And Life Reigns!

It is not the task of Christianity to provide easy answers to every question, but to make us progressively aware of the mystery. God is not so much the object of our knowledge as the cause of our wonder. ~Metropolitan Kallistos Ware

Mine was a weekend shrouded in the most delicious mystery. Mystery dread and strange. Mystery radiant and glorious. I was so undone by it that I have been thus far unwilling to attempt to write of it. Even now, I give you only the cheapest of postcards….

Friday Night, The Lament:

The funeral bier is the first thing I see. It sits in the middle of the room, lovingly bedecked with flowers. Candles burn at both ends. The room is very dark, lit mostly by candles. It is right. For the great Light has been extinguished. We stand with Joseph as he prepares the body of the Beloved. We see his tears. And together we sing songs of disbelief. Songs of lament.

Oh my sweet Lord Jesus,
My Salvation, my Light:
How art Thou now by a grave and its darkness held?
How unspeakable the mystery of Thy love.

A mother’s dirge:

Ah, my precious Springtime!
Ah, my Son beloved.
Ah, whither fades thy beauty?

Light more dear than seeing,
O my Son most precious,
How in a grave dost hide Thee?

Then, as little girls scatter rose petals all around the bier and the priest douses all of us with holy water we sing:

Myrrh, the women sprinkled,
Stores of spices bringing
To grace Thy tomb ere dawning.

We process behind the bier. Out of doors. All the way round the church. When we re-enter, we walk under the bier. Covered, as it were. His blood be on us… I take off my shoes afterwards, with some of the little girls, to feel the rose petals under my feet. Wearing the story in my body. This night we leave him in the tomb. But not asleep. Oh no, not asleep…

Saturday Morning, The Harrowing of Hell:

We read the stories of Jonah, and of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, others who were hidden but not idle. I can almost feel the earth rumble under my feet as death begins working backwards…

Today hath Hades sighed, crying, “My power hath vanished because I received a dead Man as one of the dead, but could not hold Him completely. Rather, I lost with Him those who were under my reign. From the beginning of time I have held control over the dead. But this One raised all.”

The priest moves among us tossing rose petals and bay leaves while the children beat on the backs of the seats with sticks. And we are become part of the victorious march through hell. Liberating the captives. I pick up a rose petal and a bay leaf that have fallen on the music stand in front of me. I roll them around in my fingers, inhaling their scent. The scent of freedom.

The priest begins to prepare the Eucharist directly on the funeral bier. It is one of the most devastatingly gorgeous moments of all of Holy Week for me. It is almost more than I can stand. With the sound of hammering, and of lament still ringing in my ears, I stand before the funeral bier and receive the Body and the Blood.

Finally, the priest blesses the baskets of bread and wine we have brought to share. We gather for a meal of sustenance. Our journey is almost complete. The very air vibrates with whispers of Resurrection…

Saturday Night into Sunday Morning, Great and Holy Pascha:

We gather at 11:00 and sing hymns and prayers. Just before midnight, all lights are extinguished save the flame that burns continuously on the altar. We pray for a time in the darkness. The tension is almost unbearable. Anticipation causes my heart to pound. Then the lone voice of the priest sings…

Come ye take light from the Light, that is never overtaken by night. Come, glorify Christ, risen from the dead.

The deacons take light from him. We take light from them. And the glow begins to spread across the room. We follow them out into the night. Soon a long ribbon of light wraps itself all around the building. We return to find the doors closed to us. We read of the myrrh bearing women who found an empty tomb. The priest sings prayers of praise to which we respond “Christ is risen from the dead trampling down death by death and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.” And as we sing we thrust our flames high into the air.

Then the priest pounds on the door. “Lift up your gates, O ye princes; and be lifted up, ye everlasting gates, and the King of Glory shall enter in.” A voice from inside calls back “Who is the King of Glory?” Ten year old Katy, who has come to stand with me, looks up and smiles. It is a marvelous moment. The priest answers “The Lord Strong and mighty, the Lord mighty in war.” Three times this happens before the doors are flung open and we enter a brightly lit church to begin the celebration.

The rest of the service is cacophony and blur and light and joy. At numerous intervals, the priests run up and down the aisle with the censor–the one with the delightful bells–and shout out “Christ is Risen!” to which we respond “He is risen indeed!” They do this in a host of different languages and it is fun to try to figure out how to answer them. Father Stephen delivers St. John Chrysostom’s marvelous Paschal homily. We receive the Body and Blood of the now-risen Christ. And our joy is made full.

Following the service, we feast together well into the morning hours. And the glory of the Resurrection fills our hearts and our stomachs. And Life reigns.