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04.16.2004

Orthodox Easter

I am not Orthodox, but I have always loved the Orthodox Easter service, with its candles, icons, and incense, and the whole congregation piling out to circle the church at midnight. There is always a baker's dozen of international students from Russia and the Balkans at Middlebury college, so each year there is usually a semi-organized trip to one of the little Orthodox churches scattered through New England. I feel a certain amount of ambivalence about this kind of mercenary, once-a-year Christianity, but I rationalize it by telling myself that no one ever pissed off God by going to church.

This year the dates for Orthodox and non-Orthodox Easter actually coincided, an unusual circumstance given the fearsomely complex and dull ways Orthodox and Western churches disagree about how to calculate the date of Easter. It turns out the full cycle of Easter dates only repeats every 5,700,000 years, so these kind of coincidences will be unpredictable for the forseeable future, unless we take the time to learn how to do the calculation ourselves. But if you think reading about weblog syndication formats is mind-numbing, try a taste of Easter math:

Years are given the numbers 1 through 19 (the "golden number") as (year modulo 19)+1, the first year being 1 B.C. [this is just dodging around the zero-origin; we could take (year % 19) starting at 0 in the year 0. However, I'll be traditional so as not to conflict with what you may find elsewhere.] In 1 B.C. (golden number 1), the March new moon is on the 23rd. A year later it falls 11 days before that, on the 12th. The next year, it's 11 days earlier still, taking it to March 1st. But we have also had an intercalary month, and another month starts at March 31st. THIS will be the paschal (Easter) new moon. If the moon is new on March 1st, it is full on the 14th, which is before the equinox.

This year there were fifteen of us making the trip - six Bulgarians (they have cracked the mysteries of the Middlebury admissions process), a Greek and a pseudo-Greek, three Rumanians, a Russian, a giggly Serb, and our American driver, a very sweet girl whose quiet deportment masked a truly Balkan driving style. I sat up front to watch for moose, while in the back the students sang Bulgarian songs and bounced happily around in the van.

We were headed for the little Orthodox church in Claremont, NH, a two hour drive to the southeast of Middlebury, most of the route over winding roads across the spine of the Green Mountains. There was a surprise waiting for us on the interstate - almost immediately we came across a roadblock, police officers stopping all traffic under bright Klieg lights. Except that on closer inspection, they weren't police officers at all - the checkpoint, more than 120 miles south of the Canadian border, was manned by the U.S. Border Patrol.

I have never read the U.S. Border Patrol training manual, but I always assumed that it had an entry for "fishtailing unmarked white van full of Eastern Europeans" listed somewhere in the chapter on "Things to Watch For". So it was with a little bit of trepidation that waited for an officer to stroll over to our driver's side window, and address the only US-born person in the entire van.

"Evening. All U.S. citizens?"

"Uh - some..."

"Some?"

"Some are international students with student visas"

"Student visas, eh?"

A glance inside at fourteen mortified Slavic faces.

Well, I'll believe you for now... Go ahead"

Which raises the question - what the hell are we paying our border patrol for?

Actually, it raises severa questions. What, if anything, was the Border Patrol looking for at 11 PM on a Saturday night in rural New Hampshire? How on earth does the arrival of a long, swerving van full of Bulgarians, Romanians and Greeks at midnight fail to cross a suspiciousness threshold? And what was the significance of this "for now"? Were there road blocks even further south?

Illegal Canadian immigrants beware - we are watching, we are waiting.

The van was full of mirth after this near-encounter with The Man, and everyone arrived at the church in an excellent mood. We had only a few minutes to spare before midnight, and the whole group filed into the church just as candles were being passed out.

An Orthodox church has no pews to sit in - the entire service is performed standing, and in the case of Easter the service is almost entirely sung. The Claremont church was entirely dark except for a light in the vestibule, and it was packed with people. Strangely enough, the priest was giving an an almost conversational homily, something I had never heard before. Even more strangely, a tall man was taking flash pictures in the dark, and no one seemed to bat an eye. I would come to realize over the course of the evening that the picture taker was affiliated with the church, or perhaps the border patrol - he seemed to go around photographing all he could, church-wedding style.

We all got candles and at the stroke of midnight, the chain reaction started - the people in the very front got their candles lit, and then passed the flame along to their neighbors, until everyone had a glowing beeswax candle in a little dixie cup, and the doors to the church opened wide. The congregation filed out the door, those closest to the front singing enthusiastically, and the singing dropping off towards the back, where the newer or less committed parishioners were. We walked out into the beautiful, freezing night, the bells of the church ringing loud above us.

After circling the church once, the congregation arrayed itself below the main steps. Two skinny girls in front of me, clearly sisters, were huddled up together and shaking like reeds in their thin Easter gowns. I took off my gigantic winter coat and hung it on their shoulders, under the suspicious eye of their mother. It made them look like an absurdly puffy little two-headed monster, still shaking but not quite at the same high frequency.

The priest arrived at the doors of the church and began to sing. This took a while, but the gist of it was that he was very happy that Christ had been resurrected, and the congregation sang back that it was also happy, and that we would have eternal life, and could it please go back into the church now. Of course this done with much more elan than I can convey, with lots of back and forth about trampling down death by death, but there was definitely a certain desperate shuffling of feet among the people who hadn't brought their coats. After many verses and a recitative, the doors to the church swung open and we all filed back inside.

The church, which had been completely dark as we left, was now blazing with light. Every candle in the place was lit, filling the air with the scent of hot beeswax, and there was already an undercurrent of incense. The Orthodox service emphasizes mystery - between the congregation and the altar there is a large wooden screen, the iconostasis, and only the celebrants actually go behind the iconostasis to worship at the altar, moving back and forth between this holy space and the main chamber where the congregation stands. The Easter service is entirely sung, with many repetitions, and at regular intervals one of the celebrants will walk out from next to the altar and announce to the congregation:

"Christ is risen!"

And everyone will respond:

"Indeed he is risen!"

This in Old Church Slavonic, and Greek, and English, and a host of other languages. And then the singing kicks in again, and it repeats for hours. Something about the music, the incense, and the holiness of the service makes the time pass smoothly, so that despite being on your feet and awake far past midnight, you are not encumbered by it.

The kids, of course, begin to pass out soon after the excitement of midnight wears off. In front of a little wooden barrier separating rows of people I could see an elaborate nest, with blankets and pillows laid out and a selection of sleeping two-year-olds arranged like sardines. They were so thoroughly asleep that the Second Coming could not have roused them. I got myself within eyeshot of a songbook and tried my best to sight read, for which I hope my neighbors and an all-forgiving God will pardon me.

But about two songs in to the actual liturgy, late in the service, I found myself singing a song that I knew by heart, but could not place. It was the very strangest feeling, and it took me the best part of a verse to realize that what we were singing was a translated, Christianized version of a very old, very pagan Georgian hymn:

Thou art a garden, newly in blossom
The beneficial root, arisen in Eden
A fragrant poplar grown in Paradise
And thou thyself a brilliant sun

The world is a strange and wonderful place, I thought, when a Polish guy in New England can recognize a Georgian hymn in a Russian church without even being carded by the border patrol.

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