Christ is risen! Christos anesti! Hristos voskrese! Kristus er opstanden!
I pray that all of you have experienced a beautiful Pascha this year, and I wonder if, like me, you are on the other side of it now, thinking about what you’re going to do with all of that.
Pascha is truly a pilgrimage. We enter into the feast at the culmination of a long journey through Great Lent, and then into Bethany for the raising of Lazarus and then we enter into Jerusalem with our Lord. We move through the dark quiet of Holy Week, through the anointing with expensive oil and the terrible betrayal by a greedy heart not unlike our own. We linger over the twelve gospels, feeling every insult and humiliation Christ endured. On Holy Saturday we walk through the gates of the First Resurrection and then into the beautiful Feast of Feasts. It’s a spiritual journey that we take together, and it unfolds through time and even outside of time — certainly outside of our daily rhythms and routines.
If you had gone on a huge trip — perhaps a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, or an international tour through emotionally exhausting but exceedingly beautiful holy sites, how would you expect to feel when you got home? Jet-lagged? Disoriented? Worn out?
It’s ok if the Pascha journey has left you a little jet-lagged.
Many of us Orthodox Christians celebrated services every night throughout Holy Week — the really impressive ones were there every morning and every night. In addition to bringing tired children to long services, many of you baked prosphora or prepared big pots of lentil soup and peanut butter sandwiches, or dyed red eggs and baked for days to create a breathtaking Pascha feast. If any of you did all of those things, I congratulate you! Personally, I did not bake or cook, but just barely crawled through many but not all of the services. Even so, I am worn out.
It’s ok to be tired. I am giving myself permission to sleep a little extra. While I am indeed delighted with the fleshmeat and cheeses that are suddenly available to me, I would describe myself as glad that Christ is risen, but maybe ‘filled with Paschal joy‘ is an overreach. I’m beat.
During Holy Week this year, I was struck by the idea that we Orthodox practice grief every year. I live in a nation that is so afraid of death that we ignore it — we try to look young and vibrant, we eschew funerals for Celebrations of Life. Can we not sit with death for a moment? Must we swallow that grief and distract ourselves so quickly? During Holy Week, we Orthodox sit down with death and have a cup of tea together. It’s good for us.
Around the same time that my son died, my priest’s next door neighbor, an old man, died. His widow was a good Texas Baptist lady, and she was never seen without her makeup and every hair in place — she was always pulled together. Father would ask her how she was doing in the wake of her husband’s death, and she would insist that she was fine. After all, her husband was in a better place so there was nothing to mourn. It drove my priest crazy.
He’d tell me to be open with my grief, and I was. A friend once told me that she so appreciated when one day at coffee hour during that sad, sad time, she asked me how I was doing, and I answered, “Badly. Very, very badly. This is hard.”
Every time I put on makeup, I think of my old priest, and I hear him asking me: are you covering up those circles under your eyes so that you can pretend that it’s easy? So that you can make them all think that you’re just sailing through life? What does that say to the ones who are sad today, who are depressed or despairing? Instead of being company on their path, are you just telling them that it’s all easy enough? If you pretend not to struggle, how will you ever join them in their struggles?
So I won’t pretend that I emerged from Pascha energetic and joyful and ready to go out and spread the light of Christ. During Holy Week itself, I was tired but I was also inspired and prayerful and really marinating in all of it. On Pascha, I was joyful, but every year it’s different. This year, it didn’t really hit me until the Agape Vespers. I found them so moving this year — but last year, they didn’t have that effect on me. The service hadn’t changed, but somehow, I had. What I brought to it changed. It’s remarkable how God works on us in different ways at different times. So I was filled with the profound joy of the resurrection, and then I was tired and well fed and very happy, and then I was just tired.
Some years, the joy of Pascha just radiates for weeks, and some years, the joy is quieter, and more subdued. But every time, I feel like I’ve been changed by the experience, and then I am not sure what to do with that change. The first few times, my first Paschas, I thought everything would be different forever — and it is, insofar as now I approach the world as a person who has experienced the resurrection. But it’s not the change I thought I would see.
I was looking for something linear and measurable. Like every year, I’d fast for Lent and make my Pascha pilgrimage, and I’d be filled with all of that joy and grace, and it would change me. Every year, I’d change more — I don’t know, I guess I’d get holier and holier every year, with every Pascha more beautiful than the last.
But it’s not really like that.
John Behr, in his very beautiful book, Becoming Human, expresses the teachings of St. Irenaeus so clearly and concisely that even I can comprehend them. He shows how the holy saint understood that in our lifetimes here on earth, we are like clay. Our creator is just readying us, He is warming up the clay so that He can form it into something wonderful. But that’s later. We’ll be formed later. For now, in this lifetime, He’s just warming us up — kneading us, working us, softening us. It’s a process that can feel rather violent and painful, and in which progress is not immediately obvious — but nonetheless, over time, our hearts grow softer until finally they are soft enough that God can sculpt something worthwhile out of us.
So we may very well stand in church and have a revelation — we may suddenly feel the grace of God or understand something in a whole new light. And yet, a few moments later, we’ll return to our regular lives only the tiniest bit changed. Because the change God works in us is not big and sudden, but small and repeated, like water drops falling on stone or like a potter, beating his clay to warm it up.
We call the week after Pascha ‘Bright Week’ but that doesn’t mean you have to glow with the light of resurrection; it means you might glow. Or you might be really tired this year. That’s ok. That doesn’t mean you’ve failed at Pascha. It just means you’re tired.
Every Pascha that you celebrate will change you a little bit, and slowly over time those changes will add up to something remarkable. Every Pascha, every time you receive Holy Communion, every time you pray — countless little instances of His grace will add up and make a wonderful transformation in you. But it won’t be evident right away. It takes time to develop.
When I was growing up, my family raised wine grapes, and I understood that the fog was the secret to California’s great wines: the heat of afternoon would bring up the sugar, but then the cool fog would roll in, and the night and the morning would be cold. The sugar would rise and then fall, rise and then fall, over and over again, developing a rich and complex flavor. That’s how God is working on you: He brings you up and back down, up and back down, developing a complexity that will astonish those who see you someday. But maybe not today.
Every year, we enter into Pascha. We take this great journey, this pilgrimage into Pascha, and whether we know it or not, it really is changing us. Every time.
Just keep singing Christ is Risen through Pentecost — sing it three times whenever you pray with your children, when you bless the food. Keep the feast as you kept the fast, and know that when you are rested, the joy will still be there. If you see me, please be sure to call out, “Christ is risen!” Keep the feast, with Christ’s third day resurrection always on your tongue.