Orthodox Easter

Re-post from elsewhere in (I think) 2009. This year, Western and Orthodox Easter were only one week apart. Today, 12 April, is Orthodox Easter. Enjoy!

AnastasiThis year, Eastern and Western Easter were about a month apart (the farthest apart they can be, as well as ours being the earliest it will be for another 220 years). And so, as my Russian, Greek, Cypriot, Antiochene, Syrian, Alexandrian, Ukrainian brothers and sisters celebrate the Feast of Feasts, the Resurrection of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, I’d just like to say:

Crist aras! (Crist sodhlice aras!) (Old English)

Crist is arisen! (Arisen he sothe!) (Middle English)

Which is to say: Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! (For how to say this traditional Easter greeting in more languages, go here.)

I like Orthodox Easter… [and] it was while abiding on the island of Cyprus I first encountered the Eastern celebration of Easter. Here in Toronto, I went to a Russian church which happens to be in my neighbourhood.

I showed up early, around 10:30 PM. I asked about the candles and whatnot from a young cantor and his wife. I bought two slender beeswax tapers for $2 each, then went into the sanctuary. There were people moving about at the different icons, as well as in what looked like a line for confession (?). I walked up and stood in the centre aisle for a bit, focussing on the focal point of the room and praying.

This church is very open; it’s an old Anglican building with pews relegated to the walls only, and a few rows of chairs at the back. The rest of the space is essentially empty, with icons along the walls and on the pillars. In the centre of the nave (what I would call the chancel is hidden behind the iconostasis, the icon screen) was a table covered in white flowers, daisies and lilies. And on the table, in the midst of the white flowers, was a red cloth, representing the shroud of Christ. Atop it were a book of the Gospel (I surmise) and a cross. The shroud itself, I believe, had Christ in the tomb on it.

After I had watched some others praying before this shroud, symbolising the fact that Christ died and went down to Hades, I approached it myself. Some had kneeled; all had crossed themselves; most had kissed at least the book of the Gospel, if not the shroud itself and the cross. I mounted the step in front of the shroud, crossed myself, and prayed to the Eternal Risen Christ, holding the candles in my hand. I crossed myself again, kissed the book of the Gospel, and crossed myself a third time.

Then I dismounted and and went to the candlestand on the right of the shroud. I lit one of my two candles and prayed to Christ, proclaiming Him the Light of World and smiled within since a city on a hill cannot be hidden. Then I stepped back, beside the lectern where a lector was reading the scriptures in Slavonic.

I occupied the next hour of my life in various ways. I stood before an icon of St. Nicholas for a while, noting that Russian icons are more three-dimensional than Byzantine ones. I sat for a while. I wandered past all the icons, praying to Christ for His glory. Before the icon of the Blessed Virgin, I sang the Magnificat quietly to myself. Throughout it all, I was often singing quietly to myself, especially this Taize chant:

Laudate Dominum! Laudate Dominum, omnes gentes! Alleluia! (repeat)

Eventually, it was 11:30, and the clergy came out in their fine robes. There was singing in Old Church Slavonic before the shroud, with the choir answering (also in Slavonic) from the balcony at the back. The singing was beautiful. A deacon appeared beside the priest and his deacon with a candle. Then they processed around the table with the shroud, the priest censing everything. Following was more singing, and the shroud was removed.

Next, they did things behind the Holy Doors of the iconostasis. I don’t know what. There was, undoubtedly, incense and Slavonic involved. The choir would occasionally sing. Then they got ready for the procession.

The procession was led by some servers carrying an icon of Christ surrounded by a great wreath. Following them were others with candles and the priests and deacons. Then regular laymen in street clothes carried six standards with icons on them, topped by crosses. Behind them went the choir. We lit our candles from the stands around us (they were equipped with Dixie cups to catch the wax).

We processed around the block. I wended my way through the procession so that I could spent the last bit close enough to hear the choir over the hubbub around me. Then, singing a hymn, we stopped at the church steps. The priest had a microphone and sang some antiphons, the choir responding with something to do with Christ every time. And then he declared:

Christos Voskrese!

To which everyone but me responded:

Voistino Voskrese!

Fortunately, I could respond to, “Christ is Risen!” (Indeed, He is risen!) and “Christos Anesti!” (Alithos Anesti!) Next was French, and I didn’t know the response. None knew the German response. Then a smattering of other languages, to each of which a few knew the answer. He concluded with the Slavonic version seven times.

They sang a hymn and went in for the Divine Liturgy. I slipped away, since the Divine Liturgy takes three hours.

From the moment I stepped into that church, it felt right. You should all go next year!


Saint of the Week: St. Juvenaly, First Martyr of America & Alaska

When I saw that the Rev. Edmund James Peck was “Apostle to the Inuit,” I thought this interesting, since there had been a Russian Orthodox presence among the Inuit of Alaska for a century before Peck made his way into the Canadian Arctic.

St. Juvenaly was the first missionary to the Arctic and Inuit of North America.  In 1793, he and seven other monastics organised a missionary trip to the Inuit from the Monastery of Valaam in northern Russian.  The group was led by Archimandrite Joseph with four priest-monks (aka “hieromonks”) in whose ranks Juvenaly was numbered, one “hierodeacon”, and two lay monks, including St. Herman.

Alaska was 8000 miles away.

These tough Russian monks set out and reached Kodiak Island on September 24, 1794.  There was a Russian settlement there, apparently primitive, full of violence, and lacking a church.  Archimandrite Joseph worked on helping this settlement in its leadership while the other monks engaged in missionary activity.

In 2 years, 12000 Alaskans came to faith in Christ.  Most of these Alaskans were not Inuit but of the other native peoples of North America.  In 1796, Juvenaly began work on the mainland of Alaska, baptising hundreds of converts, mainly of the Chugach Sugpiag and Athabascans.

St. Juvenaly’s work took him Northwest towards the Bering Sea.  Eventually, he disappeared.  No one has found evidence of his disappearance, but the native peoples say that as he moved, he encountered some Inuit.  The Inuit were disturbed and confused by his gestures, including the sign of the cross.  This oral tradition has it that the shaman of the Inuit he encountered declared that this new stranger be attacked, and St. Juvenaly was killed by spears and arrows.

I wonder about this unspectacular martyrdom.  The first thing that comes to mind is Alexander Mackenzie’s journey of exploration up the Mackenzie River (or, as he termed it, “River of Disappointment”) to the Arctic Ocean.  When they set out, this intrepid crew of French-Canadien Voyageurs and Scots was on good and friendly terms with the local Chippewa.*  As they went further North, they encountered the Inuit.  The Inuit were not on friendly terms with the Chippewa, and things were dangerous for the unsuspecting white men for a while.  The reminder that comes from both of these stories is the fact that North America is full of multiple peoples who are not identical to each other and sometimes even hostile with one another (before Pan-Indian movements such as that led by the Prophet).  Not being aware of different alliances and hostilities could get a white man into trouble back in the day.

The second is the hazards of mission.  Seven monks roving about evangelising for two years can do a lot of good.  However, if these men do not establish themselves in the communities, as Rev. Peck would do 100 years later, the commitment to Christ may only be skin-deep.  Yes, Christianity is the fulfillment of the hopes and dreams of shamanism.  Yes, Christ is fuller and deeper and better than animist spirituality.  But if people only gain the veneer of Christianity and are not transformed into His likeness, what is the point?

Furthermore, sometimes white men do dumb stuff.  St. Juvenaly had already brought the Gospel to 100s of native people on both Kodiak Island and the mainland of Alaska.  Why not stay and train the new Christians in the faith, bringing them to fulness?  Why keep wandering into places where you do not even know the language and culture, into places where things you do simply because you are an Orthodox monk may get you killed?  Doing dumb stuff for the sake of the Gospel is still doing dumb stuff.

*Rumour has it they are the same people as the Ojibwe.  Is rumour correct?