An Easter Expression
The Russian Orthodox community celebrates its most important religious holiday.
Photography by Nader Khouri
Parishioners stand for hours during the Easter Vigil.
Nina Nikolaeva moved to this country from her native Russia 10 years ago. Although she had been baptized secretly in Russia by a priest who defied an order to report practicing Christians to the KGB, she rarely went to church until she came to the United States. Once here, she joined St. Xenia of Petersburg Russian Orthodox Church, which meets in the Veterans Memorial Hall in Concord. She says that the church connects her to her roots.
“I realized how Russian I am, how much I’m connected with my grandmother and my ancestors,” the 50-year-old Concord resident says. “This church is like a home.”
Father Pavel Iwaszewicz leads the parish, which was founded less than a decade ago. For Orthodox Easter, on April 19 this year, St. Xenia’s service is a celebration that begins late at night and may last up to four hours. The service involves chanting, burning incense, and a cappella singing. With no building of its own, the church relies on rented space. The altar, candelabra, and religious icons must be set up and taken down for each service.
The 100 or so people who attend St. Xenia’s vigil—some come from Dublin and Brentwood—are grateful they don’t have to drive farther than Concord.
For East Bay Russian Orthodox Christians living west of the Caldecott Tunnel, a similar service takes place at St. John the Baptist Russian Orthodox Church in Berkeley, a beautiful white building crowned with a traditional dome.
The community there is larger and more established: Father Kirill Hartman, the priest at St. John’s for 19 years, says that several hundred people of Russian descent attend his Easter Vigil. Some were born in the United States or emigrated from Russia. Others come from unexpected places such as Shanghai and Germany. At Easter, potted white lilies sit in fragrant clusters around the altar, where a shroud symbolizes Jesus’ death. Richly colored Byzantine icons adorn the walls, and glimmering candles softly illuminate the painted images of Jesus, Mary, and dozens of saints.
Although the exact number of Orthodox Christians living in the East Bay remains unknown, St. Xenia’s Father Iwaszewicz says that they make up a considerable portion of the estimated 30,000 people of Russian descent in the region. Most came to the United States in search of economic opportunity, he says, settling in the East Bay because it is less expensive than San Francisco.
In some ways, Russian Orthodox Easter is similar to the holiday celebrated by Western Christians. For example, Easter is the culmination of several days that make up Holy Week—a Wednesday service to anoint the sick, a Thursday commemoration of Jesus’ Last Supper, and Holy Friday’s observance of Jesus’ crucifixion and death. Orthodox Easter always falls after Passover; it is based on the Julian calendar, not the Gregorian calendar used by the Western church.
The lengthy Orthodox Easter Vigil is different in another significant way: Nearly everyone stands for the entire service, except for the elderly and others incapable of standing that long. When asked about the stamina required, most church members say they don’t mind. Standing for hours, they say, is nothing compared to the risks their ancestors took to keep their faith alive back in Russia after the Marxists killed priests and drove the church underground.
After the services at both East Bay churches, the priests bless baskets brimming with butter, eggs, and meat—foods that parishioners gave up for the nearly two months of Lent preceding Easter. The blessings are followed by communal meals that also include Easter breads and kulich, a cake flavored with raisins, candied fruit, and saffron. Most parishioners stay, especially because many ate nothing on Holy Saturday. Nikolaeva says that the centuries-old tradition of fasting helps to reinforce her spirituality and sense of community.
“Everything tastes so delicious, even a simple egg,” says Nikolaeva. She explains that after the service, “everyone feels so happy. It’s great to share that feeling with people who feel the same way.”