203My wife Janet, daughter Elyse, mother-in-law Doris and I arrived in Tbilisi in the Republic of Georgia on Wednesday, May 3rd.   We had flown from Kansas City via Chicago and Munich.   We’ve come to Tbilisi because Janet is doing her sabbatical project with a University here.  We’ll be in Tbilisi until May 25th.

Beyond getting acclimated to this extraordinary city and people, I had the special opportunity to experience the Eastern Orthodox celebration of Easter Sunday which was held today, May 5th.  In talking with Janet’s Georgian colleagues, I learned that the main Easter service takes place around midnight, at the first stroke of Easter.  Like at home, Easter services are packed, so I was advised to go early.

093I set out from our apartment by 9:45 p.m. and took a cab to the Sioni Cathedral.  Most Georgian Orthodox churches are named after places in the Holy Land – so this is “Zion Cathedral.”  I had three assumptions about what I was going to experience.  I expected (1) that we would stand for the entire service, (2) that the service would be completely in Georgian, and (3) that the service would be about two hours long.   Two of my assumptions would be correct.

The cab wound it’s way toward the Old City of Tbilisi and dropped me off by the cathedral.  People were gathering in the court around the cathedral.   I bought a candle for 3 lari ($2) and made my way to the church entrance.

It was about 10:15 p.m. when I entered church which dates from the 13th century.  (The original structure on the site was constructed in the 4th century.)   The cathedral is a soaring space with 005high, vaulted ceilings.  It’s in the shape of a Greek cross, so the four parts of the cross-shaped floor plan are equal sized (without a long nave associated with western churches).   The front “leg” of the church, where the chancel was located, was separated from the rest of the sanctuary by a tall choir screen which had two tall silver doors in the center, which were closed.  The walls of the cathedral at eye height are covered with framed icons – pictures of Christ or saints.  (The patron saint of Georgia is St. George – accounting for the name of the country and the fact that seemingly half of all men are called Georgi.)    Looking up, the walls and ceilings are painted with scenes from the life of Christ and pictures of the disciples and saints.

004There were no benches or chairs in the church.   In the center of the sanctuary was a large coffin draped with an embroidered cloth with shapes of saints, or might they be images of Christ?   Along the floor around the coffin are collections of flowers and red eggs – a Lenten tradition in Georgia.   As I stood there, a continual stream of people entered the church and bent down to kiss the embroidered cloth.

Many people in the sanctuary were reading from a prayer book as they awaited the start of the service.  The sanctuary was in subdued lighting as the magnificent chandelier above us was not yet turned on.  So a number of people were reading by the light of their candles.  I 002was particularly struck by one lady who had inserted her candle in a hole in the spine of her prayer book to read.   The candles didn’t drip!

Expecting that the service would be in Georgian, I had brought my Presbyterian prayer book along with me.  As we waited for the service to begin, I joined those reading from their sacred texts and read through the Service for the Resurrection.

The cathedral continued to fill until it was packed with perhaps 500 people standing side by side.  I had a good place, towards the front of the sanctuary.   Then at 11:00 p.m., the main chandelier was alit and a number of priests come out and offered some prayers, signaling the beginning of the service.  People crossed themselves, and as part of the crossing, reached down and touched the floor.

A younger priest (or a priest in training?) came to a lectern that was placed in the center of the sanctuary and began to sing, like a cantor, from a prayer book.  After 15 minutes of singing, he was having some difficulty with the higher notes.  He pulled out his cell phone and appeared to send a text while he was still singing.    In a few minutes someone else appeared brining a glass of water.  He would continue to sing the liturgy for another half hour.

025At one point, more priests came out carrying a wooden board and slid it under the embroidered cloth that rested upon the coffin in the middle of the church.  They carried the cloth forward on the board, the doors in the middle of the choir screen opened, and they carried it through to the chancel.  Eight other priests came out, lifted up the coffin with some effort, and carried it off toward the back of the church.  Others removed the flowers, the red eggs and other items that had surrounded the coffin.

It was midnight.  The church bells start ringing loudly, a men’s choir behind the screen began singing in rich, deep tones.  Then a priest emerged carrying a cross and 026leading a procession.  Behind him, the lead priest swung incense with silver bells clanging as he swung it from side to side.  Behind them came about another 6 priests and ten priest assistants – all carrying icons.   Some of the icons were so large that it took two men to carry them.    Following the priests came the men’s choir, singing in the gorgeous tones you may have heard in recordings from Gregorian chants.

The procession made it’s way through the crowd as people, already packed in, squeezed back to allow the priests to pass.  The priests walked through the church and out the cathedral doors and into the courtyard, incense swinging and choir singing all the 045way.  I could hear their singing as they processed further away from the cathedral.   How wonderful that on the stroke of midnight, at the opening moments of Easter, the church carries the cross out into the world!

Everyone inside the church waited in silence.  After 20 minutes, the procession returned and entered back into the church.   As the priests passed by with the icons, people reached out to touch or kiss the icons.

After the icons were returned behind the screen, the lead priest came back out carrying a small cross mounted with candles and swinging incense.   He came forward to the people and said in 053Georgian “Christi asta!”  — which clearly was “Christ is risen!”   All the gathered then responded with a Georgian phrase that I assume meant “He is risen indeed!”   The priest then said again “Christi Asta!”  and the crowd responded louder. “He is risen indeed!”  A third time, the priest called out “Christi Asta” and the people shouted in response “He is risen indeed!”  The priest motioned to the people and the light of Christ was spread throughout the church.

Immediately, the men’s choir soared into a full throated song that filled the cathedral with magnificent melodic tones that separated and resolved as an organ will often do.   The people sang along – it was transcendent.  Then a second choir of men and women in the back of the church sang in response.  The two choirs went back and forth for 10 minutes.   Then one of the priest assistants came out to read further from the prayer book.  The two choirs at different points sang in response.

Then another of the main priests came out from behind the screen with same the candle-illumined cross, and  called out “Christi Asta!”  The congregation replied in Georgian “He is risen!”   “Christi Asta!” “He is risen!”  “Christi Asta!”  “Christ is risen!”   The choir launched into spectacular voice again, the second choir responded, and another priest assistant came out for 10 minutes of readings.

This cycle repeated 7 more times.

During this time of readings and song, the head Priest came out and invited people, one at a time, to come forward for what appeared to be either a time of confession or request for a blessing.  People handed him written notes and spoke to him.  He then draped his wide stole over their head in a ritualized way, leaned in to whisper to them, and then tapped their heads with his fingers as if he was crossing them.   He would uncover their heads, have a few more words, and then they would return to the congregation.   With one woman, it suddenly struck me that the priest used his stole in this way to also create a private space with the person who had come forward.

070It was around 2:00 a.m. and the head priest came out with the Bible, read a passage, and then swung the incense out toward the people in what I understood as a blessing of the people.  At this point, most of the assembled had been standing for three to four hours.   With this blessing, I wondered if we were wrapping up.   But then another priest assistant came out to do more readings, the choirs began again, and the people sang.

It was amazing.  I looked behind me to see all the people.  I had seen no one leave.

Then some priest assistants came out to remove the lectern that was in the middle of the sanctuary.  Ah, perhaps now?  And then they went to extinguish the candles that were illuminating some of the icons hanging on the choir screen.  But then oddly, as soon as they extinguished them, they relit them!

077Then, the head priest came forward carrying something covered by some cloth.  I wasn’t sure what it was until he came closer.  Oh my gosh!  They’re communion chalices!  We’re going to have communion yet!  And then I thought, “Well, of course we are!”  One never has a Catholic – or Orthodox mass, without communion.   That’s also why no one had left.

I wondered how they were going to serve communion.   We had already experienced in a number of ways how delightful the Georgian people are.  But as Janet and I had observed, they can drive a bit wildly, and even as pedestrians don’t always seem to yield.   When our airplane had landed in Tbilisi a few days ago, we had to force our way into the aisle to be able to deplane!   So what would communion be like?

It had also struck me that this service had so far been highly liturgical.  Many, many readings and choral songs and responses.  But at that point, the head priest came forward with just an assistant with a microphone.  No lectern, no prayer book.  He drew close to the people, and began 080to speak.  It was 2:50 a.m.  His voice was different.  I then realized — he’s starting to preach.  That’s when the profound nature of this experience perhaps struck me most.  As a pastor, a preacher myself, I was just awed that here we were – it was 3:00 in the morning! – people had been standing in place for at least 4 hours! – and yet the entire church was hushed and riveted upon the words of the priest.  I can only understand a handful of words in Georgian, so the word-to-word meaning of the priest’s sermon was beyond me.    And yet, it was clear that he was preaching with urgency and passion about the resurrection of our Lord.  He preached until 3:30 a.m.

By now, I had given up attempting to anticipate when the service would end.  Perhaps they’ll go til sunrise?

Then the priests came out from behind the screen with the communion chalices.  They went to different sections of the cathedral.  The choir, meanwhile, was in full song.

I was close to the front and center and that’s where one of the lead priests came to stand, holding a chalice.  Immediately, there was a surge in the crowd that thrust me forward.  Assistants to the priest then pushed the crowd back.  I felt like I was on the bottom of a stack of people, except I was standing up.  It was hard to breathe we were sandwiched in so tight!   My mind went to the time that Janet and I traveled to Mexico City and took the subway, which was so jammed that they kept separate cars for men and women.

Standing around the priest was a circle of 4 assistant priests, arms around each other’s shoulders as though they were in a huddle, to hold the crowd back.   Then they would allow one person at a time to squeeze under their arms and be in a safe little open space immediately before the priest.  The congregants criss-crossed their arms over their chest so that their hands rested on their shoulders.  An assistant the priest would put a cloth under their chin and the priest, using a long spoon, would dip some wine out of the chalice and give it to the person.

What struck me as bizarre was the fact that the priest was taking FOREVER to serve each person, as the crowds kept pressing in tighter and tighter.   The priest was being so meticulous – was he oblivious to the conditions all around him?!!

Eventually I got pushed to just outside the circle of the assistants.  They lifted their arms and I was thrust into the space before the priest.  The cloth came below my chin and I opened my mouth to receive the wine.  It was then that I could see that there were tiny bits of bread floating in the wine in the chalice, and it took some doing on the part of the priest to just get one piece of bread per spoonful of wine – hence his deliberate pace. The priest gave me the elements and I replied “thanks be to God.”  He smiled, and then I was nudged out of the circle as another was let in.

Outside the circle, I was in some open space and able to check my watch.  I had received 092communion at 4:00 a.m.   Shaking off the lethargy of my limbs, I walked around the cathedral and was struck by one sight.  The service was evidently now over with communion.  But many people who had already received still remained there, standing, and reading from their prayer books.  I stepped outside the cathedral into the still dark early morning.  All around the cathedral, candles continued to burn in the stands, and people stood there, reading and praying.

It was an extraordinary experience of devotion and faith.   I’m sure that on the eve of every Easter to come in my life,   I’ll remember, and cherish, this time of worship into the early hours of the morning at the Sioni Cathedral.

095I sent a text to Janet, in case she was awake and wondering where I was, that the service was over.  I made my way out to the boulevard that borders the cathedral.  In the modern/ancient mix that is Tbilisi, I could now hear the loud pulsing music from a nightclub down the street where two police cars were parked with their lights flashing.  Then in the other direction were the bright lights of the Shangri-la Casino.

I waved for a cab, gave my destination, and hopped in.   The driver, as it turned out, was the Georgian re-incarnation of Mario Andretti and we FLEW through the streets.   Most Georgians only use seatbelts in the front and tuck the back seat belts into the creases of the seats.  So my morning of prayer wasn’t over!

But we made it safely.  At 4:45 a.m., I got into the tiny elevator of our building, inserted a coin, pressed the button for the 9th floor.  The elevator lurched into action and began the climb.   Reaching our floor, I could look out over parts of the city and see the first streaks of dawn light on this day of resurrection.

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