Saturday, April 18, 2009

Zoë!


Darkness, thick and warm on all sides, enveloping us. Standing in a crush of bodies, shoulder to shoulder at the back of Saint Athanasios—the very same church where, a century ago, my grandmother attended Easter services. 2007 now, the pilgrimage made, a dream realized: to attend the resurrection service in the town of Filiatra; to go to church with relatives, whom we had found only that afternoon (a story worthy of its own posting) thanks to the owner of one of the town's many kiosks. Expectation in the air, candles—this time white; those of children adorned with ribbons and trinkets—held unlit in eager hands. The lights in the sanctuary were extinguished just before midnight. Only the luminous canopy of this church's epitaphios, the bier of Christ, now reaches out its gleaming fingers to the congregation. The priest disappears behind the iconostasis. When he bursts back through, it is with joy and no longer grief: he is holding aloft a candle lit from the holy flame of Jerusalem, and as he walks forward, he is met with a rush of worshipers tilting their wicks to his to receive the light. "Receive the light!" The greeting ripples from row to row as one candle is lit from the next, and slowly the church is illuminated, shadows chased deep into corners, forgotten for another year. The priest walks up and down the aisle, and suddenly there is celebration everywhere in sight and sound; jingling, pealing, tolling bells shake death and darkness from the room. The words "thanaton" and "zoë," death and life, ring out repeatedly. Everything is transformed from dark into light, from stillness into motion, from silence to sounds of joy. A man comes from behind the icons, carrying a long pole with a gold finial—he uses it to prod the four large chandeliers in the front of the church, to set them swaying with no thought to any danger (there is none, apparently). The chandeliers rock, sway; everything is alive and dancing. The prominent icon is changed: an image of the new Christ, risen, framed with white flowers, is now placed in the center of the church. A sudden shock of minor explosions outside shakes the building's foundation, the sky brightens behind the windows, and a smoky storm of fireworks announces the beginning of a new cycle of life. And somehow in the din, I hear the whisper of ancestors, feel their participation in an everlasting story—a story that is now mine as well. Together with distant cousins, my mother and I spill into the night, which has been broken wide open. We make our way to a family house to share a traditional midnight meal, and for once I feel fully that this is my family, too; that this Orthodox experience of Easter and all its beauty, is completely in my grasp. I know that I will never see another Easter the same way again.

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