Russian Easter in Amsterdam

by Nancy Forest

published in The Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate for August 1988

The Russian Orthodox Church of St. Nicholas of Myra in Amsterdam is a community of contrasts. At no time was that more evident than during the Easter Liturgy this year, my husband and I being the first example of contrast with us: we are Americans living in the Netherlands who, looking for a place to pray and grow, came to St. Nicholas’. We find ourselves within a mixed community of Dutch, Russians, English, American, Eastern European — Christians who have also made this Church of St. Nicholas their spiritual home.

The Church itself takes up residence in an unused chapel of a huge Roman Catholic Church, “The Dove,” which had been slated for sale and demolition by the bishop but consequently was “squatted” by the congregation, who occupied it illegally until the city rescued it by declaring the building an untouchable monument. So we came together from West and East to celebrate the Resurrection this year, crowded into a corner of an old Catholic monument abandoned to the bulldozer by its own hierarchy. In this secular city, St. Nicholas is like a flame in the snow. [In 1995, the congregation needing larger space, the parish moved to its own building at Kerkstraat 342, not far from the chapel it formerly rented.]

We arrived at 10 PM on Saturday evening for the reading of the Acts of the Apostles. Boris Chapchal, the church’s reader, began in Dutch. The reading was delegated to others as they entered the church. My husband Jim and I both read from the English Bible we had brought. Some chanted, some read, and the reading proceeded as more and more people entered the darkened church.

At 11.30 PM, the reading ended and Matins began. The enlarged choir had gathered in the balcony above the church was packed — far more people than usual came: Romanians, Serbs, Greeks, Romanians, Georgians and others, each holding an unlit candle.

It was something that many present had grown up with, but it was my first Orthodox Easter. Our family had come through the Great Fast for the first time and had come to an entirely new understanding of the spiritual benefits of fasting. Far from being a penitential burden, the fast had served to clean the clutter from our lives and our hearts. We came to the Liturgy with a sense of pure, simple, attentive anticipation.

The procession took us out into the Amsterdam streets, busy with Saturday night activity. We walked into this vast, dark space, the choir singing with great power, and Fr. Alexis Voogd (a Dutchman) cried out in Slavonic, “Christ Is Risen!” we answered him, also in Slavonic, “He is Risen Indeed!” and the doors opened to the corridor that led us back into church where the wall could hardly contain us.

At the end of Matins, we fell to hugging, kissing and greeting each other, which went on for quite some time. Familiar faces unfamiliar faces, candles in hand, red-dyed Easter eggs, more joy than I have ever witnessed in a church at Easter, not to mention more joy than I have ever witnessed in a Dutch assembly of any variety.

The Liturgy followed and went on until 3.00 AM, Fr. Alexis repeatedly holding up the flower-garlanded cross and proclaiming “Christ Is Risen!” — in Slavonic Dutch, English, Greek, Serbian, Romanian, French, and German. Each time, those of us who knew the response in that language cried out, “He Is Risen Indeed!” It felt like Pentecost.

With the Millennium year, many in the West are learning about the Russian Orthodox Church for the first time. For some it is a curiosity, something peculiarly Slavonic and eastern, colored with national identity. But for many others, the Orthodox Church, with its wonderful spiritual treasures, is an unexpected gift from the East.