This was my first Orthodox Holy Week, my first Pascha, the Orthodox Easter–the holiest day on the calendar. I’ve looked forward to it since late last summer when I began attending a Greek Orthodox Church, and especially since January when I made a commitment in my heart to follow this path. My catechism class, which has moved online due to the coronavirus pandemic, has gradually prepared me for it. I’ve already reflected on how these dramatic few weeks have affected my journey into Orthodoxy. The emotions I described in that post were heightened this week. The Matins of the Bridegroom, the Liturgy of St. Basil, the Holy Friday services, and last night’s Divine Liturgy of Great and Holy Pascha were all generously livestreamed by my priest and presbytera, who delivered the services alone in the church while I and twenty-four anonymous others watched.
This wasn’t what I pictured when I imagined my first Holy Week, but it was apparently what I needed. The balance between isolation and community has been interesting. In many ways, I feel like a scholarly Protestant, sitting alone in my office, absorbing the liturgies and worship from a distance, reading Orthodox books and blogs and studying. I seem to be studying the faith rather than experiencing it. I can watch the intricacies of the service, observing every detail without the self-consciousness that comes with actually being there—consequently, I am more prepared for the next time I worship in person. As a constitutionally nervous person, this is actually very helpful.
And there is something powerful in the livestreams, something like the direct experience with the Divine you sometimes feel at church. This is especially true when I see the numbers of my fellow congregants online, streaming along with me. I can’t see their faces or their names (except when they comment, declaring that “Christ is risen!” and “Alleluia,” exclaiming words of worship from their homebound sanctuaries in a way uncharacteristic for Orthodox Christians and similar to the Pentecostals I grew up with.
I am thirty-seven years old, at the threshold of middle age and no longer young. I feel very old when I consider how far I have to go on this journey from West to East. At times, this makes me feel fraudulent. I know so little about the traditions and customs of the faith compared to my fellow catechumens, who come from other liturgical traditions or who have more extensive backgrounds within the Orthodox Church. I worry that I’m converting too late. I read stories about other converts who discovered Orthodoxy in college, or in their early twenties, during the crises of faith that always accompanies that phase of life, and their stories make me feel belated. My own college crisis took me in a different direction. Now I’ve arrived to Orthodoxy in my late thirties, in strange circumstances: I have a fully developed life, a spiritual practice, a wife who isn’t converting along with me (though she supports my journey 100%). Meanwhile, much else in my life is uncertain and upended. I found out on Holy Friday that I lost my teaching job, terrible news that has generated a lot of turmoil in my life and spirit. My church, while precious to me, is 60 miles away; even when it reopens, I cannot practically go to nightly services as often as I would if I lived closer. I cannot escape the feeling that I’m doing this all wrong, or at the wrong time, or for the wrong reasons.
Yes, I remember Jaroslav Pelikan, who converted to Orthodoxy at age 74. But he grew up along Orthodoxy’s periphery; he had Slavic family, a Slavic background. I’m a Western European-American if ever there was one. My heritage is solidly Gallic-Nordic-Teutonic. My spiritual lineage is Roman Catholic and Lutheran. How can I enter into the Orthodox faith at this late hour, with this much inexperience and ignorance?
For this reason, these words from this morning’s Paschal homily spoke to me:
If you worked from the first hour, receive today your just reward. If you came after the third hour, you are welcome to celebrate. If you arrived after the sixth hour, have no doubt; for you suffer no loss. If you delayed until the ninth hour, come near with no cause to hesitate. If you arrived even at the eleventh hour, do not be fearful of the lateness. For the Lord is generous and accepts the last as He does the first; He gives rest to him of the eleventh hour as to him who worked from the first hour. He shows mercy upon the last and attends to the first; to the one is given and to the other is granted. He accepts the works and welcomes the intention. He honors the act and praises the volition.
What a beautiful sentiment! What divine hospitality this is! These words dance to the heartbeat of Christianity itself. All are welcome! Arrive and celebrate!
Christ is risen! Truly he is risen!