I was in this crowd!
First of all, Wow! Wow, is the only word I can think of to describe the three plus hours I spent at Church Saturday night into Sunday morning.
It was up in the air as to whether I would be going at all, at first. Not that I was really opposed to three hours of church for such a special occasion but, due to my usual sleeping patterns and my work schedule, the night would be ending by the time I usually am just waking up for work. (Yes, I am in bed by 9pm and up by 3am!) so I was afraid I would be wiped out and, um, grumpy. But I have been receiving encouraging words all week long from you kind people who read my blog, entreating me to make the effort and what finally cemented it in my mind (and will) was a message from Deacon Ken's son, Bill who, besides being my Facebook friend, is also an altar server. He said:
You really should go tonight since it is the entire reason every Christian church celebrates. If you come tonight i can asure you that you will be in pure amazement at the beauty and love in the service. Even growing up in the church it still fills my heart with joy to see people so devout and caring gathering to celebrate the Ressurection of our savior.It made perfect sense that I should not miss the "Feast of Feasts." Pascha was the zenith of Christian Worship and, unlike some Christians who say every Sunday is special (thus making no Sunday Special), it really is true that Pascha is a special day, Bill promised I would be amazed and he was right.
I arrived there just before 11:30pm and grabbed a candle on the table in the Narthex. As I sat down, I noticed at man off to the side in the front, just reading out loud but not really in a "proclaiming voice", as if it were meant for God to hear and not us. He was reading the Passion story from the Gospels, I think. I wonder how long that had been going on. Tammy noticed I had made it and came over to greet me warmly. Reader John walked over to the man and motioned for him to stop because it was time to start.
The Church was almost pitch black, except for the light coming from the Narthex and choir loft at first but as the service progressed, the light grew as each of our candles were ignited by ushers. Then, when all the candles were lit, Fr Gary started a line, followed by those bearing icons and we parishioners processed out of the building, with loud bells ringing. As I stepped out I thought, "Man, the neighbors must love this!" (I really should keep my sarcastic thoughts down to a low roar when I am in church). And we circled the Church. As we made our third trip around, i was wondering how many times we would do this. But three is a favorite number for the Orthodox so the third time we stopped in front of the closed church doors and the bells stopped. Fr Gary said some prayers. In fact here is a picture below from my phone.
I've said before that Orthodox take worship very seriously and don't smile much in Worship but this is the one time I saw Father Gary crack a smile. You see, "Christ is Risen" is proclaimed by him many times and, to show the universality of the Message, he proclaims it in different languages. At one point, he stumbled, clearly not sure if he was remembering the correct pronunciation for whatever language he was attempting. He smiled and he muddled through. Instead of us all yelling the response in that language, one lone voices from the congregation belted it at the top of his lungs in that particular language!
The whole church was jubilant. The choir continued to sing. I saw Reader John joyfully hugging his fellow parishioners. I saw parents bringing children up to light candles. And all the time the choir is singing, the incense is rising and Father Gary is proclaiming. It could have went on for hours more and that would have been fine with me.
Fr Gary read a letter from Bishop Michael who sent us Pascha greetings but one of my favorite readings of the evening was the reading of St. John Chrysostom's Easter Vigil Sermon. He exhorts all to come to the feast. Drawing imagery from Jesus'' parable about the workers in the vineyard, he says it doesn't matter if you began working at the first hour, or the third, or the sixth, or the ninth or even as late at the eleventh hour -
And those who arrived only at the eleventh hour,
let them not be afraid by reason of their delay.
For the Lord is gracious and receives the last even as the first.
The Lord gives rest to those who come at the eleventh hour,
even as to those who toiled from the beginning.
That man who came at the eleventh hour, that is me! I am 50 years old and only now am really drawn towards Orthodoxy, towards the Church founded by Christ Himself. Yet, I am not to dispair. Christ recieves me... Forgive me for drawing upon my Evangelical roots but, "Praise God!" :)
The Service continued and I saw the reverence in which the Faithful received the Body and Blood of Christ. I, of course, did not receive but at least two people handed me some bread of fellowship which the faithful consume after they partake of the Eucharist. Some day, God willing, I too will receive.
All in all, the service was just as Bill promised; it was awesome and really beyond description. I am so glad I did not miss it.
After the Vigil, there was an Agape feast next door but I knew if I sat and rested, eating and talking, I would get very sleepy. Plus, I promised my son I would take him to the Sunrise service our church was participating in. And I really needed some sleep.
It's kind of a funny story about the sunrise story but I will share that another time. I can see I have gone on a long time...but, oh, what a night it was.
Christ is Risen! Indeed, He is Risen!