Thursday, May 5, 2016

The Anastasis

Standing in the darkened temple, a rare experience. Not standing there alone, but standing, surrounded by a great multitude, barely visible by the meager light filtering through long, purple-tinted windows, light from the night outside, a physical oxymoron. Oh-KSEE-moh-ron, with the accent on the ‘ksee’, a mystical hybrid combining the words for ‘sharp’ and ‘fool’.

Light from the night outside, that’s how dark the interior of the temple was, that we needed the light of the night to see by, the night of Pascha. ‘How is this night different from all other nights?’ the Hebrew child asks, taking his part in the ritual of Pesach. There we stood for what seemed hours, each armed with a taper, soon to be joined to light from the unwaning Light.

In that prolonged moment, looking over the heads of people with their backs to me, a faceless crowd that I nonetheless knew, knew as people I once lived with in my earthly life, all of us now sunken to the lands below, never again to return to the sunlit lands above, the chill of ageless death breathed over us, we stood, we waited for redemption, in the pre-dawn darkness.

Never before had I experienced this in the midnight service of Pascha, the Easter of the Greek Orthodox Church. Never before did the darkness seem to last this long, long enough for us to glimpse what the darkness means, that we are all dead, all already dead and waiting in the darkness of Hades, waiting for our liberation. ‘I expect the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the age to come.’

‘I look for’ the creed says now, but ‘προσδοκω’ pros-dho-KOH ‘I expect’ is what we used to say, as I still do, when reciting the Symbol of the Faith of Nikaia. In the darkness, in the gloom of that cavernous darkness, we stood pressed together in rows, all facing forward, eyes fastened on the hand of our invisible Master like slaves’ eyes fixed on their master’s hand.

To save us, who though still alive in the flesh and gathered for the festival of our redemption, in that darkened temple instantly forgetting who we were, knew and awaited only One, our hearing sharpened by our night-blindness, listening intently for the sound the flash of fire makes when it descends from on high to light the Paschal candle, and then for the Voice crying out.

‘Δεύτε λάβετε φως’ DHEF-teh LAH-veh-teh FOHSS ‘Come, receive the Light’, and what a different light! as we peer through the waning darkness to see emerging from the Royal Gate in the metaphorical wall of Jerusalem emblazoned with glowing ikons, the Christ-bearing priests ‘εκ του ανεσπέρου φωτός’ ek too un-ess-PEH-roo foh-TOSS ‘from the unwaning Light’.

All our waiting, what seemed like forever, now at an end, like the souls in Hades whose lot we have just mystically shared, all in darkness and silence, has ripened into reception of the Light, which now goes before us, chanting, ‘και δοξάσατε Χριστόν’ keh dhoh-KSAH-sah-teh Chriss-TOHN ‘and glorify Christ’ as we meekly and with generous joy follow out into the starry night.

Into the cool wind that threatens to snuff out our candles, where we again see and recognize each other, families finding their members, mothers, fathers, daughters and sons, singing and re-igniting their tapers with ‘τον αναστάντα εκ νεκρών’ tohn ah-nahss-THAN-da ek neh-KROHN ‘the One who is risen from the dead’, now a crowd released to receive the real, the true Light, the Christ.

We experienced by anticipation in the morning service the harrowing of Hades, witnessing the scattering of laurel leaves and rose petals as tokens of the victory of Christ over death and Hades, but in the darkness of the pre-dawn service of the Resurrection, at the midnight hour, we personally experienced the waiting, the descent, and the hidden victory, our redemption.

The world goes on with its business, unaware that everything, even the course of history, even the laws of nature, have changed. Nothing remains the same, and the world of the past has gone. Before us, before the whole world, the door to a new universe has been opened, and we gingerly poke around on the path paved for our pilgrimage, ‘Is it really opened? Is it really for us?’

And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write, ‘These things says He who is holy, He who is true, He who has the key of David, He who opens and no one shuts, and shuts and no one opens. I know your works. Behold, I have set before you an open door, and no one can shut it… (Revelation 3:7-8). Let us, therefore, brethren, walk in the Light, the unwaning Light, we have received.

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