With the onset of Lenten abstentions barely nine days hence, I recently got to reminiscing about my first Paschal liturgy. It's an experience I've always envisioned telling as one event along the lengthy timeline of my Orthodox conversion, but as a working, married father of four, writing that complete history seems to become less feasible as time elapses. Given the nearness of the Paschal season and the fact that I haven't written anything in months, I felt this a worthy exercise.
My period of Orthodox inquiry began around the summer of 2010, but it wasn't until February of 2014 that my wife and I uprooted from our Evangelical church home and started attending at an Orthodox parish. That church was a very small (at the time) parish in a northern suburb of Dallas, TX, in the OCA archdiocese. My family realized after 3-4 weeks attending there that it was the wrong place for us. At the time, they were meeting in a small trailer. It was too cramped, nothing really for the kids educationally, and it had the feel of a parish in decline. While I'm glad St. Sava's has rebounded since those days (they have a beautiful new house of worship), I'm also glad about where circumstances took us in that season.
We then transferred our trial run to Holy Trinity, the big Greek parish in town. My wife sent me alone that first week, weary of the frustrating few Sundays that had preceded. That first Sunday at Holy Trinity happened to be the Sunday of Orthodoxy, which was quite the full-throated Orthodox experience for a guy who had merely romanced about Orthodoxy the four years prior. All things considered, it was a bright and hopeful encounter that I enthusiastically shared the details of with my wife when I got home that day. She was skeptical, but upon learning the following week that the church had a designated cry room for moms and babies with its own live video feed of the liturgy pumping in, she was on board again.
During the ensuing 5-6 weeks, we were adamant with our Evangelical friends and family that this was just a "season of discovery". In fact, we actively prayed during that time that God would lead us away from Orthodoxy if it wasn't His desire that we convert. That being said, I should mention that we didn't actually view the Lenten period explicitly as our experimental period. We had a much longer trial phase in mind. Knowing that the Orthodox Church typically doesn't receive new catechumens until the Saturday before Holy Week, we had envisioned giving the entire liturgical year its due before deciding absolutely the Orthodox Church was where we belonged.
But then Pascha happened.
When the day--er, night--arrived for the Paschal liturgy, my wife and I had already agreed that I was going without her. We were a long way off from being willing to negotiate that lengthy midnight service with multiple young children in our charge. I didn't want to go alone, however, so I called an open-minded friend from Dallas Theological Seminary (where I'd been working toward a Master's degree until the previous December) to see if he'd be willing to tag along. Thankfully, he was. We hadn't seen each other in the four months since I'd withdrawn from DTS, so prior to the liturgy we caught up over some coffee. From there, we proceeded to church.
The scene was electric from the moment we approached the church parking lot. It was 30 minutes 'til midnight, and people were pouring into the church in their Sunday best. The parking lot was full beyond capacity, with people parking all over the church lawn, at neighboring buildings, on the street, you name it. Dallas PD had assigned a large team of officers to direct traffic into and around the church.
We found a sliver of space on the church lawn wide enough for my car, and made our way to the church entrance. We were each given a large candle immediately before entering the narthex. My friend looked uncomfortably on as I venerated icons of Christ and his Mother, then followed me up to the balcony where the only remaining open seats could be found.
The nave was dark, with only a few dispersed wall candles and oil lamps creating just enough light to move around without tripping on someone. As we sat, the chanters were just beginning a round of prayers which would continue, in the dark, for about 45 minutes. Once the clock had passed midnight, a group of young girls all dressed up in white with crowns of flowers, holding unlit candles, went scurrying up toward the iconostasis and arranged themselves in an inverted 'V' formation in front of the Holy Doors. At that point the chanters went silent, and the priest emerged from the altar with a lit candle, signifying Christ's emergence from the tomb. "Come receive the light from the Unwaning Light, and glorify Christ, who has risen from the dead!" he sang out, as he lit the candles of the girls who'd assembled in front of him. The girls then dispersed throughout the church, sharing the light of their candles until the entire nave was aglow with candlelight.
The priest then processed out of the church with a train of deacons and altar boys into the courtyard, where upwards of a thousand people repeatedly made the sign of the cross with their candles while singing the Paschal hymn, "Christ is risen from the dead! By death he has trampled upon death, and to those in the tombs bestowing life!" For half an hour this went on, a thousand voices bellowing out the refrain in English, then Greek and back again, until the priest processed with his altar servers back into the church.
At this point, the "Easter Greeks"--hundreds of them--waltzed back toward their cars to leave. Not yet familiar with that phenomenon, my friend and I stood there disoriented as about half of the gathered people made for the parking lot and the other half followed the priest back into the church. A friendly young woman noticed my friend and I standing in the courtyard muttering amongst ourselves and bounded over. "Christos anesti!" she blurted out before planting a kiss on each of our cheeks. "You're new here, yes?" she asked. It was apparent. "Indeed we are," I said. "Which crowd should we follow?" I asked. "If you want to see the whole show, head back into the church," she said with a look of excitement.
Back into the church we went, where the priest had just begun an entire Divine Liturgy, the normal Sunday liturgy that is celebrated throughout the year. Except this time it was 1:30 in the morning, and the liturgy was going to be punctuated with continued singing of the Paschal hymn, followed by a priestly recitation of the magnificent Paschal homily of St John Chrysostom. Finally, after the Orthodox Faithful had received Communion, a Deacon energetically marched up and down the aisles of the nave, which were still covered with rose petals from the previous morning, flinging incense smoke in all directions, calling out "Christ is risen!" "Truly He is risen!" the gathered Christians shouted back. And the call and response continued several times before the closing prayers were finally uttered, and the liturgical portion of the evening finally came to a close at nearly 3:00 am.
The next part of the evening's festivities was and is a much bigger deal for people who have a) adhered to the prescribed, rigorous Lenten fast, and b) participated in most if not all of the Holy Week services that set the stage for Pascha. It was time for the Paschal feast. Traditionally, it is an extravagant affair with whole roasted lamb, innumerable side dishes, wine, music, and boisterous frivolity that continues into the early morning. For my first experience, the church had a more tempered meal after the liturgy, with a much grander celebration planned for mid-day after the traditional Agape Vespers service.
I didn't attend Agape Vespers that Sunday out of exhaustion, but I'll never forget that early morning phone call to my wife when I drove away from the church. "We're becoming Orthodox," I matter-of-factly told her. "There's no way I can continue as a Christian without this kind of jubilance to look forward to every Easter, and we owe it to our children to secure that future for them."
Perhaps the experience wouldn't have had quite as profound an effect if I hadn't already cleared several theological hurdles over my nearly four years of inquiry prior to that night. After all, my friend who attended with me has voiced no interest in Orthodoxy in the three years since. But my determination after that experience, which infected my wife soon after and has remained a burning flame in my heart ever since, was more than enough to carry us across the catechetical finish line on April 4, 2015, when my family was formally received into the Orthodox Church.
Pascha 2017, here we come.
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