This was originally posted at Various Stages of Mormondom. If Russell can do it, so can I!
It is always dark in Russian cathedrals and churches. They don’t go much for interior lighting. That said, there are plenty of candles, so you don’t stumble over other people. There are also no chairs. The devoted stand, the less-devoted leave mass early. Finally, all singing is a capella. It is also all beautiful, often sung by a choir standing in the back of the nave, usually wearing a grubby collection of their everyday clothes.
I went to a Russian church for a midnight mass once. I went with a group of elders and sisters from my mission. One of them was from St. Petersburg and she assured us that she would keep us out of trouble. We got permission from our mission president, in a sort of roundabout way, and we gathered together in two apartments, one for elders and one for sisters, in order to prepare for the event.
This was to be a no talking, no tag, non-proselyting excursion. We just wanted to be with a bunch of Russian worshiping the resurrection of Christ. I had never been to a mass before and I haven’t been to one since. We gathered in the nave, huddled together, tried to look like we fit in, failed, and enjoyed the music and the incense. Candles were everywhere; it was the brightest I had ever seen the interior of a Russian Orthodox Church. The priest and the various other religious functionaries ran through their parts. The priest seemed a little bored. The choir seemed tired (though the music was still beautiful). It was an interesting experience. One of the elders joined the congregants on one of the seven perambulations about the church, holding a candle and scandalizing the Russian sister. None of that is the primary reason that I remember that mass.
The Russians have a tradition. I don’t know where it went while Communism ruled, but it was back when I returned to Russia. On Easter, instead of saying Hello to people, you say, “Christ is Resurrected” (Christos Voskres), to which the person you said it to responds, “Truly Resurrected” (Voistinnye Voskresye). It’s pretty cool. At the mass, this call and response were repeated several times throughout the night. One of the deacons in particular had the duty of calling out the response. He was a huge man, probably 6′4″ and over 250 lbs. He had a great graying beard down to the middle of his chest that stood out against the black robes he wore. His head was uncovered and his gray hair fell down to the middle of his neck. His eyes shined and his mouth was permanently in a wide, ecstatic grin. He held the big ball of incense and swung it as he walked. Whenever the priest would announce “Christ is Resurrected,” this deacon would respond “Voistinnye Voskresye.” He got happier each time he said it.
I don’t know this man, I don’t know his life, I don’t know if he is alive or dead. I do know this: He knew Christ. He loved Christ. There was nothing on this earth that he wanted to do more than to sing Christ’s praises. As I watched him that night, the joy that he clearly felt in shouting Christ’s resurrection infused me, too. No-one who saw him that night could fail to believe, I think. His testimony, shouted over and over again (Voistinnye Voskresye), lingers with me still. Whenever I picture true belief, it is his face I picture. That is a man who knew God. Sometime I hope to shout Voistinnye Voskresye with the same sincerity, integrity, and intensity of belief that he displayed. In the meantime, I shall muddle through in my own way, but he will remain to me a model of simple, humble, exultant, and electric faith.
Christos Voskres. Voistinnye Voskresye. Amen.