Holy Saturday 


Yesterday was Good Friday, a day when all of Christendom takes a moment to stop and pause at the memory of sacrificial love. 

But what happens between Good Friday and Easter Sunday?
What happens to us on the days between tragedy and healing? What transpires when the crisis is over, but the end is not yet revealed? The days after the car accident, but before the broken leg has healed and the insurance has been paid. The days after diagnosis of cancer, but before treatment. The days after a funeral, but before we’ve adjusted to the loss.
These are the days between, when instead of darkness or light there is a lingering nervousness and knowledge that something is not quite settled, not quite right. The days between are often the most difficult and the most lonely, and they are undoubtedly the most common.

So has this day often seemed to me – this day between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, where we are suspended between death and life. 

“It is Finished” has been spoken, “He is Risen” is yet to come. 

In the West the day is often filled with shopping for marshmallow chicks, chocolate bunnies, and fake grass to line plastic easter baskets. 

 As I’ve moved into the Eastern Orthodox Church, I’ve formed a different view of this day between. A day between – yes, but a day of immeasurable importance in the Christian faith tradition. 

Madeleine L’Engle describes her journey of greater understanding of this day in her book, The Irrational Season:

In the Western Church, we jump directly from Good Friday to Easter Day, with Saturday a vague blank in between. But in the Eastern Church, Great and Holy Saturday is one of the most important days of the year.”


She goes on to say:


“Where was Jesus on that extraordinary day between the darkness of Good Friday and the brilliance of Easter Sunday? He was down in hell. And what was he doing there? He was harrowing hell, or to put it in simpler words, he was ministering to the damned.”


Madeleine L’Engle says this about the first time she ever saw the fresco of the Harrowing of Hell over the altar in the Chora Church in Istanbul: 

“I stood there, trembling with joy, as I looked at this magnificent painting of the harrowing of hell. In the center is the figure of Jesus striding through hell, a figure of immense virility and power. With one strong hand he is grasping Adam, with the other, Eve, and wresting them out of the power of hell. The gates to hell, which he has trampled down and destroyed forever, are in cross-form, the same cross on which he died. . .”

This same icon has become a part of my church tradition. 

I am almost ready to head out the door to our Holy Saturday service, because I have come to realize that what happens in the days between, between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, is crucial to the final outcome.

Pre-Paschal Reflections

It is ten pm on Saturday night. I sit on the couch in a darkened room. White lights peak through the window from the outside. We are the rare family that keeps Christmas lights up all year long, for who doesn’t need more light in their life?

All day there has been a sense of expectancy in the air, like something big is about to happen. It began this morning when, in the middle of a Vesperal Liturgy on Holy Saturday, the music and tone changed from somber to joyful; from dread to expectancy; from death to life. This afternoon, the entire church was alive with energy as vines were wound around pillars and white roses arranged by icons and stands.

In a short time, we will leave for Pascha – the height of the Orthodox calendar where we celebrate Christ’s resurrection from the dead. It is a time when we celebrate that he conquered “death by death” and “bestowed life on those in the tomb.”

It’s like getting ready for a wedding, without the stress of envious bridesmaids and relative angst.

It has been seven weeks of preparation, seven weeks of learning to say yes to something better than what we’re saying no to. Seven weeks of a season called Lent

“The strongest man or woman in the world is not nearly strong enough to triumph over his or her sin simply by saying no to it. What we need is the strength-giving grace occasioned by us saying yes to something else, by saying yes, and yes, and yes – ceaselessly – to Someone Else.” [The End of Suffering by Scott Cairns]

And tonight we say a final ‘yes’ to a Resurrection that we believe by faith. A Resurrection that brings life and light, for who doesn’t need more light?

 

When Someone Takes Your Paschal Cheese

russia

Let me tell you about Paschal Cheese. Paschal cheese is a special, sweet dish that originated in Russia and made its way to the United States and I thank God it did.

Paschal cheese is made of cream, eggs, butter, confectioners sugar, candied citron, chopped almonds, golden raisins, vanilla, and farmers cheese. It goes into a special mold where it comes out creamy and delicious, with the Orthodox cross molded into the sides. It is indescribably delicious.

I discovered this cheese at my first Pascha. It was four in the morning and I took one bite and thought it was a bite of heaven. It is creamy goodness full of ingredients you are encouraged to abstain from during Lent. It is the opposite of Lent – indulgence, extravagance, and luxury as compared to moderation, abstinence, and simplicity.

I never make this Paschal cheese because I have discovered that in a church full of Russian immigrants (and an American chef who is incredible) there is no need. Why try to duplicate what someone else already does so well? But at the end of our early morning feast I always try to take a container home, excited to eat it for the next two weeks.

This year was no exception. There was the Paschal cheese in the center table. One large one with a decorated cross on the top and several smaller molds surrounding it. A beautiful centerpiece for the table. I pushed my way through the jubilant crowd of hungry Orthodox Christians until I got to the table. And I loaded a piece of kulich, a sweet yeast bread that is more like a cake, with the cheese. So good.  Put it this way – to describe how good it is you need a thesaurus with a hundred options.

When it came time to head home I had my two take away boxes — one of them full of the cheese and kulich. There were many of us filling take away boxes with delicious foods that we hadn’t eaten for seven weeks.

We drove over the Charles River as the sun was coming up, its early morning glow reflected off the tall buildings in Boston that we see from the bridge. We arrived home tired but euphoric – it had been an amazing celebration and it was now time to sleep. Except first I would look at my Paschal cheese before putting it into the refrigerator.

I looked in the first take out box. Nothing. Oh right – that’s because I put it into the other take out box. As I peeked in I couldn’t believe what I saw.

There was no Paschal cheese. Since all the take out boxes looked the same, someone had taken my Paschal cheese and I was left with a poor substitute. I couldn’t believe it! No Paschal cheese??? I need my Paschal cheese. It’s the only thing I really wanted from that table that was laden with food. My husband had purposely not taken any, knowing that I would fill a take out box with this sweet, creamy goodness.

No Paschal cheese. And oh how I wanted that Paschal cheese. 

Other folks would probably just let it be, but because I am who I am I pondered this. How much I had looked forward to this dish, how disappointed I was that I ended up without it. Why was I so disappointed? It’s just a yummy food – and the truth is I don’t need it at all.

But I wanted it! And it was special! And it was tradition! 

It’s Monday morning and I can’t help thinking that life is full of moments of Paschal cheese where what we long for, what we want more than anything is not available. And usually it’s way bigger than Paschal cheese. We make ourselves crazy trying to get what is unavailable. Or we feel someone took our take away boxes. We try so hard to box up what we love, what we long for, and someone accidentally exchanges our takeout boxes for theirs.

All the while God gently but persistently urges us that if we trust and rest in Him, we will have enough. He will enter those longings and slowly, steadily re-shape them, until we realize that in Him we have what we wanted for all along. 

Photo Credit: http://pixabay.com/en/russia-golden-ring-historically-704855/

The Resilient Orthodox: Pre-Paschal Reflections on Faith

pottery quote

It’s Saturday evening and bright, soon-to-set sunlight still shines through our windows. It is a blessed contrast from what the weather has been for the past two months and we delight in it.

It has been quiet around Communicating Across Boundaries this past week for it has been Holy Week in the Orthodox tradition. It began with Palm Sunday last week and took us through somber and reflective services until last night’s Lamentations service to commemorate the death and burial of Christ. It is at this service when we walk through Allston – a busy area where bars meet with restaurants and students, where the sacred seems difficult to find – with a decorated bier chanting “Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, Have Mercy on Us.” People stop and openly stare for it is a sharp contrast to the world that surrounds us.

And then today the somber tone turned to joy–Great and Holy Saturday. In Orthodox tradition this is one of the most important days of the year, where we believe Christ descended to Hades. Madeleine L’Engle puts it well “Where was Jesus on that extraordinary day between the darkness of Good Friday and the brilliance of Easter Sunday? He was down in hell. And what was he doing there? He was harrowing hell, or to put it in simpler words, he was ministering to the damned.” We have an icon of this – the Resurrection Icon where Jesus reaches down with strength and unyielding power, taking hold of Adam with one hand and Eve with the other, rescuing them from Hades. It is an incredibly powerful depiction of this event between Good Friday and Easter.

All week there has been a sense of something big coming, but today even more so, for tonight is our Pascha — our Easter celebration. We will gather at the church around midnight and celebrate the resurrection of Christ. Our priests will stride through the crowd shouting “Christ is Risen” in many languages and the joy will be palpable. In the wee hours of the morning we will end the celebration with a feast to top all feasts – lamb, ham, chicken, special Paschal cheeses and breads, fruit, cream, chocolate – it will all be there and in abundance for we have kept a fast, free of dairy or meat for seven weeks. Tonight, that ends and feasting begins.

So there is much to anticipate, much to look forward to, but now I sit in the quiet and think about the mystery of faith.

We all live by faith. Whether we acknowledge it or not, faith is a huge part of what it is to be human. Make no mistake – even if we believe nothing, we walk in faith. Some would argue it takes more faith to believe in nothing than to believe in a god or gods.

Woven through our life journey is a journey of faith. We’re all born – whether it be in Shanghai, Karachi, Los Angeles, or a million other places around the world. We all go through early stages of childhood where we are shaped for better, or sometimes, for worse. We move on into later years and our lives are shaped by circumstances, our response to those circumstances, those around us, and faith.

Our spiritual journey can include many events and even more emotions. Perhaps we’ve gone through a period where we are so angry at God that we feel bile rise in our throats. Perhaps we have yelled to the Heavens that life is unfair. Other times maybe we have questioned whether God is good, or whether there is universal truth. And throughout this journey life happens: friendships are formed, marriages made, babies birthed, funerals attended.

There was a time when I saw this faith journey as black and white. If I deviated from the path then there would be unforgivable consequences. There was a “perfect will of God path” and I had to find it. More recently I’m grateful for ‘process’; that God is a God of process. He takes the clay that he has and molds it, shapes it, and then often reshapes it – an artist that works with our soul and our character, creating something worthy, something beautiful, something that reflects its maker. There was a time when I thought the struggle was a problem, that it had to be eliminated. Through my own struggles and the struggles of those I love I have found that the struggle can and should be honored.

But there are those other times like the one I anticipate tonight – when my faith is celebrated with joy and in community. When I don’t try to make sense of this journey, but accept the mystery and grace that are a part of it. Where I take the body and blood of Christ, “not for judgement or for condemnation, but for the healing of soul and body.”*

So now I sit in the quiet, watching the sunlight fade, grateful for this week, this day, this faith. 

*From the end of the prayer before receiving Holy Communion.

Photo Credit: http://pixabay.com/en/pottery-potter-s-wheel-crock-457445/ Word Art by Marilyn R. Gardner

The Reluctant Orthodox – Volume 24 “On Pascha, Sophia Maria & Isaac”

 

The Orthodox hymn gets in your brain and you find yourself wanting to belt it out in loud measure everywhere you go.

Christ is risen from the dead, 
trampling down death by death.
And upon those in the tombs 
bestowing life! 
 

Pascha in the Orthodox Church begins with a darkened sanctuary. The light of one candle is held by the priest and as one we move forward as he calls us to “Come, take the light!” Candles now light up the church and we head outside around the church as though to the tomb. We come back to the door of the church and are told “He’s not here – He is risen from the Dead!” As we enter again into the sanctuary we move forward in joyous hymns and priests rushing joyfully into the congregation declaring in many different languages “Christ is Risen!” to which we reply in various languages “Indeed! He is Risen!” or “In Truth, He is Risen!”

And all this happens between midnight and three in the morning.

The first time I went to a Pascha service I lasted from 11:30 until 12:30. I was beyond reluctant – I was like “You all are, in my daughter’s words, ‘cray-cray’ (the vernacular for crazy)” Now I’m like “When will I get to take grandchildren to this glorious service?!”

A lot has happened in 11 years. And today – Holy Saturday – the reluctance was buried in an Orthodox Baptism, and as reluctance died, acceptance rose. Yes – my husband and I were baptized and chrismated into the Orthodox Church. We were cheered on by a church body that has loved us well these past couple of years, by a Poppadia (priest’s wife) who walked beside me these past weeks, even when I sent emails saying “I can’t do this thing!”, and by two priests who we trust and who have heard the bad, the hard, and the ugly, telling us there’s nothing we could tell them that they haven’t already heard in some form or another and assuring us that God’s grace covers all.

This is not new information. I was taught and loved well in my life by parents, brothers, sister-in-laws, friends. So many who have reflected love and grace and the very best of Christianity. But as I’ve said before, sometimes old information needs new clothing. And so it has been in our case.

We celebrate Pascha as “Sophia Maria (Marilyn)” and “Isaac (Cliff).” I figure that two saints are better than one. The lives of both Sophia and Maria (Mary of Egypt) exemplify Wisdom and Repentance and I find I am in need of both of those, in abundance. You can read up on their lives here and here.

This step in no way erases all reluctance or all questions. Indeed, the more I learn the more I realize this Grace is a mystery and confounds much of the time. I’ll be writing a bit more in later posts on going from reluctance to acceptance; on being Sophia Maria; on legalism and grace; and on some of the more humorous ‘mistakes’ I have made (including calling the priest’s wife a “PoppaDokka” and our son calling Father Patrick “Pope Shenouda.”

But tonight I celebrate Pascha, Sophia Maria, and Isaac.

Because with Christians all around the world I sing the words:

Christ is risen from the dead, 
trampling down death by death.
And upon those in the tombs 
bestowing life! 
 

“*A few drops of blood recreate the whole world and become for all human beings like a curdling agent for milk, binding and drawing us together into one.” 

 
Nazianzen, Gregory. Festal Orations. Trans. Verna E. F. Harrison. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary, 2008. Print.

Baptismal photo credit: Dn Tudor Sambeteanu

 

 

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