Window on the World : Easter Russian Style

I first experienced Easter Russian style when I was a sixth-form student and went to spend Holy Week with the Russian Orthodox Community in Paris. I remember how dark the church was when we arrived for the beginning of the Easter Liturgy on Saturday evening. The congregation stood around a coffin covered with a black cloth and the music was gloomy and depressing. It was actually a welcome relief when we were all led out of the church and began to process around the cemetery. Despite the pouring rain, people were standing by the graves of their loved ones holding lighted candles. When we got back to the main church doors for the third time (symbolizing the third day) the priest went in on his own, closing the doors behind him, and leaving us outside. A few minutes later, he threw the doors open to reveal a church blazing with light and joyfully proclaimed to the waiting crowd “Alleluia! Christ has risen!”

Several years later, in 1992, I was in Moscow for the first Easter that had been openly celebrated in Russia since the 1917 revolution. I decided to go to one of the main Orthodox churches in the city to experience the Russian Easter Liturgy for the second time in my life. When I emerged from the nearest metro station, I was met by a cordon of police who were only allowing invited guests through to the church. I felt deeply for the babushki (grannies) who had spent most of their life faithfully waiting for this day, but whose place in their beloved sanctuary had been usurped by politicians and other public figures for whom religious belief had suddenly become fashionable.

For the last three years, I have had the privilege of celebrating Easter with the people called Methodist in the Russian city of Pskov. They are truly Easter people with a resurrection story. Methodism had a presence in Russia back in the nineteenth century and rose again after the collapse of the communist regime. Pskov United Methodist Church will soon be celebrating her fifteenth anniversary. We have about 60 adult members plus 30 children and young people. We run Disciple and Wisdom for Mothers courses and five of our members have been on a Walk to Emmaus in Memphis, Tennessee in preparation for the expected launch of the Emmaus Community in Russia in 2008.

The first Easter I was here, we had no sanctuary of our own and were worshipping in a room in a children’s centre which was generally used for dance classes! Mirrors ran along the length of one of the walls and made the preacher feel as though the congregation was twice as big as it actually was! Later that year, we were expelled from the premises because we were seen as a dangerous sect and my second Easter in Pskov was celebrated in the concert hall of a music- school. In 2006, we were at long last able to “do” Easter in our own building for the first time ever and this was a truly beautiful and memorable occasion - as you can see from the photos accompanying this article.

The life of the Methodist community in Pskov often feels very close to the experience of the first Easter people in the Gospels. There is a sense in which we meet behind locked doors for fear of the prevailing religious culture (John 20:19). Our current church building is the second serious attempt to buy land and build. The first attempt was abandoned when the Orthodox Church successfully put pressure on the local council to block our application for gas pipes. The property we now have is officially registered as a private house and so we cannot put a cross or even a sign outside to proclaim who we are! This makes it difficult for us to advertise our presence in the town but thankfully the congregation is still growing through heart to heart evangelism.

The primary witnesses of the resurrection in Russian Methodism are women (John 20:11-18). Most of the members, pastors and even District Superintendents are female. Many of them continue to stand at the foot of the cross during the week and seek the body of Christ on Sunday mornings even when their men-folk refuse to accept their testimony and place obstacles in their way. During the Communist era, many street names in the Soviet Union were changed to honour new role models and erase the memory of the religious and cultural icons of the past. In Moscow, many streets have now reverted to their pre-revolutionary names – but this process has yet to affect Pskov. The road on which our church office is situated is now called Communal Street, for example, but used to be called Women Myrrh-Bearers Street. Methodist women (and men!) are doing their best to make their experience of the Risen Lord a communal one, but the stone of atheism concealed the empty tomb for two generations and cannot be instantly rolled away.

Nevertheless, the Russian Orthodox Church now has such an impact on society that my insistence in my second year in Pskov that the people called Methodists celebrate Easter according to the Western calendar was a big mistake! All the shops were geared up to the Eastern calendar and we were unable to find at the relevant time the goods we needed for our fasting and feasting. It is perhaps no coincidence that the Russian word for Sunday (voskresenye) is also the Russian word for resurrection. This word never died even when the voice of the church was officially silenced and has continuously witnessed throughout Russian history to the eternal truth of the Easter gospel.

Category: