Upon Those in the Tombs Bestowing Life

IMG_3086I entered Orthodoxy a mere five years after my brother and only sibling died. Will was killed in a motorcycle accident when he was seventeen years old. My faith and my parents’ marriage had been ripped apart, and the Orthodox Church was a place of restoration and healing for me.

One Sunday early in our time as inquirers, liturgy was almost over, and I was packing up my daughter’s diaper bag and looking forward to coffee hour. To my surprise, my priest announced that we would have memorial prayers to commemorate the anniversary of the death of a church member. The family members of the deceased walked to the front of the church, and a short prayer service began. I only caught bits and pieces: give rest to the soul of thy departed servant in a place of brightness, for thou art the resurrection and the life. Then everyone sang:

Memory Eternal

Memory Eternal

May his memory be eternal.

I was floored that a church would remember, talk about, sing about, and pray for the dead! It seemed to me that everyone had forgotten that Will died. His death felt like a taboo subject, even in the church I’d previously attended. Yet that morning at St. Ignatius, I was moved to see a church that loves and remembers those who have passed on. I found out at coffee hour that there is even a special food called kolyva that Orthodox Christians prepare to remember the dead and that “Memory Eternal” is the typical Orthodox response when someone dies.

On the way home that day, all I could think was, Memory Eternal, Will. May your memory be eternal.

It is the belief in “kairos time” that propels Orthodox Christians to remember – and pray for – the dead. That holy time-out-of-time means that, with each liturgy we celebrate, the curtain between heaven and earth falls back, joining us with those who have gone before us, the angels, and the heavenly realm. God’s uncontrolled, nonlinear time also allows us to pray for the dead. I remember my priest once saying that he still prays for his deceased father, and maybe somehow those prayers touch his father’s life when he was on earth. People’s present prayers affecting someone in the past sounds like something from a sci-fi movie, but believing in kairos time means we allow God and his workings to be a mystery, to go beyond our human understandings.

At our first Pascha (Orthodox Easter), our daughter Madeleine was five weeks old. At 10:00 PM, we nestled her into her carrier, draped a blanket over her to keep out the cold, and headed for church, hoping to get there early before the liturgy began at 11:00 PM.

When we got there, the nave looked drastically different. White magnolias draped the icons and the cross. The overhead lights were dimmed, making the candles’ fire illuminate the faces of believers – saints and modern believers alike – with greater intensity than usual. Long rows of seats lined either side of the church, facing toward the center rather than the iconostasis. We found two seats and placed the baby carrier on the floor between us. On each seat was a white candle in a plastic cup to catch the wax.

The liturgy began as the priest chanted, “Blessed is our God, always, now and ever and unto ages of ages” as usual. After several prayers, the lights were turned completely off. The priests and deacons lit the candles at the end of each row, and the light passed through the church from person to person. A song began: Come ye, take light from the Light, that is never overtaken by night. Come, glorify the Christ, risen from the dead.

In the gleaming haze, I could almost see the angels folding in among us, and hear the saints singing along. Once the light made its way around the church, the priests, deacons, and acolytes processed outside and the people filed out behind them, continuing to sing. Madeleine was still asleep, so Steven grabbed her carrier and we exited into the crisp night air. We processed in a circle around the church and ended in a large group in front of the doors of the church. We sang the Paschal hymn with brightness: Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life. As we sang the words, we raised our candles high.

Tears filled my eyes. Will’s face was strong in my mind. Those words, upon those in the tombs bestowing life, landed on that hard place in my heart that remembers Will’s death, and planted there a subtle joy – the joy of knowing that despite my ache for him, Will was indeed alive, and with God.

My priest read the resurrection story from Mark 16, and, to my surprise, then turned and banged loudly on the church doors three times, yelling, Lift up your gates, O ye princes; and ye be lifted up, ye everlasting gates, and the King of glory shall enter in.

From inside the church came a voice shouting, Who is the King of glory?

The priest responded, The Lord is strong and mighty, the Lord, mighty in war!

Again, Who is the King of glory?

The Lord strong and mighty, the Lord, mighty in war!

Who is the King of glory?

The priest threw open the doors and shouted triumphantly, The Lord of hosts, He is the King of glory!

And we were caught up in the jubilant crowd, entering through the doors, bringing the light of Christ into the darkness and trampling the power of death.

Inside, the lights were now turned up all the way, and once everybody was back to their seats, Father Stephen suddenly ran up and down the center aisle, swinging the censer and shouting, “Christ is risen!”

The people shouted back, “He is risen indeed!”

A deacon repeated the act, shouting in Greek that time: “Christos Anesti!

Alithos Anesti!

Another deacon took a turn, speaking Arabic: “Al-Masseh Quam!

Haqqan Qam!

To everyone’s delight, Father Gordon, an older priest, ran the aisle, his face alight, “Christos Anesti!

The air was full of a wild excitement, a haphazard thrill of joy. Every candle was raised, every voice rejoiced, every eye gleamed with light and tears. It felt like we were Jesus’ actual disciples, in awe at his risen state. Rejoice for Will, too, a voice seemed to whisper to me.

Someone sitting near us noticed Madeleine, still asleep in her carrier, and said, “Wake that baby up! It’s her first Pascha!”

Now I wish I had. That was the night I began falling in love with Orthodoxy.

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Karissa Knox Sorrell is a writer, educator, Orthodox Christian, and third culture kid. After growing up as a Protestant missionary kid, Karissa converted to Eastern Orthodoxy ten years ago. She writes about faith, doubt, family, cross-cultural experiences on her blog and other places. She lives with her husband and two children in Nashville, Tennessee. Connect with her on Twitter and Facebook.

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