Christ has Risen!

I am not sure which of them taught me about sin, still I remember a smiling discussion with Grandma who explained to me the difference between a lie and a social lie. A social lie has to be harmless and is meant only to protect someone’s sensitivity. Can I come visit you? Oh, no, sorry I’ve got the flu. You avoid making that person feel unwanted, so while technically a lie, it’s just a harmless social lie. Silence is even better, she added. When anything good about someone would be a lie, better shut up. For any practical reasons the best answer to dangerous questions is I don’t know. “You hug I don’t know in your arms”[1] they said, lots of people, not only my family; it still is a recognizable normal Romanian saying. It was the family recommended answer to the question: “Do you believe in God?” But nobody ever asked me anyway, teachers, I suppose, were too clever to risk that.

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Two-three days in advance, mom was coming home with two thick bees wax candles and we dressed them in ice cream plastic cups. The warm clothes we have just abandoned were take up again: spring nights can be chilly especially when you will stand for about an hour in the open. Around 11:30pm we walked to the nearest church. There must have been 4-5 little churches in the neighborhood and a semi-active little convent. For some reason we always went to the Icoanei Church. Before leaving my grandmother would ask us all to apologize to the others in case we angered or troubled someone during the year that passed since the last Easter. After her death we slowly lost this custom.

In the silent dark covering the little streets you could see shadows heading in the same direction. I knew this church well: during the day it was a white small traditional church in the middle of a large yard full of flowers. On one side it had a tomb of some old nobleman, on the other several crosses marked the tombs of old priests who served there. The entrance was marked by four round columns painted in lime like the rest of the church.

There was no way to tell how tall the church was at midnight. Its walls and tower were lost themselves against the black of the sky. Only its door was spreading fringes of light as the people would go inside or come out. The yard instead became a mass of people and muffled conversations. It amazed me how atheist or free thinkers, active or passive orthodox, all attended the Easter Vigil in those years. A good part of those people never went to a church during the year, but none would gladly miss the “Resurrection”.

The mass was already going on inside the church but entering was not an option, people there were crushed against each others and against the walls. I still have the memory of another time when, as a teenager, I tried to attend the Good Friday mass and while kneeling panic overflowed my senses.  I had to go away or die suffocated by the lack of oxygen.

We typically searched a good place near one of the church columns. You could rest your back against it when all the crowd in the church was pouring out doubling the numbers of those already in the church yard. But before that to happen the priest inside would proclaim the Resurrection and give people “light” lighting candles of those closest to him.

– Come and take Light!

The light was passed then to every single soul around reaching us soon, filling the yard with little flames that danced in everyone’s hands. The priests and their helpers, usually a small choir of old people, would come out of the church in a symbolic gesture remembering the exit from the tomb. Down the three stairs that led to the columns, in front of the church door, someone would have transformed a small table into an altar and the rest of the mass would continue there.

After a few more liturgical words the priests would wait for a few moments then the one with the strongest voice would start the song. I have listened to this song in many churches and in many languages: Russian, Greeks, all have it. I am certainly biased but I am still sure that nobody has such a strong melody for the Resurrection as Romanians have. It’s the rhythm of a march, a triumphant march that united us all, that promised us all the glory and the light, to each and every orthodox, atheist, free thinker or indifferent alike, even to the one, two drunkards who often popped from the nearest pub. There was nobody with his mouth shut, all those people faces glowing over their candles were chanting.

– Christ has risen! The priest would exclaim.
– He has risen indeed! Would the crowd shout enthusiastically.

And again the song would rise from hundreds of chests. When they went silent you would hear from a distance the other crowds shouting and singing around the many other small churches in the neighborhood.

When the mass was concluded the priests would read us the Patriarch Easter discourse. I can’t remember his words but many of us considered it communist propaganda therefore a large part of the public, more or less ostentatiously, would leave at this point. Part of the crowd though would patiently wait for the very end of the service when „pasca” was distributed. These were small blessed breads traditionally eaten at the Eastern table. The queue for them was atrocious.

Slowly the people would silently pour on the streets. Families of three, four people all bending a little to protect their flames from the spring wind, groups of 10-15 teenagers chit chatting over their lit candles, some 3-4 lucky families would get into their cars, Dacia or Lada, going home with the candles flickering inside the cabin. All along the small streets that led from our place to the church you could see people with candles hurrying home.

At least one candle had to remain lit until getting at home where red eggs, lamb and walnuts cake were waiting for us. Nobody thought about throwing them away once we decided to extinguish them. We were supposed to save them for all the rest of the year.

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Romanian active orthodox people have this habit to cross themselves when passing a church. It’s a sort of greeting: “Hey, God, I know you’re there. Respects! “ It’s more of a city custom. In the country the church is situated somewhere at an end of the village so there is little reason to pass it every day but in a city passing churches when you are travelling by bus, for example, becomes unavoidable.

I am seven and walking the city with my mother. It’s all new to me; my first years spent entirely in a Transylvanian village. We take the bus to go somewhere. One or two old people cross themselves while we pass a church. I make a mental note and when we get to be alone I ask why. She explains it to me. Believers greet the presence of God inside that church. Aren’t we believers too? We are, she sais, but it’s dangerous, communists don’t believe in God. Old people, I guess, have less to fear from the authorities. So we don’t greet God…, I must have looked dismayed. Of course it helps a bit that I was just reading Quo Vadis. It didn’t make much sense to believe but hide at the same time. Ancient martyrs didn’t hide their faith, they proclaimed it. Mom must have seen my disappointment.

– Actually, she adds, you can cross yourself with your tongue.
– How!
– Easy, just make a cross with your tongue in your mouth. And God will know you are greeting Him.

[1] Îl iei pe “nu știu” în brațe.

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