Last night—early this morning—I visited my neighborhood Greek Orthodox church for the best worship experience of the year: Easter. I am not Greek Orthodox. But I love the Greek Easter service, its intense theatricality, the three-act play that runs from 11:00 p.m. till 2:30 a.m. as we move from mourning into celebration into communion.
Act II: 12:00-1:00, the ανάσταση, or resurrection, is my favorite part. Right before the stroke of midnight the entire church is darkened, then the priest emerges with a candle nearly his own height and lights the candles of waiting altar boys, who disperse into the crowd to pass the light to the rest of us. If you’re picturing tiny white pencil-style candles with little circular paper drip-guards, such as we always used for the singing of “Silent Night” in Christmas Eve services growing up, let me adjust that image for you. These are fat gold tapers of real beeswax; you can get a full handgrip on them, they barely drip, they smell sacred. You’re going to need such a big honker because you will be holding that candle and swinging it about for a good two and a half hours—the length of a director’s-cut-version film.
Hoisting our candles, making the sign of the cross, we chant the Χριστός Ανέστη (Christos Anesti: Christ is Risen) song over and over. And over and over. And over and over. Into an ecstasy.
Why do I love to chant Χριστός Ανέστη but find its English counterpart clunky, freighted, even wincingly banal? My native language is a burden to me here. As poet Christian Wiman writes in his beautiful memoir, My Bright Abyss, the words are “sodden with overuse and imprecision, and will not burn.” Those of us who “nevertheless feel that burn of being that drives us out of ourselves” need a “poetics of belief,” he writes, “a language capacious enough to include a mystery that, ultimately, defeats it, and sufficiently intimate and inclusive to serve not only as individual expression but as communal need.”
Being relieved of the burden of my own language allows the chanting to work on my nerves, not my intellect—as was said about Samuel Beckett’s writing, particularly the seemingly absurd play Not I, in which the audience sees just a mouth onstage, a mouth that is speaking so rapidly you cannot even make out what she’s saying. You’re stymied visually and aurally yet the piece works on you. It only seems meaningless if you’re trying to follow a plot or character development or the other dogmas of theatre. Beckett is instead inviting you into an experience.
Chanting, too, works on the nerves, and chanting in a language that isn’t one’s own everyday language, the language used for grocery shopping, heightens the experience and lifts you out of the literalness of things far beyond literal understanding, like, say, resurrection.
That’s why I like to do my worshipping in Greek.
And, preferably, in Greece. Here’s a photo from Easter 2010, shot from the balcony of my apartment in Athens. The Panagitsa church is already packed inside. People are just beginning to gather outside. In another few minutes all of Achilleos Street will be filled with people and the air with candle flame.
And because Minnesota is stubbornly resisting rebirth this year, some photos suffused with my longing for another spring in Greece: for poppies in the Peloponnese and the dearest freshness deep down things in Hydra. And Greek salad for lunch!