Pascha is celebrated wherever Christians live. Today, the Senior Priest of the Synodal Cathedral of Our Lady “of the Sign” of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, Protopriest Andrei Sommer, talks about this tradition.
– We celebrate Pascha by and large in the same way as in Russia—we preserved the ancient Orthodox traditions. Pascha is the main holiday of the year, it unites all Russian Orthodox Christians. It is special for us living in America, too, because we are under the strong influence of the spirit of Western civilization, and it is difficult to preserve our faith and our traditions.
The church temples and our holidays unite all of the Russians living in the USA. We take the preparations for Pascha seriously, and await it with enthusiasm. There are slight differences in traditions, but they all depend on the specific parish. Icantellyouaboutmyownexperiences .
When I was still a boy, I served as an acolyte in the Church of All Russian Saints in Burlingame, CA, and the Paschal services were always a great joy for me to participate in. Especially since the parish rector was always a mitred protopriest, for instance, Fr Nicholas Masich and Fr Alexei Ionov from the Pskov Mission, whose story was the basis of the movie Pop .
I remember Fr Alexei’s last Paschal service. He was already old and ill, but still he went on the procession of the cross with us, though it was hard for him. We always had a great number of people in church on Pascha, it was overfilled, and people had to stand outside.
In addition to the usual Paschal traditions, our parish had another rare custom: during the singing of the Paschal canon, the priest would emerge from the altar wearing different colored vestments in turn. That is, during the first canon, he would wear a white phelonion, during the second, a red one, then gold, and finally for the ninth canon, a light blue one. This symbolizes the unification of all the holidays, that is, it shows that Pascha is the feast day of feast days. Of course, people’s mood is elevated, everyone is elated.
While studying in Holy Trinity Seminary in Jordanville, NY, Pascha was celebrated a bit differently. This was a monastic Pascha, more strict, with longer services—the main emphasis was on the spiritual edification of the seminarians.
Later, Bishop Mitrophan (Znosko-Borovsky) ordained me in 1994, and I served as a priest in Chicago’s cathedral for five years. In the 1990’s, there was a wave of new Russian immigrants to America, and a thousand people would attend Paschal service.
I remember one spring when Mstislav Rostropovich visited Chicago. He came to Paschal Divine Liturgy right after performing in a concert, and stood throughout the service, and then shared our Paschal feast. It was great to talk to him—a real Paschal gift for all of us!
Now, for the last fifteen years, I serve at the Synodal Cathedral of Our Lady “of the Sign” in New York. A lot of people come to Paschal services. Still, it isn’t like it used to be—new parishes have opened in the area: Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, and many people go there now.
-Are there any different traditions from those celebrated during Pascha in Russia?
– We have our own traditions, but they aren’t American per se, they are the ones that the emigres brought with them and were preserved thanks to the love people had for their faith and culture.
There probably aren’t any major differences. I can share a few, though. For instance, on Palm Sunday we bless and distribute not only pussy-willow branches but palm leaves, too. That is, we preserved the Russian tradition (palms don’t grow in Russia), but the direct tradition from the Gospel is from how palm fronds were laid before Christ during His entrance into Jerusalem.
On Great Thursday , bishops perform the rite of washing of feet.
We bless kuliches, cheese paschas, eggs, all after Divine Liturgy on Pascha itself. If we do it before the services, when the holiday has not come yet, for Christ has not yet risen according to the calendar. The troparion is not yet being sung during the blessing. You’d like for the words “Christ is Risen” to be sung during the blessing.
Of course, we don’t refuse those who prefer to have their food blessed before Pascha. Unfortunately, some people come to church only to have their kuliches blessed and don’t stay for the services. We try to explain to them that Pascha does not mean having kuliches blessed, it is the celebration of the Resurrection of Christ, and most importantly, it is time for communing of the Holy Gifts. But it doesn’t always have any effect. Actually, I have seen more than once how kuliches are brought to be blessed, along with cheese pascha and eggs all decorated with fake flowers. Also, we do bless meat according to tradition.
Oh, and another thing: the Gospel is read in various languages in America, in Russian, in English, if the priest speaks the languages, of course. In our cathedral, they read it in four or five languages, including Greek and French.
Also, there is another tradition here; everyone’s home is open on Pascha Sunday and Bright Monday ; the tables are set with festive meals, people visit each other to bring Paschal greetings and celebrate together.
How do they prepare for Pascha in your parish?
– Likeeverywhereelse . Before Pascha we observe Great Lent. On the first three days of Passion Week we celebrate Liturgy. Our cathedral is headed by the First Hierarch of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, His Eminence Metropolitan Hilarion of Eastern America and New York, and if he is in America, he officiates at the services. The cathedral choir sings under the direction of Peter Fekula—it is really worth coming to hear!
Liturgy is also celebrated on Great Thursday . That evening, the crucifix is brought out, and the Twelve Gospels are read. On Great Friday morning, we read the royal hours, and the parishioners prepare the church for the bringing out of the Shroud: they clean the church and decorate it. At about mid-day, vespers begin and the Shroud is brought out, and that evening, we read the “Lamentation of the Most-Holy Mother of God” and the matins with a procession of the Shroud around the cathedral.
On Great Saturday morning, we have a long service ending with the blessing of bread and wine for the parishioners. On Saturday evening, the people come with kuliches—we have four priests who take turns blessing them. At about 10-11 o’clock , the reading of the Acts of the Holy Apostles begins, followed by the midnight office. At midnight , we hold the Paschal procession. After the services, the clergy and parishioners share a Paschal trapeza feast, like a big family.