Light of the WorldEssays, Featured — By Stephanie Nikolopoulos on April 12, 2012 at 6:00 am
When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said,
“I am the light of the world.
Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”
I think there’s probably a law against carrying an open flame in the subway. I’m not sure. But it’s a pretty safe bet. This turns Easter in New York City into a midnight marathon.
You see, I celebrate Greek Orthodox Easter. At the Cathedral, we light candles to signify that now that Jesus is sitting at the right hand of God in heaven, we, the believers, are to be the light to the world. We carry our lit candles out of the church with us at the midnight Easter service, and shine them for all the world to see on our way home. At the house, we use the candles to smudge the smoky sign of the cross above the doorway.
Usually, this has meant carrying our lit candles into my uncle’s van. We’d get some strange looks from people in cars driving in the oncoming lane, but we kept on driving, eager to get home to break the Lenten fast with Magiritsa.* Recently, though, I haven’t been able to get down to Baltimore to spend the holiday with my family.
The first time I spent Greek Orthodox Easter in Manhattan, I took the subway to the midnight Easter service. The inside of the Cathedral was filled with tender-eyed icons and magnificent mosaics. I stared up at the domed ceiling in awe. God felt closer that night. The psaltis, the cantor, chanted a hymn. The priest began to speak.
Then the Cathedral plunged into darkness.
The darkness, a powerful symbol of Christ’s death. We stood nervously, awkwardly, our eyes trying to adjust, trying to see. And then, a single flame emerged from behind a screen. A young altar boy carrying a candle used his flame to light the candle of another boy. The two boys turned and lit the candles of the people next to them. Four little flames flickering in the front of the church multiplied. Person by person, row by row candles were lit. From the elderly yiayia to the young stockbroker, from the devout to the curious, everyone’s candles were lit either by the family member or friend they came with or by the person in the pew next to them whose candle had been lit and who was eager to pass along the flame. From one candle, the entire Cathedral was now ablaze.
Each shielding our flame with the candle’s waxy red cup, we streamed outside, into the street. “Christos anesti,” the priest began to chant, and we all chanted along, making the sign of the cross with our candles. We raised our candles high, toward the tops of the skyscrapers, then down toward the sidewalk we daily tread upon, right then left. Again and again, we crossed ourselves with the candles, singing, “Christ has risen.”
It was only then, when the service was over, I realized I had to find a way home with my candle still lit.
Surely, I’d get stopped if I tried to get in the subway with a lit candle.
What cabbie wouldn’t object?
I can never figure out the bus system, and it certainly wouldn’t be the solution anyway.
So, I decided to walk the twenty blocks back to my apartment. I got a lot of stares from passersby on my walk home. At first, the masses coming from the Cathedral looked like we’d attended a vigil. Or, maybe we were part of a weird cult. As the crowd dispersed—uptown, downtown, east, west—we began to look like solitary candle holders. Who were we? Why were we carrying candles across city sidewalks in the middle of the night?
I’m glad you asked.
“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”
~Jesus’ sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5:14-16
*Well, some of us. Others of us would rather fast from meat for the rest of our lives than eat lamb’s liver, heart, and lung soup.
Stephanie Nikolopoulos blogs about growing up Greek American at StephanieNikolopoulos.com.