A very interesting account of a first-time visitor to an Orthodox Midnight Pascha service:
I love Easter. It’s my favorite holy day. Because of this fact, I often try to make it as meaningful as I can for myself and my family. In the past, we’ve done the Sunrise Services, pancake breakfast, passion plays, walk through Jerusalem re-enactments, climbed Mt. Rubidoux, experienced a Lutheran Tenebrae, visited a Catholic Monastery to hear monks sing in Latin, and attended Messianic Seder Dinners. This year, with some friends becoming Eastern Orthodox and the fact that my mom has always wanted to go to a candlelight service, I decided to partake in the Midnight Pascha Service at St. Andrews in Riverside, CA. To, which, all I can really say is it was a profound and moving experience. Every other Easter Celebration now feels mundane in comparison.
A word of caution, this by no means indicates that I am considering becoming a catechumen of the Orthodox Church. Maybe, at some future time, but as for now, I am simply an admirer of the beauty that the OC displays.
To my Orthodox friends, I’m sorry if I have misrepresented any part of the service.
I hope you enjoy reading about my experience as much as I enjoyed being there.
I enter alone; isolated in a room full of strangers. They don’t feel like strangers tonight, though we’ve never met. I have not been greeted or returned the blessing; though I am out of place there, I don’t feel that way. Tonight is different. It’s a grand celebration, a feast. The Feast of feasts.
As I walk up to the large heavy doors leading to the nave, there is a table outside with ladies selling candles. There are other candles offered, but these are hand painted and I argue with myself, whether I should purchase one or not and then I realize just what a miser I am. I tell myself “why not, it’s not like you do this everyday or for that matter ever. You should enjoy the whole experience.” So, I pick one out, it’s simple and yet, elaborate with spirals dots and a picture of Jesus bearing his cross. As I’m searching for the candle I want to bare, I overhear the man next to me tell the ladies he has only been to a service four times and never has he been to a midnight paschal service. The ladies exclaimed that he was in for a very exciting celebration. I smile along with the man and then tag along behind him. I figured we were in the same boat, we’re both watchers, come-arounds, so why not stay close.
We entered the nave ten minutes early and already it was shoulder-to-shoulder standing room only. I’m sure they wouldn’t have it any other way. Most people stand throughout most of the services, so why should tonight be any different.
The room flickers and dances with the orange and red of burning candles, strewn around the room next to saints, a heavenly cloud of witness rejoicing with his servants on the Earth. A young man is reading in a very monotone script from the scriptures, though I can’t quite make out what it is he is reading.
Then the candles are blown out. We stand in darkness. There is anticipation for the moment to be over, for the darkness to subside. But there is also great reflection and symbolism in the Darkness.
Behind the Iconostasis there is still a dancing of color; the only light in the building. Then suddenly the Priest pulls back the curtains. He stands there with the Holy flame, lighting the way for all to see. The congregation filters into the aisle way to have their candle lit. I hear an usher whisper to the man next to me to go on up. I’m nervous, not sure if everyone is to go, I stepped forward and then back again a couple of times. I don’t want to impose where I’m not wanted. I should be an observer not participating. But the usher, nods at me and bids me to go up as well.
I never noticed before, but standing before this Priest , he looks like an Icon of Jesus. He is tall and slender with a scraggly brown beard that has hints of gray throughout, shoulder length brown hair pulled back into a ponytail and deep brown eyes. Strange, a living replica of Christ holding the Holy flame. “Come ye and receive light from the unwaning light, and. glorify Christ, who arose from the dead.”
I’m up before the people lighting my white candle with handmade decorations and my picture of Christ bearing his cross, to light from the Eternal Flame. I notice the wick is bent and broken. I’m freaked out. I’m bent and broken. What if it doesn’t light? I’m pleading with God and with my candle “please light, please light, please light.” It takes a moment, but finally a minuscule flame unsteadily sparks forth. I walk back to where I was standing to the other observers, the other watchers, the come-arounds and light their candles from mine. I am the apostle of the come-arounds.
The congregation files out into a procession, a crussesion, led by the Cross and incense and altar singers. Right outside the church, people are hitting the sematron, a wooden plank. It’s loud and noisy. It’s a call to prayer. Quietly we walk around the entire building. The symbolism is not lost on me. Christ is the light of the world; he has touched each and every one of us with his light that shines in us. We are now the light of the world to a darkened world.
The stark contrast of the world was not lost on me either. While slowly making our way around the building, on the street below was a car filled with college kids. “I’m already drunk!” one of the passengers yelled. Then the music was bumping at ear ringing decimals: “F@#$ all these N@#$&” the song repeated and repeated.
Overlooking the street stands the church, a light on a hill: tonight a silent witness arrayed in the beauty, the glow of candlelight.
When the congregation stopped, here we stood, in front of the tall heavy doors. Mark 16, the gospel account of Resurrection Sunday, was read and then the church broke forth into a hymn. The choir leader starts off slightly above a whisper but grows with each time he sings the stanza until just under a guttural, throaty scream:
Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and on those in the grave bestowing life.
The Priest acts out Psalm 24 with a member of the church who is waiting inside.
Pounding on the heavy doors with his icon of the cross, he cries out,” Lift up your heads, O ye gates; and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors; and the King of glory shall come in.”
With a deep thunderous voice, the unknown person responds, “Who is this King of glory?”
Again the Priest hits the door three times and loudly cries out, “The LORD strong and mighty, the LORD mighty in battle. Who is this King of Glory?Lift up your heads, O ye gates; even lift them up, ye everlasting doors; and the King of glory shall come in. Who is this King of glory?
The LORD of hosts, he is the King of glory!
The church opens its doors to a heavenly whiteness. There are bells clanging, the choir and church is singing. The Priest is joyful, exuberant. He is walking; No, striding up and down the aisle way, censing the people and the icons while shouting Christ has risen! The Church is joyful, laughing, and replying just as loudly, “truly, he has risen!”
The sorrow is gone, the deep contemplation is gone, only an ecstatic elation that our Savior has risen and conquered death. This is a time for rejoicing, a time for the church to celebrate.
I walk out the door sometime after two-thirty in the morning and the service is still going strong. This has been the Easter service I’ve been longing for throughout my Christian life.
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