A New York Easter Diary

Mike Potemra, April 16, 2001 (The online National Review)
GOOD FRIDAY

It's about 9 P.M., in the East Village. I am walking home from dinner sushi, my only meal of the day and I see a gloriously lit Greek Orthodox church, doors wide open, bedecked with flowers. Its appearance is uncanny for while it is dressed for celebration, the church is utterly deserted. A small woman in her late sixties notices my puzzlement: "You have questions written all over your face."

"Yes," I admit hesitantly, "I was wondering whether a service has just ended? Or is one about to begin?" Neither case, however, would account for the emptiness of the church.

She explains: Everyone in the church has left for a procession through the streets, singing hymns and bearing a representation of the bier of Christ. I decide to wait. Within five minutes, they are audible, and then visible as they turn the corner from Third Avenue hundreds of people, led by bearers of the flags of Greece and the United States. The procession comes to a halt. The bearers raise the bier of Christ, and the members of the congregation file directly underneath it and on into the church. The symbolism is unmistakable: They are buried with Christ, in the hope of rising with him.

HOLY SATURDAY

Julie Vincent is getting married a week from today, and that has determined my agenda for today. Many months ago, I had bought a ticket for next weekend's performance of the Metropolitan Opera production of Richard Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos, which I will miss because I will be at Julie's wedding. They don't do this opera very often, and all the seats are sold out for every performance; so at 8:30 A.M. on this Holy Saturday, I am in line at Lincoln Center in the hope of getting a standing-room ticket for today's performance. I have never done this before, and it's a revelation: People have been here since 4 A.M., and to call this crowd opera lovers would be an understatement; they are the monks and nuns of the Church of Opera.

At 1:15 P.M., I'm up in standing room waiting for the opera to start. My eye wanders, and is caught by the familiar typeface of a book being read by one of my fellow standees. I ask him, "Is that a Liturgy of the Hours?" Yes, he replies, and shows me the book the daily prayerbook of Catholic clergy. I ask him if he is a clergyman. He tells me he is a monk, from Gethsemani Abbey world famous as Thomas Merton's abbey in Kentucky; he has been in Europe and is passing through New York on his way home. A Cistercian monk at the Metropolitan Opera: It's what Hollywood types would call "high-concept."

The opera begins, and as it progresses I realize just how appropriate it is for Holy Saturday. A nobleman has scheduled some entertainment at his mansion: a tragic opera about Princess Ariadne of Greek myth, to be followed by an Italian comedy. At the last minute, he freakishly decides that the two performances must occur simultaneously on the same stage and the composer and performers do their best to integrate the tragic and the comic. Ariadne ends up living happily ever after with the god Bacchus.

Like the monk at the opera, Ariadne auf Naxos itself is a metaphor for the change wrought in world consciousness by the Christian religion. Through the Incarnation God becoming man the sacred has been "normalized," made a part of daily life; and the secular has been sanctified. The tragedy is no longer the final word about the human condition; the show's impresario has something else in mind.

Incidentally, I will forever be grateful to Julie for her inconvenient wedding, because I think standing-room will change my life. It has, first of all, the best acoustics in the house: When you are in the seats, the coughs and paper-crumplings around you are annoying; in standing-room, they are barely audible. The music of singers and orchestra goes over the standees, bounces off the back wall and curls around us. And standing-room solves another opera problem for me: Folded up in a narrow seat in the darkened opera house, I tend to get drowsy even during my favorite operas. For this performance of Ariadne, I am on my toes as well as on my feet one of the most pleasurable musical experiences I will ever remember.

EASTER SUNDAY

It's still Saturday, about an hour before midnight, and I'm in a tiny church on Mulberry Street, just east of Soho, just north of Little Italy. It's the Byzantine Catholic Church of St. Michael the Archangel, and its nave is smaller than the typical middle-class family's living room; at the height of the service there will be about 30 people there.

Byzantine Catholics are Christians who follow the liturgy of the Eastern Orthodox church, but are in communion with Rome and recognize the Pope as their spiritual leader. I have attended Byzantine services only once before, in my mother's arms: I was baptized in an Eastern Rite church in Youngstown, Ohio, in 1964.

The service begins with parishioners chanting, one after another, from the Acts of the Apostles. One of the ministers approaches me and asks if I would like to chant; I demur, pleading a poor singing voice. He insists that this is no obstacle; so I find myself at the lectern intoning some of the words and actions of St. Peter. The church's communion with the see of the Apostle Peter is made explicit in the strange sound of the name "Edward" not "Edvard" surrounded by Russian words and accents: It's the prayer for Edward Cardinal Egan, the Catholic Archbishop of New York.

The service has a structure similar to the Mass with which Roman Catholics are familiar. The language is unfamiliar to me, but some of the Russian words stir memories; they are similar to the Slovak we spoke at home when I was a boy. The response "Gospodin pomiluy" is repeated so often it becomes as comfortable and comforting as its English equivalent: "Lord have mercy."

Another proclamation is repeated again and again, at different parts of the service, in Russian and English: "Christ is risen!" To which the congregation always responds: "Indeed he is risen!" The chanting of the service takes almost four hours, and the congregation stands throughout. (There are about four chairs, for seniors who might need a rest.)

It is a beautiful and moving service. Words of forgiveness and consolation are read out from a sermon of St. John Chrysostom: "If any have tarried even until the eleventh hour, let him, also, not be alarmed at his tardiness; for the Lord, who is jealous of his honor, will accept the last even as the first; he giveth rest unto him who cometh at the eleventh hour, even as unto him who hath wrought from the first hour."

After the end of the liturgy, all of us go upstairs to a meeting room for an elaborate meal of cold meats and wine. I am not hungry, in fact I am exhausted; but if any of the others are tired they show no sign of it. Children many of whom had been resting in sleeping bags on another floor while the service was in progress join us; and all are in festive spirits. As I look around this ebullient gathering at 3:30 A.M., I am reminded of the old Dire Straits song "Walk of Life": They have "turned the nighttime into the day."

It is, for all intents and purposes, daytime; only by looking out a window would one have any sense of what time it is, as the secular world counts time. It is the darkest part of night, but for the people in this room it is noonday.

And what gives us this power to transcend the secular to transcend the natural world and its limits of day and hour is the memory, preserved in scriptures and celebrations, of a mysterious event that took place 2,000 years ago: an event we cannot comprehend, but is nonetheless a cause for great rejoicing. The Resurrection of Christ changed the boundaries of the possible for the human race, and this is a fact that transcends religious denominations. Even non-Christians today live in a world whose consciousness has been shaped by this event by a report that the tragic sense, cultivated by the noblest of pre-Christian people, is not the most basic truth about man.

Good news indeed, with which to go home, and greet the sunrise, on this Easter Sunday.


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Last modified on Tuesday August 24, 2004 at 12:26 AM EDT