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Cover Story

Orthodox Easter
Text Ian Mitchell

Laurens van der Post, one of the forgotten geniuses of Russian travel writing, describes in his 1964 book Journey into Russia the experience of hearing Russian choral music. It sounded, he said, “as if it had come from a long way away, and still had a long way to go.” Music is the glory of the Orthodox Church, no more so than at Easter, the highpoint of the ecclesiastical calendar, which this year falls on 27 April.

It is not necessary to be Orthodox to go to church in Moscow, of course, but it is better if the visitor understands something of the tradition that gives life to the rituals. A little bit of history is helpful. Prince Vladimir of Kiev, then the capital of Rus, converted to Christianity in 988 A.D., or so it is said, after hearing reports from chosen envoys about the religions of his three neighbors.

He rejected Judaism because he considered that the destruction of Jerusalem showed that the Jews were not favored by God. He decided against Islam because of that faith’s prohibition on the use of alcohol, which he considered “the glory of the Rus.” Finally, he settled on Christianity after his emissaries had heard the beautiful music and seen the icons set in gold in Constantinople’s Hagia Sophia (the Church of Holy Wisdom). “We no longer knew whether we were in heaven or on earth,” they are reported to have said.

In Orthodox tradition, a church is heaven’s gate. For this reason, Russian churches have for a thousand years been the repository of the most beautiful music, the most sensitive painting and the most elaborate interior decoration that the faithful could produce.

In the Western Christian tradition, artistic embellishment (where Protestantism did not forbid it) came from artists offering their work as homage to the glory of God. This is quite a different concept from the Orthodox one of making the ordinary worshipper experience the delights of heaven. Arguably, the latter is a more “democratic” and less elitist approach — consumerist, if you like, rather than exhibitionist.

There is a second aspect of the history of the Russian church that is immediately obvious to any visitor: the lack of modernity. This, too, is deliberate. When the Mongols invaded Russia in the early 13th century, they destroyed almost every aspect of organized life, except the churches. For all their savagery, the Oriental horsemen were surprisingly tolerant of Christianity, even after the khans converted to Islam.

The immobility and isolation of Russian society during the centuries of the Tartar yoke meant that the Renaissance, with its accent on an individual point of view, passed the country by. Orthodoxy benefited from this, since its main aim is to preserve the faith as Christ first proclaimed it. The Russian word for orthodox, pravoslavny, literally means “true word.” Change must, by definition, involve departure from the truth. Innovation is heresy.

This is why Easter is so important. The death and resurrection of Christ are the fundamental facts of Christianity. Faith in eternal life is based on the belief that on the third day after the Crucifixion, Christ rose from the dead and ascended into heaven. Without that idea, there is no Christianity. The celebration of Easter should, logically, be the most important ceremony of the Church year. So what happens?

After Maslenitsa, or what in the West is often known as pancake week, comes Lent. This is the forty-day period of preparation for Easter, starting with Ash Wednesday, during which believers fast, pray, and give alms.

One week before Easter, is Palm Sunday, when churches in Russia are traditionally strewn with fir branches, and people buy willow shoots (palms are hard to come by this far north). This is in commemoration of Christ’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem, riding on a donkey, after raising his friend Lazarus from the dead.

The culmination of Holy Week is Good Friday, the day of Christ’s apparent defeat on Calvary, the site of the Crucifixion. Crosses are shrouded in black in all churches until Sunday, the third day counting from Friday.

The Orthodox ceremonies on that day actually begin on Saturday evening, shortly before midnight. The faithful assemble for a service which is intended to evoke the experience of Mary Magdalene, who went to Christ’s tomb on the third day and rolled away the stone blocking the entrance only to find it empty inside. Christ had risen, she concluded, and was sitting in glory on the right hand of God the Father.

At midnight, the lights of the church are extinguished, and the priest makes his way outside for a symbolic inspection of the tomb. He returns shortly afterwards to proclaim it empty and Christ risen. The lights go on again, and the congregation proclaims, each to their neighbor, Khristos voskres! (Christ is risen!), to which the response is, Voistinu voskres! (He truly is risen!).

After this reaffirmation of their faith, Orthodox Christians traditionally feast for a week. Associated with this is the tradition of giving decorated Easter eggs, partly because eggs, along with meat and dairy products, are forbidden during Lent, and partly because of the symbolic reflection of the principle of new life which an egg embodies.

Easter eggs were originally decorated simply by painting them blood red, but gradually they came to be more brightly-colored, possibly reflecting the optimism of spring. The high point of Easter egg decoration came in 1885, when Tsar Alexander III asked the famous St. Petersburg jeweller Carl Faberge to create a special egg as a gift to his wife, Tsaritsa Maria Feodorovna. In contrast to later Fabergé eggs, this one was plain white, though it opened up to reveal a golden hen inside. Inside the hen was a ruby crown, and inside that, a pendant.

Later the eggs were bejewelled and very highly decorated. The last such one was made in 1916; the following year, extravagant celebration would have seemed out of place. The egg for Easter 1917 was made of birch wood and delivered after the tsar had abdicated. Fabergé’s invoice was not addressed, as previous ones had been. to “Tsar of all the Russias” but instead to “Mr. Nikolai Alexandrovich Romanov.” The Tsaritsa never received her gift.

Today this egg is housed in the Russian National Museum, a privately owned collection whose exhibits can be viewed only on the Internet. The most recent Faberge egg purchased by the “museum,” in November last year, cost $17 million. This is in sharp contrast to the price of the 1885 Hen egg, which was sold in 1935 by Sotheby’s in London for £85. Today it is part of the Vekselberg collection, also in Moscow.

In 1906, Maurice Baring, a young war correspondent who was connected to the Baring banking family, traveled through Russia in order to cover the Russo-Japanese War. He was in Moscow at Easter and wrote about his experiences in his book, What I Saw in Russia:

Photo Ian Mitchell

“The most solemn service of the year takes place at midnight on Saturday. From eight until ten o’clock the town, which during the day had been crowded with people buying provisions and presents and Easter eggs, seems to be asleep and dead. At about ten, people begin to stream towards the Kremlin. At eleven o’clock there is already a dense crowd, many of the people holding lighted tapers, waiting outside in the square, between the Cathedral of the Assumption and that of Ivan Veliky. A little before twelve the cathedrals and palaces of the Kremlin are all lighted up with ribbons of various coloured lights. Twelve o’clock strikes, and then the bell of Ivan Veliky begins to boom: a beautiful, full-voiced, immense volume of sound. It is answered by other bells, and a little later all the bells in Moscow are ringing together. Then from the cathedral comes the procession: the singers first in crimson and gold; then the Metropolitan, also in stiff robes of crimson and gold; and after him other officials in uniforms. They walk round the cathedral to look for the Body of Our Lord, and return to tell the news that He is Risen. Then the guns go off, rockets are fired, and illuminations are seen across the river, lighting up the distant cupola of the great Christ the Savior Church with a cloud of fire… I went there later. The singing is ineffably beautiful and it is worth coming to Moscow simply for the sake of hearing it…

“Next morning people came to bring me Easter greetings and to give Easter eggs and to receive gifts. I was waiting in my sitting room, and I heard a faint mutter in the next room, a small voice murmuring, ‘Gospodi, Gospodi’, (‘Lord, Lord’). I went to see who it was and found it was the policeman, sighing for his tip, not wishing to disturb, but at the same time anxious to indicate his presence. He brought me a crimson egg. The policeman must have been pleased with his tip because policemen have been coming ever since, and there are not more than two who belong to my street.”

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