I was informed that the service was going to be running from 11pm to midnight, and as our decision to go was more or less last minute, we were running late, but I was in no rush to get there “on time”. Being late wasn’t a real concern for me because, as I recalled from my first visit, the bulk of the service is taken up with chanting in a foreign language, while the seats remained generally empty as people casually wandered in throughout the hour at their own leisure. To assume it would be the same this “Holy Saturday” night was a big mistake.
We arrived at about 11:15 to a parking lot jam-packed with cars lining the entrance way, and crowds of people all over the place while vehicles lined the street trying to find parking spots along the curb. I have a small car, and with the help of my wife getting out and waving me in, I managed to parallel so close to an SUV that the only way it’d ever get out is if I left first or the driver pulled an Austin Powers (my wife’s observation).
We entered the foyer packed with the hustle and bustle of people. The scene was familiar to me. To the right people were tossing toonies into a basket to light a thin candle and pitch it in a sandbox standing up. They continued around to kiss an icon (a picture of a saint) before making their way up the stairs and into the sanctuary.
To my left was something new. Two men were standing behind a table with a cash register open (and filled with cash) selling larger candles run through red cups. We didn’t know what that was about, so we shrugged our shoulders and get into line to enter the sanctuary.
When we reached the sanctuary it became very evident that every seat in the house had been filled. We were compelled to stand along the back brick wall. I noticed as I looked around that every person in sight had a large white candle with a red cup run through it. Figuring it was important for this special service I went back into the foyer and bought two, one for me and one for my wife. Ten bucks.
While we stood there my feet began to numb, like I was losing circulation. It was really hot. I took off my coat and placed it on the ground between my feet on my wife’s purse, leaned over and whispered, “If we do this again, let’s come early. We might not understand the chanting, but at least we’ll have seats.” Someone standing along the side had opened a window, which was perfect for us as we were in the line of the draft. Nice.
The chanting was similar to what I had experienced in my first visit, mostly circular with the occasional chant in English. The man standing next to me was a young Greek about my age (late 20’s or early 30’s). He was obviously not just an occasional visitor; he knew the chants by heart. I reached over and introduced myself. He reciprocated. I asked him what was up with the candles to which he explained that the “Father” has a flame that came straight from Jerusalem and later in the service, right at midnight, the flame will be passed along in the sanctuary until we all have a bit of the light. It signified the light of the world rising the first Easter morning.
It was now about 11:30pm and more people began to crowd in. Certain men began to move those of us who stood along the back forward so that we would line the sides of the sanctuary and that others could line the back in our place. As I moved closer to the front of the sanctuary along the wall I became aware of two things: 1) I had lost the wind-draft from the window, and 2) I stood out like a sore thumb. Most people were “Greek looking” (sorry for the stereotype, but think “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”), dark slicked hair and dark suits. I stood there with my light brown/blond hair and a blood red dress shirt with a cute Latino woman to my side. We were not unaware of the many glances I received. Not bad glances, but curious ones.
The chanting continued until about 11:45pm when the priest took his place at the podium and began to lecture, presumably in Greek. After about six or seven minutes he changed languages and began to lecture in English. His sermon was appropriately on the resurrection. He talked about how many today are trying to deny the resurrection of Jesus as a historical reality for their own agenda. He turned the discussion to answer the question, how can we be sure of the historical resurrection of Jesus Christ? As Adam was aware of God’s presence when he walked with him in the cool of the day, as the disciples on the Emmaus road were at first unaware but soon became aware that it was Jesus they were walking with, so too we can know the reality of the living resurrected Christ when we experience him in our lives every day.
When he finished off his sermon a lot of commotion had begun. I leaned over to my new friend and asked him what was going on. He explained that the church was taking up an offering (plates were being passed around). I was not expecting this as nothing of the sort happened during my first visit. I suppose they figured there was no better time to get caught up on Church expenses than when the place was packed.
The lights in the place went pitch black and all of the candles had been blown out except one, which the priest came out with – the Jerusalem flame. I was quite excited about this. Leaders in the church had lit their candles and then began walking along the sides of the sanctuary lighting candles of those who stood along the wall (like myself) and those who stood on the end of the pews who then would light the persons next to them.
I got anxious as the man with the flame drew near. When he finally arrived directly in front of me I extended my candle toward his, but he shouldered my arm and walked passed me with his back toward me and continued on with the others. I was embarrassed, hung my head and began to lower my candle in shame. But before it got to low my new friend who was not unaware of what had just happened had graciously extended his candle toward mine, offering a light. I smiled, thanked him and lit my candle, then turned and lit my wife’s.
We stood there for about fifteen minutes chanting in Greek (of course I was mostly humming along) and raising our candles, then lowering them again. As the lights in the building came back on and people began to move around, my friend leaned over and explained to me that many people usually leave at this point. I asked him if they would be celebrating the Eucharist, he explained that they chant for another hour or so before they celebrate it. Many people leave long before then.
That was my cue then. I smiled, shook his hand, thank him for helping us navigate the service, and joined the crowd bottlenecking back through the sanctuary door.
My wife held our candles and kept them lit all the way home. We took a couple of pictures with them and then were faced with a dilemma. What do we do with the lit candles? (After all, the flames had arrived all the way from Jerusalem!)
It was a great experience, and one we will probably repeat.