Voistinnye Voskresye

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.

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  1. Thank you, John. I loved the Easter we were with Russians. Christos Voskres!

  2. This is one of my favorite memories of studying in Russia. Even after the Easter mass, for a few weeks afterward, friends would greet each other with the same declaration and response: Christ is risen! In truth, he is risen!

    That’s always been awesome to me.

    Христос воскрес!

  3. Amen.

  4. Да, он воскрес!

  5. How wonderful! This makes me think of the true believers in Dostoyevsky’s books. And Kazantzakos’ mention of the mother blessing her baby with the sign of the cross when she saw it smile. He asked why did she do that? She answered that God feels the same way when a straying sinner returns as a mother feels upon seeing her baby’s first smile.

    My son speaks Russian as his first language. I just sent him the Христос воскрес! I hope he responds to it. =)

  6. I loved Easter in the East.

    Reminds me of a funny joke I heard in Russia:

    KGB official (chinovnik) rushing early in the morning to a meeting.
    First custodian (stereotypically elderly women with handmade brooms) greets him with a Khristos Voskres. He rushes past her.
    Another custodian greets him the same way, and he rushes on.
    Finally a third salutes him, and, brusquely, he responds “Yes, I’ve been informed” (Mne uzhe soobshchili; sort of like “I got the memo already.”)
    May we be more the custodian and less the politician this Easter season.

  7. Great Story! Thanks.

  8. Thanks for this post, John and smb for the joke.

    My wife wrote her dissertation on medieval pilgrimage to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. We’ve spent many hours in this church, observing pilgrims from around the world come to worship at the place many believe Christ was buried and resurrected. It’s sometimes rather easy to spot the differences of those who come as tourists, tourist worshipers, and genuine “pilgrimage” worshipers. Most recently we visited the site over a number of days during the last Christmas holidays and were moved by the devotion of so many.

    The final afternoon we were in Jerusalem we took last pass by the Church before we left the city. There happened to be a large group of Russian Pilgrims outside the Church. We heard a reasonably loud “Christos Voskres” from one of the clerics leading the group, followed by a thunderous “Voistinnye Voskresye” from the pilgrims. They then entered the Church and eventually lined up to enter the small door that leads to the tomb. They sang hymns with the traditional Russian melodies and harmonies (including the wonderful bass sound). As they waited to enter the tomb a few at a time (and to emerge from the tomb to the place of resurrection, most visibly moved to tears), the shout went out again “Christos Voskres” followed by “Voistinnye Voskresye” that resounded through the Church. We felt blessed to have observed this.

    These were no casual pilgrims.

  9. Mark Brown says:

    I am glad you re-posted this, John, because I missed it the first time around.

    What a great memory that must be for you!

  10. “Finally, all singing is a capella. It is also all beautiful, often sung by a choir standing in the back of the nave.”

    My wife and I visited Russia four years ago and spent a weekend in St. Petersburg. On Sunday morning we went to St Isaac’s Cathedral and while gazing upward at the voluminous space I heard a choir that sounded as though it must be 200 hundred voices of actual angels. Then finally I stumbled across a small group in one of the smaller side chapels within the church and included in the group was the small choir of about 15 people. I couldn’t understand a word they were singing (because I don’t speak Russian) but their music was as beautiful as anything I’ve ever heard and their volume was overwhelming.

  11. nasamomdele says:

    I always loved Easter in Russia. I never anticipated Easter before serving there, but I found the customary exchange days before and days after to be very inspiring, and conveyed a genuinely shared warmth for the holiday and for Christ.

    Воистинну Воскрес!!!

    The memories shared here have taken me back to many of the places I so enjoyed as a missionary (Samara) and as a tourist (St. Petersburg).

    Great joke. That’s a rather popular one. And one of the few Russian jokes that crosses cultures.

  12. beautiful memory