Apr 17th, 2017, 01:19 PM

Easter for the Ecumenist

By Henry Hardwick
Pascha at St. Elijah Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church, 2016. Image Credit: Henry Hardwick
This Easter season was a chance to seek Christ within the Christian.

A lot can happen in one week. Having spent Spring Break making a pilgrimage throughout northern Italy to reach the Vatican for Palm Sunday, I started out Holy Week strong. As the most sacred part of the liturgical calendar, this year it was truly a time of reflection and spiritual growth. It was, sadly, the same Palm Sunday that two Coptic Churches were bombed during church services, a terrorist massacre that created 43 new martyrs.

With Pope Francis continuing his plan to visit Cairo in April as an outreach of goodwill between Catholicism and both the Oriental Orthodox Church and Islam, it was a very trying time from which, let us hope, agape (ἀγάπη) blossomed out of tragedy.

What made this visit so important was that it served as a chance toward reconciliation, a tenet essential to the Christian faith. Having been in schism since the Council of Chalcedon in 451 A.D., the division between the Oriental Orthodox Church and the Great Church has lasted over 1500 years, pre-dating the Great Schism (Catholic-Orthodox) and Reformation (Catholic-Protestant). I'm sorry that my seminarian side is showing. But rather than "from ancient grudge break to new mutiny", this is a real chance at solidarity. From the perspective of an ecumenist (one who supports unity throughout the entirety of the Church), this Easter season was a chance to seek Christ within the Christian. 

"Hosanna! Blessed is He Who Comes in the name of the Lord!" (John 12:13, NIV). Palm Sunday Mass at the Vatican, 2017. Image credit: Henry Hardwick

Most of Holy Week was admittedly spent at the American Church in Paris. With Jonas Nightingale accurately describing my church background as "so friggin' checkered it's plaid", my basis for Holy Week is based on the Eastern Orthodox layout. Differing in that they work off of the liturgical day (i.e. Holy Monday is celebrated Sunday evening), the service was done on the preceding evening of the Western service, which actually created some complications considering Easter and Pascha were on the same day this year.

While Holy Week at the American Church in Paris followed the traditional formula for the most part, they actually hosted a solemn Tenebrae "shadow service" for Good Friday. Since there is traditionally no Mass celebrated on Good Friday, the day was spent participating in the Stations of the Cross, venerating the Crown of Thorns at Notre-Dame, and topping it all off with the retracing of the Passion through Tenebrae. In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, Great and Holy Friday does not possess a Divine Liturgy, but a Twelve Gospels Matins service, where an icon of the "body" of Christ is physically nailed to a cross. This crucifix is thus processed and venerated as the fifteenth antiphon is chanted: "Today is hung upon the Tree, He who did hang the land in the midst of the waters. A crown of thorns crowns Him who is King of Angels..." This is the first time I remember crying in church, the second being at St. Anthony's Basilica in Padua during the pilgrimage.

Jesus Christ Superstar (1973) Gethsemane (14HQ) [WS] {HQ} (((Stereo)))

Vision of the Crucifixion. Video Credit: YouTube, Gethsemane, Jesus Christ Superstar (1973)

Then came Saturday, and just like an old-time Christmas movie, I knew something was missing. As much as I hate to admit it, you can take the boy out of Orthodoxy, but you can't take the Orthodoxy out of the boy. Knowing what I had to do, I set out to (reluctantly) find a Greek Orthodox Church. The closest to the Antiochian (Arabic) tradition I had been under, and whose seminary I studied under, I knew that celebrating with the Greeks would be a long night (10 pm to 1:30 am), although much shorter than how it is with the feast back home that usually dies down around 5 am. But thank you, Saint-Étienne (not just the parish either).

You see, the reason I'm able to write something like this is because it's like Grandma always says, "God works in mysterious ways." So what's the best way to get a young lad like me to go to the Greek Church? Have him go with a pretty Greek girl, of course! By the grace of God and the Communion of Saints, I found myself actually anticipating going to church with the Greeks (this never happened before). Despite Saint-Étienne being smaller than most churches I find myself in on the daily, it actually felt even smaller than usual due to the large crowd being packed in like sardines (an "Old Country" tradition). Still, none of this could take away from the grandeur. Truly not something not to be missed, if the Byzantines knew how to do anything, it was design.

The combination of ancient Byzantine chant and iconography reminded me of how I must've won "Most Likely to Have an Excused Absence for Religious Purpose" back in high school. Having attended every Holy Week Service my senior year, me discovering Orthodoxy was like Jasper from the Simpsons discovering moon pies... "What a time to be alive." I mean, the hours dwindled by even slower than French Mass (because it actually was hours long), but considering it's technically three services, it's not that bad. On top of this (literally), I wound up feeling like Zacchaeus the tax collector after my church buddy found us seats up in the balcony, and what a view it was... from the balcony, I mean. Not just her. Quite possibly the greatest miracle of all happened walking back to the metro. I was happy to confide that this prodigal son had finally found his way back home (annually, at least).

Pascha at La Cathédrale Grecque Saint-Étienne in Paris, 2017. Image credit: Henry Hardwick.

Of course, I was unable to wake up for the 7 o'clock "Sunrise Service" at the American Church. Finding myself in the footsteps of Saint Peter this Holy Week, it was like Jesus said: "The Spirit is willing but the flesh is weak." Still, the good old 1:30 pm Contemporary Service was different (and longer) than usual, but it was beautiful as always. Seeing old friends and making new acquaintances (an Easter tradition in-and-of itself), it soon became a regular Sunday with coffee hour and a trip off to the boat like always (Rosa Bonheur).

Leaving around 6 pm, the five remaining from the American Church headed over to a Korean service at L'Eglise de Bilettes, lured with the promise of Korean food. Figuring it would be a nice way to spend Easter away from home, I took up the offer heartily. To be truthful, I saw many new things there: the church, the food, the audio guide, the speaking in tongues...

The two-hour service surprised me too, beaten in length only by the grandest of Divine Liturgies. Still, the singing was beautiful, the hand gesture enjoyable, and the welcome song... Welcoming. With no clue as to what was being said during the sermon (or the entirety for that matter), a Chinese friend of mine (yes, everybody's good at languages but me) translated what was being said, making sense of the twelve Bible verses that I had to look up on the Bible Apps. Despite being Easter, there was no communion. And besides no communion, the structure of the service was rather odd in its set-up. Despite all of this, the experience was certainly worth experiencing, and as compensation, we gathered around a table and we're given a plate of food and fruit to share in.

If you ask me, that's what Easter is all about. Whether you're a traditionalist Catholic, a devout Orthodox, or a non-denominational Protestant (or all three at one time or another), you'll find that church never changes. Fellowship. Hope. Joy.

In the wake of all that's happening in the world, it's something that we can take comfort in. Psalm 23 teaches us that "The Lord is my shepherd." And Fred Astaire teaches us that "No, no, they can't take that away from me."

So if you see me between now and May 25 (Ascension), be prepared to be greeted with a jovial Χριστὸς ἀνέστη! For Ἀληθῶς ἀνέστη!