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  Bright Matins – A Story from Old Russia

Over the earth today’s hymn of the Liturgy burnt low: "Let all mortal flesh keep silence, and stand with fear and trembling."

      The evening land became calm. At home we opened the little glass doors covering our icons. I asked my father:

"How come?"

      "As a sign of the unfolding of the heavenly doors on Pascha!'

      Before the beginning of Matins, my father and I wanted to sleep but we couldn't. We lay side by side on the bed, and he told me how once when he was a child he celebrated Pascha in Moscow.

        Moscow s Pascha, my son, is mighty! Whoever has seen it one time, remembers it to the grave. The first stroke at midnight of the bell on the belfry of Ivan the Great thunders such that it is as if the heaven with its stars will fall to the earth. And this bell, my son, weighs 108 tons, and to swing the tongue, twelve people are needed. They send forth the first stroke upon the striking of the clock on Spasskaya tower..."

      My father raised himself up in bed and talked about Moscow with a tremor in his voice:

"Yes... the clock on Spasskaya tower.,,

It finishes striking--and immediately a rocket soars up into the sky. After it comes the firing from the old cannons on Taynitskaya tower -- one hundred and one shots!

      "Ivan the Great's ringing spreads like a sea across Moscow, and the other 40 times 40 churches echo it like rivers in the flood season! Such a power, I tell you, Boats over the capital, that it is as if you are not walking but rocking on its waves like a sliver of wood! A mighty night, like the Lord's thunder! Oh, son, it is impossible to depict in words Paschal Moscow!"

My father lapsed into silence and closed his eyes.

"Are you going to sleep?" "No. I am seeing Moscow." "And where is it?"

"Before my eyes. As if it is alive..."

"Tell me something more about Pascha."

      'I had the chance to greet Pascha also in a certain monastery. In its simplicity and holy splendor it was even better than Moscow's! Around it there are untrodden woods, wild beasts' paths, and along the monastery, walls, a river splashes. Taiga trees peer into it, and the church is built of strong, resinous logs. For Bright Matins a great multitude of pilgrims gathered here from the neighboring villages. They had a rare custom there. After the Matins, the girls would go out to the river with candles, would sing "Christ is Risen," bow from the waist in front of the river, and then attach their candles to a rounded cut of wood and one by one set them off down the river. There was a saying: if the Paschal candle does not go out, the girl will get married, but if it goes out, she will remain a bitter old maid!

      "Just imagine what a wonder there! In the middle of the night hundreds of flames float along the water, and at the same time the bells ring out, and the forest rustles in the wind!”

      "'Enough of you talking," my mother interrupted us,"you'd better be off to sleep, or else you'll end up standing at Matins sleepy- eyed?

      I was not even close to sleep. A presentiment enveloped my soul, of something inexplicably enormous, similar perhaps to Moscow, or to hundreds of candles, floating along a forest river. I got out of bed, paced from corner to corner, bothered my mother

baking, and asked her every other minute: "Are we going to church soon?"

      "Stop whirling about like a broken top!" her temper quietly flared. "If you can't wait, then go already, but behave yourself there!"

      It was a full two hours before the Bright Matins was to begin, but the church grounds were already filled with children.

     It was a night without a single star, without wind and almost awesome in its unusualness and enormity. Along the dark streets kuliches (Russian Paschal dessert breads) floated covered in white cloths -- only they were visible.., it was as if the people weren't there.

      In the half-dark church, near the burial shroud of Christ stood a line of people hoping to read the Acts of the Apostles. I joined them. They asked me: "Do you know how to read?" "Yes."

"Well, then begin first!"

      I went up to the analog and began to sound out the words: The former treatise have I made, O Theophilus, and I could not in any way pronounce the word "Theophilus.' I froze, lowered my head in embarrassment and stopped reading. People came up to me and began making comments: "What do you think you are doing, if you don't know how to read?"

"I wanted to try!"

      "Better try the kuliches," and they pushed me aside.

    I did not feel like standing in the church. I went out into the church yard and sat on the step of the church.

      Where is Pascha now, I wondered. Is it soaring in the heavens or is it walking outside the town, in the woods along swampy tussocks, pine groves, or snowdrop flowers, through heather and juniper paths, and what form does it have? Someone's story came to mind, that on the night of the Bright Resurrection of Christ a ladder comes down from heaven to the earth, and along it descends the Lord to us with the holy apostles, saints, passion-bearers and martyrs. The Lord passes over the earth, blesses the fields, the forests, lakes, rivers, birds, man, beasts and all things created by His holy will, and the saints sing "Christ is risen from the dead..." The song of the saints is scattered like grain upon the earth, and from these grains thin fragrant lilies of the valley are born in the forests.

      The time was approaching midnight. The church grounds were buzzing more and more with the sound of voices. Someone left the church watchman's house carrying a lantern.

       "He's coming, he's coming!" frantically cried the children, clapping their hands. "Who is coming?"

"The bell-ringer Lexander! Now he will roar!" And he roared...

      From the first strike of the bell it was as if a big silver wheel rolled along the earth, and when its humming passed, another rolled, and after it a third, and the nighttime Paschal darkness whirled in the silver humming of all the town's churches.

      The beggar Yakov noticed me in the darkness "A light-revealing peal!" he said, and crossed himself several times.

    In the church they began to serve the great Midnight Office. They sang "He who in ancient times hid the pursuing tyrant beneath the waves of the sea..." The priests in white vestments lifted the burial shroud and carried it off into the altar, where it lies on the altar table until the celebration of Ascension. They moved the heavy golden tomb with a loud rumble to the side, to its usual place, and in this loud rumble there was also something significant, Pascha! – as if they heaved away the enormous stone from the Lord's tomb.

       I caught sight of my father and mother. I went up to them and said:

        'I will never upset you again!" I snuggled up  to them, and exclaimed loudly: "This is such fun!"

       But the Paschal joy spread and spread, like the Volga in the flood season, which my father has spoken of time and again. The tall cloth icons on their poles began to wave like spring trees in a sunny breeze. They began to prepare for the procession around the church. Prom the altar they brought out the silver cross from behind the altar table, a golden Gospel, an enormous round loaf of bread--artos; the raised icons beamed and everyone's red Paschal candles were lit.

    Silence fell. It was transparent, and so light that if you were to blow on it, it would make the thread of a spider web quiver. And in the midst of this silence  they began to sing: "Thy Resurrection, O Christ Saviour, the angels hymn in the heavens." And to this soaring song the procession began to stream with flames. People stepped on my feet, dripped wax on my head, but I almost didn't feel anything and thought: "This is as it must be." Pascha! The Lord's Pascha! Sunbeams ran across my soul. Tightly pressed together, through the night darkness, along the streams of the song of the Resurrection, sprinkled with the ringing of the bells and warmed by the little flames of the candles, we went around the church, dawn-white with the hundreds of lights, and stopped in expectation near the tightly closed doors. The bells fell silent. My heart stopped with anticipation. My face flushed with heat. The earth disappeared somewhere -- you are standing not on the earth, but as if on blue heavens. And the people? Where are they? Everyone has been transformed into exultant Paschal candles!

      And behold, this great thing, which I could not grasp hold of in the beginning, has come to pass! They began to sing, "Christ is Risen from the dead."

     Three times they sang "Christ is Risen," and before us the tall doors were thrust open. We entered into the resurrected church -- and before our eyes, in the radiance of the large central chandelier, of large and small lampadas, in the glitter of the silver, gold and precious stones on the icons, in the bright paper flowers on the kuliches -- blazed the Lord's Pascha! The priest, cloaked in the smoke of the censor, with a face which began to glow, cried brightly and loudly: "Christ is Risen," and the people answered him with the roar of heavy icy snow falling from a height--'Truly He is Risen."

        Grishka turned out to be nearby. I took his hands and said:

        "Tomorrow I '.*.'ill give you a red egg! The very best! Christ is Risen!"

        Not far away stood Fedka. I promised him also a red egg. I saw the courtyard-cleaner, David, went up to him and said:

        "I will never again call you a 'sweeper-martyr.' Christ is Risen!"

        And the words of the Paschal Canon flew across the church like lightening Each word was a tiny spark of a lively quick flame.

Let the heavens be glad as is meet, and let the earth rejoice, and let the whole world both visible and invisible, keep festival for Christ is risen O gladness eternal.

        My heart jumped for joy -- near the ambo I saw the girl with blonde braids, whom I had noticed during the carrying out of the Burial Shroud! Beside myself, I went up to her and, dropping my eves and blushing all over, whispered: "Christ is Risen!"

      She was embarrassed, dropped the little candle out of her hands, and, like a quiet flame, stretched toward me, and we kissed cheeks three times with the greeting, Christ is Risen. Then we were so embarrassed, that for a long time we stood with lowered heads.

      And at that moment from the ambo resounded the Paschal homily of Saint John Chrysostom:

      "If any be devout and God-loving, let him enjoy this fair and radiant triumph... Christ is Risen, and life flourisheth!" 

Translated by Elizaveta Baranova from ZemilyaIlmeninitsa (The Earth's Name Day) by V Nikiforov-Volgm, St Job of Pochaev Press, Jordanville, NY 1960

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