Saturday was one of those perfect Spring nights. No wind, clear starry skies and almost balmy air. As Sean and I swept down from the Grand Central overpass on our bikes, the scent of hyacinths met us on Park Avenue and carried us past the Waldorf and up to 93rd street. There was almost no traffic, adding to the singularity of our mission and the anticipation of sharing a unique New York celebration.
On Palm Sunday morning the week before, a detour from the Conservatory Gardens had taken us along east 97th street, where a bescarved congregation was pouring into the street. Many carried pussy willows, and with tentative curiosity I sought out the church, the Cathedral of Saint Nicholas. The interior was a gold mine of icons glistening in the light of hundreds of yellow wax candles and a massive crystal chandelier. For the small space the embellishments were visually overwhelming. It turns out Czar Nicholas II made the founding donation to the building, which became a political pawn after his death – being claimed as the official church of mother Russia, and on the upper east side no less. As a result many of the congregation moved to establish a new non-communist church, the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, which found a home on East 93rd street, and was our destination on Saturday night.
Over one million Russians reside in NYC and a handsome representation of their race gathered for Easter celebrations before the midnight hour. The courtyard was full of people with candles and cakes, but we wrangled our way through the crowd, up the stairs and into the church. I felt like I was on a movie set. The language and the look was definitively Russian and I admit to feeling a little ethnically exposed. But the performance of the many priests interchanging behind golden doors, the singing, and the whole austere anticipation of that moment of renewal was embracing in any language. Candles were lit, the flame spread through the crowd and there was joy. Suddenly the central priest ran down the stairs proclaiming in english ‘Christ is risen! Christ is risen!’
On the way out I paused to admire the traditionally painted eggs and to ponder over the sprinkled cake that was the centerpiece of baskets filled with Easter goodies. A young man posing for a photograph with his family was gracious in meeting my questions about the cake. Just like a challah he said, but not so many eggs…