Updated: May 18
This, my child, is what you will see at Holy Saturday Vespers and Resurrection Matins. I will tell you about these things because they have been done for centuries in our Church to help us remember how surprised and overjoyed the myrrhbearers were to have discovered the Resurrection. We must place ourselves in their company, regardless of the age in which we live, to fully participate in God's plan for our salvation. Here is what you will see... "The last time we were present in the Church, we were made aware of a wonderful secret. We recall that the world does not yet know that Christ has come back to life! We enter the Church very early today to find it still dark, outside as well as inside. We are getting ready to accompany the women who will come to the tomb to anoint the Body of Jesus. When the service begins, everyone will kneel. Father goes to the tomb to remove the Plaschanitsa, which is the special burial cloth upon which the image of the Body of our Lord, Jesus in burial, is embroidered. He carries it up, behind the iconostasis, and to the altar where he places it to signify that Jesus’ Body is now in Heaven.
When you enter the Church this morning, you will be given a candle. Once the Body of Christ is on the altar, a flame is passed to everyone in the congregation, which now will get out of their seats and follow the priest and all the altar servers outside and walk in procession around the Church. We pretend that we are among the Myrrhbearers, who expect to find Jesus’ poor Body that they had hastily left in the grave, behind the heavy stone that barred its entrance. Suddenly, the procession stops in front of the main doors to the Church. We arrive at the tomb.
Father begins to sing the opening verses of Psalm 68:
"Let God arise, and let His enemies be scattered, and let those who hate Him flee from before His face!"
Everyone begins to sing the Paschal Troparion:
Christ is Risen from the dead! By death, He trampled Death And to those in the tombs, He granted life!"
Father continues to sing each verse, after which the people all will sing the Troparion once again. At the end of the psalm, we watch as Father takes his hand cross and very loudly knocks on the doors of the Church in the form of a cross. The doors open wide, and everyone enters joyfully to find that all the lights in the Church are now lit! Death has vanished, and now we see all the signs of life! The tomb is put aside, and the flowers and candles are displayed where the Body of Jesus once was! This is to show us that Christ is Risen! Indeed He rises!"
Some of the men in the congregation will hold up the Plaschanitsa so we can walk under it on the way back into the Church. We do this to place ourselves into the tomb with Jesus and emerge from it with Him, just as the souls of Adam and Eve and the souls of all the faithful departed emerged with Him, free from the bonds of Hades. To think of this is so exciting! These are all the extraordinary things you will see tonight. Let us go to the tomb now, with the myrrhbearers, and look for Christ."
These words that I've just spoken to you came from the many memories I have of services like these speckled throughout my childhood. I remember my wax-stained Easter shoes and the intoxicating aroma of incense mingled with the scent of the flowers at the tomb. I recall the intricate melodies of chanted hymns, sung only at these services, and sore knees from crawling on them to venerate the Plashchanitsa. Sadly, however, what you observed tonight at the services was quite different.
I told you, my child, about the candle you would hold to light the way as we walked with the myrrhbearers to find Jesus in the tomb. Each of us would pass the flame along to each other as we shared the light from Father's candle, light from light. That's how I got the wax all over my new Easter shoes when I was just a little girl like you. It appears that you won't have to worry about that tonight. There are no candles for us. It's too windy.
I told you, my child, to wear your comfortable shoes because we would walk in a solemn procession around the Church, along with the myrrhbearers to find the Body of Christ in His tomb...well, to find His body NOT to be in the tomb. All the neighbors and passers-by would witness our faith when they see us, so I told you that you must be well behaved as you walk along. Well, it seems you won't have to worry about that either. We are only processing out to the vestibule tonight. Perhaps they have decided it's too far? Too cold? Not important?
I told you, my child, that Father would knock loudly on the doors of the Church to signify the rolling back of the stone from Christ's tomb. I'm sorry you didn't hear him do that. We chanted the Troparion I taught you! That was nice. When I was a girl, we had the most beautiful choir. How I wish you could have heard them sing it back then. I used to wait all year to chant my favorite Paschal hymns with them, but most of them are gone to be with the Lord now, and nobody has time for choir practice on Tuesday nights anymore anyway.
The lights were all on, and the Church was decorated before we left to follow the myrrhbearers, I know. Nobody offered to be the ones left behind to set the stage for us, so Father had to set it all up by himself before he vested for Vespers. Not much of a difference when we came back in, and I'm sorry we didn't get to walk under the plaschanitsa as I expected us to do too. Perhaps there weren't enough men to hold it up for us? Maybe next year.
Perhaps someday, when your little brothers are big enough, they will hold it up for us. I pray they grow up fast, so nobody forgets what to do. Each season that goes by without having seen these things done chips away at the memory of it, the feel of it, and robs you of the sensory images that should have been implanted in your mind. If you don't experience the Resurrection in the tradition of the services, how will you remember? How will you teach your children? Will they go to look for Him with the myrrhbearers? Will their senses be overwhelmed, memories firmly made, hearts renewed, and will it bring them to joyful tears on Easter morning?
Oh, my child, I'm so sorry you have no wax on your shoes, that your feet are not sore, and you didn't jump at the sound of the loud knock on the doors tonight! I wanted so badly to give you those memories so you could share them with Daddy and me, and with Baba and Dido, and their grandparents in the old country, and their grandparents ages of ages ago. The sounds and sights and smells were all designed to help us remember the solemnity, the joy, the unity we share in the Risen Christ on this day. I fear that if you don't experience all of it, you may not remember.
I pray it isn't cold, or windy, or too far to walk, or too hard to sing, or too late, or too early next Pascha so that you can see, and smell, and hear, and taste, and feel it all and that soon you, and your children, and your children's children can spill the Easter candle wax on your shoes too.