Not only practising Christians celebrate Easter in Russia. It has become a national event on a par with the Soviet-time Mayday, officially known then as International Worker Solidarity Day, or November 7, Bolshevik revolution anniversary. Not that Easter has borrowed their official colouring-on the contrary, it remains the great day of divine light and hope.
This Easter is coming to a more complacent and optimistic Russia than recently. People are getting better off with economic progress and emergent social stability.
About a half of the population start the day with visiting the graves of their late lamented. Upon homecoming, they get to a gorgeous table, with its paschal delicacies. Painted Easter eggs, sweet cakes and generously spiced and sweetened cream cheese are welcome even in godless households. Not that atheists are being converted-they are eager to get back to ancestral customs, which Russia owes to Christianity.
Not only the pious are in congregations during a long Easter service, which starts in the night of Good Saturday to last into the small hours, Easter, with a grand midnight procession. Many come to see such processions, with their majestic theatrical pageantry.
Many political activists have become churchgoers as they see that, if they want to be with their nation, they ought to share its faith. The Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow's heart, on the Moskva riverside, will certainly gather many top-notch politicians at the liturgy of April 11. High officials never went to church in the godless Soviet years. Now, they stand close to the altar on any church feast, clutching candles. We tongue-in-cheek Russians know these ostentatious converts as "candlesticks".
The Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, Russia's principal house of prayer, attracts every heart with its opulent beauty.
Easter is beggars' bonanza. That has been so in Russia since times immemorial. Alms are especially generous on Easter and Easter Week-the pious use the chance the Lord offers them for charity and mercy. Beggars gather round churches, the grand cathedral being no exception. Musicians have chosen another spot, an underground passage nearby. Here is a typical street scene. A man is playing the accordion as a woman sings to its accompaniment, in a cultivated throaty voice, a hit of the Soviet years. Elderly passersby smile as they hear the song and recollect their young days, when they heard it on the radio several times a day. A cardboard box at the performers' feet is full of notes and change to the brim.
There are much more street musicians than ever before at the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour and everywhere in the city these days. They are coming out with the warm weather, which has thawed the snow that unexpectedly fell several days ago. The advent of Easter, with generous worshippers, also makes them active.
The cathedral expects a huge Easter congregation. What makes this year's service all the more attractive is a group of Muscovite pilgrims from Jerusalem who will bring to the cathedral, Good Saturday night, Holy Fire from the Sepulchre, just as last year.
Last year's pilgrims took with them to Jerusalem for the purpose containers made to transport Olympic fire. The Holy Fire lit the congregation's candles, Easter midnight. Many wept with emotion. They knew the fire had come from the Holy Sepulchre, erected on Calvary, where Lord Jesus Christ was crucified, and over the garden of Joseph of Arimathaea, where the Body of the Saviour was laid in a sepulchre, and where He rose again in the miracle of Resurrection.
Ever since the day of Resurrection, the Holy Fire miraculously appears of itself in the Holy Sepulchre every Good Saturday, about 2 p.m., as the Patriarch of Jerusalem enters the shrine-the spot where Jesus rose from the dead to show to the world the road to life eternal.
As Church tradition has it, St. Peter was the first to see the descent of the Holy Fire in the Sepulchre. The Apostle beheld wondrous light in it.
Light radiates the entire Sepulchre as the Holy Fire appears. Candles in pilgrims' hands occasionally light of themselves that glorious instant. The pious regard it as material manifestation of Divine presence in the shrine. The Holy Fire is very mild, and does not burn one at the touch.
Hundreds of Russian pilgrims flock to Jerusalem for Easter to see the miracle, though a majority of Russians watch it on the television in a live cast. Now, we Muscovites have the chance to light their candles from the Holy Fire a mere several hours after it shines forth in the Holy City.
As the congregation waits for the Holy Fire on Good Saturday, it will join the entire Eastern Christendom in prayer for peace in Jerusalem. The custom started a year ago-a brainchild of the Russian St. Andrew's Foundation, blessed by Alexis II the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia. The organisers called Eastern Christians to pray the Lord all together on the same day and hour for peace in Jerusalem, heart of the world religions. The Holy Land thirsts for peace. Meanwhile, the situation has again come to an edge shortly before Easter in Israel and Palestine. The confrontation is taking a heavy toll of lives close to the most holy Christian shrines-Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth, and the Sea of Galilee.
The Holy Fire will light the congregation's candles after the prayer. The morning of April 11will come quite soon, and the pious in Moscow, Jerusalem and throughout Christendom will exchange jubilant greetings:
"Christ is risen!"
"He is risen indeed!"