04/30/2016, 12.37
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The "young" Orthodox Church of Moscow and Easter. Amid interiority and appearance

by Sergei Chapnin*

During the Soviet period it was difficult, dangerous and exhausting to celebrate the Resurrection of Christ. Yet the churches were full and the faithful involved in the liturgy of the victory over death. Today, 25 years after the newfound freedom of worship, the patriarchal liturgy is broadcast on television and Moscow does all it can to appear to be an orthodox city. But it is not and it will not be until it understands the intimate connection of the Easter period with the personal faith experience.

Moscow (AsiaNews) - Easter comes to Moscow in many ways. Should it arrive early, end of March or beginning of April, Easter night may see ground frost and even snow. If it is a late Easter, like this year when it falls on early May, then one can expect a summer feast. And though winter cold has no effect on the Easter celebration itself, perception of Lend, Holy Week and especially the Good Friday depends on it to a great extent: if it is chilly with a mix of snow and rain falling down, then it seems as if the whole world is crying seeing the Church remembering the last days of Christ’s life on earth.

One cannot fully understand the ways of the Church in Russia without comparing various historical periods that the older generations have witnessed. Today Easter is celebrated far differently than in Soviet times. Mere 30 years ago Easter used to be the most anxious day in the calendar of those in charge of the state atheism policy. Religious life in Russia showed no signs of decay, whereas in 70’s/80’s it was actually on the rise.

On Easter nights, Komsomol members kept their watch before the churches, provoking the faithful during processions and reporting on those who ‘did not exhibit public spirit’ and went to the Church for Easter. Nevertheless, every Easter Orthodox churches were overflowing. What would seem a strange case for an atheist state, was hardly a surprise – the communist authorities left only 44 active churches in Moscow with its 10m of inhabitants. Other were either closed or blown up. In soviet times, every Moscow parish could boast 3 or 4 thousand people on Eater night.

It was impossible to receive Communion during that service. Priests usually refused to give it either referring to the lack of frequent Communion tradition or were simply afraid of provocations from Komsomol members. Trusted male parishioners were given Communion inside the altar, while women could receive the sacrament after the service at the choir-place. 

A soviet counter-tradition was introduced saying that this was a day to visit the tombs of the dead and not the church. Several decades later this propaganda bore its fruits: great many people started believing that this in fact was a very pious religious practice. The Church is still fighting its way through that belief explaining that the feast of Christ’s Resurrection is actually a celebration of life, and the dead are to be paid homage to only after the 9th day of Easter. 

Yet, the Paschal service has always been very attractive. Traditions of the Russian Orthodoxy have preserved a special structure of the Easter service and a special attitude towards it: the joy that fills the church in way obvious for everyone present. It sweeps everyone, even those who’ve come for the first time or out of curiosity. Paschal service is filled with a profound experience of Christ’s Resurrection not just as a memory but first and foremost as a contact with the mystery that touches everyone – that is the victory over death.

As protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann said in one of his Paschal sermons, ‘The early Christians called their faith not a religion, but the Good News, which it was their purpose in the world to spread and proclaim. They knew and believed that Christ’s resurrection was not merely the occasion for an annual feast, but the source of powerful and transfigured life.’ And Easter becomes a reference point for that path of transfiguration.

Yet, has not Easter become an ordinary and habitual feast in post-Soviet Moscow? It would seem impossible to give a negative answer to that question.

More than a quarter-century has passed since the Church in Russia gained freedom. Life itself has changed, and now the city is full of Easter attributes and posters. Public transport offers longer hours of service on Easter night to bring faithful back home after the long night worship. Easter cakes and special curd desserts called paskhas are on sale in every grocery store along with various stickers to be put on eggs. On Easter night every church has a police squad standing by to maintain order and ensure that nobody parks around the church.

Patriarchal paschal celebration in Christ the Saviour Cathedral is broadcast year over year on national TV channels and every year rates quite high. For several years now, Moscow Government has financed open-air celebrations on dozens of venues near churches with concerts, games and arts and crafts exhibitions.

So both the Church and the civil authorities are putting a lot of effort into showing these days that yes, Moscow is an Orthodox city. All the outer indicators are in place.

Yet who is this all for? How many Orthodox faithful live in Russia’s capital? Can they be considered a majority or at least a large part of Moscow’s 12m population?

Over the past 25 years, the number of Moscow parishes grew 12-fold – from 44 to nearly 600, but all of them are relatively small. Even if we assume that an average capacity of one church is 500 persons (while in reality it is even less) and that on Easter there are two Divine Liturgies to choose from, even then the Easter services of 2016 could not have been attended by more than 450 thousand people, or less than 4% of the city’s population.

Are those calculations a reason to mourn? I don’t think so. However, it can be a starting point for the reflection on how in our life and in the life of our city the outer and the inner relate to each other.

The sacred depth of life that Lent helps us to encounter and the Paschal joy arising from that depth are connected with the personal experience of faith and of community life. Such communities exist and grow.

Yet it is important to remember that the Orthodox Church in modern Russia is in fact a new and young Church. It started growing some 25 years ago, which for a Church is hardly a long run.

*Editor-in-Chief, “Dary”(Gifts) Magazine

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