I must admit, 4 hours into the Russian Orthodox Easter service I attended last Saturday night, my mind was beginning to wander. It has already 3AM, and I had learned that I did not understand much of the Russian, probably due to a combination of it being new vocabulary and it was being chanted most of the time. I began to think about what I could compare this experience to.
Although, it may seem odd, I settled on the time I went for a 7 mile run last summer with very little training or preparation. On that day, I had decided I would be running a 10K in about two months, so I wanted to see if I could do it. Of course, the logical process is to start with smaller distances and work your way up, but I like to just throw myself into things. So that’s how I found myself somewhere in Bloomington-Normal about four miles from my house with aching feet and a vague idea of how to get home. I did make it home eventually, and I found out that I could do a 10K, but my legs hurt and I didn’t know if I wanted to do it again anytime soon.
I threw myself into Russian Orthodox service in much the same way. I had wanted to attend the church in my town for a while now. I originally stumbled upon it in January when I was trying to find the bus station. It’s about a thirty-five minute walk from my house, right near the main highway. However, for a lot of reasons I hadn’t made it to a service there yet. It was really cold in the winter, and the walk was long. I was out of site a lot in Taraz or Almaty or somewhere. I was nervous about not knowing anyone there or what to do. But then it got to be Easter and I decided to just do it.
About all I know about the Orthodox churches is that they are 1) A lot like Catholic ones, so much so, that their members can receive communion at our masses (unlike Protestants). 2) Their services are about twice as long and there are no pews to sit down in. 3) They use a different liturgical calendar so they celebrate their feast days after we celebrate ours.
So although I was able to attend a Catholic church on Easter, I found myself with the chance to attend an Orthodox church on their Easter. I figured if there was one mass that had to be experienced, it had to be their Easter mass. My favorite mass of the year is probably Easter vigil mass (which I dub the Mac Daddy mass) because it is full of ceremony, sacraments, and celebration. I wouldn’t pass up the chance to experience a similar ceremony in a new and interesting culture.
Thus Saturday morning I walked to the church and asked a woman there when Easter services were. She told me at 11 o’clock. I asked her to repeat it. Still 11 o’clock. At night, I asked her. Yes, at night, she replied. In my mind I was excited that it would in fact be a late mass, but I was wondering how I would get to the church that late at night. When I got home, I told my host brother about it, and he said not to worry. He’d either find me a ride or walk me there. I also wondered how I would be getting home from the service, but I figured I would solve that problem when it arose. Someone would probably have a car and want to be nice to the American.
All day was like a countdown to the service for me. I had planned on going to the church on earlier occasions, but something always got in the way. Not today, not on Easter. No matter what, I would find a way to make it there at 11. There was a roadblock. At about 6 PM, my host brother and I went to a birthday party. I knew that would last well into the night. He assured me that I would still make mass, and he was true to his word. At 10:30, he found me a ride to the church. I arrived at 10:45 and nervously entered.
The priest was in the lobby area with his priestly garments already on (it’s been a while since I was an altar boy, so I forget the name). He had a large scraggly beard and long hair to match it. He looked like what I would expect an orthodox priest to look like. I went to greet him with a handshake but I was greeted with a blessing and a hearty happy easter instead. I walked into the actual church and saw about ten people sitting down in chairs in the back of the room. The church itself was small, maybe about the size of a large classroom. Along the walls were a number of icons (actually another fact I knew about Orthodox churches; they have a lot of icons).
There was a large lectern off to the left side facing toward to front of the church. There were two small tables centered in the middle of the church, centered about ten feet away from each other. All of the people were sitting against the back wall listening to a woman read from a book. I joined them in one of the last empty seats.
As I looked around the room, I was already confused. First, I didn’t expect there to be any seats, but I was already sitting. Second, the lectern was facing toward the front of the church. Third, there was no altar. There were two tables in the church, but neither of them seemed to be altars. Where would they consecrate the Eucharist? I thought it would look more like a Catholic church. I had also been hoping to blend in and be an anonymous face in the crowd, but when the crowd is fifteen people in a small room, blending in isn’t really possible.
Around 11PM, the priest came in. We all stood up and he began asking people in the congregation to recite various prayers or read from a book. Eventually, a group of women began taking turns reading from a prayer book from the lectern while he prepared the church for the service. It is during this time, that I learned another difference between Catholics and Orthodox: the way we use the sign of the cross. At least once every thirty seconds, everyone listening to the readings would cross themselves and bow. For Catholics, we usually cross ourselves at the beginning and end of prayers and services. Here is was almost constant at times. I would always watch the people around me to see when their right hand would reach up towards their forehead, but I had to be aware of the occasional time they were just scratching an itch. At first, it felt strange, but I eventually began to enjoy it.
During these preparations, one of my questions was also answered. He went up to the front of the church and opened two doors that led to the sanctuary/altar. I thought it was like a sacristy area where the priest got prepared, but there was clearly the altar there. It’s just usually behind closed doors. Around 11:45, the priest began handing out icons for people to hold. I was first given a picture of Jesus on the cross, but then he switched it out for the Gospel, which I had to hold with a towel so as my fingers would not touch it. I wasn’t sure what we were doing, but I was prepared to hold it for a while. Midnight finally came, and he said we would start the actual service.
The service began with a procession around the exterior of the church. Each of us, with our icons in hand, processed out of the church and into the street and then back around to the front of the church. The cross was first, the gospel was second, an important icon was third, and then the rest followed. Once we reached the front doors again, we said some prayers and then went back into the church. The priest took each of the icons back and put them back around the room, then took the gospel and put it back on the altar. Mass had begun.
The next hour and a half was spent saying what I assume is an Easter prayer/song/chant. I honestly didn’t understand much. Christ is risen from the dead. Something about a new Jerusalem. And a lot of stuff I didn’t follow. We would do a chorus part of the song while the priest went around with incense and blessed all of the icons, the altar, and the attendees. Then we would go through a verse. Then we would go through the chorus ceremony again. We probably went through about ten verses or so. I didn’t know what I was saying, but I began to be able to sing the refrain after about the third time. Of course, we were also making crossing ourselves and bowing about five times a minute the entire time.
It was about 2AM, when we seemingly finished the Easter song, and I was thoroughly confused. I had already been there for three hours. I had expected the service to be long. Like if Easter masses may double in length for Catholics, then service would maybe last four to five hours. But I had never been to an Orthodox service. Do they have the same parts? Were we in the middle? Just the beginning? Almost at the end? It was a strange feeling to be somewhere and have so little concept of when it would be over. Usually in life we have an expectation of a length or a deadline. Or at least we can look at where we are and estimate how much longer we have left. In lines, we can usually see the front. In books, we can see the number of pages. Even in stories, we understand the natural progression of a plot. But here I was at an event of an unknown length with unknown parts in a language I wasn’t understanding. The complete lack of orientation was frustrating and interesting at the same time. With no way of focusing on the future, it was only possible to focus on the present.
Unfortunately, there was not much going on in the present. The priest was behind the wall in the front of the church for forty minutes doing something we couldn’t see. During this time, we kept going through more verses of the Easter song we had just completed. Every ten minutes or so he would come out and give a “Molotsi” to the women who were continuing on in song, give a blessing, and go back to whatever he was doing. It seemed to be a long break in the liturgical action.
Finally, he finished at about 2:45 and we were back on track for the ceremony. It was about this time I set a goal of 5AM for the end of the service. It wasn’t even serious. I thought it was so unrealalistic that it would go on that long, I set it so I would be happy when it ended at like 4:30 or something. But as the hours passed, the service continued. Although I know traditionally you are supposed to stand during the service, there were times when most people took advantage of the chairs at the back of the church. The elderly and pregnant sat most of the time, but even the younger women occasionally rested their feet (there was only one child there, and only one other man under the age of sixty). Eventually we also moved onto more recognizable parts of the service. The priest eventually read from the Gospel. The bread and wine were blessed and consecrated, although I wasn’t sure of the exact time (no bells like in the Catholic church). Communion was given to everyone, although I did not receive in respect of their principles (we let them receive, but we aren’t supposed to receive). And finally, at about 6:00 the mass ended.
During this time, I estimate that I crossed myself approximately 500 times and said “Christ is Risen. He is truly Risen” about 200 times. And despite sitting down occasionally through out the service, I was tired and my feet were aching. Although the problem of having to walk home in the middle of the night was no longer a problem. I knew the sun would be rising in about 20 minutes.
After the mass, the priest blessed two loaves of bread and then gave out other bread for everyone to eat. We then all went into another room where this was a fantastic spread of baked goods, dyed hard-boiled eggs, and candy. Most of the people stayed around for about 5 minutes and then left, but I heard that there would be chai eventually (tea). Only myself, the priest, and an elderly man named Nikolai stayed for tea. I introduced myself and the conversation was brief. We chatted some until about 7:00 when I finally left the church. I made it home at about 7:40 and crashed for most of the day. In the end, I am glad that I went. They told me to come back when I could, and I definitely want to do it again. However, I think a normal Sunday might be less intimidating, tiring, and enjoyable. And with some training, hopefully my feet won’t hurt so much at the end of it either.