The Copts have their Easter service starting Saturday evening, and running past midnight. This is hard on the children, but there is a certain wild exhilaration produced by having a celebration at a time when everyone ought to be in bed that does great things for getting a party spirit going. Americans have no concept of how to celebrate. The Copts know how to use time and place, sights, sounds and smells, clothes and food, to celebrate properly. And why not? This is the high point of the year. This is the reason for the Church’s existence. It is this event, rather than Christ’s birth alone, which turned the world upside down, and split our calendar in half at 0 AD. Who could sleep on such a night? The King of Life broke the gates of hell, shattered Satan’s chains, and carried his people up triumphantly into the “paradise of joy” (firdous a-nay’eem, as the Arabic phrase goes). The very rules of our existence were changed today. Whoever heard before of a dead man returning to life on his own? It had been known for the prophet Elijah to raise a dead boy, and Christ raised some three people (Jairus’ daughter, the widow’s son, and Lazarus) – but never before was there one so strong that “it was impossible for death to hold him.” (Acts 2) What an unheard of event, that mourners should come to the tomb, and find the stone sprung away, and the body disappeared – on its own.

The atmosphere in the church was electric last night, in spite of the snow outside (incidentally, some global warming – snow for Easter? I’d hate to see global cooling!). Anticipation mounted as the preliminary prayers were gone through. The black hangings on the iconostasis and all the walls had been replaced with white banners, printed with the picture of Christ rising over the frightened soldiers, and the motto, “He is not here, for he is risen,” in red. The Pauline epistle was from 1 Corinthians 15: “If Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins. . . If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable. But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept! . . . He must reign till he hath put all enemies under his feet; the last enemy that shall be destroyed is death. . . When he shall have subdued all things under him, then will Christ also himself be subject to him that put all things under his feet, that God may be all in all. . . ” And the catholic epistle was from 1 Peter 1: “[Having believed in him] ye rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory, receiving the end of your faith, even the salvation of your souls. . .”

Then, all the lights were turned off, leaving the church shrouded in utter blackness. Behind the closed curtain of the “royal door” in the center of the iconostasis, the priest and deacon chanted to each other, a deep, majestic tune which rises ponderously to heights of joy as the message is proclaimed:

Christos anesti!
Elithos anesti!
El Masihu qam!
B’ilhaqiqati qam!
(Christ is risen! Truly he is risen!)

Lift up your heads, o ye gates, and be ye lifted up, ye everlasting doors, and the King of Glory shall come in!
Who is this King of Glory?
The Lord of hosts! The Lord mighty in battle! He is the King of Glory!
Who is this King of Glory?
The Lord of hosts! The Lord mighty in battle! He is the King of Glory!

With that, the lights came on, and with a crash of cymbals, the deacons and congregation began to sing the following song, while all the deacons carrying candles made a three-times procession around the church, leading the priest with an icon of the resurrection garlanded with roses.

Christ is risen from the dead!
By death he trampled on death,
And gave life to those who were in the grave!
(repeat ad lib in Coptic and Arabic)
Christos anesti ek nekron!
Thanatos thanaton pateesas,
Ke tos mnesami zoe kharisamenon!

At length, the psalm was read, from 118: “This is the day that the Lord has made. We will rejoice and be glad in it! God is the Lord, who has showed us light. Bind the sacrifice with cords, even to the horns of the altar. O Lord, save! O Lord, send now prosperity!”

The gospels were from Luke and John’s accounts of the resurrection (Matthew and Mark having been read earlier at the Bright Saturday service in the early morning). The service proceeded on the usual pattern, with pauses whenever the special prayers referred to Christ being risen, for the above song to be sung again. This is one of the few “long tones” that the whole church knows, and sings loudly. There is a favorite Arabic hymn which was sung over and over during communion, starting with the words, “Truly he is risen! Truly he is risen! The Prince of life has risen from the dead!”

Yesterday the service finished around 12:45am. Everyone then greeted each other with the exclamation, “Christos anesti!” and the reply, “Elithos anesti!” (Christ is risen! Truly he is risen!) while the priest and deacons handed out chocolate to all the children, and most of the adults too (rather like a hobbit’s birthday party). Gradually everyone descended to the basement, drawn by the smell of all the ladies demonstrating their cooking abilities with the first meat dishes in 50 days. One of the favorites manages to combine both meat and eggs, a kind of lamb meatloaf wrapped around peeled hardboiled eggs, and sliced. Perfect.

Thus home to bed around 2:30am. Our family abandoned hopes of going to Protestant Easter services, and recuperated in preparation for an Egyptian Easter party this evening. Meat, eggs, and chocolate were the main ingredients all around. We all commiserated with each other on the expense of buying Easter supplies at the same time as the Westerners. Usually we count on buying egg dyes and chocolates at bargain prices after the Western Easter. Ah well. After this year, the dates will begin to diverge again, one week at a time, until we wind up with the Western Easter in March, and the Eastern in May, and then turn back around.