St. John of the Ladder Before the Service

Ask an American what they eat for Thanksgiving, and you are likely to hear a fairly similar response anywhere in the country. There are definitely some regional variations, and of course vegetarians aren’t likely to eat turkey, but you’d get a lot of root vegetables, some form of potato dish and hopefully a wonderful assortment of pies. Even if this isn’t what someone eats in their own home, most Americans would be able to recite the standard menu for someone if they asked. Ask an American what they eat for Christmas or Easter, and you would get a whole different response. The first thing you would need to understand is that only about 70% of Americans are Christians so many may not celebrate these holidays at all. Among those who do, you would find very distinct specialties in many homes, depending on both where in the country you are, and where the family of the person you are speaking with immigrated from. Around the country during the holidays, you will find dishes originating all over the world. Many people may not even realize it, because it’s what they’ve always eaten on these holidays. Having spent plenty of holidays with friends around the country, it always amuses me to see a dish of pasta or pickled herring right up alongside the ham and mashed potatoes. It may be the only time that many people’s ethnic roots come out, and as I mentioned many may not even realize they are doing it.  

I am a pretty typical American mutt. While all of my ancestry that I’m familiar with comes from somewhere in Europe, there is very little that I can identify with. I knew all four of my grandparents, and all four were pretty typically American, if that can be said of anyone. Even my grandmother on my mother’s side, who was actually born in Poland and immigrated to the U.S. as a child, spoke unaccented English and served me macaroni and cheese and sandwiches on Wonder Bread. It is from her mother though, my great-grandmother on my mother’s side, that I have some understanding of my Ukrainian background. 

My great-grandmother escaped to Poland from the Ukraine, while pregnant with my grandmother, during the Bolshevik Revolution. She left behind a husband and a son, both of whom were killed under Stalin’s regime. When my grandmother was 5, they got on a boat to the new world. They sailed under the Statue of Liberty on their way to Ellis Island, where they went through immigration and entered the United States. Because there was a small Ukrainian community in Washington D.C., and because my great-grandmother’s sister was already there, they got on a train from New York and headed directly there. We’ve been there ever since. In fact I grew up in the house my great-grandmother and her husband built (how many people have a step-great-grandfather?). My great-grandmother lived until I was about 12, and since we lived in the same house, I knew her well. She worked as a seamstress for the priests at Georgetown University for many years, she liked beer, was an excellent cook, was a very strong woman and a proud American citizen. Her English was accented, but flawless. Growing up with her around, though, I was connected in many ways to her Ukrainian traditions. That is why the Ukrainian side of my heritage is the only ethnicity that I can really identify with. 

Through this connection, I was baptized into the Russian Orthodox Church as a child. While it is definitely a part of the 70% Christian majority here in the U.S., the Eastern Orthodox make up less than one half of 1% of the population, placing us somewhere just behind the Hindus and Buddhists. The Eastern Orthodox churches and services are beautiful and deeply rooted in ritual and tradition. There is a lot of gold, the priests wear heavy and severe vestments and plenty of incense fills the air. The majority of the services are sung and chanted but with no accompanying instrumentation. It really is quite something to see if you never have. Except for the English which is used in varying degrees based on the congregation, you could very easily believe you’d been transported back to the old country. Eastern Orthodox weddings are particularly beautiful, and have actually crept into popular culture a few times. You can see a Russian Orthodox wedding in this clip from The Deer Hunter (CLICK HERE), or a Greek Orthodox wedding in My Big Fat Greek Wedding (CLICK HERE). 

At no time during the year, however, are you more aware of the difference between being Eastern Orthodox and being a mainstream Christian than at Easter. More often than not, we actually celebrate the holiday on a different day than most Christians. The date for Easter changes every year, and falls on the Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox. In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, though, we will not celebrate it before or during Passover which usually means we are celebrating Easter several weeks after everyone else. The key benefit of this is that you can get all of your Easter candy on sale during these weeks! It was always very strange as a child to tell people we hadn’t celebrated Easter over the weekend that they had. As a child it was weird and uncomfortable, but as an adult I think it’s pretty cool. It’s funny how as we get older we can celebrate our differences more easily and comfortably.  

Standing Room Only

So while last week I went and had the wonderful experience of celebrating Easter with a sunrise service at a Baptist Church, this weekend I sought out an Eastern Orthodox church to celebrate “our Easter”. After Googling “Eastern Orthodox Churches in South Carolina”, I was very happy to come across St. John of the Ladder in Piedmont, just outside of Greenville. Not only did they have an updated calendar with the Easter service times on their website, but the service would be mostly in English, something I had never experienced before. 

So last Saturday night, at 11:15pm, I pulled into the parking lot at St. John of the Ladder. When I walked in, it felt both familiar and different in a strange way that I’ve never experienced in any church before. Our churches in Washington D.C. are pretty big – the one we attend, St. Sophia, can seat several thousand people – and this one was very small. It was also very crowded with standing room only space for the 150 or so people who were there. While our churches at home have been purpose built, St. John’s was a converted Methodist church, with a very simple exterior. The interior was very Orthodox, though, with a large altar area behind a wall of icons (religious paintings), which we call the “Iconostasis”. There were also many beautiful flowers around to celebrate the day, the most important of the Orthodox holy days, which we call Pascha. I was also surprised to see many people wearing some form of traditional clothing from their home countries. There were women in headscarves and in middle eastern dresses and men wearing robes and eastern European shirts. There were also southern bow ties and men with long beards which could have been either Russian or Hipster, I couldn’t tell.   
When I entered, a cantor was chanting and I picked up a candle and made my way into the corner by the Iconostasis. The service begins in total darkness, and with the chanting and the way people were dressed and the simple building and the rain beating on the windows, I really was transported for a minute to a different time and place. It felt like I was back in Russia, meeting in secret under cover of darkness to celebrate our ancient traditions. It was pretty special. 

St. John's Priest in his Vestments

Then from behind the altar, the priest emerges with one candle. He shares the flame with others and soon everyone is holding a lit candle and, by candlelight, the service proceeds. I won’t go into too much detail of the service here, but HERE is a reasonable quality YouTube video of an Eastern Orthodox Easter service if you want to get a better idea of what I am talking about. When it was time for the reading of the Gospel, a line of people formed to read it in their native tongue. I was absolutely blown away that it was read in 18 different languages that night. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything done in 18 different languages. It was really special to witness. Finally the priest comes out and proclaims “Christ is Risen” to which the response is “Indeed He is Risen”. He then made the same proclamation in many other languages. I was proud that I knew the response in both Russian and Greek, but it was really wonderful to hear so many other variations. 

The Holy Pascha Service is followed by The Divine Liturgy, the regular Sunday service. At the end of this service, Holy Communion is offered. In total, this combined service lasts around three and a half hours, ending around 3am. It is quite a long service, and a challenging one in many ways (now both more and less so than when I was a kid). But it is a beautiful service, and one which connects me to my own roots in ways very few other things can. It was very special, and I felt very special to be included. 

Quite a Spread!

At the conclusion of the service, the priest introduced himself to me and was very happy that I had made the effort to seek them out and join them for this special occasion. He invited me to share in the “breaking of the fast”, or the meal which traditionally follows the service. When I was young and we went to the Russian Orthodox Church, this was a part of their tradition as well. When I started attending the Greek Orthodox Church, it was so big that there was no way that this was possible. It was really wonderful to be included in this meal. After a blessing by the priests, we lined up to get a plate from the wonderful potluck dinner which the congregation had provided. Much like the traditional clothing people were wearing and the 18 Gospel readings, this table of food represented such a wonderful cross section of people and cultures. There was some good southern pork barbecue, alongside enchiladas, lamb, deviled eggs, and traditional Russian Easter bread (kulich) and a sweet Easter cheese which is really rich and amazing (paskha). These last two are dishes my mother makes at home. She learned them from my great-grandmother who brought her recipes in her head when she escaped to Poland (I never saw her use a written-down recipe once). The cover photo for this post is my mother's paskha and kulich.  It was these, more than anything else, which touched my heart and made me so grateful to have found such wonderful people to celebrate this holiday with. 

1 Person Had To Step Out, So 18 Languages

I left the church sometime between 4 and 5am, exhausted but very fulfilled both physically and spiritually. As I thought about it, I thought of all of the different clothing styles and languages and foods and how we had all come together to celebrate the day. The service was in English, our common language, but the traditions of the night came from where the people came from. And despite the clothing, and the different languages, and the fact that we were meeting on what would seem to most to be a random Saturday night at midnight, despite these things, we were allowed to freely and openly practice our religion in the way we chose. Not taking any of this for granted, all of these people came together from all of these places and celebrated this special day. It seemed like one of the most American events I have ever participated in. Not the commercial America of today, but the America that was founded on the freedoms of speech and religion, the great melting pot, the America my great-grandmother arrived in on a boat with the hope that her daughter would never experience the fear and tragedy of her own life. The night was a celebration of her, and all those like her, who came to this country seeking freedom and opportunity. 

I am an American, born and raised. I rarely think of myself as anything but an American. I have had a pretty easy life in this country, all things considered, and I’m grateful for it. And while I eat turkey on Thanksgiving and blow things up on the 4th of July and think of these as the things we have in common, I also like celebrating those things which make us unique. And whether it’s St. Patrick’s Day, Mardi Gras, or in this case, my case, Pascha, it is these differences which make this country truly special and unique. I was incredibly grateful to find such a wonderful group to celebrate with and remind me of where I came from. 

Some of the photos in this post have been borrowed from the official Facebook page of St. John of the Ladder. As a guest, I did not take my camera out except at the breaking of the fast.