Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Hard Christianity

Pysanky - Ukrainian Easter Eggs

As I was waiting to meet my priest for confession the week before Holy Week, I remember thinking how, as a Protestant pastor, I had become an expert at minimizing my sins and convincing myself that my particular ‘issues’ were manageable, all the while being careful not to let on about what I was really struggling with for fear that would be the end of my job and possibly my career.  And here I was, having listed examples of those very same defects, ‘issues’ and sins, about to walk in and discuss them with another person, and then confess them before the icon of Christ, and receive the healing forgiveness that comes when one acknowledges one’s true state and one’s true need and cries out for mercy.  Such an honesty would have seemed too costly in my former life, too risky.  Now I am part of a church where this sort of confession is what all of us do.  It is the norm.  We are sinners.  We need forgiveness.  This is how we receive grace.  Hard Christianity.

On Good Friday night, I was standing at the chanters’ stand waiting for the service to start.  I was thinking back to other churches I know.  Some of them attempted Good Friday services but stopped them because of lack of interest.  Others had mid-day services attended by a hand-full of people on their lunch break.  Others decided to put their energies into a full-blown Maunday Thursday service the night before and let that carry them through till Easter Sunday.  Sometimes, it seemed that the most important issue driving whether or not to have a service was what was most convenient for the most number of people  And as we began chanting the service and the first of many, many psalms that we would chant and hymns that we would sing and readings that we would chant, I looked behind me and saw a crowded sanctuary full of people who would spend the entire six hour service standing and attending to what we were singing and to the liturgy.  Three hours later, my feet were hurting, my shoes were off, and we were still standing and chanting and listening to Scripture and singing.  Moment by moment we were using the liturgy and the hymns to enter into the experience of that day, to look up and find ourselves in the icon of the crucifixion, the icon of the deposition from the cross, the icon of Christ and the small clutch of grief-stricken mourners at the tomb.  We went on a procession, carrying the icon of the body of Christ outside around the Church, just like a middle-eastern funeral.  And when we closed the service near midnight, in a church darkened except for a few candles, each one of us approached on our knees the makeshift tomb in the center of the nave, and kissed the wounds on Christ’s body in tender reverence.  And then we left in silence.  I dare say this was not very seeker-sensitive. But it is the way the Church has been marking the death of our Lord for more than 1500 years.  It’s how we receive grace.  Joining with the angels in worship.  Hard Christianity.

For 50 days we had been fasting.  This is not the ‘giving up chocolate for Lent’ fast of fashionable High-Church Protestants.  This is the no meat, not dairy, no eggs, no oil fast that the Orthodox have been doing for as far back as there are records about such things.  So I ate a lot of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, a lot of pasta and tomato sauce, a lot of beans and rice.  Full disclosure – I made the unilateral decision to declare apple pie an official fasting food, so I ate a lot of apple pie, too.  Over the years I’ve discovered that I really don’t like soy milk, and I really can’t abide almond milk.  So I eat dried fruit for breakfast.  The two great things about Orthodox fasting is that, first, it’s not legalistic.  We are told to do what we can.  And we are told not to impose our fast on anyone else.  So if we are invited to dinner by someone who isn’t Orthodox, we receive with gratitude whatever is served.  Secondly, we are all in it together.  All of us are fasting, because that’s just what Christians do to get ready, in this case, for Holy Week and Pascha.  So there is no sense of ‘I’m more spiritual than you because I am fasting’, for the simple reason that everybody is fasting, or doing what they can.  I find fasting a challenge, because I rather like food, and I don’t like saying ‘no’ to what I want.  Realizing this is a step in the direction of fathoming the church’s real reason for fasting – fasting from food is of some value; fasting from sin is even better.  We are reminded that Jesus fasted, that his disciples fasted, that Christians in the early church fasted.  Fasting has been a central part of Christian spirituality and discipleship from the very beginning.  And it is hard.  The church doesn’t apologize for asking Christians to do something difficult, for expecting that its members will fast.  That’s what Christianity is about.  Hard, blessed Christianity.

Nothing prepares one for one’s first experience of Orthodox Easter, or ‘Pascha’.  I arrived at the church at 11:15 pm (!) on Saturday night in order to ensure I had a place to park.  Earlier in the evening, I baked a chocolate sour cream pound cake to share with everybody after all the chanting was done.  I entered a darkened church.  The entire church was an icon of the tomb.  I fell to my knees and approached the icon of the body of Jesus in the tomb and kissed his wounds, and then took my place at the chanters’ stand where two readers were in the process of reading the entire Book of Acts as people come in. 

By 11:45, all of my fellow choir members had arrived.  And the service started. It is first a matins (Orthros) service, which means lots of Psalms, and then, through hymns and Scripture the stories of the past three days are told leading up to the moment where we are.  The singing is like a funeral dirge.  We are reminded that Christ is not simply dead in the tomb but is busy freeing all of the dead in hades from their chains, including our first parents, Adam and Eve.  And now the hinge of the ages is upon us.  We go on a procession following the priests who carries the icon of Christ’s body over his head.  

Outside into the chill across the front and then around to the back of the church and then back to the front door, where the priest raps on the door with his cross and proclaims the resurrection of Christ.  And immediately we sing the resurrection hymn which will be repeated several scores of times – ‘Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!’  And we all process back into the church, at which point there is much singing, with the priest and deacons and acolytes repeatedly rushing into the midst of the congregation with the glad news that ‘Christ is risen!’ with all the people shouting back ‘Indeed He is risen!’  Handbells are ringing, the lights illumine the once darkened church, the choir sings version after version of the Resurrection Hymn, the priest rushes all over the church censing, the people shouting – it is a raucous, happy cacophony! This part of our Pascha winds down, and we turn the corner joyfully to celebrate St. John Chrysostom’s Divine Liturgy.  Never mind that this means another two hours of service, never mind that it is nearly 1 AM, we are all right there – this is what it is all about and none of us is going to miss this for anything.   

Halfway through (at this point, about 2 am), we are treated to St. John’s Paschal homily that urges all to come join in the Feast, regardless of how much you may or may not have prepared by fasting.  It’s a sermon preached more than 1500 years ago.  Followed by our own priest, who began his sermon on the Prologue to John’s Gospel by assuring us that he had been reminded by his wife that it was, after all, almost 2:30 am.

After we all partook in the Eucharist, the service came to an end, or rather moved from the sanctuary to the fellowship room where all the families had brought special baskets full of all the foods that we had not been eating for the past 50 days.  The baskets were blessed with prayer and holy water, and the feasting began.  Sausages, hams, cheeses, stuffed shells, casseroles, chicken fingers, lots and lots of brightly colored eggs, bottles of wine and beer, not to mention cheese cakes, custards, chocolate candies, and my chocolate sour cream pound cake.  And a whole lot more. With lots of Paschal greetings – ‘Christ is risen!’  ‘Indeed He is risen!’  It was glorious!  A real celebration, with lots of energy, good conversation, getting up for seconds and thirds (we were hungry, having had to fast before participating in the Eucharist). 

The entire experience was a sensual feast – of the eyes with the vestments, the candles, the icons the people; of the ears with the chanting and hymns and prayers and then the bells of celebration; of the mouth with the Eucharist and then the paschal feasting; and of the body with the crossings and bowings and prostrations and processions.  Every part was engaged.  It took a long time.  But since nobody had anyplace else they had to be in the middle of the night, time was forgotten.  We could just join the river of the liturgy and flow with it until we were done.

It was strange making my way home at 4:30 AM, which is usually just past the time I’m getting up to go to work in the morning.  Even more strange was going on a long run at 11:00 AM just as the Methodists and the Presbyterians and the Baptists down the street were all arriving in the Easter Sunday best for their hour-or-so-long celebration of Easter.  I found myself running to the rhythms and harmonies of the hymns and chants I had worked so hard to master just a few hours before.

Attending an Easter service that stared just before Midnight and went on for almost four hours is hard.  So is trying to master the different ‘tones’ for the chants, they different tunes for the hymns, they different harmonies that go along with them, not to mention the protocols of when to bow, what to kiss, when to cross.  Oh and did I mention that we stand for our services – for the whole thing, except with the priest is preaching?  With so many trees it might be easy to miss the forest.  But the opposite is also true.  We are surrounded by churches of all kinds who in their zeal to simplify remove so many of the trees that the forest is reduced to clear-cut nothingness.  I for one would much prefer too much than not enough.  Too much content.  Too much theology.  Too much Scripture.  Too much meaning.  Too much Christ.  Too much Theotokos.  Too much holy Trinity.  But maybe that’s just me.

Definitely not easy.  Overwhelming in both form and content.  Hard Christianity.  But so very worth it.

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