Sunday, May 1, 2011

Paschal Reflections

No posts lately because it's the insane time of year.

Holy Week and Pascha (what's sometimes called Orthodox Easter) are a whirlwind of activity, with 23-26 (depending on how you count) church services, each 1-3 hours long, crammed into ten days.

Since I'm the protopsaltis in our parish, I take the week off from gainful employment and work instead for the benefit of my church family and my own soul. This year, Lent, Holy Week, and Pascha were a study in stark contrast.

We've been without a permanent priest for several years, but our bishop has always provided extra services during Great Lent. Until this year. We started Lent with no priest and we struggled through Lent with no priest. We had exactly one Liturgy during all of Lent. My family and I intended to go to services during the week at the local Russian church ("local" meaning it's only a half hour drive away), but we got terribly sick for three weeks... half of Lent. This, by far, was the hardest Lent I've ever been through. At first, we had a light at the end of the tunnel, because a priest from California that we know and love was planning to come up and be with us for Holy Week and Pascha. Then, half-way through Lent, his mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer and was given six weeks to live. Even still, he told the bishop that he would still come to Alaska to serve us, but the bishop told him to take care of his mother. As much as I completely agreed with the bishop's decision, I have not felt so stunned and dismayed except twice in my life: one was the first time a close friend was killed in a car accident, and the other was when a family member revealed they were fighting a terminal disease.

Strangely, I never challenged God in all of this. I'm hardly Job, but maybe years of reading about him is finally starting to wear off. As befuddled as I was that day Fr. Stephen called to say he couldn't come, I somehow knew and took some comfort in the knowledge that God had His reasons and that He would reveal them when and if He chose to do so.

Then the call came that a replacement priest was being sent up. Guarded relief: he's a young priest from the People's Democratic Republic of Kalifornia. So I found him and his wife on Buttface Facebook and her stated political views made me even more concerned. Ah well, they're just coming for a week, right? Then I talked to him on the phone. For an hour. He and I just clicked. We had two more hour-plus conversations over the next week. I was still concerned about how his wife might fit in, and I was even more concerned that not everyone in the parish would respond to him as positively as I had. In fact, one person was annoyed that we were being sent an Arab, and another was not happy that he's relatively young. I bit my tongue and reminded myself, "We're getting a priest for Holy Week and Pascha."

Palm Sunday procession
The day finally arrived, and my brother-in-law, Pete and I drove into the airport to pick them up. By the end of the drive back to Wasilla, Pete and I were in love. Fr. Ephraim is young and energetic, but also very mature and amazingly intelligent. His wife is sweet, and it turns out she's very musically talented. Their one-year-old daughter is gorgeous. Every day that passed further cemented the relationship; I believe they are everything this parish needs in a priest's family. My wife began weeping one night and told me that Presbytera (what we call a priest's wife) is the first priest's wife to openly love and adore our parish in a decade. They loved it here. They said their daughter had never been so happy as she was those 13 days they were here. Presbytera said they had never felt so loved and appreciated since Fr. had been ordained. By the end of their stay, Fr. Ephraim was already openly trying to figure out how they can get up here, and when the bishop visited on Holy Thursday, he told the parish that he was giving Fr. Ephraim the option of moving here. Our boys were excited to be able to serve in the altar again, and Fr. Ephraim told my wife that he wants to be buried here, and that he wants to be buried by two of the most fervent altar servers.

Fr. Ephraim on Pascha
Initially, there was some understandable reticence on the part of several parishioners to get their hopes up again. We've been through the wringer so many times, that it's hard not to be cynical about ever getting a priest. However, by the time they left, even the most stubborn people in the parish were in love. My wife cried on and off for the last several days of their visit, as did Presbytera. Everyone seemed to agree that this was the best Holy Week and Pascha we had ever had; not just at this parish, but each of us individually had never experienced such a blessed Holy Week and joyous Pascha. Even our local man's man, the "grandpa" and loveable curmudgeon of the community, whose skills make the rest of us men feel like little boys, and who exemplifies reserved machismo, gave Fr. Ephraim a HUG goodbye.

God knows best, of course. It could be that this is another test of our faith. It could be our lot to be the parish that breaks in new priests (five now have served their first Pascha as a priest here); if so, He is the Potter, we are the clay.Worst case is that we've met another priest in our archdiocese that loves us and will pray for us whether he's assigned here in the end or not. Still, I have to hope that this beautiful family will be with us before the end of the year. Either way, God will be glorified.

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