We entered the dark and crowded sanctuary as part of a steady stream of worshipers coming out of the night from the parking lot, across the street, and down the sidewalks. In the dim light, I could barely make out icons on the side walls and icons across the front of the sanctuary (iconostasis). The only light came from behind the iconostasis which dimly lit the ceiling and a drawing of Jesus looking down, presumably from heaven upon the worshipers gathered in the sanctuary. The faint smell of frankincense hung in the air. Everyone was silent except for a few barely audible whispers.
After a few minutes the silence was broken by the chanting of psalms from behind the iconostasis. Beginning with Psalm 50 (51 by the Western Psalter) and continuing psalm after psalm after psalm, we continued to sit in silence and darkness. Having no idea what to expect at this service, my anticipation slowly built as the minutes went on. My wife and grown daughter became restless next to me (we left the little ones at home since the service didn't start until nearly midnight) as did a few others through the sanctuary. Still the chanting continued.
What was going to happen next? When was it going to happen? How long did this service last?
As my own anticipation and expectation built, I couldn't help think my own feelings very much matched those of Jesus' original disciples that first Easter weekend. They expected something big to happen but didn't exactly understand what or when. They sat around in the darkness, wondering what would happen next. They probably consoled themselves after the crucifixion of Jesus by singing psalms, maybe even the ones we were hearing, likely using similar tunes to those eerily filling the sanctuary right then.
Then, suddenly, a light appeared behind the iconostasis! The veil was taken down, and the priest appeared with a lit triple candle blazing in the darkness. With singing by the whole congregation, each person's candle was light until the entire sanctuary was filled with light (think Western Christmas Eve service), and we processed outside of the church to bring the light of Christ into the darkness! Again and again, the priest said and we responded: “Christ is risen!” He said it in Greek, English, and a couple other languages I did not understand—to which the faithful responded each time. All the while the church bell was rung over and over and over.
After this, the priest read the Gospel account of the resurrection of Jesus. Then we sang again and again: "Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!"
From sitting solemnly in silence and darkness to rejoicing in the cool evening in candlelight, the setting and feel of the service changed dramatically from start to finish. As this church meets in a converted home in a residential neighborhood, the crowd grew in size as some curious passersby joined in the celebration. One homeless man, pushing everything he owned in a small cart, stood just outside the light in the shadows until he was ushered into the small crowd—his smiling face lit by the candles of those who surrounded him.
What an awesome picture of the light of Christ coming into the world after conquering death and bringing light to the darkness. Christ is risen: truly, Christ is risen!