Tonight one of the friars and I went to St. Andrews Greek Orthodox Church for the Easter liturgy. We arrived about twenty minutes before it started, and were able to take a seat towards the back of the church. We weren’t entirely sure how long the liturgy would last, but we wanted to be sure we could leave without disturbing anyone, since we weren’t going to stay all night, so we took two end seats.
There were three men up by what we later discovered is the bishop’s throne, chanting most beautifully. It was in Greek so I barely understood anything, but that almost added to the beauty. After we were there about ten minutes, two very elderly women approached and asked if they could sit in our pew. We got up so that they would sit inside, and we would stay at the end. The woman sitting next to me turned and, after wishing me a Happy Easter, said very matter of factly, “You don’t look Greek.”
I was a bit hesitant with my response, but I said with a smile, “No, actually I’m Catholic. I just really wanted to come to this liturgy.” Her face seemed to turn very stern for a moment, and I honestly didn’t know how she was going to react. I have some experience with Orthodox to know that Catholics don’t always receive the kindest welcome…but after a moment she said, so sweetly, “Thank you so much for being here.” That one moment came to define the rest of my night.
Half jokingly I said to her, “You know, I’m going to be looking to you all night to see what I’m supposed to do.” She laughed, and then turned to her sister and said, “He wants you to explain the liturgy to him. He’s Catholic.”
So they switched places, and her sister was this incredibly full of life, VERY Greek, 89 year old woman. Her sister was 92. She explained to me first of all that what was going on was not the liturgy yet, that they were chanting the Odes of Lamentation from the day before. As we were sitting there she explained all of the various parts of the church, the iconostasis, how the liturgy would go, all the various architectural points, just everything. From time to time she would chime in with a good dig at the Catholics – very sincere, but at the same time very charming in their own way. I suppose it wouldn’t have been so endearing were she not 89 and being so incredibly kind. But since both were true, when she would make a Catholic dig, it just made Carlos and I smile.
The chanting of the Odes went on for at least an hour after we arrived, and they were already begun when we got there. Then began the Orthos of the Resurrection, which begins in complete darkness – it produced such an eerie and beautiful effect. The Paschal candle was then lit, and then slowly the candles that the people in the congregation were all lit, so that soon the whole church was aglow with candle light. Then a huge procession – I mean, like 100 people involved, carrying candles, icons, banners, the Book of the Gospel, etc. – moved to the back of the church, where a podium was set up. The priest then chanted the resurrection Gospel from Mark 16:1-8, first in Greek, then in English (that was the first English of the liturgy). After that he shouted out, “Χριστός ανέστη!” (Christ is risen!), to which the people responded, exuberantly, “Αληθως ανέστη!” (Truly he is risen!). And then began a chant, repeated many times as the priest waved the Paschal candle, which translates, “Christ has Risen from the dead, by death trampling upon Death, and has bestowed life upon those in the tombs.” (The chant is called the Paschal Troparion, and the Greek is Χριστὸς ἀνέστη ἐκ νεκρῶν, θανάτῳ θάνατον πατήσας, καὶ τοῖς ἐν τοῖς μνήμασι, ζωὴν χαρισάμενος!) I was actually pleased with how much of the Greek I understood.
After that the priest and the whole retinue processed back to the front of the church, at which point the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom for Easter Sunday would begin. As we had already been there two hours, and as much of the congregation was leaving at that point, we left, as well. But what we experienced in those two hours was simply magnificent, a truly beautiful experience of the resurrection of Christ. And a wonderful encounter with Christian love and hospitality.
Here is a link to the chant itself: