Resurrecting Easter

by Jim Forest

Anastasis (Chora Church in Istanbul)

In his book Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton describes a British explorer setting off to discover a new island in the South Seas but by miscalculation landing instead at the Pavilion at Brighton — a pagan temple, he assumes, used by the local cannibals.

The explorer who merely discovers his own back yard may look like a blockhead to the detached observer, Chesterton comments, but his mistake is really an enviable one. For “what could be more delightful than to have in the same few minutes all the fascinating terrors of going abroad combined with all the humane security of coming home again?”

Chesterton’s point was that it is time for Christians to rediscover their own religion, at the very center of which is Christ risen from the dead.

Easter is, of course, as familiar to us as the Brighton Pavilion is to the English. Pascha (from the Hebrew word for Passover) is celebrated in every church whatever its theological and liturgical tendency. In even the most holiday-resistant Quaker Meeting, at least one voice will be raised out of the silence on Easter Sunday to take note of the resurrection.

But within Christianity today, the great guardians and celebrators of Easter are the Orthodox.

It is striking that in the western Church the preeminent holiday is Christmas, though this wasn’t always the case. In fact there was no celebration of the nativity of Jesus in the early Church.

Perhaps the reason we in the west have especially taken to Christmas is because of the Age of Reason and all that led up to it and has been stamped by it. The birth of Jesus is something the most reasonable person can accept effortlessly — if Jesus lived, surely he was born. Whether we think he was God Incarnate or simply an itinerant rabbi who unintentionally created a movement we call Christianity, still we can celebrate his birthday. But nothing is more at odds with reason than believing a murdered man rose from the dead. Therefore Easter is an embarrassment to many, something best explained allegorically: “The disciples had an inner experience of Christ after he was dead and buried…”

Meanwhile, down through the centuries the Orthodox have centered their religious lives on the most ancient and central of Christian feasts. Go to any Orthodox Church for the last hour or two of Lent and you will find it so packed that, as they say in Russia, “an apple cannot fall.”

My first experience of such an Easter occurred in 1987 at a parish church on the outskirts of Kiev. I was staying with one of the parish priests and therefore arrived somewhat early — 10 pm — but already a steady stream of people was walking up the dark hillside. By the time the service began these must have been 2,000 people jammed inside and again as many around the church.

My host, Father Boris, thought it best to put me on the altar side of the iconostasis where there was space and even a few ancient chairs. I was, at first, disappointed. A true Orthodox Easter is spent standing in the crowd. But at that time I was new to the Orthodox tradition of standing prayer and perhaps wouldn’t have been able to take a full five hours on my feet at a time when normally I would be asleep.

Through the central doors of the iconostasis, I had a view of a table heaped with Easter bread — kulich — and beyond it a sea of faces illumined by candle light.

Among those who stood out from my vantage point was a group of teen-agers who seemed never to have been in church before. Unlike those around them, they didn’t engage in the body language of Orthodox prayer: didn’t cross themselves, didn’t bow. The girls were without scarves. The tallest, a young woman, had short blond hair cut in punkish style and blue-shadowed eyes. What alert eyes! — round as saucers, watching everything with wonder. Now and then she pointed out to the boy next to her something that had caught her attention. There was great excitement in her face. I wondered if someday I might return and discover her wearing a scarf and crossing herself.

Four priests and a deacon were gathered around the altar. The dean of the church, Father Nicholas, was a handsome man with a moustache and goatee. Across from him was an older priest, an especially joyous character, despite a stroke that gave him little use of his left arm and leg. With his right hand, the old man directed the clerics in their singing, offering many gestures of encouragement and appreciation.

At times it seemed like anarchy at the altar, with whispers and sign language about what to do next. One of the priests would start singing something and another would cut him off with an urgent whisper, “Not yet, not yet!” Then someone else would take the lead. The scene at times was wild and disordered but always amiable.

Lent ran its final hour in a somber tone yet charged with expectancy. We were like people standing outside the tomb containing Christ’s dead body, at the same time awaiting a flash of lightning that would shatter death itself.

Easter itself began with a procession, three slow turns around the church. Those already outside parted to make way for the procession. In every hand was a candle. Then came a sung reading of the resurrection story from the Gospel. After incensing the icon of Christ standing on the broken gates of hell while raising Adam and Eve from their tombs, the dean sang out the announcement, “Christos voskresye!” Christ is risen! To this everyone responded in one voice, “Veyeestino voskresye!” Truly he is risen! The procession made its way back into the church, everyone singing again and again the Easter hymn:

“Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death
by death, and upon those in the tomb bestowing life.”

During the procession there was an explosion of bell-ringing. Russian bells sing their own Easter hymn in a particular pattern of sound that rejoices in the victory of life over death.

It is impossible to put on paper how this mixture of singing and bell-ringing sounds in the dead of night amidst many hundreds of candles and clouds of incense. The sound was like a deep shudder in the earth.

Back inside the church there was hardly air to breathe. The priests arranged themselves in front of the iconostasis and sang the opening five verses of the Gospel According to St. John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God …. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.” This was done first in Church Slavonic, then in Ukrainian, Russian, Greek, Latin, English, French and German. “The more languages we use in singing the Easter Gospel,” a friend from Moscow explained, “the better we like it. I was in a church once where they sang the Gospel text in twelve languages. It made the whole world present.”

Later came the traditional reading of the Easter sermon of St. John Chrysostom: “Enter then, all of you into the joy of our Lord. First and last, receive alike your reward. Rich and poor, dance together. You who have fasted and you who have not fasted, rejoice today. The table is fully laden: let all enjoy it…[and] let none go away hungry. Let none lament his poverty; for the universal Kingdom is revealed. Let none bewail his transgressions; for the light of forgiveness has risen from the tomb. Let none fear death; for the death of the Savior has set us free….”

After the five-hour service — vespers, Easter proclamation, morning prayer, Eucharist — the crowd outside parted to form a pathway about two yards wide which was lined with baskets full of food, each basket feebly lit by a candle struggling against the wind. A priest lavishly dowsed every basket with water blessed at the Easter service, at the same time showering everything and everyone. So many people were there to have their baskets blessed that the circles kept reforming. It took more than an hour for the four priests, working in turns, to bless every basket.

Even then the night was far from over. While the congregation walked back to Easter morning meals in their own apartments, the staff went into the parish house, an old one-storey wooden building that clung precariously to the edge of the hill, where a heavily laden table awaited us: brightly painted Easter eggs, high loaves of kulich, a pyramid-like mound of pascha (in this case referring to a treat made from butter, icing sugar, cream cheese and a bit of congnac), home-made sausage, sliced meat, wine and vodka. We remained together until after dawn.

That night in Kiev in 1987 was far from my first Easter, and yet (here I am like Chesterton’s explorer) it was. My exhaustion, my entrapment in the ordinary, my preoccupations, ambitions and worries — all had vanished into joy.

If the main gift I have received again and again from the Orthodox Church has been nothing less than Easter, this is something that has become inseparable from the austere richness of Great Lent. I have come to understand that Orthodoxy guards the treasure of the resurrection by preserving the disciplines of spiritual life that make us more capable of experiencing Easter.

In Orthodoxy, Lent doesn’t begin abruptly but takes root gradually over several weeks. The Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee is followed by the Sunday of the Prodigal Son, both of which point to the season of repentance the Church will soon enter upon. Next comes “Meat-fare Sunday” after which abstention from meat begins. And then “Cheese-fare Sunday,” after which the fast excludes dairy products and eggs. This day marks the final border crossing into Great Lent.

In my own mind, the real entry into Lent is Cheese-fare Sunday, also known as Forgiveness Sunday. On this day, directly after the Liturgy or later in the day at vespers time, each person is called upon to seek forgiveness from everyone else in the parish, and to offer forgiveness to them. “Let us call brothers even those who hate us,” declares one of the Easter verses sung in Orthodox churches, “and forgive all by the Resurrection.”

This annual face-to-face asking for forgiveness is a ritual as yet hardly known outside of Orthodoxy, though perhaps in time it will become part of ecumenical life. It is certainly not a ritual anyone could dismiss as empty. In my parish this year, before the whole congregation, one of our priests begged his wife to forgive him for his neglect and frequent times away. Each of us has something quite burdensome to confess to at least one other person in the church. There are many tears and much embracing.

Orthodox see mutual forgiveness as an essential precondition to our individual and corporal passage through Lent toward Easter. Fast by all means, for we live our spiritual life in body as well as soul, but even more important, repent and forgive.

One of the most striking characteristics of Orthodox spiritual life is the way in which the spiritual and physical are always connected — just as the spiritual life is seen as connecting us to those around us and requiring our physical as well as spiritual response to their urgent needs. (As I heard it put in an Easter sermon in Kiev that year of my first Russian Easter: “Bread for myself is a material question. Bread for my neighbor is a spiritual question.”)

Christ was raised from the dead in body and soul. Easter underlines the oneness of body and soul. This is why Orthodox pray not only in soul but in body, inner activity finding its outer “clothing” in various gestures, from making the sign of the cross to occasionally prostrating oneself on the floor. We bow toward the Gospel as it is carried through the church, for Christ is present in his Word. We kiss the icons and the cross: these are signs of connection to the communion of saints and the instruments of salvation. We light candles: the flame of prayer struck within us becomes one with the main source of light in the church. Again and again, inner action is reinforced by outer action, and vice versa. There is something of Easter in all these linkages.

Similarly there are also specific physical actions associated with each liturgical season. In a season especially set aside for repentance and forgiveness, the meatless Lenten diet is a proclamation of peace with the animal kingdom. At least for the 50 days or so leading up to Easter, we eat the fare of Adam and Eve.

If one is used to eating meat, it is something of a jolt to ban it from one’s table. We live in a secular age that tends to regard religious belief as more or less odd, and religious ritual as even worse, while fasting (unless justified for reasons of health) is a word that seems to belong to another century. But once the step is made, and not only meat but wine and beer and other treats disappear from the table, the freshness of mind that one experiences reveals unarguably the wisdom contained in liturgical tradition and its associated disciplines. Dietary restrictions entered upon for penitential reasons prove not to be hairshirts after all. Thus one begins not only to look forward to Easter but to Great Lent as well.

And the reason is simple: What makes us ready for the resurrection is itself illuminated by the resurrection.

* * *


the Easter sermon by St. John Chrysostom traditionally read during the all-night Easter service in Orthodox churches

If any be a devout lover of God, let him partake with gladness from this fair and radiant feast. If any be a faithful servant, let him enter rejoicing into the joy of his Lord. If any have wearied himself with fasting, let him now enjoy his reward. If any have labored from the first hour, let him receive today his rightful due. If any have come after the third, let him celebrate the feast with thankfulness. If any have arrived after the sixth, let him not be in doubt, for he will suffer no loss. If any have delayed until the ninth, let him not hesitate but draw near. If any have arrived only at the eleventh, let him not be afraid because he comes so late. For the Master is generous and accepts the last even as the first. He gives rest to him who comes at the eleventh hour in the same way as to him who has labored from the first. He accepts the deed, and commends the intention.

Enter then, all of you into the joy of our Lord. First and last, receive alike your reward. Rich and poor, dance together. You who have fasted and you who have not fasted, rejoice today. The table is fully laden: let all enjoy it. The calf is fatted: let none go away hungry. Let none lament his poverty; for the universal Kingdom is revealed. Let none bewail his transgressions; for the light of forgiveness has risen from the tomb. Let none fear death; for the death of the Savior has set us free.

He has destroyed death by undergoing death. He has despoiled hell by descending into hell. Hell was filled with bitterness when it met thee face to face below: filled with bitterness, for it was brought to nothing; filled with bitterness, for it was mocked; filled with bitterness, for it was overthrown; filled with bitterness, for it was put in chains. It received a body, and encountered God. It received earth, and confronted heaven. O death where is thy sting?

O hell, where is thy victory? Christ is risen, and thou art cast down. Christ is risen and the demons are fallen. Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice. Christ is risen, and life reigns in freedom. Christ is risen, and there is none left dead in the tomb. For Christ, being raised from the dead, has become the first-fruits of those that slept. To him be glory and dominion to the ages of ages.