Our family of five recently moved into a brick castle atop a hill owned by my husband’s host family. Dima, my husband, came to the United States as a child, without his parents, played hockey and attended school while living with a family that has since become his own, and mine. Their generosity extends into every aspect of our lives. Last spring, as we prepared for Pascha, the Orthodox celebration of Easter, they readied our Paschal basket with sausage and cheese pancakes from a Russian store. Their kindness was special in a season during which I was dealing with a nursing infant and a blanket feeling of distractedness, which also had kept me from preparing a Christmas feast the year before.
It had been a difficult year for us. We decided to move in order to save money and live closer to my husband’s job. At Christmas, Dima had stayed home from church to stuff stockings, hung among boxes and the disarray of a household prepared to move. My heart had ached to be with him, but holding our baby girl and seeing the boys serve at the altar infused me with hope that the weight of our growing family, channeled in Christ, would pull in the direction I longed to go: nearer to God. As the Lenten season leading to Pascha unfolded and I reflected, I believed that God’s love was continually being worked out in us. Faith focused me, and while life did not appear to change as much as I desired, God never strayed from us.
We anticipated Pascha throughout Lent. Like heaven and earth, light and dark, fasting and feasting, there was a symbiotic relationship among all things, giving birth to fullness in Christ. For even during the Lenten journey, bobbing up through the dark was radiant, risen light. I was driving under a canopy of leaves, sun shining on the fields and warming my Subaru as I wound down country roads. Silence seeped through my soul and into my body: heaven is here. During Holy Week, my friend asked how I was, noting the weight of the baby in my arms, son at my heels and his brother serving at the altar. I ached at what seemed like a yawning divide between those I loved and myself. “It’s heaven and hell,” I said.
Heaven was here, always radiating goodness, light and love, even throughout the fallen world. Christ himself suffered. He wept bitterly at Lazarus’s tomb. But Christ did not make us to die. Creation was made in the image and likeness of Christ, who trampled death by death and then was raised from the dead. Pascha was the whole universe wonderfully reconciled to him and held in perfect unity. It was outside of time, spanning past ages to all ages to come. And yet, through the lens of the Fall, we often fail to see what is precious and full of life. Instead, we see the imperfect situations of our own lives.
Key to Salvation
On Holy Saturday, my husband unearthed my childhood jewelry box from our storage unit and brought it to our new home before we returned to church that night for Pascha. From this box our middle son happily drew a small charm of a key. He slipped it on an old gold chain and wore it around his neck along with a big, powder-blue cross and two other crosses. I was tempted to tell him he looked like a gypsy, but held my tongue. With our children and basket, we entered the pleasant night air. “I feel like I’m going to my wedding,” I said giddily.
“Momma gets excited,” Dima chuckled to our older son. We arrived at church by 11:20 p.m. and placed our food basket in the banquet hall to be blessed by Father after the service. There was an air of excitement as other young families scuttled sleepy children and baskets from the hall to the sanctuary. We bowed down before Christ whose resurrection we would celebrate within the hour, bounced a happy and rested baby Elizabeth between us and settled the groggy boys. The fullness of the hour was upon us, and I marveled that we had come, and that Christ invited us, sinners, to his banquet.
Eight years before, at my first Pascha, the service had seemed outrageously long and nothing had quite fit together. Still, it had been in that place, at that time, that Christ had come to me, a sinner, and given me what was necessary to believe. He was still coming, and this time I was waiting for the bridegroom with anticipation. The earthly experience of Pascha is always new.
The next morning, Pascha dawned bright and the sunlight seemed enough to fuel me, despite having had only three hours of sleep. While the children slept, my mind flitted about, landing on the memory of my son’s key on his necklace. At the Pascha service Father spoke of how Pascha was not a symbol of Christ’s resurrection, but an actual saving event central to salvation in Christ. This “key” was Christ’s descent into the underworld to free the captives, from Adam and Eve on. He liberated creation from the bondage of sin—from hell itself—and the body of the risen Christ was the key that unlocked the bonds of death. All things fallen, raised. All things dead, alive.
The Christian Perspective
It was easy to doubt then and now. Even with faith, sometimes I cannot fully accept that Christ is risen. My host-mother said, “What difference does it make? I still have to pay the bills.” How difficult it is to experience the Christian perspective. Truly, it is a gift of grace to experience joy in the Lord, and one should not judge others struggling to do so. Remembering that the mark of a Christian’s life is joy in Christ, I marveled at how easily I strayed from the Christian perspective, still fettered in chains that Christ had undone. It was a struggle for me in Paschaltide to maintain the Christian perspective sought after, and in moments experienced, during the Lenten journey. When Bright Week—the seven days after Easter in the Orthodox tradition—arrived, I found the muscles of my heart already weakening. I had not understood that Christ risen meant all things fallen rise, and that heaven was on earth—reconciled in Christ. My mind seemed to be moving closer to this understanding. Still, my flesh was slow to follow, and the struggle to rejoice with family and friends, especially as most are outside of the church, remained difficult.
In times like these, the best we can do is encourage good in others. Good leads to God. Through words and nonverbal actions—touches, facial expressions, simply facing another person—I encouraged others to love. I expected all these insights to come at the first hour, but in my grand web of worries, exhaustion wound me into fitful distraction. Humility silenced my tongue. Throughout my Lenten journey, I wondered how to share life with those not in the Orthodox tradition and with those who do not profess faith in Christ. I wondered how to live in a way that reached out to the other in truth and love, expressing the heart and genuinely listening and caring for the other.
St. Seraphim of Sarov told us, “Acquire a peaceful spirit and thousands around you will be saved.” This seems to apply only to those who have a spiritual radar, only to those pilgrims eager to engage the truth and to become more obedient to it. I wondered about those around me, those I heard say: I used to go to church, and then I grew up. St. John Chrysostom, archbishop of Constantinople, tells us in a Paschal sermon that the table is fully laden. All are invited to come and feast: those who anticipate the Lord from the first hour, and those who wait until the 11th hour. Each is personally, lovingly invited. St. Mary of Egypt came. The woman at the well came. The sinner on the cross came. God’s love draws each of us together in him.
“Christ is risen from the dead!” means that all who have fallen are raised up in him. “Indeed, he is risen!” is confirmation that we believe in God, that there is heaven and that goodness triumphs. Trampled underfoot is every lesser thing that so typically bogs us down. “Rejoice, O Full of Grace, the Lord is with you” is extended to each Christian from the loving, helping hands of the Lord’s mother.
May we accept Pascha in our innermost beings, granting Christ the key to our hearts that turns our perspectives ever more to him.