Sunday 22 April 2012

Orthodox Easter in Bucharest, last weekend


The tiny Catholic Church in Greece celebrates Easter on the same day as the Orthodox, a timid step towards healing the Great Schism. I wish the Catholic Church in Romania did the same. Instead this year as most years Easter fell on a different date depending which side you take in the Great Schism. For Catholics Easter was a week earlier.

For the first time in a quite a few years I was in Romania for the Orthodox Easter and shall try to be so every year. Next year perhaps I'll go to the Bucovina and go to Mass in one of the painted monasteries as I did ten years ago or in the Maramures or in Milea 23 in the Delta. Easter I realise is best in the villages. 

As my friend Alison Mutler, said ‘Romania is a most magical country at Easter. Romanians really get Easter in a way they don't in other countries (myself included, I am always touched after all these years).’

Theologically Easter of course is much more important than Christmas but in Catholic and protestant countries Christmas is much more important in real life but in orthodox countries Easter is given its rightful pre-eminence.

Good Friday is not a public holiday but many take it off and in the countryside it is considered like the major saints’ days an unofficial holiday.

Catholic churches close on Maundy Thursday to reopen late on Easter Saturday but the Orthodox for their Easter behave otherwise.

On the evening of Good Friday I went to Mass in what is to my mind the most beautiful church in Romania, the Stavropoleos Church a three hundred yards  from where I live. Until a  few years ago I had the Old Town almost to myself at night but now the streets are full of light and noise and in the early morning  loud with the sons of Belial flown with wine. The Stavropoleos Church (actually a  monastery with enchanting cloisters) seven years ago used to share an empty pot-holed street with secondary buildings of the  National Bank and the empty behemoth of the state-owned Caru cu Bere, the late 19th century German beer hall which now privatised buzzes with life and laughter. The church is a hundred yards from a thriving Japanese restaurants something like many things that would have been unimaginable but now seems like it was always here. Yet in the church and crammed outside the faithful of all ages gather to hear Mass.

The friends I was supposed to be meeting has her telephone switched off and so eventually I have to walk away with reluctance before we get to the ceremony of the burial of Our Lord where a simulacrum the coffin containing of His body is taken to be buried. I saw this last year in Hydra, enchanting Greek island where cars are not allowed and the narrow streets of the little island were full of burial processions from the many churches. Romania is said to be the most religious country in Europe but as Eugene Ionesco said Religion in Romania means something completely different from what it means in catholic or Protestant countries. It is much more centred on God and about the other world and  the liturgy than about ethics or social responsibility. It is a very individualistic faith but one that is embraced by the community as a whole. It almost is true to say here what is no longer true of Italy os Spain that belief in God seems as natural as believing the sun will go down tonight and rise tomorrow.

The Romanians revere their priests and religious but many respect the Church as an institution rather less. The Church though it is always easily top of institutions Romanians respect (there really is not a lot of competition) it is damaged by the fact that it cohabited and collaborated with the Communist regime and by its wealth. Even here in the Balkans the idea that the church is the oracle of God has to fight hard against Enlightenment ideas and belief in a  personal relationship with God unmediated by priests.
For Midnight Mass my friends chose a very good location in the Izvorul Tamaduirii (healing spring) church in Strada Monateriei behind the National Museum of the Romanian Peasant. Under an archway  the church has a large courtyard. The priests at Midnight came out of the packed church and said Mass to the one waiting outside in the rain, something that at many churches does not happen. The words of the nativity story from the Gospel are sung beautifully in Romanian. A paschal candle is born aloft from the church and the candles of the faithful are lit one candle from another. The beauty of the words and music and ritual and the faith of the congregation formed a critical mass, something deeply moving and almost tangible. Within half an hour the streets of Bucharest are sprinkled with candles.

I love very much the Orthodox Mass and wonder how different the Catholic Mass was before the Council of Trent and the Counter-Reformation. The Orthodox Church does not let light in on mystery.

I saw at Mass that it is faith and the Church which is one of the main reasons why Romania is such a wonderful place to live. I wish I did not think all this will be swept away by money, foreign ideas, comparative theology and human rights taught in schools according to EU directives and  the idea that all this is terribly picturesque but parochial and out of date.

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