Bright Monday Wrap-up of Pascha Sunday

This year I took Bright Monday off from work. I am very glad I did. One factor that differentiates Orthodoxy from modern-day evangelicalism is the fundamental tenet that faith necessarily involves struggle. Y’all work out y’all’s salvation with fear and trembling, says St. Paul. And to my knowledge only the Orthodox know what it’s like to make worship the work of the people. So today is a day off.

We all were exhausted. We got the girls to bed a little earlier than normal last night, and, aside from Sofie crawling into bed with us about 3:00, everyone slept clean through till well past 7:00 when Delaina stood up in her crib and announced to everyone: “Wake up. To wake up, Mommy Daddy.” I’d already been just dozing for several minutes, so I was ready to get up with Delaina. Sofie followed soon after.

The girls loved getting into their Easter baskets yesterday afternoon–with their wooden toys, bunches of chocolate, and colored paper grass. Sofie especially is at an age which these holidays actually mean something to her. Delaina joins in the fun to be like big sister. But their laughter is infectious and endearing.

Yesterday was a wonderful day with pretty much no rules–in celebration of Pascha. The girls got to watch their videos whenever they asked and for the most part got to eat their Easter chocolate whenever they wanted. The lack of sleep and the sugar crash did result in a couple of nuclear meltdowns (one apiece), but otherwise the girls were fine. I struggled with a nausea-inducing headache for about an hour after my afternoon nap (which I can only surmise was from not eating since three that morning coupled with not enough water-intake). But after some acetaminophen, a very light meal and some Sprite, I felt much better.

Just in time, in fact, to go grocery shopping at one of my favorite food chains, Trader Joe’s. We stocked up on meat: salmon steaks, corned beef, pork tenderloin. I got a couple of treats: ginger flavored “Cats”cookies, and Trinity Beer, from Goose Island. And I had the added priceless laughter of shepherding both girls with their “littl’un’s” shopping carts. Both girls got into the shopping act by pretty much grabbing stuff at random and putting it in their little carts. At one point we had to reshelve a good half-dozen cans of tomato paste that Delaina apparently thought we should take home. The girls got some boxed cereals of their choice, and Momma got her Relax (brand) Riesling.

It was a great day. Maybe the best Pascha Sunday we’ve ever had.

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!

Entering the Experience; or, It’s Both Mind and Heart

As a Protestant, when I was looking at other churches, I went straight for the “what we believe” part of their brochure. When I investigated the Roman Catholic Church I looked almost exclusively at the doctrine. Same thing with the Episcopal Church (except that such was much harder since ECUSA doctrine, such as it is, is all over the map, but that’s the Elizabethan settlement for you). And, as a testament to the fact that I still didn’t get it, in the second half of 2002, I wrote up a few essays exploring things like tradition, bishops, the Lord’s Supper, and such that I encountered as I began to explore Orthodoxy. I was simply doing what I knew to do: exploring the faith with my mind.

After all, I was well aware of the opposite problem in Protestantism: experientialism, in which the rational mind is downplayed and even subjugated by experience. I had friends, pentecostal, charismatic and such with whom I had interminable “discussions” over whether their experiences were truly of the Holy Spirit, and how one could so discern that, or not. And I knew of the dangers as I saw friends enslaved by emotional fears and, frankly, magicalism.

But as I enter my fourth Holy Week, it becomes more and more clear to me that Orthodoxy can never be grapsed by the intellect alone. Certainly there is a place for the intellect, for reason and investigation. One can find oneself quite quckly out of one’s depth in reading some of the Orthodox Fathers. But most priests rightly tell seekers, “Come to Divine Liturgy”–which is to say, “Taste and see.” Because a rational faith apart from experience is only half a faith (and vice versa). Today we processed with the palms, bay branches, pussy willows and fronds. We entered in, by way of experience, the true meaning and power of that original Palm Sunday. Yes, there is rich food for contemplation in the Church’s Liturgy, to be sure. “O Christ our God, thou didst before thy very Passion confirm the truth of the general Resurrection, by raising Lazarus from the dead,” we sang this morning. And here there is the depths of Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15 in which to sink. But there is, at least for one like myself, much richer food for the heart. “Wherefore we also, like the children bearing the symbols of triumph, cry out unto thee, the vanquisher of death: Hosanna in the highest. Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord.” And so, with my daughters, waving the fronds and pussy willows, the palms and bay branches, I joined the procession accompanying the God who sat enthroned in the heavens and sat on the foal of a donkey.

From the mouths of infants and babes he ordains praise. We must become like the infants who believe on him, to whom he points us in Luke 18. And as I have observed my own daughters, their reception of the faith is unquestioning. It was Sofie who said to the babysitter one morning as I was going to work (Anna was away at a conference): “Jesus takes care of me.

And so he does.

So this week, as Holy Week is now well underway (having started this past Friday evening), it is time to enter into the experience and there to find life.