An Orthodox Easter
Expressive extravagance, dramaturgical splendor.
By DAVID B. HART
pril 9, 2004 12:01 A.M. EDT
This is one of those rare years when Christians of the Eastern and Western communions will celebrate Easter on the same Sunday. For those of us who–in quixotic moments–blow upon the gray embers of our hopes for a reunited Church, this is always an especially happy occasion. We may not all be entering into the mysteries of Christ’s death and resurrection as one, but at least this year we are doing it at the same time.
After all, one of those tiresome platitudes that hovers over the division between the ancient churches is that, whereas Eastern Orthodox tradition principally emphasizes the resurrection of Christ, Catholic (and Protestant) tradition principally emphasizes his death. The one, it is said, proclaims more a “theology of glory”; the other, more a “theology of the cross.”
There may be some truth in this, but not much. The more deeply one ventures into either tradition, the more one grasps the inseparability in both of Christ’s passion and glorification, his sacrifice and his victory. And it is in just these rare years when our two Paschal calendars coincide–when we mourn and rejoice together–that this commonality seems especially evident.
One genuinely pronounced difference between East and West does, however, become obvious at these times: that of liturgical sensibility. Nor is this insignificant. How we worship very much determines how we “see” the suffering or risen Christ in our devotions.
To those unfamiliar with Orthodox worship, it is difficult to convey a proper sense of its sheer expressive extravagance–its dramaturgical splendor, its combination of the mystical and the spectacular, its profusion of symbols, poetry and large forceful gestures. The churches are lavishly adorned with icons, the entire liturgy is sung, the services are long and intricate, and everything (if well executed) is utterly absorbing.
And during Holy Week (or Passion Week, as it is called in the East), all this liturgical exorbitance reaches its climax. As the week progresses, worship becomes all but continuous, morning and evening, culminating in three magnificent services in which is concentrated all the dramatic genius of Byzantine liturgy.
On Friday night, the service of Lamentation is celebrated. An image of the dead Christ is laid in his funeral bier (ornately carved, copiously decorated with flowers), and shatteringly powerful hymns of mourning are sung over him. The bier is then borne in procession around the outside of the church; briefly, the church doors become the gates of Hades, upon which the priest beats with the book of the Gospels to announce the arrival of the Lord of Glory, who comes to plunder death of its captives.
The eucharistic liturgy on Saturday morning is an unapologetic exercise in triumphalism. Its governing theme is Christ’s conquest of death, sin and the devil, and his harrowing of hell. At one point, in fact, the priest passes through the congregation flinging bay leaves to every side as a symbol of Christ’s victory.
And this same triumphalism pervades the Easter Vigil that begins that same night and continues on well into the early hours of Easter morning. At the moment of highest drama, at midnight, all the lights in the church are extinguished, and the faithful wait in total darkness. The priest then bears a lighted candle in through the central door of the great icon screen behind which the altar is hidden, as a symbol of the risen Christ departing from his tomb, and summons the congregation to light the candles they have brought with them from this flame.
Thereafter, the liturgy is all light and joy, punctuated by frequent repetitions of the great Paschal hymn–“Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and to those in the tombs restoring life!” And (incredibly enough) a feast follows.
As I have said, one must experience such worship to understand its profundity. I can say only that, in my two decades of being Orthodox, the power of these services has not diminished in the least; and every year, at one point or another, I become entirely lost in the glory of the Gospel being announced and portrayed before my eyes.
And as, again, this is one of those years when one can almost deceive oneself that the churches are united, I might finish by recommending an Eastern custom to all Christians, of every communion. For 40 days following Easter, the Orthodox greet one another with the words “Christ is risen!” To which the correct response is “He is risen indeed!”