Tales of Orthodoxy

With the Easter season, I found myself photographing many Orthodox Christian services. Parishioners stand for the entire service which lasts anywhere from 1.5-4 hours depending on the occasion. At various intervals they cross themselves with a large, swooping cross from the top of the head to the navel then to each shoulder and then bow their heads. Sometimes the crossing happens once, other times in sets of three, like a solemn choreographed ballet. The priests follow their own choreography in rituals handed down to them from the Byzantine Empire. It feels as if each individual is there alone in the church with only God to bear witness. They celebrate together but each alone in their devotion. The solemnity here is in very stark contrast to most churches in the US, particularly southern baptist or evangelical. It would be almost impossible to imagine Russian Orthodox singing, clapping or sitting for that matter. That’s not at all to say that Russians, even devout Christians, don’t enjoy song, dance and revelry; they do for sure. I realized last week how this branch of Christianity suits the Russian temperament perfectly. On the whole, Russians are more stoic, more reserved people. You can argue that it’s because of the climate or a side-effect of Communism or a host of other variables, but it doesn’t so much matter why. The key is to get past that stern outer layer (often not a difficult task), and there you will find a people that are open, warm and willing to give you everything they have.

Just the other day I was photographing in a church, actually it was in the only church in town for baptized Tatars..most people from Kazan don’t even know that such a thing exists. Anyway, it was my first time in this church and there weren’t many parishioners that day, maybe 10-15. So as a young woman with a large camera, it was difficult to “blend.” Their expressions ranged from blank to stern to one could say downright consternating, but as soon as the prayer service ended, their faces lit up and they started pointing to things that they thought I should photograph.

The second Tuesday after Easter (9 days later), Russian Orthodox celebrate a day to honor the dead. On this day every year, they visit the graves of their ancestors and loved ones, clear off any debris that accumulated over the long winter, perhaps add a fresh coat of paint to grave markers and leave neon-colored flowers, Easter eggs and various snacks and candies. In this way, they are celebrating the bounty of Easter with those who have passed. I spent a couple of hours wandering through the maze-like cemetery in the center of the city taking in all the sights and sounds. It was very quiet, peaceful, sorrowful but also sometimes joyous celebration. Many Russian graves have a wooden benches next to the headstone where people can sit and reflect, but on this day, many bring food and drink and spend time at the grave as a way to ‘be’ with their loved ones. Off in the distance you could hear the sounds of a small band, comprised mostly of wood and wind instruments, playing tunes that wavered between lamenting and marching band. Although the cemetery was predominantly Orthodox, I did find several Jewish and Tatar graves that also looked as though they had been recently visited.

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