We set the scene last week with a glance over the origins of Christian Orthodoxy in Russia; to establish a context into which we can frame the Easter celebrations “over there”. You may be surprised to learn that Easter is viewed as considerably more important than Christmas and is the year’s major religious celebration. Of course, the latter festival suffered various indignities at the hands of the Communists – it was discouraged/banned, stripped of its religious significance and then reintroduced in 1935,in order to ‘round off’ the week-long, secular New Year’s festivities/holiday on January 7th. A somewhat diluted version of its original intent ultimately resulted; mixed with Pagan/fictional elements (Snegurochka and Ded Moroz) and arguably focusing more on fun than on Orthodox practice. The devout, of course, still attend their church’s Christmas vigil, it was easier to erase the season’s external trappings than its significance within the minds and the hearts of dedicated followers.
Easter, on the other hand, survived relatively intact – passed down through dedicated family tradition -to the likely chagrin of the Soviets, and even celebrated to some degree in the face of the atheistic ruling party’s wishes. Perhaps if the people couldn’t have Christmas, then they certainly weren’t going to let go of Easter? Perhaps clamping down on a festival so popular amongst the proletariat would be a really bad idea in terms of public relations? Even under harsh regimes there are still “limits” to what will be tolerated. A lesson that Russia knows better than most. I’m speculating wildly of course.
There are some similarities to our Easter, but also curious differences. Easter Sunday falls approximately one to two weeks later in Russia – due to the Orthodox observation of the Julian calendar, whereas we favour the Gregorian version. There’s also something of a “formula” at work to derive the “correct” date: it’s officially on the 1st Sunday, after the full moon, after the vernal equinox. This year our respective Easter Days actually coincide on Sunday April 16th. Some arbitrary decision making or consensus appears to be involved too.
Historically the Saturday night before Easter day contained parallels with our Halloween, but without the fun. Acknowledging the darker Pagan past (from a Christian perspective), the population would seek shelter within their church before night fell. There they would be safe from ancient forces of evil in animalistic forms that were believed to roam the darkness – now especially active prior to the date of the resurrection. Devils were believed to assume the guise of wandering dogs, whilst witches, transfigured into cats, stalked with malign intent. Today, the congregation in their most respectful attire, collect in dimly illuminated churches that act as a reminder of dark, ancient times before salvation arrived through the light of faith.
The chime of midnight bells announce Christ’s resurrection. Candle bearing priests attend the altar and with dour song move through their churches and cathedrals. Behind them tread the faithful, brandishing candles of their own in processions of light. Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church leads the Main Easter Service held at Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour (attended by the Russian premier and other politicians) whilst similar scenes on smaller stages are held across Russia until dawn.
Although many are dedicated to this night vigil and ceremony, still many more are not. Svetlana Oss reveals some interesting figures on her blog:
“Last year (2010), around 338,000 Muscovites visited the city’s churches for the Easter mass, ITAR-TASS reported. For a city with a population of more than 10 million, this is not very many.”
Easter Mass ends in a crescendo of voice and bells, with the attendant clergy instructing his followers to embrace and forgive. Spontaneous cries of “Christ is risen!” are launched from all corners, to be met with the response “He is truly risen!” Eventually the sleep-starved congregation, high on faith, wander out into the early light of the new Easter morning.