It was suggested by a friend that I may want to attend, photograph and write about the Eastern Orthodox Pascha Vigil at the Cathedral of the Holy Virgin Protection located at 59 East Second Street in the East Village. He assured me it would be quite the fete and it was. The celebration begins at about 11:30 PM and typically goes on into the wee hours of the morning. I stayed only until 1AM, forgoing the later festivities.
To see a procession of an Orthodox religious group in a neighborhood that historically has been the epicenter of the counterculture for such a long time is one of New York City's great juxtapositions. However, from a much longer historical perspective, this congregation comes as a lesser surprise. Prior to the 1960s, this area was essentially the northern reaches of the Lower East Side, inhabited by a number of immigrant groups, notably Germans, Poles and Ukrainians. There are still remnants of these cultures in the populace and architecture - see Lone Voice here.
The Eastern Orthodox Easter celebration begins on Holy Saturday, i.e. the night before Pascha (Easter), where the Midnight Office is served just before midnight in darkness. At midnight, the priest censes the Holy Table and all exit the church to the streets for a crucession around one city block. In the ultimate contrast, the group passes the NYC Hell's Angels clubhouse. I understand the church stands in good stead with the Angels - one of the club members has a girlfriend who belongs to the church.
The procession returned to the front doors of the church where the chief celebrant gave the blessing for the beginning of Matins (early morning prayer). The Paschal Troparian is sung and everyone reenters the church, where all is brightly lit and exultant, with singing and plenty of Paschal greetings, Christ is risen!
The entire celebration was extremely ritualistic and formal, quite a departure from the iconoclasm and unorthodoxy found in this part of the city. The prevalence of organized religion in New York City, particularly the various orthodox sects, always comes as such a surprise. In light of urban cynicism, the large numbers of New Yorkers who are members of religious faiths is remarkable. I wrote of this in We Got Religion and Come Together.
People of all walks of life were in attendance. I put aside any critical thoughts and theological meanderings and let the good feelings of celebration wash over me as I reflected on the power of words, symbols and what it means to the men and women of this faith to say or hear Christ is Risen …