Another prompt from Plinky: “Tell us about the role that faith plays in your life — or doesn’t.” Which can easily be combined with yet another: “What is your favorite holiday? Why is it your favorite?”
This latter prompt was sent out just before Christmas, with the obvious inference that most people would write about Christmas: the presents, the family time, the caring and sharing, the music, the tree, take your pick. Don’t misunderstand. I love Christmas, too; the classical music written for Christmas is incomparable, and there are arrangements of traditional carols that make them suitable for playing on classical stations.
But Christmas is when I most miss living in Europe, where it is a much more family-oriented celebration, and it’s when I miss the Polish traditions I was brought up with: My husband not only is not Polish, but not remotely Slavic, and Slavic customs of any kind are alien to him. Not to mention the consumer-driven – and I do mean driven – hysteria that grips the entire USA, best illustrated by Straight No Chaser’s “Christmas Can-Can” (pardon the ad at the beginning of the video – I don’t know how to edit it out).
So Christmas, much as I love it, will never be my favorite holiday. Most people who read this blog will, I am sure, understand why I say that that affection is reserved for…well…”Easter.”
I put “Easter” in quotes because what most people understand by the word is not what Easter is actually about. Say “Easter,” and most people will relate it to the Resurrection of Christ, in one form or another, either traditionally religious or, as my son recently informed me (in tones of shock, I am grateful to say), “zombie Jesus.” This whole zombie thing was out of hand even before that particular take on it.
But Easter is actually a pagan holiday, the celebration of the feast of the Anglo-Saxon goddess Ioestre, the goddess of spring and fertility. When I read that, I finally understood the point of that ridiculous Easter Bunny: What’s more fertile than a rabbit?! We did the Easter Bunny when I was growing up, but even before I understood the association, I found it pointless, so the Easter Bunny never visited my own children. By which they missed out on a lot of candy, sure, but at least they never ruined their teeth, and they got to celebrate, in all its glory:
Or Pascha, as it’s referred to religiously. After seven weeks of a rigorously-limited diet, accompanied by a daunting schedule of services during the seven weeks – the last of which is Holy Week, with services every evening, each lasting several hours – the whole thing is topped off by a celebration that begins somewhere around 11:00 p.m., and lasts until somewhere around 4:00 in the morning. There’s really no adequate way to describe Russian Easter. Following the lengthy recitation of Old-Testament prophecies related to the coming of the Messiah, the priest and the entire congregation sweep outside the church and circle it three times, symbolically searching for the body of Christ. Finally the priest will pound on the closed doors of the church. Since everybody is outside, of course there’s no answer, and so he turns to the congregation, all standing there with lit candles, and calls out: “He is not here! He is risen, as He said!” Then he opens the doors of the church, everyone streams in, and the celebration begins with a joyous peal of bells, rung in accordance with rubrics that are hundreds of years old.
Every light in the place is turned on – this, in addition to the dozens and dozens of candles and oil lamps that are lit and will remain lit for the entire service. The choir bursts into the Paschal Canon, a lengthy liturgical poem written in celebration of the Feast. The priest walks around and around, censing the entire church and congregation with incense – and I have never seen a priest who didn’t look the picture of pure joy at this point. Every verse of the Canon ends with the refrain, “Christ is risen from the dead!” and the paschal hymn is sung innumerable times: “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and to those in the tombs bestowing life.” You have to hear it. It’s like a great roar of defiance at death, and although at this point most of us are dropping from exhaustion – you actually do revive when singing this hymn.
After the service, the priest will bless food that people have brought from home – specially prepared food, kielbasa and butter and horseradish and eggs, all dyed a deep red – and everyone sits down in the parish hall to feast. Yes, at four in the morning. This is a time to celebrate! Christ is risen from the dead!
People have commented, off and on, about how interesting my writing is – at this point, my writing feels wooden. There is simply no good way to describe this Feast of Feasts, the joy, the energy, the sheer life force. Orthodox churches are filled to overflowing, literally, for this Feast. You have to see it, you have to be there.
And yes – to answer the first prompt at the very beginning of this post, I do believe it. It is the center of my life. “It is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God,” the Apostle Paul writes to the Jews (Hebrews 10:31), and although in this passage the context is one of fear and judgment, there is another meaning to the word “terrible”: awe-inspiring, jaw-dropping astonishment, the kind that makes you look around to make sure that the encounter isn’t meant for someone else because, you know, what would God want with me?!
When that happens, faith is no longer necessary. You know.