Truly He is Risen! How They Celebrate Pascha in America
“Christ is risen!”
“Truly is risen!”
You hear it from all sides. What remarkable days they were…
About half of the parish of the Epiphany of the Lord Church in Boston, MA, consists of people whose grandparents were first-wave immigrants. They had fled Russia forever after the Revolution, many departing on ships from Grafsky Pier in Sevastopol. Mikhalkov’s movie Russians Without Russia was about people such as these.
There are quite a few Americans among the parishioners, too. Divine services are held mostly in Church Slavonic, so they stand with little booklets and follow along with the services in English. The Gospel is always read in two languages here.
Our story begins… with pickles.
“Natasha,” I say after the midnight service to an energetic, middle-aged blonde who runs the parish kitchen, “you know, we brought pickles and greens for the trapeza, but we came too late and all the tables are full.”
“Don’t worry,” she answers quickly, “We will give them to Fr Alexander for tomorrow.”
Fr Alexander is a strapping, tall and noble-looking protodeacon, who every year on Pascha invites absolutely everyone to his house. In America, this is called a potluck dinner. The main dish is prepared by the host, while guests bring other food items.
It was the same this year: Fr Alexander posted an announcement at the church: “Matushka Elena and I invite you all to the following address… An expert will be grilling a lamb. Please park only on our side of the street, lest our neighbors call the police and your car is towed.”
Reading the announcement, I thought we definitely won’t go: our car is only rented until Sunday morning, and it’s pretty expensive.
I ask Natasha, who is cooking, can we put the pickles on another platter, because we borrowed this one.
“Aren’t you going to Fr Alexander’s? You should… But of course, we’ll transfer the pickles to a different platter…”
I start looking for my platter with the pickles, but can’t find it. I ask Natasha again, she also couldn’t find it. With a voice worthy of a Russian village crier, Natalia makes an announcement heard throughout the basement floor: “Attention! Who saw the platter with the pickles? A large blue platter?” It turns out someone had already taken it to Fr Alexander’s.
A lively exchange began about who would return the platter to me. Every single person asked “But aren’t you going? Too bad. It’s always a good time... Lots of people, kids have a great time—there are a lot of them—everyone plays together!” When the fifth person says something like that, I think, “Maybe it’s worth extending the rental car for a day and go; may as well retrieve the platter, too.”
It was a special, joyful feeling to get ready for midnight service! All the sorrowful days of Passion Week you wait with trepidation for Saturday evening, then you start to get ready, put on your finest clothes, all to hear the first quiet words in the half-dark, repeated with growing volume: “Thy resurrection, O Christ our Savior, the angels in Heaven sing. Enable us on earth to glorify Thee in purity of heart.”
The feeling is beyond words!
We drive through Boston at night in the direction of the church. There are dark, seedy neighborhoods on the outskirts of the city, which, frankly, one wouldn’t want to walk alone in. A jeep with blaring music pulls aside me at a red light. A young black man at the wheel sees me and starts dancing to the sound of rap along with his passengers. I thought “So that’s what Paschal night is like for them…”
But it is such a pleasure to drive past a Greek church. Well-dressed Greeks emerge from their cars, couples and young families, girls with shiny black shoes—they are also going to “welcome” Pascha. The joy in one’s heart is inexpressible. In this city, in this country, where all you see are mute Easter-bunny decorations, where many churches remove their crosses “as a sign of tolerance,” or hang LGBT flags (“all are welcome”), we suddenly see people who believe the same thing we do! Orthodox Christians, joyous, lovely Greeks who also came to church at night, who share the joy of the Resurrection of Christ with us!
It is the first midnight Pascha celebration for our children: we had always left them home with their grandfather. Now I think they’ll have a lot to remember: the anticipation of something mystical, the procession of the cross with lighted candles, the joyful exclamation of “Christ is Risen” from all sides. They are remarkably good as they stand through the services--having slept in the car for an hour on the way.
I gaze at the flowers adorning the church with quiet excitement. What lovely petals! “Wondrous are Thy works, o Lord!”
As I stand in church I hope that the words of the Resurrection of Christ would permeate my heart, so that there would be no room for doubt or indifference. But then I relax: what can you do if faith is not “earned” by the human soul? Faith is granted by God Himself, Who reveals Himself to you more and more, in newer and more profound ways, every year.
Fr Victor, the parish rector, announces the Resurrection! Looking at the couple on his right-hand side: they are an elegant pair, an elderly husband and wife; her son carefully holds his beloved mother’s hand… These are people from another age, from the time of the pre-Revolutionary Russia that we don’t know.
An amusing, flattering detail: sitting at the trapeza feast table with Fedya on my lap, noise all around, good food, animated conversations, the traditional Paschal greeting of three kisses made by all… Next to me is a Georgian man who asks me:
“Are you his mother?”
“I would have said sister!”
As the parishioners disperse, and my husband is engrossed in a political-historical conversation with the talkative Georgian whose name happens to be George, I begin helping the ladies clear the tables.
When people learn that we drive here from Cape Cod, they say “What? All the way from Cape Cod? An hour and a half?!” Most people, of course, live much closer.
We arrive at home filled with joy—it is 7:30 in the morning. We go to sleep, and after a breakfast of delicious kulich, we decide that we’d go to Fr Alexander’s after all, though the trip is also far, almost a two-hour drive.
I had baked my own kulich in the shape of a house, and I must say it is delicious! No yeast, without a lot of kneading of the dough, with a sweet-sour lemon glaze. Everyone admires it and takes photos when I bring it out to be blessed.
Our jaws drop as we turn the corner to Fr Alexander’s house. We never saw so many parked cars in a residential neighborhood—we counted over 60! We drive around looking for a parking spot. People are emerging from their cars burdened with food for the event.
We had never seen such hospitality! Some 150-200 guests, a large house and the entire yard is filled with people. Tables are groaning under the weight of food, people eat and drink, standing, sitting, hugging, laughing, talking! The “hive is all abuzz.” After our placid life in Cape Cod, the commotion rattles us a bit.
And so many young people! Even those whose parents are from Russia all speak English among themselves.
By evening the crowds thins, but it was very crowded all day. The kitchen is the focal point of the home. The hostess pulls out pirogies and all sorts of baked goods from the oven, the aromas are amazing!
Fr Alexander and his brother, who sings in the church choir, stand together singing Cossack songs—what deep voices they have! They are descendants of the first wave of emigres.
We met so many people that day! Everyone had their own story, how they ended up in America. Many left in the difficult 1990’s, someone came on a whim for 6 months and stayed for 20 years. Others, venerable seniors, told us how their parents fled the Bolshevik Revolution and wandered throughout Europe and America. One could see the indelible imprint of the “White Movement” in their faces, of pre-Revolutionary Russia.
Their children and grandchildren were all born here, some speak little Russian, though they try. Sometimes you hear a mother strictly correct her child, who is speaking English: “Davaite po-russki!” [Come on, speak Russian!]
But the main attractor for them all is the church. Historically, emigres all gathered together around the church, even if they weren’t very religious to begin with, for this was their sole consolation in exile. Here they feel like a big family! They keep in touch, get together, help each other. We haven’t seen such tight-knit groups since Sevastopol. In St Petersburg, Russia, people are more standoffish, I guess that’s what happens in big cities.
There are other priests in attendance. I approach the older, white-bearded Fr Thomas. He is an American, with a very interesting history of seeking the true faith. He speaks almost no Russian, only sometimes uses Church Slavonic during services. But his softly-spoken words reach the depths of one’s heart: “In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto the ages of ages….”
We somehow found an article online about him, about his life; it turns out he is a remarkable icon-painter and wood-carver. I never knew that the iconostasis and wonderful carved frames I love in church were all his work!
It is a pleasure to greet with Paschal kisses this bright-eyed old priest, and as I feel his soft white beard, I hear his quiet, genuine and joyful words: “Khristos voskrese, Katya! It’s so good to see you here, my beautiful!”
I want at this moment to ask if he would pray for me, so that my doubt would disappear, but mostly that my heart would finally be able to respond to Divine love. But I don’t… I have the feeling that he is already praying for me.
Later, before going to sleep, I found an article in which he spoke some remarkable words: “You know, the first time that we experience truth and love is when we are born, and receive it from our mother’s bosom. Later in our lives, we experience sickness, betrayal, loss, and we desperately seek out joy and love. The greatest of all love, truth and wisdom in our life is in Christ. For anyone living on earth. Unconditional love. But how much love do you offer, and what kind? All our traditions, our customs, absolutely serve to teach us to experience love and to learn. We learned the main commandments: to love God and one another.”