Sunday, 15 April 2012

On the edges of the midnight Easter service

Happy Russian/Orthodox Easter! Orthodox communities, unlike Catholics and Protestants, use the old Julian calendar to calculate moveable feast dates such as Easter, in order to comply with Canon Seven of the Holy Apostles and various other decrees that state Easter should never coincide with Jewish Passover, which it does sometimes in the Gregorian calendar used in the West. This means that Orthodox Easter is anything from 1-5 weeks after Catholic/Protestant Easter. [Somewhat confusingly, fixed feast days are calculated according to either the new (Gregorian) or old (Julian) calendar, depending on the country - hence Christmas in Greece is on the 25th of December (Gregorian), whereas in Russia it is on the 7th of January (Julian), despite the fact that both are Orthodox countries. Still, it is simpler than pre-1918, when the whole of Russia was permanently thirteen days behind the rest of the world for everything.]

Easter is the most important festival in the Russian Orthodox church, so I decided to go to the midnight service at the church next to my общежитие, to see what happened. I was warned beforehand to try and stay close the door so that I could escape if I wanted to, because although no one seemed to know exactly how long the service might last for, the general view was that it could go on all night. In the end I stayed for 2.5 hours and then left, because the whole thing seemed to be going in circles, both literally and figuratively (the same music and chants kept coming up again and again, and the priests and associated people kept rushing round and round the edges of the church carrying staffs and incense whilst crying "Христос воскресе" - Kristos voskrese - Christ is risen). This is not meant to be offensive - I am sure it all had a theological purpose, but since I didn't know what that was, it seemed to me a bit repetitive. Plus the whole thing was in Old Slavonic and not Russian, so I couldn't understand anything. Nevertheless, the service was beautiful, and I been humming the chants from it all day. [And just so you know, it wasn't rude to leave early - Orthodox services are more informal than in the Catholic or Protestant churches, with people entering and leaving as they like throughout the whole service. I checked this both with locals and with books about Orthodox Christianity, and both sets of sources said it was fine to leave early.]

My impressions of the service are naturally going to be very shallow, because I don't really know anything about Christian rites. To start off with, at the gates to the church compound were a collection of people asking to alms, and most people gave them money before fighting their way into the church to buy candles, and then fighting their way out again and trying to find someone with a lighter. Inside the church there was some sort of ceremony going on, complete with chanting, and then at midnight the church bells all rang and the priest, deacons and other related people came down from the altar carrying icons, staffs and such-like, and everyone piled out of the church after them. We all then processed around the church, during which time the priest chanted something, and people periodically joined in, presumably in a call-and-response thing. The procession was very beautiful in the dark, what with everyone carrying candles, and a lot of people had lined up on the fire escapes of the next-door общежитие to take pictures. When we got back to the church, the service continued, but to be honest, it was impossible to see what was happening, there were so many people. Outside the church a small boy kept yelling out "Христос воскресе" (Christ is risen), to which everyone else shouted back "Воистину воскресе" (Truly, He is risen), but I don't think this was part of the service, since the boy in question had a rather bored tone, and in between these declarations spent his time swinging round a metal pole in the courtyard.

There are three main dangers inherent in this kind of service - being crushed, fainting, and being set on fire. The first happens because the service was incredibly popular, and the church wasn't that big. There were probably 500-600 people trying to get into a space really only big enough for 200 or so. A lot of people stood outside in the courtyard in front of the church, but enough people were trying to get into, or out of the church, that at times I could hardly breathe for being squashed between the wall and the crowd. I don't know how popular services are normally, but judging by how happy the priests looked last night, the attendance on non-feast days may be lower.

Related to this crowding is the second problem of fainting. Since there are no seats in Orthodox churches, everyone has to stand, and when the churches are very crowded, the place can get uncomfortably hot and airless. This would be less of a problem if the services were short, but unfortunately Russian services are notoriously lengthy. When Paul of Aleppo arrived in Russian in the 17th century, he wrote in his diary, "And now we are entered on our travail and anguish...God help us for the length of their prayers and chants and Masses". And bear in mind he was still Orthodox, just from Syria. How well people cope with these conditions is a matter of opinion. According to a book I read, one of the amazing things about Orthodox services is that old women and children manage to stand for hours on end without any sign of fatigue, but I think this is a bit optimistic - three people fainted during the Christmas service my room mate went to in January, and last night there was an ambulance waiting outside the church I attended.

To be fair, the ambulance could also have been there in case of the third danger - being set on fire. Candles are a big part of Orthodox services, and 90% of the people at the service were carrying some sort of naked flame - mostly small taper candles stuck through pieces of paper to catch the drips, but occasionally oil lamps, and in the case of one old woman, who was clearly not going to be outdone by anyone, a torch. And no, we're no talking the electric kind, but the Indiana Jones kind. So you have a lot of people carrying naked flames within a small area, and periodically bowing to the can see how this could end badly, even though people were generally very careful about shielding their candles. Perhaps unavoidably, the fur hood of the girl standing next to me was set on fire, but it got swatted out pretty quickly, and only the smell of burnt hair was left to mingle with the incense from the thuribles (although the girl was very unimpressed with the man responsible for the offending candle). The moral of this story is that you shouldn't wear anything flammable to church - concentrating on the service is that much harder when you're trying to remember what medical insurance you have, and debating whether you could get your headscarf off quickly enough to avoid serious burns if it went up in flames.

Obviously on a much grander scale, and it jumps around a lot in time, but here is some video of the service in Christ the Saviour Cathedral in Moscow, attended by Putin and Medvedev. The thing they're all shouting at around 3mins is "Воистину воскресе" - truly He is risen, at 5mins 30secs the Patriarch is giving Medvedev and Putin Easter eggs (but not chocolate ones, which don't exist here), and at 8mins 15secs the XB on the red decoration stands for Христос воскресе - Christ is risen. I didn't take my camera to the service I went to because I thought it would be disrespectful, but I actually think it was more beautiful there, possibly because it was for ordinary people rather than VIPs and TV cameras.

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