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Sunday, April 15, 2012

Alithos Anesti!

Well, what can I say about the Greek Orthodox Great Vigil of Easter?

Loooonnnnng service? Check. The actual liturgy began at 11 PM, but there was the Parish Hall to set up, the tables spread with white linen cloth and a vase of fresh, spring flowers on each, and the food (Oh, My, God - all the food) to organize.

The Service ended around 2. AM. And then, we ate. A lot. And then, there was clean up. We got home around 4 AM. We were up at 8 AM so my friend Penny could go back to church at 11 AM and we could begin cooking for dinner for 14 people tonight at 5 PM.

Exhausted? Check. Well, what did I expect? I had planned for it. Even took a bit of a nap on the train here. And yet, even though my body is screaming at me and I may need a wee bit of a lie down before dinner, there is an inexplicable joy in my heart.

Dramatic liturgy? Check. The church, of course, was in total darkness, save for a few candles lit here and there. There was evidence of the “funeral” the night before – “Great (not Good) Friday” having been just the night before. Flower petals and leaves were scattered all over the floor, as if done in haste – no time for clean up. The religious leaders may have discovered them and they were sore afraid.

The service began from behind the curtain – a large processional container holding many small candles was lit, causing an alarmingly large blazing flame. Lots of chanting, lots of mystery. Lots of charming altar boys dressed in white and gold.

One of the great, dramatic mysteries of the service – well, for me, anyway – was that the cantor ("Psaltis") was a young woman. And, she had three women who provided a “back up” drone as she chanted the Sacred, Divine words of psalms and scripture.

Her's was the voice of a very angel as she chanted in Greek and English, providing a wonderful counterpoint for the bass voice of the priest. I loved the interplay between the two.

I was struck by the fact that, even though boys and young men were the only ones allowed behind the curtain and near the “Holy of Holies”, it was the women who were given voice.

Something radically orthodox about that, isn't there?

A few more surprises? Check. Well, what can you expect when you are celebrating and commemorating a Great Mystery.

The first pleasant surprise was the passion of Father Demetri. A young, very handsome man in his mid-thirties, husband of a woman he met at Holy Cross when he was a seminarian, father of two young boys, and the fifth generation of Greek Orthodox priests, he clearly knew the Divine Liturgy and executed it with a deep reverence that was wonderfully authentic and profoundly moving.

I was surprised by the "matter of fact" tone and rushed delivery of the prayers. Clearly, this was not about him or the psaltis but more about them being a vehicle of ancient, traditional prayers. When you listen to the words of the prayers, or read them in the Prayer Book, they are startling and revelatory. You would never have guessed that by listening to the priest or psaltis pray or chant them.

After we gathered on the steps of the church - the place was PACKED and the crowd spilled out onto the street - holding our lit candles and proclaiming and singing many, many times, "Christos Anesti!" (Christ is Risen) and responding "Alithos Anesti" (Truly, He is risen), Fr. Demetri said, "I beg you. I implore you. Please don't leave now. Please come back and celebrate Eucharist. Give thanks for this Great Mystery of our faith."

He paused a moment for effect and then said, "I promise that you will have no other meal that will satisfy your hunger, no greater drink that will satisfy your thirst, than to have a foretaste of the heavenly banquet that awaits us all. So, come. Stay. I'm begging you. I'm imploring you. Don't leave. It has only just begun! I promise from the bottom of my heart!"

And then, about half of the congregation followed him back into the church while the rest slipped quietly away.

Fr. Demetri then went about incensing the congregation, the bells on the thurible ringing sweetly as he swung the incense into great billowing clouds over and around us.

When he got to the back of the church, he went out to the top of the steps at the open door of the church. There, he saw a group of about a dozen or so people who were talking quietly among themselves before they were to take their leave.

They were gathered there, at the bottom of the driveway, holding their candles. Demetri motioned for them to come into the church. They stood motionless, staring back at him. Suddenly, his shoulders fell and he turned away, off into a corner of the Narthex, struggling to regain his composure.

Finally, he re-emerged, stood at the top of the steps and swung the turible at them and bowed to them. They remained motionless. He turned his back then, to return to the church and - probably unaware that his mic was still on - I heard him say to one of the members of the Parish Council who was standing at the door, "It just breaks my heart."

He continued up the aisle, struggling to regain his composure, incensing the people who were there, shouting, "Christos Anesti!" The people shouted back with great joy, "Alithos Anesti!"

I did not expect to find myself - or this faithful priest and the rest of the congregation - so soon on the Road to Emmaus.

Emmaus stands, for me at least, as the crossroad of what was and what might have been.

It's a place we all know well. Some of us, too well. It is a place of grief and loss and longing. It is the place of Shattered Expectations. Broken Dreams. Lost Hope.

It was in that moment, like all moments on the Road to Emmaus, where we meet the Risen Christ who was there on the road for the first disciples and is always there in those moments for us.

"I will be with you always, even to the end of time," Jesus told the disciples, who had not recognized him while he was in their very midst. They had been too caught up in their shock and grief and loss and disappointment and longing.

The Risen Christ was there, in that moment when a young, faithful Greek Orthodox priest had his heart broken by a small group of people who proclaimed, "Alithos Anesti" with their lips, but apparently choose not to live it more fully with their lives.

Or, perhaps they were returning home to do the best they could, given the demands of post-modern lives. Perhaps they were doing the best they could do - or knew how to do. Perhaps they will live out the mystery of the resurrection in other more common, everyday, ordinary ways - beyond the church. Perhaps, that's where the resurrection has it's greatest efficacy. 

Perhaps the church is not the center of the universe - it is, after all, an important sign and symbol and vehicle of the centrality of God in our lives, but it is not The Most Important Thing. God is. And, the way we know God best is through the life and death and resurrection of Jesus.

Perhaps we break our own hearts with our expectations.

Either way, Jesus is there. Jesus will always be there. Indeed, I think the heart of the mystery of faith is that we know Jesus most fully when we think He isn't there, with us, in the cracks and crevices of our broken hearts.

Home made Tsoureki (tsoo-REH-kee) - Greek Easter Bread
I'm not sure that will make any sense to you, but that's where I am, in this moment.

Yes, I'm exhausted after a long liturgy filled with ancient tradition that proved a richer feast than even the amazing dinner that followed. And yes, there were a few more surprises and spiritual delights I could not have asked for or imagined.

Whether celebrated the week before or this week, the truth remains that Christ is truly risen and continues to be present to us in our joy as well as our sadness, our hopes as well as our despair, our dreams as well as our disappointments.

The truth about the Road to Emmaus is that, unless we have moments on that road, we can't fully appreciate God's presence with us there as well as in church.

Christos Anesti!

Alithos Anesti!

Christ is Risen!

Truly, He is Risen!

And no place, no person, no expectation, no disappointment, no language, no culture, no liturgy - perfect or imperfect, ancient or modern - no constraint of time can change that mystery.

Which is why, even at the grave, our song is "Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!"

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