Xenia in Baku

The Great and Holy Pascha - 15 April, 2001

"This is the day of resurrection. Let us be illumined by the Feast."

Christ is Risen! Christ is Risen! Christ is Risen!

Dear All:

   As I sit here on this glorious day, between the midnight services and this afternoon vespers, at times fighting fatigue, I thought it would be best to start compiling all our thoughts and observations of what has transpired these past several days. I will try to touch on all our experiences; the sad, the happy, the surprises, the different traditions, and in some cases just our thoughts. I will focus mostly on that period from the Weekend of Palms through the Resurrection.

   Here in Baku we followed Christ's last days from that triumphant entry into Jerusalem, through Holy Week, the Crucifixion and finally the glorious Resurrection that we proclaimed early this morning. I cannot say that it was easy, the services were very long, all in Russian, yet somehow in the end we came away refreshed that we had experienced the Resurrection in a new light. Many times as we stood in that dark Cathedral, we could imagine being transformed back in time to when our grandparents participated in the same services. The all Russian services and traditions actually allowed a reconnection to our ancestral past and knowledge that the faith they brought to the "New World" allows us to proclaim with joy the radiant news of the Resurrection today. One can only imagine what it must have been like here only a very few years ago, when the godless regime of the Soviet Union forbade the attending of church, the ringing of the church bells, and any mention of God. God did not exist and you were persecuted for your beliefs. But Godliness triumphed over godlessness and last night those church bells rang very loudly, the Cathedral and surrounding areas were a sea of humanity, the procession did not circle the Cathedral but went out into the streets and circled the entire block, stopping traffic, and in the end the triumphant news was proclaimed, not in silence and secretiveness, but in the voices of thousands of people - Christ is Risen!

The Weekend of Palms - " By raising Lazarus form the dead ... Hosanna in the Highest..."

   This was an interesting weekend liturgically with two major feasts overlapping. Saturday, April 7 was not only Lazarus Saturday but also according to the Old Calendar, the Feast of the Annunciation. So as we proclaimed the resurrection Lazarus we also proclaimed the news of the coming of the Savior who would raise Lazarus from the dead.

  As we approached the Cathedral for Saturday evening vespers, we found out front a host of vendors selling pussy willows, green branches and flowers. Step right up and buy your branches for Palm Sunday. So as not to be without, we bought some pussy willows and entered into the Cathedral. The Cathedral was packed. All you could see towards the front was an ocean of pussy willows and branches. Vespers and Matins took about three and half-hours. Others who had grown pussy willows in their gardens also gave us branches. The blessing of the branches took place following the reading of Psalm 51. The Bishop walked through the crowded Cathedral showering everyone with holy water. We have noticed a mentality around here that everyone is afraid of missing something or being left out. So whenever there is a blessing to be bestowed or something given out, the people rush forward to try to be first. This happened with the blessing of the branches when everyone surged forward towards the Bishop. This happened again during the singing of the Canon when it was time to be anointed by the Bishop. This throng of people surged forward and it turned into a mob scene. No one could move. Absolute gridlock! Luckily being "guests", we were literally pulled through the crowd and were anointed by the Bishop. The senior priest of the Cathedral also gave us pussy willows. We have also noticed that when incidents like this happen, the reverence is lost and the atmosphere inside the Cathedral actually turns "carnival" like. People just talk and wander around with no regard to what is happening and the noise just overpowers even the singing of the choir.

   Sunday morning we proclaimed that glorious entry into Jerusalem. Again all the vendors were outside selling the branches. The Cathedral was absolutely packed, the doors could not be closed, the courtyards all around the Cathedral were packed and the people overflowed into the street. Again as you looked towards the altar all you saw was a sea of pussy willows and branches. The clergy were all vested in green for the Hierarchical Divine Liturgy. Following the end of the Liturgy we had the procession with the pussy willows and branches. I had the honor of carrying the icon during the procession. It was a miracle that a path was cleared for us to leave the Cathedral. Upon walking out the doors of the Cathedral, the scene was one that I will always remember - thousands of people in a sea of pussy willows and branches. Just unbelievable. We stopped at each side of the Cathedral and the Gospel was read and the Bishop blessed everyone and their branches with holy water. At the first stop, following the reading of the Gospel, the Bishop blessed all of us who were carrying the banners, fans, and icons and also the clergy. Let's say I was to get the blessing of my life. The Bishop took that brush full of holy water and I caught the entire down stroke of him giving the blessing in the sign of the cross. I was soaked with holy water from head to foot straight down my front, dripping off my face and hands. Also at this time, they blessed the new holy water dispenser in the front courtyard of the Cathedral. Just in time for Pascha, they have renovated the entire front courtyard with new paving stones and built a beautiful holy water dispenser. Anyway, the procession proceeded around the Cathedral with the Bishop showering everyone with holy water. When we re-entered the Cathedral, it was a Herculean task for the procession to get into the center. After we had put everything back in its place, the Bishop started blessing everyone's branches inside. There was a sudden rush towards him and I got stuck in this frantic mob of people pushing to have their branches blessed. Next thing I know, I feel this hand grabbing my arm and pulling me through the crowd. It was Fr. Sergi and he told me that you have to be careful or these people will trample you. Anyway, I ended up standing all the way up front pressed between the altar steps and the right side shrine. I found my pussy willows that I had put down for the procession and was just waiting there for the service to end when out of the altar comes Fr. Alexander. He asks if I had my pussy willows blessed and I said "no." So he takes them into the altar blesses them, comes back out and blesses me with the holy water soaked pussy willows by hitting me on the top of the head. Meanwhile in the back courtyard, priests were lined up with buckets of holy water blessing all pussy willows and branches that are brought up to them and also giving most of the people a good blessing also. The service finally ended at 1:30 after four and half-hours.

The First Three Days of Holy Week - "Behold! The bridegroom comes at midnight..."

   We discovered an interesting custom they have here at an earlier Pre-sanctified Liturgy. First of all they do not call it a Pre-sanctified Liturgy but the Liturgy of St. Gregory. Communion is not given to children under the age of seven. From what I was told, the service is a penitential service, therefore since children under seven do not participate in the sacrament of confession they do not receive communion at this service. I emailed Fr. John about whether he had any knowledge of this custom. From what he told me and putting together what I was told here, the belief is that the bread becomes the body of Christ at the previous Sunday Liturgy. The bread, although it has been sprinkled with the sanctified wine, is placed during the Pre-sanctified in un-sanctified wine. Traditionally here, small children like Xenia when they receive communion on Sundays are only given the wine. Therefore, a child if communed during the Pre-sanctified Liturgy, would only be receiving un-sanctified wine. Unfortunately we did not know about this custom so the first time we attended a Pre-sanctified Liturgy, communion was refused to Xenia. Being afraid that we might have been offended, right after the service several of the priests and deacons came running up to us to try and explain why Xenia was denied communion. Of course I explained in the United States that children receive communion at the Pre-sanctified Liturgy. One interesting comment that I heard from one of the priest was that he had heard that the American Church was no longer celebrating the Pre-sanctified Liturgy. I set that straight by showing them the service book I had. They were amazed to see the service in English. Besides the custom with communion, the services are identical right down to the music.

   The evening Bridegroom Services started at 5:00 PM. The service starts first with Compline, followed by the Bridegroom Matins, then the First Hour ending with a Panikhida. Total time three hours. Of course the attendance at the evening services is just like America, a handful of people. Following the service, the other Fr. Sergi approached me and asked about the book he saw me following. I showed him the service book and he asked whether it is common in America for people to follow the services with books? I told him that in many American parishes, congregational singing is encouraged so you need the words in front of you. I also told him that I need the book as a crutch, since the services are all in Russian, I like to follow along and know where we are in the service.

   Another side point, we were all almost thrown out of the Cathedral at the end of the service. As the Panakhida went on, the babas with their mops and buckets slowly started filtering into the Cathedral. They looked at the priest, banged their buckets down, mumbled to each other and looked again. Then they began blowing out the candles and lamps, looking pointingly towards the priest after each one. The minute that service ended they were off, wiping down all the candle stands, dusting everything, and mopping all the floors. What cleaning machines they are.

Thursday, "Of thy mystical supper,..." "Glory to thy Passion."

   Of all the things that we learned about the services here in Baku one thing is certain - everything is done by the book. If it says recite "Lord Have Mercy" 40 times, 40 are said. If it says read 12 Psalms, 12 Psalms are read. Nothing is left out but then again some things are added.

   The reading of the Passion Gospels started at 6:00 PM. Throughout Lent, the custom here has been that no electricity is used in the Cathedral. So as time passes into the evening, the Cathedral slowly gets darker and darker until only candles are providing the illumination. It was very symbolic with the service as we approached the readings for the crucifixition and death of Christ, the Cathedral was very dark. The large crucifix had been moved into the center of the Cathedral. Also due to the weather conditions, you could hear distant thunder. All the clergy stood in the middle of the church surrounding the Bishop the entire service. One thing I can say is that there are a lot of iron legs here. With the exception of the censing by the deacons no one moved, even the little boys holding the staff and candles. The Bishop read the first and twelfth readings while the rest of the time stood almost like a statue. He was also fully vested in a Cathedral that was very warm. The seven priests alternated reading the other ten readings. There was no procession with the cross as is done in many of the American churches. The music was all the traditional Russian music that we heard growing up. The singing by the choir of "Today He who hung the earth upon the waters is hung upon the cross,..." was exceptionally beautiful and moving. Part way through the service, I noticed many of the clergy and others watching me. I was standing up front just behind the Bishop with a candle reading along with my service book. Eventually one by one the Deacons would start looking over my shoulder at the service book and I would show them where we were. I guess it is the novelty of the English service books and someone actually following along with the service. We finally venerated the cross at 10:25 PM and left for home.

Great and Holy Friday, "The Noble Joseph when he had taken down Thy most pure body,..."

   The Vespers of Great and Holy Friday started at 2:00 PM. When we arrived at the Cathedral we noticed something new outside, vendors selling kulich. Step right up and get your ready-made kulich for your Paschal basket. In fact, Nia had said that she had seen street vendors selling kulich around Baku for several days. The Cathedral was full but not packed. The service was basically the same that we are used to in America with the exception that nothing is left out. The Plaschanitsa was brought out to the center of the church by eight priests holding it over the head of the Bishop. The choir's singing of "The Noble Joseph,..." was very moving. Following the end of vespers they did the Small Compline. At the end of the Compline there was the usual mad rush to the front to be the first to venerate the Plaschanitsa. As usual we were helped to the front of the line and finally left the Cathedral at just before 5:00 PM.

   The Matins of Great and Holy Friday started at 6:00 PM. Again since no electricity is used during Lent, the Cathedral slowly got darker as the service went on. The Cathedral was built exactly facing east, so during the service the setting sun was shining through the windows of the rear choir loft. This allowed the sunbeams to illuminate at one point during the service the icon of Jesus. Everyone was looking up at the illumination. This was a much lighter crowd than the afternoon service. At the appointed time we had the procession with the Plaschanitsa. Again the clergy held the Plaschanitsa above the Bishop's head and exited the Cathedral. At this point the mad rush was on to be first out of the Cathedral and behind the Plaschanitsa. I could not understand what the rush was until we got out of the Cathedral. A tradition here is that they throw flowers onto the ground in front of the Plaschanitsa and everyone was scrambling to pick up the flowers. In fact they were picking up anything they could get their hands on. At the doors to the Cathedral we all walked under the Plaschanitsa and back into the Cathedral. Again at the end of the service there was the mad rush to venerate the Plaschanitsa. However since there were really not many people at the service it was not that bad. What was very funny was to watch the babas argue about the correct order to venerate the Plaschanitsa. Do you kiss the book of Gospels first and then Jesus' hands and feet or do you kiss the book of Gospels and Jesus' feet and then hands? It is really funny what they argue about and think is very important. We finally left the Cathedral at around 10:30 PM.

Great and Holy Saturday, " Let all mortal flesh keep silent, ..."

   Great and Holy Saturday dawned a beautiful day here in Baku. Vespers and the Liturgy of St. Basil started at 9:00 AM. It reminded me of America at this service, only about a quarter of the Cathedral was filled. There was the usual start to the Vesper service. Following the entrance the Bishop and priests entered the altar and now was the time for the fifteen old testament readings. Each deacon read three of the readings. The two readings that were most memorable was the reading from Exodus concerning the crossing of the Red Sea and the reading from Daniel concerning the three youths. During the singing of the song of the Israelite's and the song of the Three Youths, the Deacon would read the verse and first the clergy, six priests, four deacons and numerous subdeacons would sing the response followed by the first choir in the back of the Cathedral and then followed by the Second Choir. It was breath taking to hear. The voices sounded like bells ringing from the various corners of the Cathedral. We did not want it to end it was so beautiful. Everyone was on the same key and all the voices just blended together into one: "Praise the Lord, sing and exalt Him throughout all the ages."

   Following the reading of the Epistle, the Bishop and all the clergy exited the altar in their brilliant white vestments and gathered in the middle of the Cathedral where the Bishop read the Gospel of Mathew and that first glorious news of the Resurrection. The rest of the service progressed as normal and finally ended at 1:00 PM. At the end of the service they blessed the bread and wine which was later distributed to all the people present. Following the service we waited around the have our Pascha basket blessed. We had heard that the midnight service would be unbelievably packed so we decided to have it done early. There were tables put up in the back courtyard and they quickly filled. Many of the people had their food on plates, not many baskets. Most of the food that the people had blessed consisted of eggs and kulich. Some of the people had meats, breads and even some vodka and wine but no cheese. The priest read the prayers and then went around the table blessing all the food. Because of the great number of people there for the blessing, table space was at a premium so I ended up holding our basket. I wanted to put it down onto the ground however due to local custom in Azerbaijan, food is never to be placed on the ground. We finally got back home at 2:15 PM. The next service at the Cathedral was the reading of the Acts of the Apostles, which commenced at 7:00 PM. We skipped this service.

   One of the toughest decisions we had to make was the decision not to take Xenia to the midnight service. This would be the first time that she would miss the service in her short lifetime. She had already attended three midnight services, however we felt that for her to attend this service would be dangerous. We had heard that in past years that the Cathedral gets unbelievably packed and have seen already the mob mentality when people try to rush forward for a blessing or other special intention. Also with everyone holding candles and the constant pushing and shoving that it would be safer for Xenia to stay home.

   We picked up the babysitter that would stay all night, gave her all her instructions and we proceeded to the Cathedral for the midnight office. We arrived at the Cathedral at 10:15 PM and waited for the service to begin at 11:00. We decided at this service to stand in the side chapel to hopefully avoid some of the pushing and shoving. The Nocturnes started at 11:00 sharp with six priests standing in front of the Plaschanitsa. The Bishop sat on his throne during this entire time. At the appointed time the Plaschanitsa was taken into the altar and the service followed the normal conclusion. There was now the vesting service of the Bishop and the Bishop entered the altar at which time everything went silent. Then slowly and very quietly we started to hear: "The angels in Heaven O Christ our Savior, sing thy resurrection,..." and this gradually became louder and louder. The bells started ringing and The Royal Doors were opened and the Clergy along with all the icons, fans, and banners proceeded through the crowd and out of the Cathedral, down the stairs and out into the street. The procession went around the entire block stopping the traffic. Nia and I made a decision that we would not follow the procession out because we knew that if we left the Cathedral we would never get back in. We did look out the window and all you could see was a mass of humanity with candles throughout the courtyards and down into the street. As the procession left the Cathedral, more people entered and filled it up. Meanwhile, all eight bells continued ringing the entire time. We watched from the windows as the procession came back into the courtyard and gathered in front of the doors to the Cathedral. The bells then fell silent.

The Great and Holy Pascha, "Let God arise and let his enemies be scattered, ..."

   Standing in front of the Cathedral doors, the Bishop began the Matins service. Then the clergy consisting of one Bishop, eight priests, four deacons and numerous sub-deacons and altar servers sang the troparion of the feast as loud as they could: "Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death and upon those in the tombs bestowing life." The choir repeated the troparion three times. The Paschal verses were then read followed by the choir each time. The Bishop then stood in front of the Cathedral doors and as the clergy again as loud as they could sang the troparion, the Bishop knocked on the doors. As the doors were opened, the bells began ringing again more loudly than ever and the clergy entered the church to the glorious singing of the troparion. The clergy gathered in the middle of the Cathedral as the Pascha Matins were served. At this time the Cathedral was packed to overflowing. The courtyards were packed, there were people standing on boxes looking in the windows of the Cathedral. We were packed into the side chapel but were still able to see everything going on. Everyone was greeting each other in joy.

   There were two especially moving moments during the Matins service. The first was during one of the Litanies when we realized it was being said in English. The second was when the choir sang the Troparion in English. Since we were standing in the side chapel right in front of one of the choirs, after they finished singing the Troparion in English, I turned towards them and they all had big smiles on their faces. The Bishop read the Sermon of St. John Chrysostom and Matins concluded as usual. It was now just after 2:00 AM.

   The Paschal Divine Liturgy began with the entire festive beginning. The Gospel reading was done by the Priests, each taking a verse and reading their verse in a different language. When the priests finished reading the Gospel, the Proto-deacon read the entire gospel reading according to St. John. The service progressed normally from there. As we were standing there in the side chapel, all of a sudden one old baba goes running into the crowd in the chapel and comes walking out of the crowd carrying a cat by the scruff of the neck. I guess with all the doors open, some of the courtyard cats had gotten into the Cathedral. A little later, a "yowl" was heard and one of the Deacons comes walking out of the altar with another cat and hands it to one of the babas to take outside. Although they had two chalices for communion I thought it would last forever. In fact it was so crowded in the main church, we decided to receive communion in the side chapel. The Divine Liturgy ended with the blessing of the Artos and the veneration of the cross. After venerating the cross and greeting many of the Clergy, we finally left the Cathedral at 5:10 AM. The street outside the Cathedral was a mass of taxies and other vehicles waiting to take people home. Following Divine Liturgy they had another blessing of the Paschal foods. We got home, took home the baby sitter and I took a look at the clock as I went to bed, it was 5:30 am.

   Vespers later that afternoon was at 4:00 PM, however any hope of sleeping late was quickly dashed at 7:55 AM when a certain little girl appeared in our bedroom with: "The sun is shining. It is time to get up!"

   The sun always does shine brighter this day. Due to the generosity of three special women from Holy Cross Church, Miss Ann, Miss Lynn and Miss Barbara, the Easter Bunny made an impressive showing here in Baku. I have to wonder what the customs officials thought when they opened up that box for inspection. Xenia also received many gifts from people at the Cathedral including a cross from Jerusalem, five eggs, two kulich, two sweet rolls, a bread, an apple and a load of candy. Xenia was fine all day today, however her parents walked around like two zombies.

   Paschal vespers started at 4:00 PM with the greeting of the Bishop. The service was the normal Paschal vespers with a very moving and glorious rendition of the Prokimenon: "Who so Great a God is our God, ..." At the end of vespers the Bishop greeted everyone and gave eggs to everyone present. We finally left the Cathedral for home just after 6:00 PM and needless to say headed for bed very quickly.

Bright Monday

   We attended the Divine Liturgy today. As called for in the Rubrics, it is the entire Paschal service. At the end of the Liturgy we had the procession around the Cathedral. During this procession I held one of the banners. Again on each side of the Cathedral, the Gospel was read and the Bishop blessed everyone with holy water. This time I remembered to watch out and duck if necessary.

   We have a very interesting week coming up. Tomorrow I have been invited to have lunch with Bishop Alexander. On Wednesday we leave for the United States. We will be making a one-day stop in Zurich and then head on to Dallas. This weekend will the consecration of the new Dallas Cathedral. The Metropolitan along with four other Bishops are supposed to be there. Following the consecration I head to Houston for meetings while Nia and Xenia will stay in Dallas for awhile. When we get back to Baku there will be a lot to do. We have been informed that Exxon has decided to move all of us out of the high-rise apartments we are now living in due to the earthquake threat. We will move into temporary apartments at the Hyatt Hotel. They will be building townhouses for us that will only be two stories tall and be able to withstand a magnitude 8 earthquake. Unfortunately, the new townhouses will not be ready until April 2002, so we will be living in the temporary quarters for about ten months. Fortunately, none of our addresses will change.

Hope everyone had a glorious Pascha. Christ is Risen! Truly He is Risen!

Nick, Nia and Xenia

 

 

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