The room is pitch-black, except for a tiny pinprick of flame, barely visible through a door into another smaller room. Suddenly, that pinprick of light turns to blackness as a shadow passes in front of it.
Hundreds are gathered, crowded together in pews, silent and still, waiting, as the shadow turns and steps through the door. It’s a priest holding a second point of light. It illuminates a bearded face and bright white vestments as he begins to sing: “Come receive the light from the never-setting Light, and glorify Christ, Who has risen from the dead.”
A second voice takes up the hymn, then the entire choir joins in as the priest comes forward and lights the candles of those waiting at the front. They pass it in turn to those behind, and so on until every candle is lit, every face illuminated. What only seconds before was darker than a tomb is revealed as a brilliant and beautiful Church, filled with the joy of the Christian Faithful and the triumph of Christ’s Resurrection.
This is not a description of one of the many Easter services held last Sunday, but rather an anticipation of tonight’s midnight Easter service. For the Eastern Orthodox Christians of Memphis, Easter (or Pascha) falls on April 15, and the above scene is the service we will celebrate tonight, at the very second Easter Sunday arrives.
Why our Easter varies from Western Easter is a complex question, and beyond the scope of this small piece (although the question can afford countless hours of diversion to the theologically, mathematically or astronomically inclined hobbyist). But, indeed, strange though it may seem, we Orthodox are still waiting for Easter.
We have been waiting, in fact, since last Pascha, when we began the cycle of Sundays that has led to this day. Our preparations moved into high gear eight weeks ago, when we began our Lenten fast. For the past seven weeks we have had services at least four days each week. This past week, we have had at least two, sometimes three, services each day. All to prepare for tonight.
The Orthodox have a distinctive approach to Easter. Our celebration not only focuses on Christ’s return from death, but also reflects with joyful fear and trembling on an event often skirted around as confusing or controversial in the Christian West: the Harrowing of Hades.
Our central image of Pascha depicts Christ standing upon the shattered gates of Hell, in the manner of a conqueror, and reaching down to grasp the hands of an elderly man and woman, pulling them from the darkness of their crypts. The two are Adam and Eve, whose Creator and God could not bear to leave them to the consequences of their (and our) fall, but pursued them, and, by means of the cross, gained access to the place of their captivity as a man — and then as God vanquished death and the grave, and led captivity itself captive.
The message is one of unbridled joy, of the hope that lies at the core of our identity as Orthodox Christians. We greet Christ as our Bridegroom, come in triumph from the bridal chamber of the tomb, and receive Him as the first fruits of the very descent of heaven to Earth, of the healing of creation itself, of the reconciliation of God and man.
From the distribution of the light described above, the service continues into the early hours of Easter morning, concluding with the Eucharist. It is a glorious night, and it is the crown of the Orthodox year.
Rev. Anthony Cook is pastor of Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church, 573 N. Highland, where services begin at 11 p.m. tonight. Other Orthodox congregations in Memphis are St. John Antiochian Orthodox Church, 1663 Tutwiler (11:30 p.m.); and St. Seraphim Orthodox Church, 3174 Carnes (11:20 p.m.).