The themes of the last two weeks have been Holy Week and Easter. My students and colleagues who have liturgical duties reported extreme fatigue and the desire for rest after the holiday. As a deacon, I participated actively in the vigils of the Orthodox Church this past weekend, including two three-hour marathons (Thursday and Friday evenings), liturgy on Holy Saturday morning, and Pascha on Saturday night/Sunday morning, which began at 11:30 p.m. and concluded at 3:00 a.m. I was also fatigued and still find myself desiring a few days off in search of the bliss of doing nothing.
We ministers tend to complain about the absence of gravitas among the people in their liturgical participation. The people lack enthusiasm; they should attend more liturgies and stay for a longer period of time; the come for all of the wrong reasons. In response to our complaints, we devise pastoral strategies and programs to catechize those who pop into the door one of two times in a given year. Recognizing the rich theological textures and divine grace embedded in the Holy Week and Paschal liturgies, we prepare ourselves, the singers, and assistants to perform everything properly and in good order. Any deviation from the appointed order risks compromising the imparting of divine grace on account of distracting the people.
I found myself “first among sinners” as I processed into the Church after we commenced Paschal Matins at midnight. I wanted everyone to go into church, find their seat, and follow the order of liturgy. Instead, I saw people joyfully lingering in the narthex, embracing one another, laughing, smiling, weeping, exchanging the traditional greetings with its kiss, “Christ is Risen! Indeed, He is Risen!”
It took forever for the people to take their seats, and they kept laughing, smiling, embracing each other; the beginning of the service was delayed.
I then realized that the divine grace, the profound theology of God’s love for us was being received with open hearts without any pre-planning or programmatic participation in that moment. In that moment, people were receiving the grace of God and embracing their identities as children of God who have been forgiven and permitted to roam God’s garden freely in joyful playing and laughing. After the liturgy of the table, the celebration continued in parish halls, homes, parks, and backyards, complete with the contemporary delicacies that make post-liturgical feasting so terrific. Throughout the week, women and men had prepared the feast meticulously, slaving over stoves and hot ovens for hours to prepare the feast. As a friend and mentor opined, it is an annual Paschal “liturgy of the kitchen.”
What do we make of this moment of profound liturgical disorder I experienced in church? In my opinion, it is the reception of the Spirit of life, given to those who anticipated Pascha with hope and love. Some faithful dutifully attended the services of Holy Week each day; others came twice, Friday and Sunday; many others came only at midnight. In fact, as soon as I had exited my car to prepare for the Paschal services, a stranger pulled up next to me and asked, “will there be basket blessing tonight?” “Yes,” I replied. “What time? “About 3:00 a.m.,” I deadpanned. The driver looked at me for a moment and said, “thank you.” Maybe I will see him again; maybe not. But I am hopeful that he was among the dozens I witnessed receiving the news of Christ’s resurrection with joy, laughing and smiling into the night. For all who attended, that moment was a real sampling of the life that is to come, a snapshot of the future life in God when we will all play with delight in the divine garden. No essay can capture the joy permeating that taste of the kingdom; no program or liturgical order can appoint the timing and manner of its arrival. It is a real gift I saw dozens of people receive freely and joyously; it was real liturgy; and I am deeply grateful for the gift of awareness (of which I am unworthy) that permitted me to see it. The experience of that night made the aches in my feet and back worth the effort.