I cherish the rhythm of sharing meals with others, be it the simplest meals of black beans and rice to the most festal Sabbath meals containing meat and wine. I think of meals shared in the morning around the picnic table while camping—bits and pieces pulled from coolers and cut with pocket knives, receiving the raw beauty of creation awakening around us. I think of backyard cookouts with next door neighbors, each household’s gifts brought to the table and shared over storytelling, laughter, and the sounds of children playing in the backyard honeysuckle fort. I think of the humble weekday meals of leftovers reheated by my housemates that leave me grateful of others’ care for me and the sharing of our days that happens as we eat together before each going our own way for the night. Over and over, shared meals are where I most know the love of friends and am pointed back to the love of God through the gifts of creation inherent in food shared.
Every year though, there is one meal that stands out for its shared life and celebration: the sharing of Pascha baskets in the parish hall. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, Pascha, or Easter, is celebrated beginning at 11:30 Saturday night. All arrive to church early, quietly entering the darkened sanctuary where the tomb of Christ remains. Even though the tomb is present, there are clear signs of the resurrection that is coming. On the way into the sanctuary, when you pass through the parish hall, Pascha baskets brimming with food are laid on the long tables that are now covered with thin white tablecloths. And even in the somber candlelight, you can tell that people are wearing clothes of rejoicing—women in brightly colored dresses, men in bow ties, and young girls in white frilly dresses. When midnight comes, all process around the church carrying candles and singing a resurrection hymn, and when we enter the church, the lights are on, the tomb gone, and festal hymns are loud and joyous. For three hours rejoicing fills the sanctuary and when the service ends with Eucharist and with venerating the cross held by the priest, the shared Pascha meal is just about to begin. Opening the sanctuary door, the smells of the meal to come waft in to mingle with incense settled on the altar and in the sanctuary.
When entering the parish hall you would not guess it is 3:00 am, for young and old alike await with loud and lively anticipation for the shared meal to come. Over the season of Lent, we have all fasted from animal products, so each family’s basket is filled with foods that have been missed, foods that are received knowing anew that food is a precious gift of God. The tables are full and so friends and I sit in a circle on the floor, unpacking baskets full of fancy cheeses, salami, deviled eggs, yogurt, chocolate chip cookies, grilled fish, olives, chocolate-covered almonds, fresh fruit, wine, and the list could go on. The food is wonderful and rich. And though we all speak of stomach aches the next day, nobody would want it any other way.
However, my favorite part of this Pascha meal is not the food itself; my favorite part is watching and participating in the abundant sharing. With the joy of the resurrection filling us, we share the things we love most with others. And so, with greasy fingers we pass around spreads of food arranged on plates, savoring the gifts of one another. Theodora hands us bread dipped in “Pascha cheese,” her special recipe of sweet cheese, which is made of ricotta, sugar, butter, and eggs. Presbytera approaches us handing out cheesecake slices already arranged in wax paper for ease of sharing. Erin passes around the homemade yogurt, explaining the story of the food as she offers it to the group. Elijah, the 8-year-old sitting next to me, gives me Cadbury eggs and black jelly beans (“Here try these. The black ones are my favorite!”). We share food, but more than that we share ourselves.
Several hours pass, and in the near empty parish hall, a few small groups of people remain. The feasting is no longer prominent as bellies are full, but everyone lounges, laughs, and talks. We speak of books read, remember Pascha celebrations of past years, and learn more about one another’s lives. Children play a traditional game of cracking hard-boiled eggs with everyone until they lie on the floor sleepily, announcing that the sun will soon be rising. It is a festal release following a season of fasting and extended penitent church services. And when tiredness overwhelms, we pack up our baskets, give hugs to all, saying, “Christ is risen!” “Truly he is risen!” And we walk home through the still, silent streets recounting the celebration that just was and the resurrection which is the source of all joy.
Photo by Fr Lawrence Lew, O.P. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).