Wow. (Or Sleepy Pascha Morning Thoughts on the Three Days’ Experience)

As I said to Anna on the way home from the breakfast this morning at about 3:30: “Pascha Sunday is the one Sunday we can sleep in guilt free.” What this means, of course, in a household of a one- and a three-year-old, is that when Daddy crawls into bed at 4:00 and the little one gets up at 7:30, Daddy has “slept in.” Oy. I foresee a monster nap coming this afternoon.

In the mercies of God, this Holy Week, and especially the Triduum, has been especially rich for me. Perhaps the most meaningful service of them all, this year, was the Matins of Great and Holy Friday, or the Twelve Gospels service. This is a service which may well resonate with that amorphous group of self-described persons called “postmoderns.” We have a single story told from various perspectives (even within the same Gospel), each viewpoint added rich detail and startling clarity. But one cannot get this from a spare reading of the Gospels in private. This sort of experience requires a public telling in which the Twelve Gospels are heard, and heard in the midst of the believing community. In my own case, I had pre-marked the lections in my Greek New Testament, and I followed along with the reading in what was a truly stereophonic encounter.

This is also the service in which the Crucifix is brought into the midst of the congregation, and then placed square in the midst of the open Royal Doors. This Icon, I should note, is not a square icon of the crucifixion, but an icon in the shape of the Lord’s Body, still with its two-dimensional aspect, but somehow bringing a three-dimensional scope to the Icon. After the service we all went to venerate the Icon of the Crucified Lord. Everyone I observed kissed the feet of the Icon, some bowing, some kneeling on the step on which the Icon stood. There is an added dimension to the contemplation of the Passion of Christ when one can kneel before a Crucifix and reverently kiss the feet of the Lord, pierced through with the spike.

I have yet to make the Royal (or Imperial) Hours service, in all my years of inquiring into Orthodoxy, and the last four Holy Weeks attending All Saints. Previously it has been due to work obligations. This year it was because the girls had already been pretty worn out with the services. They were up late on Wednesday and Thursday nights (going to bed some two hours past their normal bedtimes), and were becoming a bit difficult to keep corralled during the services. So we opted to stay home and have early naps. And then Anna and I agreed that we would have Delaina attend the earlier Vespers service on Friday so she could get to bed earlier. And Sofie would go with me to the Matins of Holy Saturday service on Friday evening. That seemed to work well. Anna, unfortunately, was also pretty wiped out and so it was just the girls and I for Vespers of Holy Saturday yesterday morning. And it was, in some ways, the most difficult service of all for the girls. They were very cranky and restless. Overall they were fairly well behaved, but nonetheless acted out at inappropriate times (Sofie tried to take her dress off at one point).

I thought it was pretty ironic that I had a couple of people ask me how Anna and I did it by having both the girls at the Pascha services (which start for us about 10:00 on Saturday night, and go through to about 2:30 Sunday morning. I couldn’t tell if they thought that we might be “authorities” on how to get children to behave for a several-hour service in the middle of the night (which is the ironic part), or whether they were so desperate for solutions they figured even someone with such willful and high-spirited girls such as ours are might have something, anything, that they could use. I disabused my interlocutors of the former notion, and confirmed the latter, by simply saying: “We have no answers. We just go with the flow. We have no solutions.”

That said, the girls were actually much better behaved during the services last night than they usually are during the normal and “routine” Sunday Divine Liturgy. They clearly (as another parent put it to us of his own son) had “hit orbit” but yet other than some pretty mild crankiness and whiny-ness did pretty well. And they were awake for the whole service. The Lord be praised.

For my part, this Holy Week just wore me out–until the Pascha service. I have never crawled into bed quite so tired and worn out as I have these past three nights. I found myself wanting and needing significant nap times the last few days–which I didn’t get until yesterday afternoon. And, by way of comparison, during last year’s Pascha services I felt close to falling asleep while standing up. But this year, I was so invigorated for the Pascha service that I not only felt refreshed and renewed through the whole service (aside from sore feet and a sore lower back from standing so long and holding the girls at times through the service), but I was able to focus my attention throughout the whole service. For the first time the structure of the services made sense to me. Indeed, the lighting of the Paschal candle had me feeling like a kid on Christmas morning. I said to Anna, “I love this part!”

As it always does, St. John Chrysostom’s Pascha sermon moved me to tears. I always feel like the slothful, eleventh hour Christian St. John describes. And I always find myself feeling surprise bordering on disbelief that even someone like myself would be encouraged to join in the Feast. Every year I feel like the re-told parable of Jesus in which I enter without a wedding garment, but this time Christ tells me to stay anyway. Grace untold. Truly: amazing grace.

Speaking of “Amazing Grace,” or, rather, Protestant Christian songs, both my girls broke out into our bed-time songs (“Jesus Loves Me” and “Jesus Loves the Little Children”) at one point of the services last night. I mean, come on, everyone else was singing at the top of their lungs, and they wanted to sing at the top of their lungs, too–and the only songs they knew were the two we sing every night at bedtime. I don’t know if this is the only Orthodox Pascha service in which Protestant songs were sung, but we might have set a first.

Interestingly, when the catechumens (Abigail and Abigail–no, that’s not a typo, both catechumens chose that Christian name) were chrismated, I did not feel bitter sweet, but truly joyful. Not only for them, but in anticipation of that day, some weeks yet to come, but nonethless on the horizon, when I and my family will also be joined to the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Orthodox Church.

One of the strong impressions of Orthodox Holy Week is the disjunction of time. I know there are liturgical reasons, but Vespers are celebrated in the mid-afternoon and mornings, and matins celebrated in the evenings. And then the length of the Pascha services themselves (nocturnes, matins, and the Divine Liturgy), held in the middle of the night, significantly removes one from outside time. The effect on me this year felt life-giving: removed from mortality-inducing time into life-sustaining eternality. I can only imagine what it will be like to celebrate this one day as Orthodox.

Christ is risen!