THE SLOW VETERAN TOURIST BUS IN FRONT OF US TURNED OFF THE HIGHWAY onto a narrow country road winding through the foothills of Cyprus. Looking back, I saw to my surprise a whole convoy of headlights snaking its way up the coast road behind us. “This is the highlight of the whole year for us Cypriots,” explained a fellow passenger. “We celebrate the death and resurrection of Christ more than his birth. The whole population turns out for this event.”
Romkje and I happened to be in Cyprus as guests at an Agape conference over the Orthodox Easter weekend. One taxi driver had earlier offered his explanation as to why this year it came a full month after the western feast. : “You see, the pope was talking to God and told him how much he wanted to celebrate yet one more Easter with his flock, but he knew he didn’t have much longer to live. Hence the early western Easter!”
Midnight on Saturday night was approaching as we neared an ancient orthodox monastery, along with what seemed to be thousands of the Cypriot faithful. The bus in front inched its way between lines of cars parked on either side of the road, before simply stopping and totally blocking further progress. Disembarking in the darkness, we found ourselves being swept along with the pedestrian crowd towards the dim lights of the monastery, nestled in a valley lined with the dark shadows of tall cypress trees.
We stumbled up the steps of a paved stone path, clutching the unlit candles given to us at our hotel. A stone archway embossed with the carved image of St George slaying his dragon reminded me of the sign I had spied a few kilometres back indicating the road to the Agias Georges Monastery. Male voices chanting a liturgy already underway emanated from a grove of trees behind a barn-shaped stone building, around which the swelling but silent crowd of worshippers clustered. Over the heads of the crowd and through an open door, we could glimpse the golden iconostasis of an altar, and bronze chandeliers suspended from the high tiled roof. The chanting we realised came from loudspeakers in the trees, uniting the outside congregation with the hundreds already squeezed into the monastery chapel.
Someone suggested we try to weave our way through the dark worshippers to the other side of the building where there seemed to be both space and light. A few minutes later we could peer through lattice-work windows to see robed priests and monks inside swinging their incense-dispensers and singing in less-than-perfect harmony. Just after midnight, the arched doorway to our left suddenly opened, spilling light out into the courtyard. A monk strode purposefully out into the darkness towards a low belfry, darkly silhouetted against the starlit sky. Loud peals began to ring out across the hillside now to announce the arrival of Easter Sunday, and to proclaim the age-old message that Christ was risen.
Simultaneously, a procession of golden crosses, candles and monks holding Bibles on high emerged from the main doors of the chapel, led by the monastery abbot resplendent in his high black hood, flowing white robe and long grey beard. Unintentionally we found ourselves front-row spectators. As the procession swept us by, an altar boy began lighting our candles from his own. All around us, Cypriots passed on the flame from candle to candle. The abbot and his assistants climbed up into a high wooden verandah overlooking the courtyard. Prayers and chanting continued, in competition with the bells at first, reciting the resurrection story all in an ancient Greek language. Holding three candles in one hand like a fan, symbolising the Trinity, the abbot made the sign of the cross to the crowd below. Rugged sun-darkened faces glowed in the candlelight, reflecting the resurrection hope of the Easter story.
“Christos An√©sti!” the people began to say one to another, shaking hands all round. Christ is risen!
The abbot led his procession back to the now-closed chapel doors. Ceremonially he began to knock on the big wooden doors, crying out what I was told to be words based on Psalm 24:7-10: Lift up your heads, O you gates; be lifted up, you ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in.
From inside came the query: Who is this King of glory?
The abbot’s response: The LORD strong and mighty, the LORD mighty in battle. Lift up your heads, O you gates; lift them up, you ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in.
Again the query: Who is he, this King of glory?
And the response: The LORD Almighty‚Äî he is the King of glory.
Finally the doors swung open and the abbot’s procession re-entered the chapel. We threaded our way through to trees to catch the joyous scene as the worshippers still inside welcomed the procession representing the risen Lord himself. Priests and monks reached up to ribbons dangling from the chandeliers and set them swinging in happy celebration. Outside the crowd began to move back towards the cars, to head home for a midnight feast, breaking their 40 days of lenten fasting.
As we followed an endless trail of red-tail lights back down towards Larnaca on the coast, I reflected on how much biblical truth had been chanted and enacted in this midnight liturgy. This was no flavour-of-the-month Christianity. Little had changed in this liturgy-including the language-over the centuries. The Orthodox Church in fact defines itself as ‘the church that worships the right way’ (‘orthodox’ originally meant ‘right worship’, not as it has popularly come to mean, ‘right doctrine’).
And few places in the western world would witness such a large proportion of the population turning out at midnight to celebrate Christ’s resurrection!
Yet, why was not the truth of that confession more evident in the daily lives of such worshippers? Earlier that day we had visited our fellow YWAMers in Nicosia who work among the many Russian prostitutes attracted to Cyprus to satisfy the lusts of male Cypriots, many of whom no doubt were attending such midnight celebrations!
All across the Orthodox world-in Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, the Ukraine, Russia and in many other countries-people were greeting each other on this Easter Sunday with the news that Christ was indeed risen. Yet that resurrection life needed to be experienced every day of the year, and in every sphere of life. How could these seeds of biblical truth deeply implanted in these cultures be watered to bring forth new, resurrection life?
That’s one of the most important questions we face in Europe today.
Till next week,