St. John (“In the Beginning was the Word…”) and this reading is chanted by members of the parish in Greek, Russian, Romanian, Spanish, Urdu, Korean, French, German, Gaelic, Swahili, and other languages. The sermon for this service is the traditional Paschal Homily of St. John Chrysostom, a 4th century bishop named “golden-mouthed”(Chrysostom) because of the quality of his preaching. I have not the skill to give a proper summary, but I urge you to click the link above and read the five-minute homily.
Then continues a long liturgy that beautiful, full of gorgeous music and happy, sleepy people up well past their bedtimes. The small children (most of whom arrived in their PJs) bed down on blankets against the walls and sometimes even I catch myself swaying a bit somewhere between wakefulness and slumber, somewhere between heaven and earth. We experience a bit of the insubstantial, but our yawns, our sore feet, and the crying of children still awake let us not be completely carried away by our participation. At the end of the liturgy, after receiving the Eucharist, it is sometime between two and three in the morning. The service is over and now it is time for the feast!
The priest blesses the Pascha baskets brought by most families, the baskets are standard woven baskets usually filled with foods the family has missed during the fast of Lent (where we become essentially vegan for almost two months), perhaps a bottle of wine/beer/ouzo to share, and a now-lit candle on top. As the priest blesses the baskets of “fleshmeat and curdled milk”, many of the candles are snuffed out by the large brush with which holy water is flung onto the baskets (and upon the faithful who stand near the baskets!). The austerity of the fast is replaced by the abundance and radiant exuberation of the feast. I have found myself interrupted while eating a leg of lamb to sample an aged rare cheese, drink a shot of vodka with men and women in their sixties, sing ‘Sweet Caroline’ as a group, and once I (a three-hundred-pound, six-foot-tall man) was even given a piggyback ride around the outdoor tented feasting area by a half-sober giant of a man. The children run amuck in the field eating chocolate and bacon in the middle of the night, playing with their friends, the teenagers end up sneaking alcohol and sometimes seeing that adults aren’t always too boring, and every single person is completely exhausted and the happiest they’ve been all year. New Year’s Eve does not hold a candle to Pascha!
Sometime between five and six in the morning, after songs are sung and drivers designated, we leave to drive home, tuck the kids in bed and grab a few hours sleep before we are back at noon. For a short 45-minute service singing hymns and an egg hunt for the children. Many people are now decked out in their finest, perhaps some of the gentlemanly sort are wearing a seersucker suit per our local Southern tradition. For a while my friends and I had a tradition of wearing Hawaiian shirts to this noon service. Whatever your best is, wear that!
Lent in the Time of Coronavirus
All of us have been impacted in ways both major and minor by the COVID-19 pandemic. I know college and high school students who will not be back on campus for the graduation, people who have lost their jobs due to the pandemic, and those who have become sick (and thankfully so far recovered) from COVID-19.
Our bishop (Archbishop Alexander of Dallas and the South) from the beginning has mandated that all the churches he shepherds in the Southeast abide by civil authorities efforts to flatten the curve and immediately set into place a system by which the liturgies would continue to be served by a skeleton crew (5 people, a priest, a deacon, and three chanters/choir members) and live streamed for the rest of the faithful.
We’ve all had to deal with coronavirus disruption in our lives. I am sure that missing the weekly services of the church is no more difficult in a sense than missing work, school, or social events. We’re all having to become accustomed to having meetings over Zoom and realizing how much we have taken grated human contact outside of our households. At times, we show our best by hosting online coffee hours, Zoom readings of Shakespeare (I was Don Pedro in a reading of Much Ado About Nothing), virtual choirs, and other methods of virtual connection. Other times we show our worst being overwhelmed by the lack of human contact and cabin fever, perhaps becoming cross or irascible toward the people we live with, or perhaps becoming sullen and shutting down our daily routines, devolving into people that stay up too late watching nonsense videos, eating junk, and get into too many internet arguments. This unflattering portrait has been my own on more than one occasion during this season of self-isolation.
Through it all, my wife and I have kept up the unspoken thought, ‘yes, things are difficult now, but surely this will be over in time for Pascha’. As the calendar date kept moving closer and closer to Holy Week, we found ourselves going through all of the classic Kubler-Ross stages of grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and finally Acceptance. The mandate from the bishop stipulated that the same five people be at each service so the chance of transmission is lessened, and I found myself angry at each and every one of those five in turn. Not for who they were or anything they had to done to me, of course—these were some of my favorite people—but by the simple fact they were there and I was not. My wife Megan and I cried a lot of tears and sadness and anger during this time.
Suffering is an inherent part of Christian belief. When you believe that God is a man who was reviled, spat upon, tortured, and executed, you should obviously know that life is not always sunshine and roses and that you too may be called to suffer. Of course, sitting at home when you’d rather be at church is an incredibly minor form of suffering compared to those who have been tortured or martyred for their faith or ever those who have given up the comforts of modern life to serve in asceticism. These ‘baby steps’ of suffering we have experienced can nevertheless be given for our own spiritual growth. The denial of one’s own desires is a hard thing. One of the reasons we fast from particular foods during Lent is as a training from more difficult desires of pride, anger, control, and libido. If we can’t fast from Big Macs for forty days, how can we expect to suffer for our faith if we are ever truly called to do so?
I’ve never had a perfect fasting experience during Lent. There’s always some kind of job function, extended-family event, or other situation where I make the choice and give into my desire for meat and cheese. It has always been within me to be faithful or not-faithful, and usually I fail that test. This pandemic has taken a lot of choice away from me, but Megan and I decided we would be vigilant, and other than having an Easter meal at my Mom’s house last week, we have kept the fast. This tiny victory is not at all worth going through the pandemic, but it is evidence that we can use some of our suffering for spiritual transformation. I still haven’t prayed as much I should have, and with being out of work for three months, it has been difficult to give alms, but at least we have done a decent job of keeping the fast. More importantly, we have done a good job at forgiving each other when the anger and tears cause us to snap at the other with or without cause. I am thankful for my wife and my kids, for they are given to me for my salvation. The marriage service explicitly states several times that marriage is a type of martyrdom (that is why we wear crowns at our weddings). I am thankful for my wife Megan who loves me and forgives me all times I am a bad husband momentarily as I struggle to be a good husband and father ultimately. It is a long road of trials, but there is no one I would rather be shackled to on this path than her.
The Pascha No One Wanted
All of these disjoined narratives bring me back to Pascha 2020, the Pascha no one wanted. Instead of spending Holy Week in many services at my beloved parish, instead we watched live streamed services as I did yard work and began working remotely at my new job. Holy Saturday, the day before Pascha, my wife cooked many of the foods that traditionally find their way into our pascha basket, such as a bacon explosion and baked macaroni and cheese, and assembled other favorites such as brie and bottles of bourbon and belgian beers. We watched the midnight service at St. Tikhon’s Monastery on Facebook, then ate our bacon and macaroni after singing along with the service. Many churches adapted to the skeleton crew by moving from the midnight service to a Paschal Liturgy the next morning, and we woke and bounced between the live stream of our parish in Greenville and another parish we’re close to in Greensboro, NC. Afterward, we had an online meal/coffee hour session on Zoom with 25 or so people from our church. I got to see the efforts that so many people went to decorate their homes, dress in their best outfits for the feast, and incorporate services at their homes.
It was so good to see and speak with these people we love, but even in my joy of Pascha and in the joy of their company, I still compared myself to others and found myself wanting. I still have a lot of work to do on myself. This truly was the Pascha I did not want, but I cannot say that it was not spiritually profitable in ways that I would have never conceived. There’s an old saying that “you get the priest you need”. Perhaps this was the Pascha I needed to help me not take the services of the Church and the people I love for granted. Perhaps this minor suffering was what I needed to have mercy and love for those who suffer much more than I do on a daily basis. I can tell you there are many things I will never take for granted again, our beautiful Paschal service being at the top of the list.
As we continue to self-isolate out of our love for our neighbors with no end in sight, it is important to not waste this time of suffering, this involuntary asceticism. We can make it mean something by using the pain we feel as a crucible to become the people we need to be. This will not bring back the people we’ve lost due to this horrible virus, but perhaps we will not waste this cross that has been given to all of us collectively. Please do not let this suffering be for nothing—let it pierce your heart and allow your heart to be reformed to love and serve our neighbors, our world, and our God.