Truly by noon he has risen

Even the handle of a broom can stand firmly upright if it is being used to prop up a partition or bulkhead collapsing on top of it, but if you try to stand it upright by itself it will fall over. That was what I was thinking about religion when I went to the midnight Easter service at the Russian church in Denver last night (or this morning, whatever). It was not quite the semi-party with smuggled flasks of vodka and adulterous companions unsuccessfully passed off as family members that I had been led to expect. Nevertheless, when we stopped by my friend’s grandmother’s house beforehand and she started stuffing candy and pieces of ham into our pockets I knew some sort of major expedition was in store. Not to mention the many baskets full of cake that we had to bring along, which were ultimately deposited, along with the baskets that everyone else brought, on the huge row of folding tables that stretched almost the entire length of the church. It took the priest 20 minutes to make his way around the thing, whipping everybody’s food with holy water.

I was somewhat disappointed, although of course not surprised, by the lack of eggs at the Russian Easter. Then again, it seems to me that in Russia if people saw a giant bunny rabbit hopping around laying eggs, they probably would not think: “Ah, what a happy spring festival time, let us gather those eggs,” but rather: “Oh no, the radiation leak has escaped the perimeter. We’ll have to quarantine the entire province.” In any event, the massive stockpile of cakes did lead me to the realization, shortly after we went inside the church, that these ceremonies were designed and probably worked better at a time when everyone was poor and short and skinny. I can’t think the ceremony was really meant for a 6’3” beefy priest charging around a little room packed with people, waving around his incense balls and nearly laying numerous parishioners out on the ground. And then you look up at the icons above the altar depicting emaciated disciples that look very excited to have a fish on their plates. Fortunately the ceremony didn’t consist only of priests wielding the sacramental implements like ninjas. There was also a lot of holding of candles and stomping around the building on the part of the worshipers. Then the bells started tolling in a somewhat haunting way, and my friend told me that had I seen Tarkovsky’s film Nostalgia this part of the service would seem much more poignant to me. Which I’m sure is true. But it wasn’t so hard to hold people’s attention in those days. The candle burning on the table in Doctor Zhivago wouldn’t just have been a symbol of hope, it also would have been a full evening’s entertainment.

I think, though, in the end I appreciated the Orthodox service more than I might have a more homegrown variety because of that vague sense of being embattled that lends Christianity in Russia a certain nobility. One of the women there was telling me about how much of her family was killed during the Revolution and the purges, and how one of the relatives that survived had a great opera voice but refused to sing for anyone but the Church. The family apparently were Old Believers, who refused to accept not only the changes made by the Communists but even those instituted by Peter the Great in the 18th century. In this country they probably would have seemed like the Amish, but in Russia, swamped by one wave of inhumanity after another, a certain amount of obstinacy and piss-headed integrity can seem like the highest manifestations of the spirit.

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